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What’s In a Name

Washington-RedskinsNow for something completely different…

While the nation dangles one foot over the fiscal cliff and while most of the federal government remains shut down, the epicenter of American politics has yet another crisis to confront – the name of its football team.

I knew the controversy swirling around the National Football League Redskins had reached crisis proportions when Lanny Davis, the slightly oily adviser to those in trouble, started issuing statements on behalf of the mostly tone deaf Redskins’ owner. Davis, you may remember, advised Bill Clinton in the Monica days and more recently helped out a charming fellow named Laurent Gbagbo who, before he was forced from power to face charges of torturing his political enemies, was quaintly described as the Ivory Coast’s strongman. Davis told the New York Times in 2010 “controversy is what I do for a living.” Welcome to the Redskins’ beat.

Davis was engaged – controversy is what he does after all – after President Obama weighed in on whether the Washington, D.C. team should change its name. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told The Associated Press.

“These things,” of course, would be names and mascots for sports teams that at least some Native Americans (and others) find offensive. Now you might think with all that the president has on his plate from Syria to Ted Cruz, from a debt ceiling to tanking approval numbers that he would have deftly sidestepped the question of the Redskins’ name. But to his credit, even while giving half the country another reason to dislike him, Mr. Obama answered the question and a million dinner table conversations were launched.

Maureen Dowd began her column on the controversy with this: “Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder once said he would “never” change the name, but in post-Lanny Davis mode he struck a quieter, if no less certain, tone. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote to the Washington Post. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. . . . We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”

Here’s my guess: sooner of later, given a hard push by the ever image conscious NFL leadership and with what will surely be mounting pressure from political and business folks, the Redskins will take a new name. Gover, the Native American head of the Smithsonian museum, suggested a novel name – the Washington Americans. That may catch on and actually could be a tribute to the real Americans. But in the meantime Lanny Davis and others are left to defend the Redskins by pointing out that it’s not just the D.C. football team that has a potentially offensive name. There are the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Edmonton Eskimos. Not to mention the Utah Utes, the Florida State Seminoles and the Orofino Maniacs.

Orofino, Idaho, of course, is home not only to the high school Maniacs, but an Idaho state mental hospital. There is disagreement about which came first, the nickname or the facility, but the monicker has stuck through the years and helped create some memorable headlines. My personal favorite – “Maniacs Run Wild, Kill Kamiah.” Efforts to change the name have be labeled, well, crazy. Don’t mess with my Maniacs or my Redskins. No offense intended, of course.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are no long either fighting or Sioux. After prolonged controversy the school dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 and currently has no name. State law actually prohibits the university from renaming its sports teams until 2015. Let me get a jump on that and suggest the North Dakota “Damn Cold Winters.”

While we’re on the subject, I don’t generally like sports teams named after animals. Too many Lions and Tigers, Badgers and Eagles. The best sports names are unique and help tell a story. The Packers, for example, or the 49ers. I like the name, but have never been a fan of the Dodgers. The Minnesota Twins make sense to me. Also the Montreal Canadiens. Not so much the transplanted from New Orleans Utah Jazz. I’m not sure jazz is even legal in Utah.

Mr. Controversy-Is-My-Business Lanny Davis says in defense of the Redskins that the name is 80 years old and, of course, is used with no disrespect. Really. I grew up near the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and no white guy, at least one in his right mind, would call a member of the tribe what the Washington teams calls itself. The Confederate battle flag has been around for more than 150 years, but it is now widely recognized as a symbol of white supremacy. The Ole Miss Rebels banned the stars and bars from football games for just that reason. Atlanta was once home to the minor league baseball “Crackers,” but that slang put down of poor whites wouldn’t fly today.

“Come to our reservation,” says Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Tribe that is leading the effort to change the D.C. team name, and “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer according to Joe Flood who has written at Buzzfeed about Native American reaction to the name controversy.

Yes, the Redskins will eventually change their name. The only real question is how much turmoil will be created and how long it will take. After all, as Maureen Dowd says, “All you have to do is watch a Western. The term ‘redskin’ is never a compliment.”



Perils of the Nanny State

Why is the state of Idaho in the liquor business and why does the Mayor of New York want to ban super-sized sugary drinks?  It’s a matter of history, tradition, politics and the fact that all politics is local. Both jurisdictions are responding to the direction of long prevailing political winds, but Idaho’s dust up over a sexy vodka label and New York’s determination to do something about obesity is also a telling tale that offers proof that neither conservatives or liberals can resist the temptation to invoke the power of government regulation in an attempt to direct human behavior.

Michael Bloomberg, the adroit and successful mayor of New York City, and Jeff Anderson, the adroit and successful Idahoan who runs the Idaho State Liquor Dispensary, normally might not have much in common. But as Hizzoner tries to crack down on sugary drinks that help fuel the American proclivity for, well, overweight citizens and Anderson polices the shelves of Idaho’s state run liquor stores to make sure state government stays on the right side of the line that defines politically correct behavior for a state-owned monopoly, both men find themselves uncomfortably straddling the fence of what my conservative friends like to call “the nanny state.”

And both men, undoubtedly well intentioned in their intentions, find themselves the subject of national media coverage for using the power of the state to regulate personal behavior. There was a pointed and funny full-page ad in the New York Times on Saturday, paid for by restaurants and food service interests and featuring a screaming headline – The Nanny – that depicted Bloomberg is a not very flattering blue dress. The Mayor, looking like an unkindly, hectoring Mrs. Doubtfire, was looming King Kong-like over the Big Apple directing the Big Government drink police.

In the Northwest, Idaho’s decision not to carry Five Wives vodka in state stores went viral. The suggestive brand is ironically distilled and sold in the Land of Zion, but won’t be sold in Idaho due to worries about the distiller’s marketing approach. The stated reason for the ban was that the product could be both offensive to women and Mormons, while doing little to drive sales because, as state officials explained, the Five Wives would be  joining dozens of other not terribly quality brands of vodka on the state’s shelves. The national press, of course, played up the Mormon angle. The vodka may never sell legally in Idaho, but the PR windfall for the Ogden, Utah booze maker has been substantial. Not so much for the Idaho liquor dispensary.

When Prohibition ended in 1933 one of the grand compromises made by Congress was to reserve to the individual states the responsibility of controlling distilled spirits. Deciding where, when, how and whether to sell hard liquor would be left to state legislators, which explains why we have 50 different approaches to liquor law in the country and why Idaho, arguably the most libertarian state in the nation, still maintains a state monopoly on the sale and distribution of  the hard stuff.

Post-prohibition Idaho opted for a high level of state control over booze. Hard liquor would be sold in state owned and operated stores during hours that, originally at least, were designed to limit sales and provide a politically sensitive nod to the state’s large LDS population. Relatively steep tax rates on distilled spirits would further help drive down consumption. Other states, Arizona for instance, opted for as little state regulation as possible. In Phoenix you can buy your hooch at Costco or at Big Bill’s Bargain Booze. (I made that up, but there are liquor warehouse stores that merchandise booze the way Home Depot sells toilet fixtures.) Some of the latest “big box” stores offer a vast selection of liquor at what often seems like discount prices compared to a “controlled” state like Idaho or, until very recently, Washington.

Because of Idaho’s historic controls over liquor, it falls ultimately to Jeff Anderson and his staff to play the role of middle man in the marketplace and make many of the decisions about the product mix and pricing available to Idahoans who are in the market for a cocktail. In Arizona and other non-controlled states that job belongs to the free market.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s nanny-isms are of a little different texture. His proposal to ban many extra large, sugary, calorie heavy soft drinks is of a piece with the Big City’s long effort at rent control and the ban on smoking in Central Park. (Wait, Boise and many other cities have the same smoking bans, but that’s another story). Bloomberg’s well-intentioned effort to do something about the epidemic of obseity in the culture – the statistics are striking – has received decidedly mixed reviews. I’m guessing the big soda ban is instinctively understood by most New Yorkers. They get the idea that too much human weight is the canary in the emergency room when it comes to diabetes, heart diesease, stroke and other bad stuff, but they just don’t want the government nanny telling them they can only chug 16 ounces at a time. It’s a freedom thing. The right to be silly and fat without the government sticking its nose into the size of your Big Glup.

You actually need to have some limited sympathy with both of these situations. In libertarian Idaho the state liquor monopoly has been, as they might say at the Supreme Court, settled law since the 1930’s. We change slowly here, if at all. Wine couldn’t be sold in grocery stores until the 1970’s and the practice of other vices – slot machines were smashed up in the 1950’s, for example – get little sympathy in the state where Hemingway once wasted his evenings at a gaming/drink joint in Ketchum called the Casino Club. Jeff Anderson does double duty for Idaho and also runs the state lottery, which only came to be because voters demanded it at the ballot box in 1986.

In libertarian Idaho few legislators have ever lost an election by voting to deny the citizens a easier path to drink or gambling. Some folks apparently just can’t be trusted with too much freedom.

And as for New Yorkers, they seem accustomed to the occasional lecture from the nanny in office who tells them you must do this for your own good because you simply can’t be trusted to police your own behavior. Conservatives do it, liberals do it, even educated…well, you get the idea.

The nanny state is far removed from notions of political consistency. A libertarian in deep red Idaho can champion the state’s tight control of booze and a liberal in deep blue Manhattan can lead a crack down on a 7-11’s soda aisle.

Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and politically speaking one man’s sexy vodka label is another man’s fat generating soft drink. I don’t drink vodka or Big Gulps, but I do enjoy the sweet, contradictory taste of a public policy that can only explain itself by wagging a finger in your face.

So, some suggestions: how about a Five Wives/Five Guys Burgers promotion. “Eat and drink politically incorrect.” Or, MacDonald’s could offer half off the big drinks for anyone who can prove their body mass index is within the safe range. Think of the possibilities for the free market. 


Stupid Times Three

Ozzie, Commies and Stay at Home Moms

Bad luck like stupid comments seems to come in threes.

Ozzie Guillen, the mouth-running, currently suspended manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team is at once the most politically incorrect man in America and the luckiest. He desperately needed to get off the front pages after taking Miami’s re-branded team, cozy in its new stadium, and running his mouth straight into south Florida’s visceral hatred of Fidel Castro.

Ozzie says his comments in Spanish praising Fidel lost something in translation, but what Guillen really mangled with his ill-considered comments about the country’s least favorite commie was an old and simple rule. Loud mouth baseball managers really should never comment on anything other than what happens between the lines. Danger lurks out there beyond the friendly confines – remember Marge Schott – where men play the boys game.

But thanks to cable television, just as it looked like Ozzie might still pay for his Fidel praising with his job, two other stupid comments make Ozzie seem so last season.

Enter Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida – what is it with Florida, anyway – and Democratic political operative and CNN talking head Hilary Rosen. Consider them the duo with the crazy opinions today. Ozzie Guillen must be smiling as he sits out his suspension somewhere. Nothing spikes a stupid political comment like another stupid political comment.

In West’s case it was the astounding contention that a majority of the Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives – West said 78 to 81 members to be imprecise – are communists or socialists. And Rosen popped off on cable to the effect that Mitt Romney’s obviously smart and appealing wife had never worked a day in her life.

Two things, I think, are at play from Guillen to West to Rosen, and no that is not a double play combination. The first is the modern media age’s unrelenting pursuit of opinion as opposed to fact. Everyone is expected to have an opinion on absolutely everyone and everything and be prepared to offer it up at the drop of a question. It has become socially unacceptable to say, “Geez, I don’t know that I have anything to say about that subject.” Or even this: “You know, that’s really a silly question and I chose not to respond to silly questions.”

The other problem is a growing inability on the part of many in public life to tell one of their friends that they are just flat wrong. This has become a particular problem for politicians. Congressman West made his silly comment – opinion devoid of fact really – at some type of a friendly town hall meeting. The question that prompted his opinion came from the audience and, I’m guessing here, he wanted to play to the crowd so he answered in a way that he thought the crowd would appreciate. Maybe West believes what he said, too, but he was clearly playing to the crowd. He might have simply said in response to a silly question, “That is a silly question” and moved on. Rather he offered the alternative, an ill-considered opinion that helped move Ozzie off the front page.

Same with Rosen. She was trying to make the point that the Romney’s aren’t like most Americans who worry about mortgage payments and buying groceries, but she couldn’t stop there. Opinions being the coin of the talking head realm, she couldn’t resist offering a further opinion about Ann Romney. Not having a “real job” would, by the way, be news to any woman who has raised five sons and been a partner to a corporate CEO and a governor. The comment was, well, stupid, but Rosen was behaving the way a partisan TV talking head is expected to behave. She has to have a million of them, opinions that is.

So, as author Steve Rushin has pointed out, I am myself dangerously close to failing to practice what I preach against since – hold on – I’m having an opinion. Rushin calls such behavior a sequel to the movie Blowhard, which I confess I have never had the pleasure of seeing. The sequel, however, would be called Blowhard 2 – Blow Harder.

I long for the moment when some talking head or politician or sports figure just doesn’t go there. And it’s not about political correctness or free speech. My mother would have called it good manners. I can almost hear her, “You don’t have to comment on everything,” she would say. “Did it ever occur to you that other people may not care what you have to say.”

I’ll bet Ozzie’s mom told him something similar and he just forgot. And that’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it, while searching for that movie sequel on DVD – Blow Harder.


PC Run Wild

NY Health Department Bans…a Cat?

I am a sucker for old, historic hotels and among the many I love is the Algonquin in New York City. Not because the rooms are great – they aren’t. Not because the restaurant is fabulous – it isn’t. I love the place for the atmosphere, the history, for the famed Algonquin Roundtable.

In the 1920’s, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood, among others, lunched every day at the round table in the Algonquin lobby and cracked wise about politics, matters literary and popular culture. Great one liners have survived and many are displayed in the hotel.

Benchley, all but forgotten by many today, was an actor and writer and edited Vanity Fair. He famously said after returning home in a driving rain storm, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”

Eighty years ago, a sorry looking cat sauntered into the hotel lobby from West 44th Street and stayed as stray cats who are fed and find a warm place to sleep are wont to do. Ever since the Algonquin lobby has had a cat – always named Matilda – who has pretty much had the run of the place – until last week.

The New York City Health Department says Matilda is in violation of the portion of the city’s health regulations that require animals be kept away from places where food is served. No, seriously. This is not news of the weird. It is the end, potentially, of a sweet and old tradition. This is also in the category of a solution in search of a problem.

I’ve always kind of liked the big city’s well-heeled mayor, Mike Bloomberg. Never met the guy, but like that he seems to have an independent streak and doesn’t appear to suffer fools easily. One day he is telling off President Obama for punting on the Super Committee and the next evicting the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He’s still regularly mentioned – I’m sure he likes it – as a credible third party candidate in 2012. This cat story is going to test his leadership skills to the max. There is – believe me – a very strong cat lobby in these United States.

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post broke the Algonquin cat story – under the headline “Meow’trage at Algonquin” – and has been all over these developments like cat hair on a black sweater. One column blared: “In Bloombergistan, government lackeys have gone mad.” The columnist didn’t like the city’s cat edict, apparently.

Others have been having fun, as well. “Nanny Bloomberg Bans Cat,” says FOX News. And my personal favorite: “Hotel Leashes Pussy.”

Post Columnist Kyle Smith noted, as I have every time I’ve been at the Algonquin, that the cat is typically, day and night, asleep under an wing chair in the lobby bar, far from food. The lobby bar, by the way, is ground zero for old money New York. Some duffer in a bow tie sips a cocktail, while talking with some ancient woman drowning in pearls about the art gallery he had just visited or the charity dinner they are soon to attend.

As I said earlier, people don’t come here for the food. They come because the place feels classy and old. The drinks aren’t bad, either.

The real story here, big surprise, is that the Algonquin cats I’ve observed never – never – come near anyone. Few self respecting cats do that sort of thing. Matilda obviously knows that old money is so yesterday, so, well boring. Why cozy up to an wrinkled old New Yorker working on his third Manhattan when you can sleep under a wing chair?

I’ll be disappointed if Mayor B doesn’t find a way to make this ill-fated cat decision go away. The guy was, after all, able to finesse the one-time limitation on a New York Mayor seeking a third term. He ought to be able to talk to someone over in the health department about this little 80-year tradition at the Algonquin. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I have plumbed the great and witty depths of Dorothy Parkerisms for a suitable quote to illustrate what, I suspect, most folks will see as a silly case of political correctness run wild.

Before I get to the punchline, however, a quick reminder of what the very witty Ms. Parker was capable of:

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy,” she said.

And, of Katherine Hepburn as an actress, Parker said: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

And this: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

What might Ms. Parker have said about the New York Health Department’s banning of the Algonquin cat?

How about this: “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

Mayor Bloomberg, fix this outrage. There must be an historic preservation exception. If not, create one. Some things simply need to be maintained, including the Algonquin Hotel cat.