April 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
The current issue of Foreign Affairs is about nationalism, and its resurgence around the world. The base assumption of all the authors in this edition is that nationalism is a conservative movement, tied to white supremacy, racism, and strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin. The basic argument is that the resurgence of nationalism, and all it entails, is a response to globalism and the rise of a class of cosmopolitans who, the argument alleges, feel at home anywhere. Thus, everyone else, the ‘somewheres’, who have a sense of connection to place are mad.
First, this is a ridiculous dichotomy. The actual real cosmopolitans, the ones who are at home in Istabul, Mumbai, and Tokyo, are the 1% of the world. The bulk of people who are alleged cosmopolitans actually tend to have deep connections to place as well. They are connected to where they live, their neighbourhoods, their towns and so on.
But this discussion of cosmopolitans vs. the non-cosmopolitans actually obscures more than it clarifies. Like all theories that attempt to put human behaviour into neat little boxes, it fails.
And this is because the basic assumption of this argument is that the non-cosmopolitan nationalist is not connected to a wider community, one beyond the borders of her nation. And it also assumes that the leaders of these movements are not in constant contact with each other. That Donald Trump and Nigel Farage don’t have a connection, that Steven Bannon isn’t globe-trotting, trying to convince Italian conservatives that the biggest evil in the world is Pope Francis.
Of course men like Trump, Farage and Bannon have international communities. One is the president of the most powerful nation in the world, one is the former leader of a major British political party, and the last is the man who stands behind their ilk, helping them get elected.
But the argument presumes that Trump’s supporters, Farage’s voters, and Viktor Orbán’s fans are not also connected in a globalist sense. The internet and social media have seen to this. There are linkages across international boundaries between nationalist and conservative movements in Europe and North America.
In other words, these reactionary movements are just as internationalist as the liberal world order they’re attempting to take down. They can’t not be, this is a co-ordinated attack on what these nationalists and conservatives (because they are often the same thing) distrust, dislike, and fear in the liberal internationalist order.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized era, and even if we wrap ourselves up in the Union Jack and talk about bringing jobs back to Bristol, or we prefer our government to open our border for more refugees, we live in this world. The ideological struggle for the soul of the world reflects this as much as it did during the Cold War.
During that era, from 1945-91, two opposing, internationalist, camps fought for global supremacy. We all know that American-backed liberalism won. And despite Francis Fukuyama’s embarrassing claim that this saw the end of history, the conservative backlash was in motion by the mid-90s, though its articulation took longer to develop, into the 2010s, our current decade.
And so now, the two opposing, internationalist camps fight for a world that is either liberal, cosmopolitan, and internationalist in nature, or one that is illiberal, nationalist, and just as internationalist in nature.
February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago. It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary. The United States was founded upon slavery. Fact. The Founding Fathers included slave owners. Face. The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution. Fact. The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery. Fact. The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. Fact. Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court. Fact.
But. None of this is a Southern thing. Slavery initially existed in the North as well. But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery. The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton. The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves. The North countenanced slavery.
After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation. The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country. And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.
But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away. Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis. The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000. Only 15% of those students were white. As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white. Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white. White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.
As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated. Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.
Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.
Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism. So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.
February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon. I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.
Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes. It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.
But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack. It is worth quoting the review at length here:
A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?
First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable. But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones. It is just dressed up in fancier language. The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.
I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.
I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white. Black is generally a racial category in the United States. This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.
On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things. Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists. But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.
February 8, 2019 § 4 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore. A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued. One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.
I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.
The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded. It does two things. First, it points a finger at white people. Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.
White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them. I know, I am a white person. The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc. And, moreover, this all happened in the past. But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.
And then there’s the question of class. Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor. I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority. And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty. To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.
But calling out white privilege is none of this. For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat. It is relative. I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’ Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt. This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them. Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant. And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes. The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony. But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.
Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony. As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people. White people, in other words, are hegemonic. And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black. That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.
And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world. Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations. Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour. South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities. More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour. So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really. The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.
So we still live in a white world. To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me. In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens. In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end. More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men. Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street. But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups. And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.
To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.
To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes
But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.
In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race. That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender. And so on.
Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework. That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street. It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people. It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage. And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.
But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded. Spring-loaded, really. Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony. That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start. And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.
February 5, 2019 § Leave a comment
Jordan Peterson is a bore. He appeals to the basest instincts of masculinity, believing that men are under attack in this world. He also believes, fundamentally, that order is a masculine trait and chaos is a feminine one. This reflects the age-old misogyny of Christian thought in the West that said that reason was masculine and nature feminine. One is ordered and disciplined, one is chaotic.
Peterson stepped off the deep end a long time ago. Peterson rose to fame in Canada a few years back in opposition to Bill C-16, which gives legal protection to transgender people. As the CBC notes, it added the term ‘gender identity or expression’ to three parts of Canadian law: 1) The Charter of Rights and Freedoms; 2) The Criminal Code, in those parts that deal with hate crimes; 3) that part of the Criminal Code that deals with sentencing for hate crimes. Peterson was appalled, arguing wrongly that this would criminalize the failure to use an individual’s preferred pronouns. He himselfrejects the idea of non-binary gender identity (indeed, this became the rallying cry of the right in both Canada and the US, where Peterson warned Americans that this was coming for them in an article in The Hill). But he went further, as he is wont do, claiming that Bill C-16 was an attack on freedom of speech in Canada, the greatest such attack, as a matter of fact. And so he joined the conservative hysteria that we were all going to be jailed for not using the proper pronouns. He also received a letter of warning from the University of Toronto, where he teaches, informing him that he must accord to people’s wishes wth their preferred pronouns.
Coupled with this misogyny is a subtle form of racism. Peterson thinks that white privilege simply doesn’t exist. He has, to be fair, clearly and loudly rejected white supremacy and prefers his followers to do so as well. But, frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist. The idea of white privilege is meant to point out that we live in a culture dominated by white people and those who are not white have a more difficult time in getting ahead (I wrote about this here).
But back to the misogyny. Beyond Peterson’s claim that order is masculine and chaos feminine, Peterson has concluded the problem is feminism, as it seeks to level inequalities, which he argues are simply the way things have always been.
Peterson favours what he calls ‘enforced monogamy.’ In the wake of the terrorist attack in Toronto last spring, in which an ‘incel’ drove his truck into a crowd, killing at least 10, Peterson told the New York Times that male violence toward women happens because they are involuntarily celibate (hence the term ‘incel’). He said of the killer, “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.” He goes on:
“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”
I laugh, because it is absurd.
“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”
That, my friends, is sexist. Plain and simple. Peterson’s idea of ‘enforced monogamy’ is meant to help men, and therefore it would be coercive to women.
He goes on. He read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and concluded that:
it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus get a hobby. For Christ’s sake.
In his book, 12 Rules for Life, he argues that ‘healthy women’ want men who are better than them, men who are smarter than they are, who will dominate them, and control them through status. ‘Healthy women’ want to be dominated.
Peterson’s ultimate problem is he believes that there is such a thing as a natural hierarchy in the social world and he believes that these hierarchies are essentially god-given and therefore right and natural. He thinks gender equality overthrows this natural order, as Kate Manne makes clear in a discussion of 12 Rules. Manne defines misogyny as a desire to control women (which she differentiates from a hatred or fear of women in the heart of men). And, to return to Peterson’s argument about ‘healthy women’ wanting to be dominated, well, that is misogyny.
At any rate, Peterson was in Canada’s lesser-known and read national newspaper, The National Post, last week ranting about the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines for treating men and boys. This is the first time the APA has issued guidelines for treating men and, of course, you’re noting right now that psychology cut its teeth normalizing the behaviour of (white) men. But these guidelines are focused on the pratfalls of masculinity in the early 21st century and, to a degree, toxic masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is the form of masculinity that is vicious, violent, and generally dangerous for all, including its practitioners. I grew up in a milieu of toxic masculinity. It means alcoholism, drug addiction and violence directed towards those weaker. This is not what masculinity is supposed to be, it is not how men are supposed to act in society.
So back to Peterson’s fit in The National Post. Peterson argues that the APA’s guidelines are ‘an all-out assault on masculinity — or, to put it even more bluntly, on men.’ Indeed, men, gather your guns, we’re under attack!!!
He then goes on a rant denying scientific consensus about masculinity and gender roles. And then complains about what he sees as a war on traditional masculine roles and behaviours. Except, the thing is? No one really questions that part of masculinity. We question the assoholic behaviour of men and Peterson denies that being an asshole is damaging to men. The evidence, which he ignores, suggests otherwise, of course.
Next, he postulates about violence and notes that boys are indeed more likely to be violent than girls. He then does what he accuses the authors of the APA guidelines of doing: citing himself to prove his point. His point appears to be that violence is not a learned behaviour, but an innate one. But then he also notes that the boys who grow up to be violent come from fatherless families. He also claims that the experts have all agreed on this. I’m not a psychologist, but even a cursory glance at the literature suggests otherwise. But why would Peterson let facts get in the way of a good argument?
But all of this is just a precursor to another of his favourite flogging horses: the idea that there is a war on Western society, that Western civilization is apparently seen ‘as an oppressive patriarchy: unfairly male-dominated, violent, racist, sexist, homo-, Islamo- and trans-phobic — and as uniquely reprehensible in all those regards.’ Oh brother. Here we go again. (This, of course, is why he denies white privilege exists, which, of course, is easy for a white, heterosexual, tenured male university professor at one of Canada’s élite universities).
This is lazy scholarship and rhetoric. In fact, his rhetoric crosses the line into hysteria and paranoia. Bill C-16 was the ‘greatest attack’ on freedom of speech in Canadian history. The APA has declared war on men.
This allows Peterson to claim that anything that he doesn’t like about the modern world is because we’re cannibalistic in the West, we like to eat our own. It means that it is easy for him to blame the feminists and their fellow travellers. He’s the intellectual equivalent of those pseudo-Christians in the US who complain about the ‘war on Christmas’ each each year and attack Starbucks for its holiday cups.
Peterson long ago stopped being an academic or even and intellectual or a thinker. Instead, he is just an ideologue. And a rather boring and predictable one at that. But he’s made all the more dangerous because he is well-dressed and is a university professor and uses the instant credibility that brings to go on ideological rants, rather than engage in discussions about ideas. And ultimately, that’s because Peterson has no more ideas. And they are built on slippery and false logic.
This makes him boring and a bore.
July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.
In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump. In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires. Her argument is compelling and well argued.
But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground. She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him. She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that. So far, so good. She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country. Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.
She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing. I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists). But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality. The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality. And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s. In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence. As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).
Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today. Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live). But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time. I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected. My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too. The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too. And so on.
Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor. But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either. In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines. The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier. There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened. The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival. In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder. And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally. But they also intermarried and socialized together. But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.
But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels. In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it. That’s not how it works. And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness. Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.
In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new. Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too. And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course). But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.
So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here. Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.
January 30, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Cleveland baseball team took a positive step this week. It announced on Monday that it was going to remove the deeply offensive Chief Wahoo from its caps and jerseys for the 2019 season. This is an important start. Chief Wahoo is an offensive caricature of an indigenous chief, drawn in a cartoonish, stereotypical manner. Note that not only is he grinning, he is actually red. Like, you know, ‘redskin’. (The Washington football team is a whole other problem, for another day).
Chief Wahoo has a long genesis. The Cleveland baseball team was originally founded in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1894, and known as the Rustlers. It moved to Cleveland in 1900, calling itself the Lake Shores. Seems pretty obvious how that name didn’t stick. Up to that point, the Grand Rapids/Cleveland team was a minor league team, in the Western League. In 1900, the Western League evolved into a major league, rebranded as the American League (the National League dates back to 1876, hence, it is sometimes called ‘the senior circuit’). The Cleveland baseball team is a charter member of the AL, and for the launch of the new league in 1901, it also rebranded itself as the Bluebirds. In 1902, they were the Barons (this name was revived by the sad sack NHL team based in Cleveland from 1976-78; they didn’t last long, in 1978, they merged with the Minnesota North Stars, which is now the Dallas Stars franchise). From 1903 to 1914, they were named after their star player, Nap Lajoie. But, in 1914, Lajoie left Cleveland to go play for the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. So, the Naps needed a new name.
And so, we ended up with the Indians. This was meant to be a nod to Cleveland baseball history. The original major league team in town was the Cleveland Spiders of the National League; they folded in 1899, precipitating the Rustlers’ move to the big city. The Spiders had had an indigenous player, Louis Sockalexis, who played his whole career with the team Thus, the Indians. So, in a way, the name came about as a tribute both to the defunct baseball team and to one of its star players. But, of course, this is one of those historical obscurities that got lost, it has become anachronistic over time.
In 1932, the Cleveland Plain Dealer used a cartoon precursor of Chief Wahoo as a logo to stand in for actually using the full name of the team. This version became known as ‘the little Indian,’ and the Plain Dealer used the logo in its coverage for the next several years. In 1947, the team’s owner, Bill Veeck hired a graphic design firm to create a new logo for his team. And thus, we got the original Chief Wahoo. He wasn’t called that at the outset, in fact, he had no name. Also, while a cartoon stereotype, he wasn’t red-skinned. A red-skinned version appeared in 1948, but was not the official logo of the team until 1951.
The name Chief Wahoo eventually came from Cleveland sports writers. The guy who created the original, in 1947, Walter Goldbach, was only 17 years old at the time. Goldbach has noted several times since that he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and that he actually had a hard time to render an indigenous man as a cartoon. He also has argued that Chief Wahoo isn’t actually a chief, he’s a brave. He only has one feather. (That of course, brings us to the Atlanta baseball team, another issue for another day).
Chief Wahoo remained the primary logo of the Cleveland baseball team until 2013, when it decided that perhaps it was time to start rethinking Chief Wahoo. At that time, the team unveiled a new logo, a stylized C, for Cleveland. It’s actually the superior logo. I much prefer it.
The Clevelands have not, of course, won a World Series since 1954, the longest running drought in professional sports (now that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series). Cleveland sports writers have wondered if Chief Wahoo is actually a curse.
So the announcement this week that Chief Wahoo is being retired next year is welcome. Except that’s not entirely the case. You can believe there will be a run on this offensive cartoon logo as this season and year progresses. And, in order to maintain the trademark, the team will continue to sell Chief Wahoo-branded gear in the Cleveland region after banishing the logo from the uniform.
So this isn’t a total victory. But it’s an important start. The next thing is to get the Cleveland baseball team to change its name, perhaps to the Spiders. And then there’s the Washington football team, and the Atlanta baseball team. But, baby steps?