Senators Demand End to "Redskins"

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Fifty United States senators signed a letter sent to the National Football League on Thursday, urging the NFL to force owner Dan Snyder to change the Washington Redskins' nickname.1

The senators called on the league to "take action to remove the racial slur from the name of one of its marquee franchises."  The letter leverages the momentum of the recent NBA sanctions against Donald Sterling, analogizing the use of the nickname "Redskins" to Sterling's racist comments.  The letter also claims that the Washington Redskins "mock" Native American culture.  

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been particularly vocal about the issue, added that Native Americans broadly find the nickname to be offensive and racist, a charge that the Redskins' organization has denied.  Reid has previously (unilaterally) declared that the name "will change," and expressed bewilderment as to why Snyder was refusing to accept the inevitable.

Thursday's letter included the signatures of all but five Democratic senators (the letter was not circulated among Republicans), plus independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders.  Two of the missing Democrats were Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, the current senators from Virginia, a clear Washington Redskins stronghold.

For its part, the NFL issued a response, saying "The intent of the team's name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image. The team name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently."

There are a couple of obvious takes I could provide on this development, such as discussing whether "Washington Redskins" is actually a racial slur, or writing something on the low-hanging fruit of "don't these senators have better things to do?"

I'm sure those topics are being covered ad nauseam elsewhere.  

Instead, here's what I want to talk about: When did our society become so comfortable with the idea of our elected officials telling us what's offensive?

Most of the people who read this site are probably too young to remember, but, back in the mid-1980s, there existed something called the Parents Music Resource Center.2  The PMRC was a committee of "concerned parents" populated by the wives of major, influential politicians.  Its mission was to help parents control musical content to which children had access.

Given the marital ties in play, the PMRC unsurprisingly caught the attention of Congress.  The Senate soon conducted hearings about "offensive" lyrics and imagery in popular music.  It was no coincidence that the PMRC included Tipper Gore, wife of Senator Al Gore, among its leadership.

The reason I bring this up is that there was much consternation in the 80s among the music industry, consumers, academics, and the media about whether it was even proper for the government to involve itself in the question of what is "too offensive" for public consumption (or at least too offensive for public consumption without a warning label).  

Now?  The media rarely so much as broach the subject.  As of this writing, the articles I've seen about Thursday's letter don't even reach the issue of whether members of the government should pressure private entities or individuals over "offensive" imagery or words.3

You may be saying, "Yeah, but this is different from the PMRC situation.  A song is art.  'Redskins' is just a stupid nickname."  But the point is actually the same: Either we accept the premise that it's ok for the government to be deciding what's offensive---or we don't.  If anything, music has more of an impact on the mind of the public, a point to which several experts testified at the 1985 hearings.

Whatever form of pop culture we're discussing, my argument is that it is not the role of government to determine whether a given word, image, song, film, etc, should change based on its mere offensiveness.

Much of the media (but certainly not all) would have agreed with that sentiment in 1985, even if they also agreed that the words used in the controversial lyrics were, in fact, highly offensive.  Now, a principle such as that one suddenly evaporates when the media shares the view that the underlying speech is objectionable.

In the case of the Redskins, this letter isn't the end, it's the beginning.  Just two weeks ago, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) called for hearings on the Redskins' nickname, also reciting the new talking point of connecting the team to the Donald Sterling story.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has said the government should cancel the Redskins' trademark.4

Whether you find "Washington Redskins" offensive or not, at a certain point, we have to ask ourselves whether these kinds of issues are appropriate for our government to attempt to tackle.

Answering an interview question is one thing.  Politicians are entitled to their opinions just like the rest of us.  However, the government getting involved in an organized, official capacity (complete with Senate letterhead) is a bridge too far for me.

We'll soon discover just how far our brave leaders are willing to go to protect us from words they don't like.


[1] As a point of fact, only 49 senators actually signed the letter, but Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) sent a separate letter also asking for the league to force a name change.

[2] NRO's Kevin Williamson referenced the PMRC story in a different context this week, when he noted that some young people today are asking for "trigger warnings" on certain college campuses, rather than railing against the insulting and infantilizing nature of such warnings as the youth of the 1980s and 90s did.

[3] Note that the issue of why the FCC has the power to regulate what is legally considered obscenity is a separate, tougher question that is beyond the scope of this article.

[4] The trademark issue is also complex, has a voluminous history, and is likewise beyond the scope of this article.

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