Save 75% - Only $49.99 for 1 full year! digitalPLUS subscription offer ends 12/1
NewsOpinionOp-Eds

The case for keeping 'Redskins'

Washington RedskinsBob CostasNAACPPhiladelphia EaglesAmerican Enterprise InstituteNFL

"Think for a moment about the term 'Redskins,'" NBC Sports commentator Bob Costas exhorted viewers in his halftime tirade during Sunday's Cowboys-Redskins game. "Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed [at] African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group. When considered that way, 'Redskins' can't possibly honor a heritage or a noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term.

"It is an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent," Mr. Costas continued.

This is ludicrous. I say this not as someone who has particular love for the Redskins or its name. I say this as a lover of words.

Words are magical things, routinely defying the sort of logic-chopping on display in Mr. Costas' tirade. Their euphony can be a siren calling us to dangerous shores. Logophillic pundit William Safire, an unreconstructed paronomasiac, could be so seduced by clever puns, he often crashed whole columns into them. My former boss, William F. Buckley, was often in the dock on charges of aggravated sesquipedalianism, to which he always pleaded nolo contendere, informing the court of public opinion: "I am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words."

But neither big words nor big wordplay are the issues in the largely eristic tussle over the Redskins. This debate is about bad words.

Slate magazine recently announced it would no longer refer to the Redskins by name. "Changing how you talk changes how you think," editor David Plotz explained. "... If Slate can do a small part to change the way people talk about the team, that will be enough."

"In public discourse," Mr. Plotz adds, "we no longer talk about groups based on their physical traits: No one would ever refer to Asians as yellow-skinned."

I hope Slate will be similarly brave about refusing to use the "C" in NAACP.

After all, the "Colored" in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People refers to skin color, too. And if I described the president of the NAA[initial redacted]P as "colored," I'd be in huge trouble.

Redskins lawyer Lanny Davis insists the team's 80-year-old name should be grandfathered in, even though he concedes that someone might be offended. Time's Sean Gregory sarcastically responds: "So we have to be sensitive to the one offended person, but can't change the name, because it's been around for a long time. Sorry, offended person. We love the name too much, for too long."

Well, yeah. I'm not offended by the C in NAACP — which isn't racist for obvious reasons — but someone out there must be. That's not an argument for changing the name. I am offended, however, that the Philadelphia Eagles are named after the Blue Eagle, the propaganda symbol of the New Deal's National Recovery Administration, which restricted competition and even threw a dry cleaner in jail for undercharging (by a nickel) to clean a suit. But I don't think the Eagles should change their name on my account.

And that's my problem with Mr. Costas' crusade. He — and the editors of Slate — are simply deciding to be offended about something they don't need to be. According to various accounts, "Redskin" actually has quite innocuous origins. It was probably adopted from Native Americans themselves. And though it obviously took on nastier connotations over time and in some contexts, it strains credulity to believe that the team name was intentionally pejorative or that the fans or the ownership see it that way today.

Words become offensive when we choose to be offended by them. When should we be offended? That's a tough question. "The answer, of course, lies in the context," the late Hugh Rawson wrote in his lovely lexicon, "Wicked Words." "The meanings of words change according to who says them, to whom, and in what circumstances." Rawson chronicled many words that were uncontroversial in Chaucer and Shakespeare but are considered repellent today.

Ultimately, of course, this isn't a fight about words but about cultural politics and the imperative to scrub society of all offensive language (or, often, merely language that offends liberals). That fight will never end, and not just because some people always need to be offended by something. It will never end because words themselves will never cooperate.

Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Washington RedskinsBob CostasNAACPPhiladelphia EaglesAmerican Enterprise InstituteNFL
  • Report concludes Maryland can safely 'frack'
    Report concludes Maryland can safely 'frack'

    Maryland agencies have concluded that natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) can be accomplished without unacceptable risks, but only if a suite of best practices is required, monitoring and inspections are rigorous, and enforcement is ironclad. The...

  • Man's (and woman's) best friend
    Man's (and woman's) best friend

    My friends and I have been saying for years that when it comes to genuine caring, to loyalty and to good judgment, many dogs actually behave better than many people. For example, one cannot buy a dog's love and loyalty with toys and treats, but, sadly, there are some people who can be bought...

  • Acknowledging climate change in GOP's best interest
    Acknowledging climate change in GOP's best interest

    November has been a good-news/bad-news month for the climate struggle.

  • Feed a 'Silent Guest' this Thanksgiving
    Feed a 'Silent Guest' this Thanksgiving

    This Thanksgiving put an extra chair at your table and make room for a "silent guest." That guest can be one of the world's 805 million hungry people.

  • Tom Schaller: The right systematically manufactures bogus news
    Tom Schaller: The right systematically manufactures bogus news

    If you haven't heard of Jonathan Gruber, an architect of the Affordable Care Act whose testimony about transparency in passing Obamacare has gone viral, expect a rash of new stories about him.

  • Baltimore mayor: Immigrant executive actions will help city
    Baltimore mayor: Immigrant executive actions will help city

    Last week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan to protect millions of immigrants from deportation — a monumental first step in addressing our nation's broken immigration system. His executive action will be felt most strongly in cities across America, cities like Baltimore.

Comments
Loading