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Ask Matt Labash: Redskins name-blaming and the joy of taking offense

Matt Labash Columnist
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Dear Matt, 

Any truth to recent reports that Iron Eyes Cody was shedding a tear not over pollution but due to a passing motorist with a Washington Redskins car flag? Or is this just a convenient attempt at revisionist history? I’ll hang up and listen. –  Ramon H. 

If Iron Eyes is pitching his teepee in these parts, my guess is he was crying over rush-hour traffic on 395, or maybe the new speed camera that tagged me under the same overpass not once, but three times in the same week, due to the commuter-mugging pickpockets who oversee the D.C. government. But God forbid I should make light of the latest outrage du-jour, the purportedly racist name of our fair city’s 2-4 powerhouse.

Not to play the part of the jaded old-timer, but personally, I had a lot more sympathy during the days when Iron Eyes Cody’s people had something real to cry about, like Indian massacres, bad eminent domain takings, or the land getting despoiled by rapacious developers and litterbugs. If he were still around nowadays, he’d probably shed a tear over the silliness of the Oneida Nation’s manufactured controversy.

I don’t particularly care to weigh in definitively on whether the Redskins should or shouldn’t change their name. Why would I need to, when everybody and their idiot brother-in-law already has? Even our president decided to take a breather from our government collapsing, the public trust eroding, and the Obamacare rollout spectacularly failing in order to squeeze in some much-needed pandering (he’s for changing the name, not surprisingly, even as some Redskins-supporting tribes accused him of speaking with forked tongue).  

Of course, as a Cowboys fan, a part of me would enjoy seeing Washington’s name changed to something more appropriate, like the Washington Foreskins.  While the libertarian in me holds that a name change is between Redskins owner Dan Snyder and his God (or as Snyder would likely put it, “between me and me,” since he tends to regard himself as such). I personally hate name changes, as I think team names, even if unintentionally, tend to reflect the character of their region. In the mid ‘80s, I was briefly a ball boy for the Washington Bullets, before the powers that be worried they’d offend murder victims (hard to, since they were already dead) and changed their name to the ridiculous “Wizards.” As any suburban Marylander knew at the time, heading into crack-ravaged Prince George’s County, where the Bullets then played, you were liable to encounter a real-life version of the team mascot through your car window. The name, then, gave us a hard-earned sense of civic pride. Similarly, the Redskins are a healthy reminder of the people we took this country from.

I have deep  respect for Native peoples, mind you. As a boy, playing cowboys and Indians, I usually opted to be an Indian, even going so far as to join the Boy-Scout-like Indian Guides (Cherokee tribe, where I served under the non-racist name “Red Eagle,” cadged from an episode of “Daniel Boone.”) But of course, these days, all statements must be political ones, and all outrages, manufactured or otherwise, are of utmost urgency, requiring our immediate attention.

Nothing is benign. Never mind that people have  somehow managed mostly not to be beside themselves with outrage that the Redskins have been so named going back to their franchise origins in Boston in the 1930s. Never mind that before the PR machine really got cranking and every windsock commentator in America had to weigh in on the “controversy,” a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy poll found that 90 percent of Native Americans themselves did not take offense at the name. Never mind that according to my sources at Wikipedia, first use of the term “redskin” didn’t refer to skin color at all, but to Native people’s use of vermilion face paint. Never mind that even before the team revised the Tonto-talking fight song of the Skins, “Hail to the Redskins,”  which contained stereotypical language such as “Scalp ‘em/ Swamp ‘um/We will take ‘um big score,” it still managed to refer to “redskins” reverentially as “braves on the warpath” and “sons of Washington.” Never mind that as’s Rick Reilly wrote, a high school team, the Wellpoint (Wash.) Redskins, which has a 91.2 percent Native American student body, considers the name a badge of honor. Their superintendent even told Reilly, “I’ve talked to our students, our parents and our community about this and nobody finds any offense at all in it….’Redskins’ is not an insult to our kids. ‘Wagon burners’ is an insult. ‘Prairie n—-s’ is an insult. Those are very upsetting to our kids. But ‘Redskins’ is an honorable name we wear with pride. …In fact, I’d like to see somebody come up here and try to change it.”

And never mind that according to TheDC’s own Patrick Howley, the head Indian in charge of the current protest, Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, might be about as legitimate a member of his tribe as I was during my Indian Guides years.

All that aside, what outrages me about all the outrage (if I can’t beat them…..) is the comment of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said, “If one person is offended, we have to listen.” Really? Do we? Because if so, we’re going to be here a while. The last time I checked the internet, somebody was offended about everything. In fact, it’s doubtful the internet would continue to exist if someone wasn’t eternally taking offense.

When you survey the landscape of team names, it’s a wonder grievance groups aren’t sprouting up everywhere. Yet we don’t see gays protesting the Green Bay Packers, or the Dutch marching in the streets that Packer fans are called Cheeseheads. (A racial slur that originated in Nazi Germany.)  Similarly, sexually frustrated Satanists aren’t demanding the Duke Blue Devils change their moniker. And Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish would probably get drunk and hit you (as is their people’s custom) if you tried to take their nickname away.

So in solidarity with the offended, you now refuse to even use the Redskins’ name, so as not to besmirch Native peoples? Fine, but where does that leave us? Does that give everyone else license to take offense over their pet imagined infraction? Say cops, who could demand we no longer patronize the Phillies’ Triple-A club, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of Allentown. Or what about the “Terrible Swedes” of Kansas’s Bethany College, whose name traffics in the widely-held stereotype that Swedes are terrible people. Will circle-jerksters now picket the South Carolina Gamecocks, as taking too lightly their contributions to society? Should we suicide bomb Campbell University if they persist in insulting Arabs with their team name, the “Fighting Camels?” Will we see eunuchs in sandwich boards outside Rhode Island School of Design Nads’ games?  Will anti-noise pollutionists take issue with Cape Breton’s junior ice hockey team, the Screaming Eagles? Will pacifists see red over the Fighting Quakers of Wilmington College (Ohio), and  will anti-arsonists burn down the Midwest Conference over the Knox College Prairie Fire? Will fans of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks rise up in anger? Maybe they’re entitled. After all, the name suggests they are Canadian, an insult nobody should take lying down.

These are all hypotheticals. I don’t know where the next Campaign of Outrage will come from. But rest assured, it will come. Because if there’s one thing that offends us as a nation, it’s having nothing to take offense over.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.

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Matt Labash