woody zimmerman 118 2007Taking offense over real or imagined comments or life-events – usually with reference to some “sensitive” social issue – has reached epic proportions in the USA. Indeed, it has become an entire career-path for some. (What a country!) Offense can be taken over longstanding names or historical situations that someone has decided must be expunged from contemporary consciousness. Generally, the ruckus raised – often by anonymous parties – achieves nothing productive, but serves only to disrupt good order and social harmony. Successful enterprises and livelihoods can even be damaged. Here are a few instances that have bubbled up in recent weeks.

Ethnic-cleansing at the Army War College

Officials of the Army War College, situated at the Carlisle Barracks in southern Pennsylvania, are reported to be considering erasure of the history of Confederate arms from the War College’s curriculum and displays. Part of this process might include removal of portraits of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J.”Stonewall” Jackson. Both men graduated from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, and each played key roles in the Confederacy’s military defense against Union Armies that were attempting to reverse the southern states’ secession.

War College Spokeswoman Carol Kerr reports that “…at least one person has questioned why we would honor individuals who were enemies of the United States Army.” Ms. Kerr opined that “[Lee] was certainly not good for the nation. This is the guy we faced on the battlefield whose entire purpose in life was to destroy the nation as it was then conceived…”

Ms. Kerr is certainly entitled to her point of view, but it is not necessarily the only one worth considering. There was a time when every American schoolboy – whether from North or South – learned a more fulsome story about Confederate General Robert E. Lee, son of a Revolutionary War hero, who declined the offer to command the Union Armies – following instead the path of “honor” to defend his state, Virginia, which had seceded from the Union.

General Lee led a devastating defense of Virginia, including two unsuccessful attempts to invade Union territory – clearly prolonging the war and costing many thousands of lives. Nevertheless, Congress restored his citizenship by a joint resolution in 1975. In this final act to heal the wounds of the Civil War, the resolution praised Lee’s character and his work to reunify the nation.

“This entire nation has long recognized the outstanding virtues of courage, patriotism, and selfless devotion to duty of General R. E. Lee,” the resolution stated.

In remarks which accompanied his signing of the resolution at Arlington House, on August 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford said, “As a soldier, General Lee left his mark on military strategy. As a man, he stood as the symbol of valor and duty. As an educator, he appealed to reason and learning to achieve understanding and build a stronger nation. The course he chose after the war became a symbol to all those who had marched with him in the bitter years toward Appomattox.”

None of this cuts any ice now, however, in the highly polarized national climate wherein all other considerations are swept aside by the roaring tide of racial sensitivity – some say obsession – that currently engulfs the nation. Whatever else Robert E. Lee might have been and done, he owned slaves, and he fought to defend and prolong that institution. That does it! End of story. He can’t be honored in any way by our politically correct institutions of learning. He’s outta here!

Hostiles in the Capitol

In recent months, a great hue and cry has arisen in the sporting “community” (if that term can credibly be used) over the nickname of the National Football League’s team in Washington, DC. Commentators, reporters and pundits have joined a furious bums-rush to force the Washington Redskins to change their name. Various recommendations for new names have included the Red Hawks, Red Ones, Roanskins, Warriors, Renegades, Red Noses, Red A---s, Deadskins, Rainbow-skins, Muggers, etc. (My personal favorite is the Wrinkled Skins – to honor our many senior citizens.)

Representatives for the Oneida Nation met with NFL officials in October to demand that the league sanction Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder for “using a racist name,” but the league declined to do so. Earlier, Snyder met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the controversy.

Saying they were “very disappointed ...that the league defended the use of a racist name,” Oneida representatives ominously declared that this was only the “beginning of a process.” Various published “studies” ostensibly show that the team’s name harms Native Americans by “…creating a hostile racial climate.”

In an admirable response, Dan Snyder, who has owned the team since May 1999, wrote an open letter to Washington fans and other interested parties, saying that the nickname was a cherished part of the team's heritage and would never be changed. Snyder wrote: “After 81 years, the team name 'Redskins' continues to hold the memories and meaning of where we came from, who we are, and who we want to be in the years to come.”

During all the uproar over the Redskins’ name, the team had a wretched season. Was the team’s poor play connected to the name-controversy? Who can say? Certainly, it couldn’t have helped.

The Redskins were originally established, in 1932, as the Boston Braves. In those early days of the NFL, the league established many teams in cities where major league baseball teams already played. The NFL teams often took nicknames reminiscent of the baseball team names. Thus, Chicago – where the Cubs played baseball – became home to the NFL’s Bears. Detroit – home of the Tigers – eventually hosted the NFL’s Lions. And in St. Louis, New York and Boston, new NFL teams took the same names as the baseball teams – i.e., the Cardinals, Giants and Braves.

In 1937 the NFL’s Boston Braves moved to Washington, DC, where they became the Redskins – bringing a proud historical tradition from the city of their origins. Why were the Boston Braves so named? Although you don’t read it in any contemporary reporting, the name honored the Boston Tea Party – that famous event of December 16, 1773, when an entire cargo of tea was thrown into the sea from a British ship berthed in Boston Harbor, by raiders dressed in costumes that made them look like Indians (i.e., “redskins,” in the vernacular of the time).

When the team moved to Washington, DC, adopting the name Redskins seemed perfectly acceptable. Certainly, a racial slur was not intended, as detractors claim today. One fan noted, “If ‘redskin’ was considered a racial slur, why would anyone take it for the team’s name? It makes no sense…” (Of course, any connection to the Tea Party makes the name doubly suspect now.)

The Redskins have a long, honorable history of competition and community service. Its players have been (and still are) colorful members of the community, and its fans have stuck by the Burgundy and Gold through thick and thin. They love the team’s history and its players. A change of name is unthinkable – especially under pressure from outsiders who know nothing (and care even less) about the team’s proud traditions and lore.

My grown sons – now in their 40s – live far from DC now, but they still follow the team they grew up with. We often recall the exploits of Art Monk, Joe Theisman, John Riggins, Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark, Doug Williams and many, many others. My own memories go back to Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Mitchell, Jerry Smith, Ken Houston, Sam Huff, Vince Lombardi, Jack Pardee, Richie Petitbon and George Allen. Thousands of Washingtonians – many now living far away – carry those same memories. They bring people of the area together as few other things do.

We live in a time when traditions and lore mean nothing if they seem to conflict with modern ideas of political correctness. Public figures can be hounded out of their jobs if they make the wrong remark about race, gender or sexual preference. Great Americans like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are barely mentioned in many schools today because they owned slaves. (Some wags have suggested that the Redskins might have to move in order to rid themselves of the tainted name, Washington.)

I don’t place the Washington Redskins on the level of those patriots, of course, but the team has been an important part of the Washington social scene for over 75 years. It unites people of disparate races and ethnicities who might otherwise be polarized into opposing groups. Like other professional sports teams, the Redskins represent the very best traditions of America – a multi-racial roster, entirely merit-selected, working together to achieve success. The Redskins – name and all – will do very well as a metaphor for what makes the country great. Leave them be.

Let’s get off the name-change crusade. It’s is getting old. “Boo of the week” to the next sportscaster or “Indian nation” representative who hammers it.

“Hail to the Redskins…”