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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

The name blame game

April 15, 2001


"The Front Page" was on cable the other day. Even though it was an inferior version, with Cary Grant and a female Hildy Johnson, I savored Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur's 1920s masterpiece.

The fact that it shows journalists in a dim light—as a bunch of card-playing, booze-swilling, cynical bastards chuckling to themselves as an innocent man heads toward the gallows—did not bother me one bit.

First, we are, or at least were. Second, it's funny. Third, it's a play. It's fiction. It doesn't have to buck me up, personally. I can enjoy it anyway. That's called being an adult. (I like "The Merchant of Venice" too, even though Shylock is not exactly a JUF poster boy.)

This view, sadly, is not shared by everyone. We are afflicted by an endless series of dreary debates by every fringe group that feels, by merit of their ethnicity, that they somehow have a right to try to seize the reins of the creative world and drive it off into their own self-congratulatory direction.

Just this week, a group of Italian Americans—not a nationality generally known for touchiness—sued "The Sopranos" TV show, claiming it damages their reputation (how fragile must your self-image be if it is threatened by a TV show?) And every day, it seems, a knot of Native Americans somewhere, or just a bunch of education-addled kids, takes exception with Chief Illiniwek, the bland mascot of University of Illinois sporting events.

It's a game anyone can play. Friday a federal civil rights panel called for an end to Indian team names and mascots at non-Indian schools, colleges and universities.

It is, of course, a free country, so far, despite their efforts, and people can complain about and protest over whatever they like. But other opinions may also be aired, and the time has come to note that being offended has become overdone. We who are not touchy zealots must not sit by while our cultural pleasures are hacked away.

The problem with judging entertainment solely on its ability to irk someone somewhere is that there is always a someone, somewhere offended by almost everything. Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana peel might be laughed at by 999 people. But that 1000th guy, poor fellow, who slipped on a banana peel himself and broke his neck, may not find it funny. In olden times, he might have kept it to himself. But in our raging culture of complaint, no displeasure goes unvoiced, and we as a society have to decide how much we're willing to let the disgruntled few decide what is enjoyed by the oblivious many.

Not much, I'd say, because once you give into one, it's a steady slide toward blandness. Let's assume the Italian Americans suing "The Sopranos," through some inconceivable fluke, succeed in their quixotic quest. ("Dear Mr. Steinberg. I am a Spanish American, and deeply resent your dismissive reference to our national hero, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha....") Why shouldn't fat people, themselves well-organized into feel-good societies, restrain themselves in going after "The Drew Carey Show" for the maligned Mimi, or Turks picket Blockbuster video stores renting "Midnight Express"?

The result would be entertainment scrubbed clean of qualities: generic people standing around, saying nothing, doing nothing.

Those complaining would like us to focus on the merits of the art they say offends them, specifically. But we have the right to step back and ask whether we want to hand the remote control, or the keys to the theater, or the mascot makeup box, to a bunch of whiners and fusspots. I myself can't conceive of a production so foul that I would want it banned—OK maybe "The Little Mermaid"—and have no respect for those whose sole complaint is that the characters sharing their ethnicity don't match the lofty, pristine view they have of themselves.

Besides, yielding wouldn't help anyway. What if the University of Illinois caves in, as seems to be the fashion, replacing the chief with a Smiley Face or a bulldog or a feather or whatever? Do any of you imagine that the Indian activists stirring this pot will find satisfaction, and go on to productive pursuits, and stop bothering people? Doubtful. Just as the curing of polio did not end the March of Dimes, but merely inspired it to leap from one infirmity to another (birth defects carefully chosen, no doubt, so as not to be solved anytime soon), so we can expect Native-American activists, having finally dispatched the chief, will to turn their attentions to other Indian icons in the culture.

Not that we need them for this. The activist way of thinking is so depressingly familiar that we the non-offended can easily apply it to any icon, no matter how benign. Once the chief goes, here are what I imagine will be the next symbols of hatred to fall under tedious attack:

Land O Lakes maiden: Kneeling, subservient, butter-offering "squaw" is patently offensive to the historically aware, and denies the heritage of active Native-American womanhood. When the well-known schoolboy prank is factored in (cut out the maiden's knees and slide them to cover the butter box in her hands) this obvious symbol of sexist hate can't be expected to last long into the 21st century. Expect feminists to pile in as pressure builds. Possible replacements: milk bucket, butterfly, Lakey the Llama.

Toy Indian figures: Stereotype of "savage" Indians in fighting poses is one of the most egregious throwbacks to racist past. Toy stores, having already buckled under to anti-gun hysterics (mostly non-parents and those too unobservant to notice that boys turn any object longer than it is wide into a toy gun) will probably be quick to yank these hateful homunculi from the shelves. Possible replacements: generic Old West "bad guy" figurines; Indians engaged in peaceful activities such as grinding maize.

Indiana: The butt of constant David Letterman jokes, famed for mediocrities such as Dan Quayle—what is Indiana other than an excuse to slander the proud Native-American heritage by affixing the "Indian" slur/name to a bland state where not too many Indians lived in the first place? Possible replacements: Just-ana, East Illinois.

Buffalo nickel: Only white America could be perverse enough to put an authentic portrait of a native American on one side of a coin, a buffalo on the other, then name it for the animal. Possible replacements: While the nickels, as historic coinage, cannot be eliminated, they can be renamed—as the Native-American Elder Weeping that White People Ever Set Foot Here nickel.

The central mistake that activists make is the belief that the vacuum created by eliminating flawed depictions would be filled with genuine ones. Should Chief Illiniwek go, fans wouldn't rush home from football games and watch "Dances With Wolves" as compensation. They'll just forget. The last irony is, should all these symbols be wiped away, the activists would take one look at the new landscape, barren of a single feather or dab of warpaint, no matter how fake, and immediately start lobbying to bring them all back. Better to be remembered in caricature than forgotten altogether.

Response to Steinberg column

Date: Mon, 16 Apr 2001 19:34:40 -0500
To: letters@suntimes.com
From: Aaron Bird Bear
Subject: Response to Neil Steinberg's "The name blame game"

To the editorial staff of the Chicago Sun Times,

The United States is founded on the depopulation, the dispossession, and the deconstruction of American Indian societies who are now forced to live in and through the institutions erected by the oppressing regimes.

It is of great concern that you would print the racist and hateful messages included in Neil Steinberg's April 15, 2001, op-ed piece The name blame game. The opinion piece included two incredibly disrespectful remarks: "the Native American Elder Weeping that White People Ever Set Foot Here nickel", and "Better to be remembered in caricature than forgotten altogether." Mr. Steinberg also erroneously stated that "what is Indiana other than an excuse to slander the proud Native-American heritage affixing the "Indian" slur/name to a bland state where not too many Indians lived in the first place." Indiana was home to the Sac and Fox, Potawatomi, Ho Chunk, Huron, Peton, and Miami Nations. Mr. Steinberg aggressively and ignorantly disparages our ancestors' deaths by minimizing their wholesale slaughter. Mr. Steinberg attempts to create an argument where the tens of thousands of Indiana regional Native deaths at the hands of colonists is acceptable. Are we living in Germany during World War II, or is this still twenty-first century America?

The 3,440,700 American Indian peoples of the 446 federally recognized Nations disagree with Mr. Steinberg.

According to the current anthropological debate, approximately seven million people indigenous to the borders of the USA and Canada died in the formation of these two countries. There were approximately 250,000 American Indians alive in the year 1900. Native Americans would like to end the disrespect of our ancestors' struggles for survival. Caricaturing our religious beliefs and culture through mascot and logo use must end if we are to be respected as equals in the playing field of American democracy.

Today the remaining indigenous Nations are reestablishing themselves through education, economic development, and the exploration of what it means to be sovereign Nations. One fundamental campaign is taking back our identity from the hands of an oppressive government and society. The constant objectification and dehumanization American Indians suffer in the hands of the white majority is symptomatic of the white majority's desire to remain in denial about its involvement in genocidal practices. The lack of American Indian history in public school curricula is appalling. The gross ignorance the American majority show in their responses to the American Indian mascot issue is a direct reflection of our educational welfare as a country. The current American history is not including all of the influences that helped shape the democracy we have today. A greater national awareness and a Chicago Sun Times awareness of how great a price Indigenous Nations paid in the formation of the Americas would prevent Mr. Steinberg's insensitive and racist remarks from being published in your paper.


Aaron Bird Bear
American Indian Student Academic Services
414 South Hall
1055 Bascom Mall
University of Wisconsin -- Madison
Madison, WI 53706-1394
(608) 265-3420
(608) 263-7126 fax

Rob's reply
This guy Steinberg is one confused puppy. Because the March of Dimes helped cure polio, it's suspect for going on to help cure other diseases? It chooses obscure birth defects for the express purpose of staying in business? It's rare to hear such asinine claims in a major newspaper.

A few responses beyond those of Aaron Bird Bear:

>> Charlie Chaplin slipping on a banana peel might be laughed at by 999 people. But that 1000th guy, poor fellow, who slipped on a banana peel himself and broke his neck, may not find it funny. <<

Since many if not most American Indians find team names like "Redskins" and mascots like Chief Illiniwek offensive, how is this cute anecdote relevant? We're not talking about a "disgruntled few," we're talking about the maligned many. When surveyed, 46% of the public (not just Indians) found the term "redskins" offensive—a majority if you exclude the "I don't knows." How is 46% a "disgruntled few"?

>> I...have no respect for those whose sole complaint is that the characters sharing their ethnicity don't match the lofty, pristine view they have of themselves. <<

Clearly you don't have any respect for Indian people or culture, silly Steinberg. But your statement contains several errors. One, complaints against mascots and other stereotypes aren't "sole complaints." People who care about this issue generally care about Indian problems and concerns. Two—and you have to be pretty ignorant not to know this—Indians and other minorities don't have a lofty or pristine view of themselves. See any work by Sherman Alexie for Indian characters as flawed as anyone. Three, people other than minorities care about stupid stereotyping and monocultural myopia like yours. Me, for instance.

>> Do any of you imagine that the Indian activists stirring this pot will find satisfaction, and go on to productive pursuits, and stop bothering people? Doubtful. <<

Since Indian activists have successfully challenged many mascots and gone on to other productive pursuits, the answer to this question is anything but doubtful. "Almost certainly" is the truest answer.

Steinberg's silly examples
The Land O'Lakes Indian maiden is stereotypical and will disappear eventually, if she hasn't already. Steinberg would be hard-pressed to find a "savage Indian" doll in a toy shop because other people are more enlightened than he is. His talk about Indiana and the buffalo nickel are flatly ridiculous. If he looked outside his cave, he'd find Indians aren't protesting any state or city name, many of which come from Indian words. They aren't protesting the Sacagawea dollar, the Indian Head penny, or the Red Cloud 10-cent stamp. They aren't calling for abolishing John Wayne movies, Lone Ranger memorabilia, or Neil Young's band Crazy Horse.

>> The central mistake that activists make is the belief that the vacuum created by eliminating flawed depictions would be filled with genuine ones. <<

Actually, a near-vacuum of genuine depictions exists whether we eliminate the flawed depictions or not. Fortunately, people are beginning to fill this void with genuine depictions: Thunderheart, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and (ahem) PEACE PARTY. Since genuine depictions are already appearing, why would the elimination of other depictions slow them down rather than speed them up?

>> Better to be remembered in caricature than forgotten altogether. <<

Debatable, and those aren't the only choices. Better to be treated as a living, evolving culture than to be remembered in caricature or forgotten altogether.

Steinberg's central mistake is making stupid claims he can't even begin to support. Too bad, Mr. Stereotyper. Enjoy the "honor" of being a Stereotype of the Month nominee for the rest of your life.

Note:  Once again, we can't blame an individual for his ignorance. Everybody's ignorant about something. What we can do is blame the Sun-Times for printing his column without careful consideration. Institutional stereotyping is what we're here to confront.


Steinberg tries again
Steinberg wrote a followup to his first column. Here are some excerpts and my responses:

Atoning for America's sins shouldn't be chief concern

>> One problem with being a zealot is that it blinds you to how you are perceived by people who are not zealots. <<

I'm glad Steinberg admitted this about himself. There's hope for him yet. Admitting your problem is the first step toward overcoming it.

>> Does the fact that my forebears just managed to flee to Poland ahead of their own grinding steamroller of history mean that suddenly we killed the Indians and therefore can't like Chief Wahoo? <<

No. You shouldn't like Chief Wahoo because he's a stupid, racist stereotype—regardless of your or his origin.

>> Had this big Indian nation been allowed to exist in the heartland of America, that would have been swell for them, but our nation wouldn't have grown into the power it became. <<

So? Is that a bad thing? Check who's using up the world's resources at an alarming rate before you answer.

Britain, Germany, and Japan are all doing okay even if they're no longer considered superpowers. Even little bitty countries like Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand are doing okay. The idea that "power for its own sake is good" is ridiculous. Steinberg should examine his blatant biases rather than parading them as if they're "right."

>> I don't like to play "what if" with history—it's a meaningless exercise <<

But Steinberg does it anyway, of course.

>> —but you can bet if the Spanish/English nightmare hadn't descended on the Indians 500 years ago, then the Nazi/Japanese nightmare would have 50 years ago or the Chinese/Chinese nightmare next year. History is not often kind to spiritual native peoples whose technology is based on buckskin. <<

Again, an unfounded and unprovable opinion. Read Was Native Defeat Inevitable? for another viewpoint. Fact is, Indians adopted the technology they had access to, just as every other group of people does. Left intact to interact with other cultures peacefully, Indian cultures would've evolved into modern technological societies. Europe's Anglo-Saxon tribes learned from the Romans and Greeks, and America's Indian tribes would've done the same.

Columbus saved world from Hitler?
Without the presence of a strong America, the entire history of the world would've been different. Europe and America might've jointly evolved into veritable utopias. Today, which country is thwarting progress toward a unified world by opposing treaties to eliminate global warming, nuclear testing, chemical warfare, and land mines? That's right, America.

Steinberg's claim that Hitler still would've been born to threaten the world is rank sophistry. Assuming Adolf even existed, a single change in his genetics or environment could've made him another Albert Schweitzer rather than another Genghis Khan. Similarly, people like Napoleon, Marx, Bismarck, Lenin, and Stalin might never have been born.

The same reasoning applies to Japan and its emperor. America's Pacific expansion and Admiral Perry's visit completely altered Japan's historic isolation. If no expansionist America, then no expansionist Japan. This conclusion is arguable, of course, but Steinberg presents his conclusion as if it's a historic certainty. It's anything but.

>> But I'm not really sure what I'm being accused of not respecting. The idea that America should always be viewed as a charnel house because of its crimes against Indians? Guilty. <<

Ask the Bosnians or Iraqis whom we bombed into their graves if America's attitude has changed much in 200 years. Or the Rwandans whose genocide we blithely ignored, just as we blithely ignored all the Indians we gleefully killed via disease.

>> The idea that those crimes give Native Americans now the moral authority to tell everybody else what to do? Again guilty. <<

They certainly have the historic authority to tell us when we're stereotyping them with false images. If you don't appreciate their pointing out your examples of racism, you should change your racist beliefs. It's not their responsibility to give you a free pass because you don't like people recognizing your prejudice. If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Stop writing a public column.

>> And I don't agree that the sports mascots are offensive. Oh, I know the activists are offended, but then that's their bread and butter. <<

Actually, most Native people, not just "activists," are offended. Many non-Indians are offended also. This is a typical example of Steinberg's falsifying the facts. He blames the mascot issue on a "disgruntled few," but actually has no idea how many people are upset. That's why we can identify him as the zealot in the equation.

>> Those Viking dolls are as crude a parody as anything dancing at a football game. The Danes love 'em, because they don't have any Viking Activist Groups talking about respect. Lucky Danes. <<

Yes, because Viking people no longer exist. Indian people still do. This distinction seems to have escaped the overzealous Steinberg.



Addendum (2005)
From the Chicago Tribune:

Columnist charged with abuse
Sun-Times' Steinberg arrested at home

By Jason George
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 2, 2005

Chicago Sun-Times columnist and editorial board member Neil Steinberg could face jail time if he is convicted of domestic battery charges related to an incident involving his wife last week.

Steinberg, 45, of Northbrook was arrested about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday in his home after his wife, Edie, called 911 and reported abuse, said Sgt. Michael Keady of the Northbrook Police Department. Steinberg spent the night in jail and posted bail Thursday.

Edie Steinberg had first tried to call emergency services on another telephone, but Neil Steinberg hit that phone out of her hand, causing minor injuries, Keady said.

She was able to call 911 on another phone, he said.

Steinberg was charged with one count of domestic battery and one count of interfering with the reporting of domestic battery. Both are misdemeanors and carry sentences of up to a year in jail, Keady said.

This was the first case of reported domestic battery at the Steinberg home on the 2000 block of Center Avenue, Keady said.

Edie Steinberg said Saturday that her husband was not at home and that she had no comment on the incident.

Neil Steinberg, who did not return messages left at his home and office, said he was "deeply humiliated" by the episode and will enter alcohol counseling Monday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sun-Times Editor John Barron was quoted as saying, "We hope for the best for Neil and his family."

An editor at the paper said no one at the Sun-Times had any additional comment.

Steinberg, who is the author of five books, has worked at the Sun-Times since 1987, according to a biography that accompanies his syndicated column. He and his wife have been married for 15 years and have two sons.

Related links
Team names and mascots
Fighting Sioux vs. Fighting Irish
"It's just a [fill in the blank]"

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