Tuesday, August 23, 2005

National Review (Commentary Piece)


The Diversity Bowl
No admittance to the abusively named.

By Peter Wood

The National Collegiate Athletic Association's recent decision to ban tournament play for 18 colleges until they agree to change their American Indian-themed nicknames and mascots comes not a moment too soon. I was just about to take a fateful step. As the new provost of a small college in New York City, I had been searching for a way to honor local traditions and pay respect to city's rich heritage.

But now that NCAA has determined that commercializing on Native American identity outside the decorous context of slot machines and craps tables is in bad taste, it's finito for the King's College's Manhattan-Algonquin Wampum-Waving Ticket Scalpers. Likewise our mascot, Chief Bradembucks, must go the way of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. No more will crowds roar in antic approval as the chief, red-faced and clad only in Oxford pants, makes his signature gesture, the double cross.

Incidentally, the role of mascot often takes considerable acrobatic as well as theatrical skill. At one point in his routine, Chief Bradembucks had to bound backwards on to an ass and ride in concentric circles. Our mathematics faculty said this was impossible until the chief demonstrated the feat. Bradembucks premature retirement will be a loss for all of higher education.

To be clear, Chief Bradembucks looks nothing at all like John Brademus, the scrupulous former Democratic congressman, friend to the Clintons, and New York State Regent who tried and failed to torpedo the college by holding up its accreditation.

But I don't want to make too much of our loss. Clearly the folks at Florida State University have a bigger problem if they are forced to forfeit the Seminoles as their team name. FSU has appealed. The Chronicle of Higher Education likewise noted the challenges that face the University of North Dakota that has its "Fighting Sioux" logo carved in rock at its $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena. Loyalty to team names and mascots may have been the last redoubt of emotional resistance to the tyranny of multicultural sensitivity on college campuses.

You can find a handful of intellectual resistors to the incoherent claims of diversiphiles on almost any campus, but they have little clout. The Left has won this battle over multiculturalism in the curriculum, faculty hiring, race-themed dorms, and all the rest not because it won the arguments, but largely because it sold a more compelling emotional story. Repackaging racial quotas in colleges admissions as a kind of "inclusion" appeals to a vague sense of generosity. In fact, metaphoric "inclusion" for some means genuine exclusion for others, as we saw when Jennifer Gratz appealed her rejection by the University of Michigan all the way to the Supreme Court.

The slippery word play is important. After all, Justice O'Connor was able to wink at grievous constitutional faults to uphold the University of Michigan's feel-good version of racism by indulging such mischievous words in the Left's lexicon. But those words work because they evoke a free-floating spirit of open-heartedness. Diversiphile-speak has a rich vocabulary of trapdoor words that trigger this response while, less obtrusively, announcing a much less open-hearted policy. Words such as "welcoming" (which means unconditional respect for behavior that doesn't deserve it) and "tolerance" (which frequently means no dissenting opinions will be permitted) comprise a vocabulary fine-tuned to the longing by most Americans to feel a kind of grudgeless amity for people at large.

That basic sense of decency is among the most attractive qualities of our national character. And it is annoying to see it played so adroitly by the Left for an agenda that is not at all decent: the perpetuation of a racial spoils system in higher education and almost every other institutional context.

College-sports nicknames and mascots were a natural target for the purveyors of a politics of racial resentment, and indeed many colleges gave up the fight long ago. Some of the holdouts, like the University of Illinois with its Chief Illiniwek, held out mostly because of the bluff indifference of alumni to the accusations that rained down on them. Few college presidents have that much spine.

So when the NCAA formed a commission four years ago to "study" the matter, the conclusion was pretty much foreordained. The NCAA commission was not about to question the good faith or the motives of Native Americans who claimed to be offended by such symbols or many others who regard Indian logos as inherently demeaning. Sure enough when NCAA's "Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion," Charlotte Westerhaus, described the policy, she said the organization was acting against names that are "hostile and abusive." NPR quickly chimed in with commentary by TV producer John Ridley, who mocked Florida Governor Jeb Bush for supporting the FSU's use of the Seminole name. The university has the permission and support of the Florida Seminole tribe, but other Seminoles in Oklahoma dislike it. Ridley sarcastically praised the rights of non-minorities to caricature the names and symbols of minority groups: a rather deft bit of hocus-pocus from a man who earns his living purveying comic racial stereotypes.

In the broader culture wars, the fight over Indian nicknames is a loser for conservatives. The Alcorn State University Braves, the Central Michigan University Chippewas, the Mississippi College Choctaws, and the University of Utah Utes will have to go it alone. I don't believe for a second that these names were adopted with malice; that they are hostile; or that anyone is "abused" by them. They do, however, have the capacity to irritate people, and it is hard to be on the side of chaffing when no really compelling principle favors it. A spontaneous show of affection for the team names and mascots by a large number of fans just might deflate people like Charlotte Westerhaus and John Ridley, and just maybe FSU alumni will pull it off. But even if they do, a stale conformity will still settle over this aspect of college sports — and America will be just a little bit poorer for the loss of historical reference and cultural exuberance.

For what it is worth, however, the use of Indian tribal names and imagery to evoke a sense of intrepid courage in the face of a foe and fierceness in battle is not all Hollywood hokum and American mythologizing. A great many tribes, including the Seminoles, cast themselves in this light and lived up to it in their battles with each other and with Europeans. Adopting the names of such groups may be pretty low rent as a form of tribute by outsiders, but it is also pretty low rent as a form of exploitation.

Chief Bradembucks, by contrast, was a caricature that stood on high principle. Chaffing some of the bullies that swagger around New York State politics is good clean fun and just what a small college like King's should do. Is it too much to hope that some of the victims of NCAA's forced march through sensitivity training will respond with some memorable half-time shows that pay tribute to the deep thinkers who set this policy in motion?

— Peter Wood, provost of The King's College in New York City, is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


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