Chief Wahoo, the cartoon figure that has been the logo of the Cleveland Indians for most of their history, is now thought by many to be racist. It’s the Robert E. Lee statue of Major League Baseball. Wahoo has been the object of low-grade, sporadic attacks since the 1970s, and now the opposition to him is a concerted campaign. It’s Sherman’s March to the Sea, as sportswriters amp up their vituperation and the baseball commissioner presses the Cleveland owners to surrender.
The owners are a local family, a couple of generations of Dolans: Larry and his sons Paul and Matt, an Ohio state senator. Paul, the club’s chairman and chief executive officer, has been negotiating with Commissioner Robert Manfred.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the national scene,” Paul told a gathering last week in Fairlawn, Ohio, at a speaking event sponsored by Akron radio station WAKR. “We may live in a little bit of a bubble in terms of how we see Chief Wahoo, and if you didn’t grow up here with it and you don’t have that emotional attachment and you look at it more objectively, you can see [the] reason why some might [be] offended by it. And the commissioner is feeling that pressure.”
Looked at “objectively,” the logo is an arrangement of red, white, and black on a two-dimensional surface. That’s not what offends its critics. They object to what they interpret it to be saying. But it’s in a dialect different from their own, and they don’t know that they don’t know it. Startled by a word that happens to be a homophone of a term of disparagement, they wax indignant.
“I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money,” an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., said in a meeting back in 1999, upsetting a staffer who assumed that “niggardly” was an adjectival form of a racial slur. The staffer filed a complaint. Meanwhile, rumor spread that the mayor’s aide had used the N-word. He resigned and apologized: “I should have thought, this is an arcane word, and everyone may not know it.”
So Dolan on Wahoo: “It’s a misunderstood graphic design,” he said in effect, “a poem in the language of our region’s cultural patrimony. Not everyone is fluent in it. Instead of asking others to immerse themselves in the idiosyncrasies of our native tongue, or at least to reserve judgment because they don’t comprehend it, let’s tear this poem, Chief Wahoo, from the pages of our civic anthology, out of respect for their illiteracy.”
Win the culture war and you write not only the history but the dictionary, as it were: You define the meaning of symbols, such as Wahoo. How it works: People go with the flow. They side with the winner, the majority. They join the consensus. They look around, notice what others like, and begin to like it themselves. Not in every case, but often. The literary critic and philosopher René Girard called this “mimetic desire.” The converse is also true, and we’ve all observed it. You can see it especially in younger people — I see it in the younger me, as I look back — when they try a little too hard to prove their contempt for a band or a book or, say, a team logo that all the best people in their circle say is terrible.
“It’s the principle of advertising,” says Molloy. He means repetition, the drip drip drip to which our thoughts are eventually synced and our head reflexively nods. “Blatantly racist,” a writer at ThinkProgress calls the cartoon face I and maybe you see as winsome and sunny, a personification of a game, not a race. “So obviously racist and demeaning,” a sports blogger tells NPR. “So clearly offensive,” states the editorial board of the Plain Dealer. The drumbeat is persistent, emphatic, monotonous, unwavering. It’s hypnotic. “You will succumb,” it says. “Take your time. We can wait.”
Now it’s true that communication works in two directions. When it fails, either the listener misunderstood or the speaker misspoke. The speaker should choose his words carefully, anticipating how his message could be misinterpreted. Advice to my fellow Wahoo defenders: No use in being Humpty Dumpty — “When I choose a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” But the party on the receiving end of the communication has a responsibility not to be stupid. That requires humility, an appreciation that the other person might know what he’s talking about better than you do.
Who will school whom on the meaning of Wahoo is the issue. It’s a power game. Wahoo’s critics plug their ears and run at the mouth, so they haven’t heard the news that 90 percent of American Indians say that Native imagery in sports doesn’t bother them. You’re offended on their behalf? There’s a word for that: paternalism.