Friday, August 12, 2005

Sláinte, Kemosabe | by Jay

We stayed away from the whole NCAA versus Native American mascots brouhaha last week, mostly because a) it's a myopic decision on the NCAA's part, b) it's only going to cause more headaches for schools like Florida State, who already have the tacit approval of the Seminole tribe to use their name, and c) it's really got nothing to do with ND. The seemingly racially-offensive moniker "Fighting Irish" won't be dropped anytime soon, because frankly, nobody's offended by it.

If you've got a subscription to the Wall Street Journal online, Ken Woodward's got a pretty good redux on the whole thing. Not surprisingly, he holds up the Fighting Irish as a paradigm of how to transform a demeaning stereotype into a source of pride.

Here's a suggestion: If the NCAA and other latter-day Puritans are concerned about social prejudice, they ought to investigate Notre Dame. Surely the name for its athletic teams, the Fighting Irish, is a slur on all Irish-Americans. The label derives from anti-Catholic nativists who reviled the poor and mostly uneducated Irish immigrants who came to these shores in the mid-19th century -- a drunken, brawling breed, it was said, who espoused the wrong religion. When the fabled Four Horsemen played football for Notre Dame, the team was called the Ramblers. In 1927, the university officially adopted the Fighting Irish, thereby transforming a pejorative nickname into something to cheer about.

If there are Native Americans who feel that Indians or Warriors or Braves is somehow demeaning, they might reflect on the Notre Dame experience.
He's right. Last week, PMan over on NDN offered transformative tips in a post so good I saved it not once, but twice.
How to use "cultural studies" against any attackers of the "Fighting Irish" name or the leprechaun image:

Today, especially in American Studies, English, and other academic departments at institutions of higher education all across this country, subjectivity studies continue to be all the rage. This is the idea that the new NCAA rule is rooted in. Academics interested in literary criticism, cultural studies, feminist and gender studies, social history, etc., etc. ", what many here would disdain as "PC" or "revisionist" -- make use of "queering a word."

To lay out the basic argument, "queering a word" means the re-capturing of the meaning of that word by a subjugated group of people. As the argument goes, all relationships are relationships of power. Groups of people -- homosexuals, women, ethnic minorities -- are placed into subjective positions by those with power. In doing so, those forced into these subjective positions are then called convenient, derogatory names -- "queer," "slut," the "N" word -- to reinforce the power structure. In order to regain a sense of control in their subjugated position, the put-upon groups re-claim the meaning of that word for their own purposes. Hence, whole academic conferences on "queer studies," or African-Americans calling each other "N-----," or the embracing of the word "c---" by "Vagina Warriors." The word then loses all strength for those in power -- the word becomes "queered" -- and the people in the subjective position rebel against the power structure.

A strong case could very easily be made, using this "PC," academic argument, that "Fighting Irish" is simply a phrase that has been "queered" by those once subjugated by a majority in just such a relationship of power. The history of anti-Irish sentiment and anti-Catholic feeling in the United States is long and well-established. During the 1920s, especially, anti-Catholic sentiment was such that the exploits of a traveling football team from northern Indiana became a source of pride for Catholics in this country. The originally derogatory term, "Fighting Irish," instead became a sense of pride for that particular subjugated group. We "queered" the phrase, making it a source of strength in a relationship of power.

If the anti-Native-American-name-NCAA types come calling after the "Fighting Irish" name, simply use their own cultural studies argument against them.
I realize this is somewhat of a straw man, since nobody's really calling for ND to change its name. Yet I do think it's instructive as to how names and titles are "reclaimed", and that's certainly what happened with the name "Fighting Irish". For some more on the history of our moniker, take a look here and here.

But back to the current situation. To be clear, there's still some racially-offensive symbology out there in the sporting world, and the protests on the part of Native American groups are often warranted. In other cases, as with the Seminole tribe, everything's been smoothed out, and nobody's got a problem with the mascot. Still others take the light-hearted route, and make a good joke out of the whole situation. For our part, we'll continue to stay out of the argument. We've got bigger fish to fry -- like finding some cornerbacks.

Would that the NCAA crack down on something really the '05 version of The Shirt.