Two creation myths

Yes, I am aware the NBA playoffs are going on. I root for LeBron (I have my reasons). But whereas I used to actively root against the Spurs, I now really admire them. When they’re on their game, they’re a pleasure to watch. And it’s hard to argue with the organization’s success at identifying and developing talent, Green and Leonard being two great recent examples. The Spurs were supposed to be in decline two years ago. Sign me up for that sort of decline.

There is still some tendency to mis-specify what makes them so good. For example, a lot of commentators and game stories noted, after Saturday night series-clinching victory, that the Spurs managed to win despite losing their “best player” – Tony Parker – to injury after half time.

Um, no.

I will still be rooting for LeBron in the finals. If the Spurs win, though, it will be a well-deserved crowning jewel in a fantastic run.

OK, two creation myths:

1) A key pillar of Washington’s team name has been that it was meant to honor a Native American coach – William “Lone Star” Dietz and several players when the team, formerly the Boston Braves, changed its nickname in 1933. As reported last week by Robert McCartney in the Washington Post, based on research done by attorney Jesse Witten, a newly surfaced interview from that year appears to debunk that creation story. In it long-time Washington owner George Preston Marshall says, quite simply, that the team’s name was *not* attributable to the coach and players. Marshall told the AP that he did so because it was confusing to share a name with the baseball team but that he wanted to retain the imagery associated with it.

The new information arises in the context of another trademark lawsuit against Washington being brought by Witten. The United States patent office now regards the word “Redskins” as a slur and US patent law precludes trademark protection under those circumstances.

McCartney writes that the term was not regarded as such before 1990, which adds some complexity to Witten’s suit, since it targets the period 1967 to 1990. The larger debate abotu the team’s name, though, is a reminder that language is a living, breathing thing. Meanings change, shaped by history and context. Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell care about maintaining the name for business reasons. They know, however, that they are on increasingly shaky ground – 50 Democratic Senators signed a letter two weeks ago calling on the team to drop the nickname – which is why appeals to history and to honoring Native Americans themselves have become so important to the team’s PR strategy.

Even if that origin story were valid, it would still be time to come up with a new name. That it isn’t is just one more reminder that the franchise and the league are doing little more than trying to sell us something.

2) Randall Balmer had a fascinating piece in Politico this weekend on the creation myth of the Christian Right. As Ballmer argues, it has long been accepted conventional wisdom that what brought protestant evangelicals off the sidelines and into the fray of American politics in the 1970s was Roe v. Wade. Ballmer shows, in fact, that prominent evangelical and other conservative Christian leaders were quite ambivalent about Roe when it was decided in 1973. Instead, what really got their goat and led to massive political mobilization was a decision by the Nixon administration and a related court ruling to revoke the tax-exempt status of whites-only Christian academies – sometimes referred to as “segregation academies –  which had sprouted up throughout the South following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Two of the pioneering giants of the religious right were Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich. Ballmer explains that they were savvy enough to understand that they could not, in the 1970s, readily mobilize a mass movement in support of segregated schools. Instead, therefore, they began to focus on existing dis-ease with Roe v. Wade, all under the banner of religious freedom and defense of Christian values. These appeals were crucial to turning evangelical Christians against the evangelical President, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. But Ballmer makes clear,  “[a]lthough abortion had emerged as a rallying cry by 1980, the real roots of the religious right lie not in the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation.”

Let me be clear that it absolutely does not follow that current adherents of the Christian Right are motivated politically by racial animus. Some are, but many are not. Likewise, I do not have any reason to believe that Roger Goodell and Dan Snyder’s defense of Washington’s nickname  are so motivated (Marshall’s own racist history is, of course, well-documented).

But when myth-making is deployed to sanitize an ugly history, it matters to call that out.


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