THE LOS ANGELES TIMES reported Wednesday that the California state assembly is moving swiftly to ban ethnic mascots (specifically, Indian mascots) at all California public schools. I took special interest because the accompanying graphic featured the insignia of my own alma mater, Arcadia High School. The school's mascot name is the Apaches. I'd be disappointed, to say the least, if my old school was forced to change its name to something insipidly anodyne, like "Arcadia Aardvarks." And as a former band geek, I hate to think how a mascot change will affect the school's marching band, which is one of the best in southern California (it gets invited to march in the Rose Parade every 4 or 5 years). The band gives an intimidating shout of "PA-CHE!" when called to attention, and its color guard wears Indian-themed outfits. An elite group of "Princesses," wearing elaborate Indian headdresses, carries the Arcadia name in front of the band during parades. I doubt much of the band's Indian motif is authentically Apache, but I can assure you it's not meant to be demeaning; it's done tastefully, and with pride.
Granted, the city of Arcadia has no intimate connection with the Apache tribe; it's a pleasant suburb located just east of Pasadena, nestled against the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. But over the past decade or so, Arcadia High's administration and students have bent over backwards to discard any trace of derogatory meaning that might be associated with the Apache nickname. They ditched the old cartoon "Apache Joe" mascot from the school logo, replacing it with a more dignified and authentic Apache figure. They've brought members of the Apache tribe to the school for consultations and to discuss Apache culture with students, and even sent the band to perform at an Apache reservation. And it's silly to think the Apache tribe would resent being associated with a school that consistently ranks among the top public high schools in California.
Still, I'm not one to defend sports teams' use of ugly stereotypes. The toothy, cartoonish Indian that the Cleveland Indians baseball team features on its cap is a little ridiculous. And I'm willing to grant that the Washington Redskins' moniker is distasteful. (Of course, I'm biased against the Redskins, as a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan now forced to live and work among rabid Redskins devotees.)
But in general, the movement to eliminate Indian mascots shouldn't be taken too seriously. My friend John Miller wrote a terrific overview in National Review last year making this case. First, no school or team names itself after something it dislikes. Also, as the Arcadia example shows, the use of Indian mascots has often given students the opportunity to learn more about Indian tribes' history and culture. And Indians aren't the only group whose ethnicity has been appropriated by schools and sports teams. Take the "Fighting Irish" of Notre Dame, for instance--not to mention the Bethany College Swedes, the Edinboro University Fighting Scots, the Iona Gaels, and the Sonoma State University Cossacks.
Finally, as The Scrapbook noted several weeks ago (scroll down to the third item), an article in the March 4 Sports Illustrated revealed that a majority of Native Americans don't mind the use of Indian mascots. When asked in an SI poll whether professional teams should stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, and symbols, 83 percent of Native Americans (67 percent on reservations) said no. And 81 percent said no when asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames. Even the Redskins were okay with 69 percent of those polled.
But the opinions of actual Native Americans are irrelevant, of course, to activists skilled in the art of detecting the pea of insensitivity under 20 mattresses. Their zeal is merely the outgrowth of a particularly troublesome mindset among modern liberals. There's an excellent example in E.B. White's essay "Bedfellows." White applauds a Supreme Court decision that disallowed school prayer in New York. Here's what he wrote:
"From the violence of the reaction you would have thought the Court was in the business of stifling America's religious life and that the country was going to the dogs. But I think the Court again heard clearly the simple theme that ennobles our Constitution: that no one shall be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe because of nonconformity."
Putting aside White's tortured exegesis of the Constitution, what's notable here is his belief--typical among well-meaning liberals--that the core principle of our republic is to ensure that no one's feelings are hurt. Certainly the Constitution protects nonconformists' right to be free from physical harm (i.e., feeling "unsafe"). But by its very nature, nonconformity puts one at risk of feeling "uncomfortable." The notion that the state must take action to prevent anyone from ever feeling "uncomfortable" is something we've become much too fond of in recent decades. It's led to the worst excesses of campus speech codes, sexual harassment law, and political correctness: a world where any remark or symbol--no matter what the context, or how well-intended--can be peremptorily banished from mainstream discourse if the most sensitive members of self-designated grievance groups deem it "harmful" or "offensive."
A pluralistic society will, of necessity, comprise a variety of groups with differing sensibilities, tastes, and psychological sore spots. And occasionally--perhaps more than occasionally--those sensibilities will come into conflict. Government efforts to resolve those conflicts by arbitrarily legislating them out of existence, such as the mascot bill in California, are invariably ham-handed. (And as the poll numbers I cited earlier suggest, there isn't even much of a conflict in the case of Indian mascots.) But alas, the bill is meeting little resistance. At a time when the state teachers' union is attempting to hijack control of California public schools by making curriculum decisions part of the collective bargaining process, you'd think state legislators would have better things to worry about than high school mascots.
Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.