Despite the rhetoric on both sides and the colorful and sometimes humorous suggestions for a new name for the Washington-based NFL team, it is important to keep this whole controversy regarding the recent decision by the Patent and Trademark Office in perspective. The simple fact is that taking the owner at his word, this decision will most likely be appealed and the appeals process is lengthy and cumbersome. The Washington Redskins prevailed in a previous trademark case before the DC Circuit in 1999 involving this very issue. However, the decision by Clinton’s Trademark Office was overturned on a technicality without reaching the merits of the case.
A recent article on the Daily Beast by writer Robert Silverman sums up the problem I have with this controversy in the title: “It’s Official: ‘Redskins’ Is Racist.” To me, because some group of appointed alleged experts declare something to be so does not necessarily make it truly so. And this is troublesome because what may have been acceptable use of a word a mere ten years ago can be declared off limits with the change of a presidential administration. Personally, I would like to know exactly when it became unacceptable to use the term “Oriental” in reference to someone from the Orient. It is quite possible that the phrase “Hispanic,” which is generally used with pride by those of Hispanic descent, may be considered “disparaging” or a “slur” at some point in the future. In the 1960s and 1970s, one was proud to be “black,” but that has been abandoned for the current “African-American.” The point is that Orientals are no less from China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, Spanish-speaking people are no less Hispanic and African-Americans are no less black. Conversely, because the Trademark Office declares something “disparaging” or “racist” does not make it so either.
However, this whole controversy fits quite nicely into the Left’s assault on language in general. In response to a series of recent acts at the University of Montana, the Department of Education’s Office on Civil Rights has issued nationwide standards for sexual harassment which is so broad that a joke at a party taken out of context and “offensive” to a single person could be grounds for a sexual harassment complaint against the teller of that joke. The list of these types of “speech codes” designed so as not to potentially offend anyone is extensive. Worse, those charged with violations are usually denied any semblance of due process. Additionally, these “guidelines” put colleges on notice that should they fail to follow or institute them they may lose federal dollars or students may be denied grants or scholarships. That is, instead of using the carrot of federal largesse, they are using the stick of federal dollars to enforce politically correct speech with “correct” being defined by unnamed, faceless bureaucrats.
The Daily Beast article notes that Washington’s ownership does not “intend” to offend or disparage anyone, but then notes that despite stated intent, the word “Redskins” does disparage and offend. That may not be 100% true. No one is out there polling the Native American population of the United States to determine if they believe the phrase “Redskin” in this context- the name of a football team- is disparaging or offensive. It is quite possible that it is a term that conjures up the image of a proud warrior which one is sure the owners intended by keeping the name. The article also addresses two other important issues.
The first is the fact that the slippery slope argument allegedly holds no water. By this, the PC police say that nobody will be coming after teams like the Boston Celtics or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Of course they won’t since Celts and the Irish are…well, white. Celtic is not disparaging per se, but it is quite possible that some people of Irish descent could find a bearded leprechaun with a scowl on his face and fists raised while smoking a pipe offensive and disparaging. It is, after all, perpetuating a stereotype. Furthermore, I read nary an article in Leftist publications denouncing the disparaging and offensive phrase “redneck” which was actually originally used as a slur by the English against the Scots. In fact, the Leftist media takes pride in referring to anyone in the South who disagrees with their agenda as a “redneck.” Apparently, Celts, the Irish and rednecks have a thicker spine than a few Native Americans and, as Erick Erickson so eloquently puts it, stand when they pee.
The second point is why these Native Americans are not going after Ted Turner’s “Braves.” And, after all, since they are no longer “Indians,” but “native Americans” the Cleveland-based baseball team should change their names. But the truth of the matter is that if one kisses the butts of these organizations or bows at their altar, one gets a free pass. Such are the facts, for example, regarding the NCAA rules regarding “disparaging” team names. A prime example is the Florida State Seminoles sports program “negotiating” with Florida’s Seminole Indian tribes. One can almost rest assured that if Washington’s owner sat down and negotiated with the leaders of some Indian organizations and “donated” to them, the phrase “Redskin” would somehow become less insulting and disparaging.
In the recent article here by Erick Erickson, someone correctly commented that despite this ruling by the Trademark Office, nothing prevents this football team from using the name or logo. Having trademark protection simply gives the organization certain legal rights. For example, trademark protection opens up the federal courts to the holder of the trademark to sue for infringement where they can be awarded treble damages and attorney fees. Ironically, should this ruling stand- given the popularity of the name and symbol and, now, the controversy and unsure future- it would open the door for counterfeit Redskins merchandise and use of the very name which the PC police are apparently trying to stamp out. One can expect a proliferation of this alleged disparaging or racist characterization in the area of merchandising.
In the short term, there will most likely be a stay of this decision pending appeal which, I noted earlier, could take years. Either way, the ownership of the Redskins- Dan Snyder- comes out the winner. Should he win the appeal, he is none the worse for wear. If he loses, he can always blame the courts for forcing him to change the name. If I were him, I would be stockpiling merchandise with the Redskins name and logo should that occur so he can reap the financial benefits while proceeding now as if nothing has changed except Harry Reid will not be in the stands (not such a bad thing).
In the end, the Left views the term “Redskin” as a disparagement and an insult. Instead, they should be viewing it in terms of being a proud warrior with an equally proud past and heritage. It is no more disparaging nor insulting than calling an African-American “black,” someone from China “Oriental,” a Mexican-American “Chicano,” or a Native American “Indian.” And this maxim should be remembered: He who controls the language controls the debate.