The Problem of School Mascots

Local Sports Talk Radio, as I have argued elsewhere, is the application of a handful of social sciences and economics, and a good sports talk radio show host, like Mike Schopp of WGR in Buffalo, (@shopptalk, who, by the way, is a scotch whisky connoisseur like yours truly), must fearlessly engage at all levels with some deftness, else his ratings plummet.

School mascots, particularly those of American Indian progeniture, are a source of anxiety, both for those who are offended by them and for those who have some emotional investment in preserving them. Today, June 3, 2015, Schopp made one of the most cogent arguments I have ever heard against maintaining these racist or near-racist mascots which hearken to a time of a peculiar American injustice.

For the record, I grew up a Washington Redskins football fan; in addition, my personal ancestry includes a fair measure of American Indian. It’s very difficult, on the one hand, to argue that the word “Redskins” is not at least vaguely racist and does not include some pretty hefty racist baggage in its etymology. On the other hand, the Washington Redskins is an NFL football franchise, not a 19th Century Army Cavalry unit scouring the western deserts for Apaches to kill. And it’s a bit of my childhood, right? We used to tease my dad that, when he spent time in the sun, his skin turned the color of the Washington Redskins mascot, and the franchise was championship-caliber at the time.

Washington-Redskins-Logo

The problem is fundamentalism. On the one side, it is essential to scour from view anything that bears a connection to a vile past. For example, if any person derives pleasure in such an image or name, then that person is participating as a belligerent in those past vile acts. On the other side, it is essential to maintain at all costs those mascots because they are ritualistic and deeply personal, occupying the same emotional space an animistic religion might. Taking those images and names away is literally removing a sacred totem.

These things really are contextual. As Mike Schopp remarked, “I am not emotionally attached to the mascot. I’m not making an argument that you should be like me; I’m just telling you how I am about it. I couldn’t care less if they changed my high school’s mascot to The Nachos or whatever. In fact, wouldn’t that be a great gimmick? ‘We’re The Nachos, and we give away free nachos at our football games.'”

Local sports talk radio was considering the topic because a local high school, Lancaster High, has recently changed its mascot, by vote of the student body, from the Redskins to the Legends. The vote to do so was an overwhelming majority.

I think this is brilliant. This non-argument argument gets right to the core: why are you emotionally involved in a mascot? Is it because you can’t be made by those liberal anti-culturalists to give away your childhood? Or your childishness? Yes? No? Maybe? Is it because you can’t stand those dunderheads who won’t see how offensive they are to people who aren’t a member of the oppressive American middle class?

All right, then. Why don’t we vote on it? In fact, at the high school level, or even the college level, why don’t we vote on the school mascot every eight years? That way, two full classes can come and go, enjoying the important cultural unifying effect of being a Warrior or a Bullet or a Bear or what-have-you, and then, the new kids can reconsider. While they’re reconsidering, we can talk to each other sweetly about what we want our mascot to be and why we want it to be that one and not another one.

Let’s take, for example, the Washington Wizards. In the unlikely event that the KKK becomes ascendant in the Midwest, perhaps Wizards becomes a terribly evocative mascot. Is it time to change? Well, here your arguments for and against would be helpful, and the local sports talk radio ratings would be sky high.

Let’s take an example concerning aesthetics: most collective singular mascots, like the Heat, are horrible. But some, like the Crimson Tide, are heavenly. Fierce, silly, whimsical, retrospective, reactive: the tug-of-war among the various factions of fans would create quite the marketing bonanza!

More importantly, I think a regular reconsideration of school mascots would loosen the bonds of fundamentalism. Let’s say that I honestly believe that Redskins doesn’t really harm anyone, but you do. Your job becomes one of persuading me. We take a vote. I win. Your job still remains that of persuasion, because you know another vote is coming.

On the other hand, after some time, perhaps you come to think that maybe, just maybe, you’re expending gigawatts of energy on something that might be a burnt-out 60-watt lightbulb, and you just let it go. Who knows?

Looking For the Ground

I wanted to learn how to play Beethoven on the piano, so I hired a music teacher to teach me how to play Beethoven’s piano music. I already had rudimentary piano-playing skills, so, to me, it was all a matter of bringing my piano-playing up to snuff, as they say, developing my chops to really lay the hammer down on those sweet, sweet, piano strings.

“In order to play Beethoven,” she said at our first meeting, “You have to learn how to play Mozart. And in order to play Mozart, you have to play Bach.”

I indicated that I didn’t understand.

“The music of Beethoven is a way-stop in the natural flow of the progression of music theory and practice.”

I shrugged my shoulders, hoping that I could master Bach and Mozart in a hurry so that I could get on with the real exploration of Beethoven. But then it struck me to ask, “Did Bach invent music? Or what?”

“Well,” she said, “he didn’t so much invent music as compile everything Medieval, giving it its recognizable shape, which came forward into Beethoven, which then produced Wagner (but we don’t like to talk about that).”

She handed me a lute. “What the hell is this?!?” I exclaimed.

“Look,” she said. “If you want to learn how to play Beethoven on the piano, you’ve got to start with Bach on the lute. From there you have to learn to play the harp, then the harpsichord, and after that, you can finally take a seat at my luxurious Steinway concert grand piano.”

“Now look here,” I started to say, but she handed me a history book, so I said, “What’s this?”

“A history of the Napoleonic Wars,” she said. “This is the context in which Beethoven wrote his music.” And then she exclaimed, “Oh!”

“What?” I said.

“Do you have a prior knowledge of the effect of secular humanism on the works of J.S. Bach?”

“Well, I’m pretty well-versed in that history, yes.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “You won’t have to read all those books while you’re learning to play the lute. On the other hand, the histories are not entirely in agreement with each other, and I don’t know if you’ve subscribed to the correct reading of the effects of 13th Century Italian Humanism on the arts and culture of 17th Century Leipsig.”

“I spell it Leipzig.”

“Oh, dear.”

It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to learn to play Beethoven’s piano music with this teacher, not anytime in my lifetime, so I fired her, which made me feel bad because it was my mom, and she needed the money, which was the immediate cause of her homelessness, along with all those of hers.

I hired another teacher, describing to her my intentions. She set about her work immediately, devising exercises so that my fingers would strengthen in the manner needed in order to play Beethoven’s music. Indeed, I even read a book about the production of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “The Heroic,” and its dedication to Napoleon, which deepened my appreciation for the piece, but didn’t do much more than season the emotive value that piece of music has on me and my family.

Speaking of which, I was so impressed with the exercises my piano teacher devised that I was struck with love. I asked her to marry me, and we have made lots of babies together. I play Für Elise for her whenever the mood strikes me, even though her name isn’t Elise, and no one knows who the original Elise is, if such a person ever existed.

The Way Things Are

Ah! The objectivists’ wet dream: to know what is. If we know what is, then we also know the way things ought to be. Bringing society into compliance is a mere task of rhetoric and control. Elaborate scaffolding is erected to construct the ideal society, at least on paper, and either on paper, on the blackboard, on twitter, or in real life, the scaffold and the idol come tumbling down. This is true.

In a recent fit of fundamentalism, I posited the way things ought to be:

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

Adam Gurri correctly pointed out the way things are:

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

[emphasis added]

Well, now. Shaking my fist at modernity, am I? Like a crotchety old man, indeed, I concede that I do, and it is insufficient. Adam will not allow for insufficiency, so he offers a succinct point for debate, which I propose as: “We have reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal.” There, I think, is the no man’s land of the way things are (to stretch the metaphor), where the boundaries are in constant flux, to the extent that anyone who desires to dwell there will become inimical to all who do not; nevertheless, it is contested land for some who desire to dwell in peace and safety, secured by cheerful submission of taxes to the current overlords who themselves expended perfectly good blood to acquire no man’s land.

Now that I’ve stretched that metaphor too far, another metaphor will suffice to develop my argument. A priceless marble statue of a human figure is adorned with a waxen nose. It is, thus, malleable to the whim of each succeeding generation, especially those elements of the generation which possesses the marble statue. Therefore, the nose can be made into any shape whatsoever. Even so, consumers of the marble statue will object if the waxen nose is no longer nose-shaped. In other words, we may not know the way things ought to be to the extent that we can ever build the perfect society, i.e., no objective reality is sucking us to the light of final and pure societal enlightenment, but we can object when structures have become so misshapen as to not resemble practicability.

This is called Wisdom. Not phronesis, which is good judgment driven by arete and virtue and euvoluntary exchange, et. al., but Wisdom, the extrapolation from observation of the universe of certain sculptured marble tenets which have, so far, transcended cultural boundaries and technological advances through the ages. Wisdom does not guarantee anything, especially the “shape of the nose,” but it does make a claim to intuitive and time-tested deductive practicability. A defense of Wisdom as such can be summarized like this: there are some universals which, when ignored, emerge. It is the negative to societal evolution. Thus, “A wise man does this and lives; a fool does this other thing and dies.”

Societal evolution, on the other hand, is susceptible to something called philosophy, which says, “the love of wisdom,” but isn’t; it is the love of reasoning. Much of philosophy is produced in that crucible of bad-faith one-upmanship which might yield refined theory for practical application within cultural boundaries and technological advances in a given epoch. Usually it yields insufferable personalities and unreadable tomes, a handful of which survive long enough to be studied in graduate school, as Heraclitus says, “They would not know the name of justice if it were not for these things” (Fragment LX), and also, “Every animal is driven by blows” (Fragment LV).

Wisdom observes the condition under which we become animals. Taking Adam Gurri’s point for debate, for example, the changeable condition which becomes intolerable in the ebb and flow of life, regardless of culture or technology, is affluence. Affluence is the given which is currently true, and as it stands now, it is most certainly the way things are. Affluence, unfortunately, is not immutable, which evokes some universals being ignored, to wit: affluence cannot replace certain kinds of relationships, blood and contractual (marriage). Moreover, affluence is the lynchpin which sustains the naked triangle, to wit: the state forcibly, inefficiently and haphazardly, removes affluence from those who have acquired it and gives it to someone who has not acquired it. Morals and ethics? Whatever.

The result is a stasis which is unwise, not founded on the way things ought to be. The Wise are captured by a conundrum requiring a great deal of Wisdom to navigate. The thing about Wisdom and those who seek to employ it is that it is personal, not, as philosophy must be, dispassionate. Somewhere along the line, the Wise enter no man’s land to be killed because entering no man’s land is the compassionate thing to do. In other words, Wisdom acknowledges that the thing is out of balance: affluence will wither away, dissolving this triangle, sounding the trumpet call to restore blood and contractual interpersonal relationships as the building blocks of a society which produces the most individual arete. In the meantime, the Wise accept the way things are, be they ever so impermanent. Furthering the example of the naked triangle: affluence has created a penalty-free interpersonal and soul-sucking void where there should be layer upon layer of relationships. Perhaps the Wise acquiesce to the reality of the thing; perhaps not, preferring instead to clothe the naked triangle, as it were, with policies which might encourage the reestablishing of the blood and contractual interpersonal relationships.

In the former case, the Wise shrug their shoulders, turn their pockets inside out, and bid a hearty Godspeed to the money in the hope that it will, indeed, mitigate suffering. In the latter case, the Wise run for public office or commence the re-creation of those lost institutions using privately and additionally acquired money in some hope that this artificial edifice will endure at least for a little while to the benefit of the needy. Both will probably hasten the painful end of the naked triangle. People will experience agony and injustice while the universe corrects the imbalance brought about by the way things are.

The Wise, however, constantly warn that the way things are is quite unstable, that the scaffolding and the structures are always about to come tumbling down, whence reconstruction begins, the great re-testing of the universals which emerge when they are ignored. And so, being Wise, they die as fools to rebirth Wisdom.