Magazine August 10, 2020, Issue

What’s in a Nickname?

Redskins branded merchandise in a sports store, Sterling, Va., July 13, 2020 (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Oftentimes, walking my beloved wheaten terrier around my quiet suburban neighborhood, I’m confronted with the steely gaze of a silk-blue Volkswagen Beetle. I hadn’t put much thought into the car’s obnoxious past until I began trying to figure out ways to be offended by history.

It turns out I was in luck. In 1937, Adolf Hitler, an admirer of American mass-production methods, decided that German citizens needed access to affordable cars to make use of the nation’s new highway system. A state-owned company was formed, and by the next year, Hitler was visiting the Fallersleben Volkswagen factory, declaring the new car “a symbol of the National Socialist people’s community.”

It gets worse. When production of the people’s car was temporarily halted in 1939, Volkswagen diverted its manufacturing to the war effort and began using forced labor from concentration camps. Records show that during the war, around 300 Jewish metalworkers were transported from Auschwitz — where Hungarian Jews had been sent in 1944 — to toil in munitions plants. Hungary happens to be the country my grandparents were taken from during the war.

Having personally known some of the victims of Nazi oppression, I suppose I have a pretty solid historical grievance here. I should probably be gathering my fellow Jews and demanding the company change its name.

It’s not just the Volkswagen, mind you. A mere hundred years ago, Henry Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, was spreading the vilest Jew-hatred imaginable. Yet here you are today, driving around in your Fiestas as if nothing had happened.

Though I am deeply serious about history, try as I may, I just can’t seem to generate any genuine indignation. I’m skeptical that you could, either.

Now, if you’re intent on removing a statue of Confederate major general Jefferson C. Butterworth III, that’s one thing. Most Confederate effigies were erected in the 20th century by fans of an ugly historical cause as a statement about an ugly contemporary political cause.

Today’s woke activists, the ones scouring Wikipedia to ferret out historical injustices no one really remembers, on the other hand, are sanctimonious, imperious, undereducated, censorious, and authoritarian. If they succeed, they won’t make life better for anyone, but they’ll end up stripping American culture of its wonderful peculiarity and historical flavor.

They’re winning, sadly. I knew they were winning after they finally browbeat the Washington Redskins — originally, the “Boston Redskins,” named after a head coach who claimed to be part Sioux — into dropping their name. As of this writing, the team hasn’t announced a new one, but I’m confident it will be completely benign and meaningless, something tantamount to the Footballers or Sportsguys.

A 2004 poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that nine in ten Native Americans weren’t offended by the name “Washington Redskins.” In 2016, a Washington Post poll found the exact same result. But if you keep telling people their self-worth is found in victimhood, and outrage is a moral imperative, they might start believing you.

The Cleveland Indians have already dispensed with Chief Wahoo. The Atlanta Braves have stopped promoting the tomahawk chop. The acknowledgment of Native American bravery and fearlessness, once embedded in our sporting ethos, celebrated from elementary school to professional leagues, will soon be gone. It’s a shame.

Demands that once seemed zealous and far-fetched are now gaining traction. Some argue that only the oppressed could possibly understand the pain of these names. Maybe so, but feigned outrage is infectious and irrational.

The greatest team mascot in history — both visually and symbolically — is the Fighting Irish’s bellicose leprechaun. Though the little bearded supernatural being — granted, probably intoxicated — might be spoiling for a fight, no rational person could possibly be offended by him. Yet killjoys up in South Bend are demanding the school drop the name because it is rooted in negative stereotypes of Catholics and immigrants. I don’t venture to speak for the Irish, but if my name were “McHarsanyi” I’d likely have a tattoo of that angry little guy. Because unlike the progeny of Catholic immigrants, who succeeded in creating an institution that requires a 4.06 GPA to attend, leprechauns aren’t real.

It is not in the impoverished Baltimore inner city but in the whitest of white Maryland suburbs that a bunch of historically illiterate students have gathered more than 1,000 signatures to rename Winston Churchill High School because of the man’s alleged “crimes against humanity.” The likelihood that any of them have read a biography of Churchill is zero. At some point, being slighted for others is self-perpetuating and meaningless.

It’s in the college town of Chapel Hill that activists rally for the University of North Carolina to rid its teams of the nickname “Tar Heels.” Apparently it conjures up thoughts of the antebellum South and so is associated with “white supremacy.” When I think of Tar Heels, I think of Michael Jordan and James Worthy. The term comes from the turpentine, tar, and pitch that were produced from local trees, and I assume they existed before and after slavery.

It is not the impoverished descendants of cotton-pickers who pressured high-end grocer Trader Joe’s to start changing the names of their ethnic foods — “Trader José’s” for Mexican, “Trader Ming’s” for Chinese. It takes a special kind of humorless scold to be offended by cartoonish appreciation of foreign cuisine, and yet here we are.

I’m relatively certain that neither Volkswagen executives nor my neighbor, despite the German company’s sketchy beginnings, is intentionally sending me Wagnerian taunts. I’m no more offended by the term “Volk” than you are by “Trader José’s” or fantastical fighting Irish eccentrics or the tomahawk chop. Not really.

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David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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