Entry from October 23, 2013

A propos of “Sanity: an obituary” my New Criterion media column for September, the great Charles Krauthammer has lately joined the chorus of the bien pensant calling for the Washington Redskins to change their name — in his case on the curious ground that, as he implies, the word has evolved over the past 50 years, like “Negro,” from being the respectable term and now carries only negative connotations. But that’s not true. “Redskins” has never been respectable and has always had negative connotations. More interestingly, perhaps, it was precisely the negative connotations which must have made the word attractive to those who chose it to describe “the Washington Football Team” — as Slate and other publications now priggishly insist on calling it. Mr Krauthammer suggests “‘skins” instead.

He points out that you wouldn’t describe a black congressman as a “Negro” anymore. “Similarly, regarding the further racial breakdown of Congress, you wouldn’t say: ‘And by my count, there are two redskins.’” No, you wouldn’t. But not because the term might cause offense. You wouldn’t use “Redskins” because the word, as used of living people, is no longer current. There are no more Redskins. When it was in use, “Redskins” was used to describe the warlike peoples who for some 300 years struck terror into the hearts of white settlers on the advancing Euro- American frontiers of this country. It has never been widely used during the last century or so since the Indian wars ended, or to describe our fellow citizens of American Indian ethnicity.

Calling their team after the “Redskins,” therefore, is not analogous to calling them “Negroes” but to calling them Vikings, or Trojans or Spartans — fierce warriors of times past who have since disappeared from the earth but whose names still have the power to touch us with at least a hint of the fear they produced in those, like themselves long dead, on whom they once made war. If the word, as early as the 1930s, had not primarily or even exclusively suggested ferocity and fighting prowess rather than a particular race or ethnicity, it would not have been used of a football eleven to hint of the same folk-memory of fear. At the same time, the nature of the context — what is essentially a game for schoolboys — gives to that fear, as to that of Lions or Bears or mythical Giants, a certain light-hearted irony that even settles on fearsome but not necessarily racially homogeneous creatures, like Buccaneers or Raiders, who still exist. If I were an Indian, however, I would want “Redskins” to remain as a reminder that my people weren’t only victims.

Interestingly, there is at least one precedent for using the name of a vanished people to suggest the fearsomeness of its new possessor. According to Wikipedia, “On July 27, 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion in China, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany gave the order to act ruthlessly towards the rebels: “Mercy will not be shown, prisoners will not be taken. Just as a thousand years ago, the Huns under Attila won a reputation of might that lives on in legends, so may the name of Germany in China, such that no Chinese will even again dare so much as to look askance at a German.” This is said to have been the origin of the common British and French (and, later, American) usage of “Huns” to describe German soldiers during World War I. The connotations were of a savagery and brutality that understandably seems not to have appealed to most Germans as a self-description. If not, however, it was not out of any sensitivity to the feelings of putative Hun descendants among them. Maybe such names and such vicarious savagery only become attractive to people on the sporting field when it is well understood that we don’t really mean them.

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