Sunday, October 30, 2016

Billy Rubin Storage Vault: 1995 Edition, Cleveland Indians Chief Wahoo Special

Long before blogging came along, I was busy tilting at windmills by shooting off essays to various periodicals, if I can mix my metaphors there. Either way, they never got published, but I did get a certain satisfaction in trying to craft an argument carefully, which is pretty much what I use this blog for.

My proto-blogging has been on my mind of late as I watch the Cleveland Indians on the cusp of finally winning a World Series. Apologies, Cubs fans, I know you've waited longer. I became an Indians fan as a kid growing up in Ohio in the 70s, when they were a perennially terrible team in the midst of a three-decade slump (affectionately known by fans wanting to imitate a Red Sox tradition by referring to it as the "Curse of Rocky Colavito" even though such a wildly overblown comparison to Babe Ruth's departure from Boston only underscored the hopelessness of being an Indians fan in those days). Anyway, they got better--a lot better--in the mid-1990s, and finally got a crack at winning a World Series, but lost to a great Braves team in 1995. (They lost again, to the Marlins, in 1997, but that tragedy is a story for another day.)

The following is a letter I sent to the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that year, taking a look at the team name and its logo. Given the current political climate, it seemed appropriate to dust off a piece I wrote half a lifetime ago, and as I look at it for the first time in decades, I think that young Billy and old Billy aren't so different, as it is largely the same argument I would make today. Thus, I give you thoughts on racism and Chief Wahoo. I made only one small edit; my language was a little more charged back in the day and I've elided some racial examples that strike me now as in very poor taste. Otherwise, it's a voice from the past.

One small point of explanation: the greed of the players and owners mentioned below is in reference to the baseball strike of 1994 and 1995, which led for the first cancellation of a World Series since 1904 and significantly depressed fan interest when the playing resumed.

Cleveland Plain Dealer
July 10, 1995

To the Editor,
As I near the end of my 25th year of life here in Boston, I find that I may have, perhaps, a surprising birthday present in store for me on September 10. My Cleveland Indians, whom I followed religiously throughout my youth in Mansfield, Ohio (and in my college years and beyond here in Boston), are currently not only in first place in their division, are not only first in the American League, but are the best team in baseball by five or so games. It seems plausible, from the vantage of the all-star break, that by the time I turn 26 they will be well on their way to their first pennant in a very long time. I’m told it last happened somewhere in the mid-fifties, but I’ve never been too concerned about the specific year, since the general drift for me as a fan is that they’ve never come close in my lifetime. Unless they choke only in as grand a manner as the baseball team that plays where I now reside, the Indians are assured of the playoffs, and are the favorite to take the Series.
The success of the Tribe this particular year is at once unfortunate and appropriate. Major League Baseball has insisted on demonstrating what fans have been trying heroically to ignore over the past ten years: that the players and owners alike are selfish, venal, and shortsighted. Finally, the fans, having gotten the message, have given up on the game. Overall attendance is down 20 percent, and except for the first-place teams, the fans do not appear to be returning anytime soon. How apropos that Cleveland, whose burning river became a symbol for the myopic greed of Big Industry and earned it a reputation as the national laughingstock, is in this year baseball’s glory team.
The metaphor of Cleveland’s success (an ugly city winning in an ugly year) brings to my mind, as a lifelong fan of the Indians, another, less talked about wart on the face of the team. Literally on the face—for the face is the embarrassment itself. Cleveland’s team name, obviously, symbolizes the Native American tribes from the Cuyahoga area. The icon of the team, Chief Wahoo, is a grinning, wide-eyed character with a lone feather poking up from behind his head. Apparently the team name of “Indians,” along with Chief Wahoo, instill in the fan a feeling that the actual players possess heroic qualities of the Natives: savage, fierce, uncompromising.
Although the sports media has never been known for its sophistication or talent in thinking in the abstract, one would figure that a serious debate about the potential offensiveness of Chief Wahoo could be had. After all, sports commentators—at least the ones that I have read over the past few years here in Boston and in Cleveland—simply love the concept of the symbol, understand its power, and use it all too often in their articles. Anyone who plunks down $150 for a pair of Nike shoes is willing to pay that price in part because of the outline of a certain basketball player’s body that appears on the shoe. That player and his awesome abilities symbolize excellence, beauty, and the illusion of flight—a seductive symbol, and the NBA (and a host of other businesses) nets hundreds of millions of dollars on it. But Air Jordan is the exception (the man symbolizing his own mythical status); team mascots serve just as much a purpose.
The suggestion that Cleveland’s mascot might be regarded as racist, however, has never been taken seriously, at least in the Cleveland media (and I have seen no other media market even mention it—except in Atlanta, whose Braves made the pennant race in recent years, drawing attention to a similar protest). I remember while I lived in northern Ohio during the past two years, watching the eleven o’clock news on Opening Day, where there would be a story on the small group of protesters who each year ask the fans to boycott games so that the team symbol can be changed. I also remember the anchor snorting derisively about the trivial nature of the protest. “Why don’t they do something better with their time?” would be the quip, and then the news would continue with the homicides of the day.
The challenge the protesters issued, apparently, seemed as esoteric as left-wing academic parlor talk. I find that a simple name change, however, highlights the simplicity and beauty of the protesters’ contention. We would blanch, for instance, were the front office to decide to start calling the team the Cleveland Dagos or the Cleveland Wops in honor of its Eastern European immigrants. Immediately our ears would send a message to our brains to go on high alert, not because these names are any worse in nature than a Native American slur, but instead because we are tuned into that brand of racism. Why then do we ignore this slight on Native American culture?
One simple reason is that there aren’t many Native Americans left to raise much of a fuss, and the vast majority of citizens do not have to face an insulted Native in their day-to-day lives. The reason why this has happened is because of the dirty little American secret of genocide. Perhaps, just perhaps, what is unnerving about the debate over Chief Wahoo is that we must be put face-to-face with an ugly history for which our generation is not responsible (though we reap the benefits of our forebears’ actions) and cannot possibly rectify. Perhaps we like to think of “Indians” as that mythical animal, described with the above cardboard cutout adjectives, who roamed the American wilderness and then somehow mysteriously disappeared, instead of realizing that they were simply a group of nations—more than one—that got crushed under a society hell bent on conquering the land on which we live today, and committed to systematically marginalizing (i.e., killing) anyone who opposed that goal.
All of this debate has nothing, so far as I can discern, with my being a fan. Nor does this have anything to do with Eddie Murray’s 3,000th hit, and hopefully his eventual 500th home run, or the pennant that is within their reach. The debate has to do with understanding that symbols sometimes do represent things, and that they can be used to perpetuate stereotypes that are inaccurate and harmful. Surely we as a citizenry must take the protesters and their argument seriously. In a year when baseball’s ugliness is in the fan’s full view, the Indians have it in their power to right a wrong, if only as a symbolic gesture, in the brightest moment of their organization and at the height of the city’s pride in them.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The non-republicanism of Trump vs. the republicanism of Clinton, and Why That Should Matter to Republicans (and Democrats)

If one wanted to be appalled by Donald Trump's performance in the first (perhaps only) presidential debate, one would have had a virtual cornucopia of comments or mannerisms, each one a subtly different flavor from the next in terms of belligerence, complete lack of knowledge or understanding of public affairs, and just general indecency. But as is often the case with placing Trump in perspective, the truly meaningful moments--where the menace he represents to American democracy in a way heretofore never seen is laid bare--can get lost in the dust cloud of nattering about whether "stop & frisk" was unconstitutional, or whether he really did say that China invented the concept of global warning (he did), or why he hates Rosie O'Donnell so, or who on earth Sydney Blumenthal might be, and so forth. All that noise, in which people who sympathize with either Republican or Democratic views can disagree or at least emphasize different ways of looking at a contentious topic, can obscure the statements that should, to any sane individual, show that this is not a Republican running for president, but a man who has no apparent regard for the democratic process at all.

For Trump may be running as a Republican candidate, but there is no republicanism--small "r"--in his governing philosophy whatsoever. For over a year, his overt bullying indicated to tens of millions of Americans that this was probably true, but last night, in front of more than 80 million people, he stated in no uncertain terms what he really thinks about the purpose of the US government, and especially the US military: they're a moneymaking machine. Trump said that "we defend countries. They do not pay us what they should be paying us." There's very little need to reach for elaborate explanations to grasp the unsubtle nature of his view that the purpose of the US military should be an elaborate protection racket, in the words of the National Review (!). One pictures Trump envisioning small NATO countries the same way a mafioso might wander through a neighborhood of weak individuals, taking a casual stroll through, say, Estonia, as he drops a little hint to its leader, "Nice houses you got here. Pity if something bad should happen to them."

And what might have gotten missed in the literal he-said-she-said was that Hillary Clinton's reply was not the articulation of the philosophy of the Democratic party. Instead, it was the articulation of the philosophy of the United States of America--one shared, in almost absolute unanimity, by every member of both political parties, and is a philosophy that dates back to when Donald Trump was in swaddling clothes. The level of contempt that he has shown not simply for Hillary Clinton, or the Democratic party, or Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, or a former Miss Universe, or nearly anyone who speaks Spanish, or any number of people on a seemingly endless list--not these individuals, but the level of contempt for America as a democracy was undeniable in his NATO remarks, and this was not a spontaneous riff, for he has articulated this view before. It wasn't a mistake; it's the centerpiece of how he thinks.

I am aware of the difficulties that Trump's candidacy has created for lifelong Republicans who do believe in basic ideals of democracy and republicanism as part of the American project. But from where I stand, after today, now that he has gone before tens of millions of people and explained in clear terms what he really thinks about the meaning of US military force around the world, only someone who has taken complete leave of their senses could defend this man as being the standard bearer for what previously constituted Republican party philosophy. This undoubtedly leaves many Republicans having to deal with the unpleasant question of what, in fact, does currently constitute Republican party philosophy, since a clear majority of Republican primary voters prefer Trump to what has been peddled before. But either way, I think such voters will have to make the decision as to whether they are willing to throw their lot in with a man who thinks that, with respect to our military commitments, extremism in the defense of wealth is no vice.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Today in Zika Hyperbole

In the aftermath of one of the more appalling weeks in our nation's history, Slate's lead headlines for July 9, 2016 include a news item about Zika to provide a further dollop of anxiety and dread. The headline notes that someone has actually died of Zika--right here, in the United States!--and then asks the question: now should we panic?

The answer is "no," but what's amazing about this is that the article itself makes clear the degree to which the headline is overblown. "The individual was elderly and 'had an underlying health condition,'" author Matt Miller notes in quoting a press release from the Utah Department of Public Health. Citing WHO statistics, Miller later reveals that the total number of Zika infections in 2015 was estimated to be between 400,000 and 1.3 million people, of which three can be supposed to have died from the virus (and five infants born with microcephaly--yes, that number is five, not five million, or even five thousand). "Zika is still a situation that warrants better public health communication, more extensive research, and certainly more funding. But this death is no reason to panic," the article concludes.

If that is so, then why run the article at all, unless the headline was to suggest precisely the opposite of what it did say?


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Politics & Consistency: Presidential Primary Edition

I'm okay in general with people who feel the Bern. There's a lot of his critique that resonates with me, especially his sense of outrage about the injustice of a wildly inequitable system. But without getting too far into a debate about whether or candidate Bernie Sanders and his policy prescriptions are superior to that of Hillary Clinton--this post is not about advocating for one or the other--it is worth looking at one argument the Sanders' supporters consistently cite as evidence of the Fix that the Democratic Party and its mainstream media enablers have for Bernie and the Revolution: the undemocratic nature of the superdelegates.

As of March 29 following this weekend's contests, the current "pledged" delegate count stands at Clinton's 1243 to Sanders's 945 according to both RealClearPolitics and Bloomberg. The total number needed for the nomination is 2,382 delegates. So you say, aha! It's close! But then there are the superdelegates--effectively freelancers who are Party apparatchiks and, although still part of specific state delegations, can pledge themselves to whomever they see fit. Clinton is, at present, thumping the Vermont Senator in this category, 469 to 29. That means that Clinton has a sizeable advantage heading into the homestretch for the nomination.

Foul! Cry the Sanders people. This isn't democracy! This is a sham! 

Maybe yes, maybe no. I'm not sure how I come down on the question of superdelegates, and so this post isn't trying to defend that. What this post is trying to do, however, is point out that if you think democracy involves opening the doors to as many voters as possible, you can't trumpet big delegate pickups as evidence of the Will of the Voters if the process by which those delegates were earned is equally undemocratic. You can't have it both ways.

Sanders won the Alaska, Hawaii, and most importantly the Washington State caucuses this weekend. He won big, and that led to a haul of delegates, closing the gap by about 70. He crushed Clinton in Washington 73 to 27 percent. That's about as lopsided a win as you're going to get this cycle. And Sanders supporters have been reminding everyone of this huge win, saying it's every bit as important as all those Southern states that Clinton racked up, even though (the argument goes) the media plays up every Clinton victory, and downplays every Sanders victory.

But here's the thing: Clinton's southern victories really were bigger. Take a look at North Carolina: Clinton got about 55 percent of the vote to Sanders's 45. Less impressive than the Washington rout, right? Depends on how you count these things. In NC, 616,000 voted for Clinton to 460,000 for Sanders. In Washington, 19,159 caucused for Sanders, while 7,140 did so for Clinton.

Basically, Sanders has done exceptionally well in states that choose their delegates by holding caucuses--where the diehards have disproportionate impact on a contest. With the exception of Iowa, Nevada, and the American Samoa, Sanders has won every single caucus event (and Iowa was very close). By contrast, he has won the primaries in his own home state of VT and its neighbor in NH, the "Democrats Abroad" caucus, and the one big surprise, the close win in Michigan. But if you look at the total number of people who have actually cast their votes for the two, Clinton's lead is, as the Senator would say, yuge.

Effectively, caucuses are contests by which someone like Sanders with his dedicated following can win his own version of superdelegates. We can never know what would have happened in an open Washington primary, but I can only appeal to reason by saying that, even if Sanders had won the state, there was no way he would have won 73 to 27.

Just to be clear again: I am not saying that it's not fair that Sanders picked up his delegates that way. I don't have much of a dog in the fight for the Dem nomination one way or the other. But what I find off-putting about the righteous screeds that the Sanders supporters is their deep belief that everyone has stacked the cards against them...unless the cards happen to fall in their favor. If you say that superdelegates are undemocratic, well, then you're committed to saying that caucuses are as well.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Getting Back Into the Groove

It's been awhile since I've been in blogging mode owing to the completion of one manuscript and the simultaneous generation of another (stay tuned), to say nothing of fairly heavy clinical duties. I even let Zika pass along without any grumpy commentary, which is a shame, all things considered. And even though we are on the eve of Super Tuesday, which includes a primary in MA, I'm just going to throw out this little link to the Atlantic as a way to ease back in to the blog.

Who knows what kind of time I'll have in the months to come, but will try to squeeze something in.