Would He Mind If I Called Him Stupid?

Let’s review: “redskins” is a pejorative for “Native Americans,” right? I’ve always understood it to be disrespectful, at least. About the only time I ever heard it used was in films, where the White People had all the dialogue and the “redskins” were extras who were very skilled at falling gracefully out of trees or off their galloping horses whenever the White People shot rifles in their direction. In context, “redskins” never seemed complimentary.

There are some who disagree, saying it is just slang. But most pejoratives were “just slang” until the group who felt disparaged by the slang spoke up about it.

Some guy at the Washington Post writes that it’s just as bad for the military to name helicopters after Native American ethnic groups — Apache, Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne — or even people, Black Hawk. “Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished?” he asks.

To which I ask, who’s “we”? Are “we” not all Americans? I don’t keep up with these things, but I know they used to name tanks after generals — Pershing, Sherman, Sheridan. Thinking of Sherman’s march to the sea makes “Sherman” an especially appropriate tank name. They used to name battleships after states. Aircraft carriers are named for Presidents. I know enough about the military to know that the military guys don’t name their “stuff” after people they think are losers. Names are supposed to evoke something that’s, you know, fierce and warrior-ish. I thought it was supposed to be an honor to have some military thingie named after one.

For that matter, Sherman himself was William Tecumseh Sherman. He originally was just Tecumseh Sherman, but his stepfather added the William when Crazy Bill was eight or nine, as I recall.

OK, so if we’re going to assume that any use of an ethnic or tribal name is supposed to be a slur, let’s talk about the Minnesota Vikings or the Boston Celtics. Josh Marshall brought this up a few days ago; I regret I don’t have a link to that. I suppose Vikings aren’t around to object. As a Celtic-American I have no issue with “Celtic” as a team name, however. It could have been worse — the Boston Paddies?

But I could do without the leprechaun mascot. Leprechauns irritate me. Lucky Charms commercials make me cringe. There are all kinds of fierce and warrior-ish characters in Irish history and myth. Why is it always leprechauns?

Anyway — seems to me the name “redskins” is intrinsically belittling. It began as a slur and it’s always been a slur. Just because some people weren’t sensitive to their own racism doesn’t mean it wasn’t a slur. So what about the Kansas City Chiefs? Sometimes “chief” is used as a kind of put-down. But the word also carries a connotation of authority and dominance.

Anyway, the Washington Post guy speaks of the Native American groups/tribes/nations in the past tense, and says, “If the native tribes did not stand a chance, this does not imply lack of resistance or of courage; regardless, it doesn’t much matter in this context. Whatever courage they had, the U.S. military is not heir to it.” Perhaps not, but members of “native tribes” (I’m not sure “tribes” is the right word) are still here and have served in the U.S. military for some time. Do we not need to get past the idea that all institutions belong by default to White People unless stated otherwise?

I may be getting myself in trouble here. This guy quotes Noam Chomsky, “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ” But they wouldn’t have, because the military guys don’t name their stuff after people they hold in contempt. They just don’t.

For that matter, not even the Irish want to go into a terrible battle in something called The Cute Little Leprechaun. They want to be in something called The Cú Chulainn or The Fionn mac Cumhaill. Fierce. Warrior-ish. Proud.

Update: The CC Patrol (CC=Conservative Correctness”) are responding to the op-ed as if the author of the Washington Post piece speaks for all liberals. No, dears, it’s one guy, and I don’t know that he speaks for ANY liberals. He doesn’t speak for this one, and I’m not sure how “liberal” the author is himself. In a lot of ways he still seems caught up in the white privilege trap of assuming whiteness as the default norm.