The sports columnist for the Washington Post was adamant: Change was in the air, a longstanding injustice was soon to be righted. “The genie is out of the bottle on this issue,” he wrote. “Off in the distance the wheels of change are grinding. You may not be able to hear them yet.” The exquisitely tuned tympanic membrane of the columnist, however, was thrumming like crazy. And this is what the wheels said to him: “It’s only a matter of time,” they grinded, “until ‘Redskins’ is gone.”
He was referring, of course, to the local professional football team and the name it has borne now for 81 years—or 60 years, in the case of the columnist in question. For his prophecy, with its iron logic of historical inevitability, was written in 1992, 21 years ago. And the Redskins still haven’t changed their name—yet. Our columnist, Tony Kornheiser, was unquestionably correct that the Washington NFL team would cease to be the Redskins. After all, science tells us our sun will burn itself out in 12 billion years, give or take a couple billion, by which time the NFL will probably be disbanded (and before the ’skins can win another Superbowl, too, probably). But Kornheiser’s timing was off.
No matter: The same sense of inevitability hovers round the Redskins again this year, as it does from time to time, with an invincible army of several dozen critics once again declaring that the name must, and therefore will, go. The critics, with limitless access to every mainstream media outlet, can go years without once thinking about, mentioning, or taking offense at the name. But when they do get offended, they get offended as a single unit, and they turn on the subject with the fury of a grizzly startled awake from a delicious winter slumber. The claws swiped especially at a man named Dan Snyder, the poor—well, not poor, since he’s worth a billion dollars—the beleaguered owner of the Redskins, who has adamantly refused to change the name.
“Dan Snyder is now the George Wallace of the NFL,” argued Lawrence O’Donnell, a foam-flecked host on MSNBC. George Wallace? The long-dead segregationist governor of Alabama? Sure. Why the hell not? O’Donnell explained: “The inevitable force of history”—aka the grinding wheels of change—“overwhelmed him, pushed him aside.” And now Snyder is next. “The force of history will crush him. And the name of his football team will be changed.” You heard it here first!
No, not first. O’Donnell’s performance was a splendid example of how an argument, no matter how full of holes, can survive the rapids of the mainstream so long as it sufficiently flatters the man who makes the argument. O’Donnell was tipped off to the Wallace-Snyder connection in the way TV people are always tipped off to novel, interesting, lunatic ideas: He read it in the New York Times. Under the museum-quality headline “Redskins’ owner stubbornly clings to wrong side of history,” the Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden briefed readers on Wallace’s pledge of “segregation forever” and compared it to Snyder’s pledge that he would “never change the name” of his football team. And on it went. Suddenly, without so much as a head’s up, sportswriters for the Washington Post, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated and broadcasters for ESPN and NBC and Fox were unanimously erupting: “By his insistence on using a term that offends even one person,” as Rhoden put it, Snyder “contributes to an atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry.” Nobody expected sportswriters to be masters of logic, but who knew they were so good at sanctimony? The campaign achieved its consummation when President Obama publicly offered his opinion. He doesn’t like the name either. Now that’s historical inevitability.
A funny thing about Snyder’s “offense,” though: It was purely vicarious, a sensation experienced almost exclusively by white and black liberals. Very few of the people taking offense seemed to be Native Americans, especially those who haven’t given themselves over to professional activism. Aware of this perception, perhaps, the National Museum of the American Indian convened a public discussion among non-activist Indians to condemn the Redskins’ name. It was stacked with jes’ plain folks: the co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Development, an associate professor of American Indian Studies, a professor of Sports Management, the chairman of the Native American Studies department at Dartmouth, a lecturer in Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University and another from Humboldt State, a professor of Critical Gender and Race Studies…salt of the earth, these guys. And they all agreed that the name must, and therefore will, go.
For its part, Redskins management produced some Indians of its own, evidently sharing in the critics’ belief that mere membership in a group through an accident of birth confers an unassailable moral authority. The Redskins press office published an interview with the chief of Virginia’s Patawomeck Tribe. “The members of my tribe—the vast majority—don’t find it offensive,” he said. “And to be honest with you, I would be offended if they did change it.” (Everybody wants in on the act!) Another pro-Redskins Indian, with the unlikely name of Dodson, identified himself as a full-blooded Inuit and commandeered talk-show microphones to testify to his and his tribesmen’s lack of offense. His comeuppance was swift. The website Deadspin did some digging and tweeted that Dodson “is not a full-blooded member of any tribe and is in fact one-quarter Aleut, not Inuit.” It also revealed a paternity suit brought against Dodson a few years back. A nice example of public debate in the modern era.
Still, the Redskins did have a few facts on their side. The original team owner, a nasty piece of work called George Preston Marshall, chose the name as a tribute to the team’s then coach, who claimed Indian ancestry. No team would stick with a name it intended to be demeaning, and intention surely counts for something. More than a dozen Indian schools across the country call their teams “Redskins.” The most recent polls show a large majority of Americans approve of the name, and more to the point, the only poll of American Indians on the subject, taken in 2004, showed that 90 percent of them took no offense at the Redskins’ name.
The critics dismissed that figure as irrelevant, naturally, because it didn’t screen respondents with the question, “Are you culturally or socially or politically native?” Such a poll, said one activist, would carry more weight because it would isolate the opinions of Indians who were “politically aware.” The only good Indian is a liberal Indian.
As of this writing, Snyder’s critics have yet to produce a case much beyond their upset feelings, which are themselves, we should understand, the result of their own superior moral sensitivity. Their only argument was Rhoden’s: Any term that offends “even one person” must be ruled out of court—or off the field, in this case. And this really isn’t an argument. A moment’s thought should tell us that such a standard would bring all public discourse to an immediate halt, a victim of the country’s touchiest neurotics. Lacking arguments and facts and dispositive testimony, the critics can only point to history, whose unalterable direction they alone can discern, as Tony Kornheiser did those many years ago. It recalls the case for gay marriage, which went from a nullity to a moral imperative with stunning rapidity and without warning. Such a tactic is little more than poorly disguised bullying, but it’s what our progressives are left with.
And they’re not letting go, for now. Just this week I read a columnist in USA Today who declared: “The Redskins name will change sooner than you think, two or three years, tops.”
You might ask, Sooner than who thinks, kemosabe? But the columnist is right. He has to be. It’s inevitable.
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The Media, on the Warpath
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.