Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ours to fiddle with

     The problem with the fixations of obsessives is that they become tedious to the unobsessed. 
     But inside every idiotic flap, there is an interesting cultural discussion, crying to be let out.
     So before we let the Fox News "Santa-is-white" kerfuffle, which I waded into last week, fade into the oblivion it richly deserves, let us pause to consider the whole notion of cultural icons.
    Not just Santa and Jesus — who Fox also whitewashed — but all the rest. From Uncle Sam to Smokey the Bear. Some symbols were once real—Honest Abe Lincoln. Others only notionally — Benny the Bull — while some fall in between.
     Icons do ... what? Entertain us, sell us stuff, comfort us. We rally round them—that's their use in sports—they unite us, represent us, are something we all agree upon. 
     Or did. You're supposed to agree. But in a culture when agreement is in short supply, and disagreement is more the norm, our common symbols become problematic.  
     Some people cling to them. Some attack them. I'm in between. I feel their attraction as strongly as anybody. I hated when the Big Boy chain of hamburger joints squeezed out their iconic Big Boy mascot. What was the point without him? It was just another crappy burger chain then, Denny's without the charm. I was relieved when the Boy returned, so much so that I actually patronized Big Boy restaurants, several times, with my family and friends, before we were forcefully reminded just how lousy the food and the service were.
      I grew up in Cleveland, was a passionate Indians fan in childhood, and a long-distance fan for the rest of my life.  I cried when they won the pennant in 1995. To me, Chief Wahoo, the crude, racist caricature representing the team, is a symbol of great beauty and worth.  In years past, when people argued over it, I would conjure up a similar leering Chief Yahoo face, only with a beard and earlocks and a fur hat. Rabbi Wahoo or, I suppose, Rabbi Vahoo. Say he was the symbol of another team—the Brooklyn Hassids. I would love that. I would have a felt Sluggin' Brooklyn Hassids pennant on my wall, no question asked.
    That was the logic that, in my mind, trumped arguments against him—if you put my people under similar treatment, I would think it was okay. Ergo Chief Wahoo is okay. 
     Yet others conjured up that same theoretical Jewish Wahoo figure in an attempt to prove the opposite. Imagine a team, The New York Jews, they say, assuming the argument was settled, assuming, for us, that we'd hate that, ignorant that, no, of course, many, maybe most, Jews would LOVE that, because it goes against every stereotype of their people.
     Just as individuals are different, groups are different.  Italians cringe at gangster images of themselves, because it feeds into a strong negative stereotypes.  But Jews often celebrate our gangsters, their 1930s boxers, in the guise of history, because it goes contrary to the Jew-as-weakling stereotype. The only thing my father ever told me about his religion growing up was that the rabbi from his synagogue was the guy who walked Lepke Buchalter to the electric chair. 
      Native-Americans have the whole athleticism vibe down already, thank you very much. No need for them to catch a contact high of physical grace off sports teams, like everybody else.
      Just as, not being black, Fox News team of four white analysts might not be the ideal person to judge the value of a black Santa, so here, I'm not the marginalized member of some betrayed and slaughtered Native American tribe. If I were, I could see how these symbols would rankle, to see Chief Wahoo or, worse, the Redskins. Sure, fighting them is symbolic. But what other victory are they going to have at this point?
     For years, Cleveland has been nudging Wahoo into the shadows, and this year he is almost completely gone from their helmets and materials. 
     And I thought ... okay
    Not quite "good." I did, as I said, grow up with him. But I did grow up. And if the Cleveland Indians have decided to dial him back, so be it. We'll love the next mascot too. People in Chicago picketed Marshall Field's after its name was changed to Macy's. As much as I agreed with the idea, they were idiots. To live in this world, and get exercised over that issue, to have Frango mints drive you into the street with a sign. It's almost perverse.
     What they forget, what the anti-change crowd forgets, is the lesson the Fox people are breaking their teeth on. Old symbols go away all the time. We create new old favorites.
     The key question is: who controls these images? Not so much sports mascots, they're exceptions, created and literally owned by specific teams. They change them when it's good business to change them, or cave in to make the hassle stop. But cultural images. Who says what race Santa is? What Jesus looks like? And the obvious answer is, we all do. It is a collective decision, made by millions of tiny choices. That's what makes the Fox complaint, at heart, so cowardly and weak and foolish. They are in a competition, of sorts—what is the image of our cultural icons? They fear they are losing, because the minorities they scorn are both growing in numbers and boldness (though not racing to change Santa. That was just a blog post). Still, rather than play — run "The Miracle on 34th Street"over and over if it's such an urgent issue; they're a goddamn TV network; they could do it—they whine and cry and complain. It isn't the "Happy holidays" crowd that is spoiling Christmas; it's Fox News.
     When I saw Cesar Augusto Martinez's "Mona Lupe," pictured above, at the National Museum of Mexican Art, I was delighted. It's beautiful, and whimsical, and everyone else has had a crack at parodying the Mona Lisa, so why not? I think I like it better than the original. 
     If you have your head on straight, you are not threatened by someone riffing on your cultural icons, a black Jesus, a blues classic being covered by a white singer. Because they're not yours, not really. They're everybody's. That should be clear. But a lot of people don't have their heads on straight, and this kind of thing flushes them out of the woodwork. Probably a good thing -- it reminds us they're there and what they really think, and it probably makes them take a baby step toward understanding the diverse world they actually live in, even if they don't know it.


  1. White boys rockin' the Blues have preserved that most American of music genres. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Joe Bonamassa. Doyle Bramhall II. Eric Clapton (not even originally American, but lives part-time in OH now).

    1. Exactly. Yet some complain it's expropriation. I wanted to cite and example that cut the other way.

  2. And don't forget the Rolling Stones as far as White boys "rocking the blues."

  3. Would love to hear your thoughts on Rahm's emails.

  4. Marvelous column! There's just one thing: where is this "Denny's" that you say has charm? I'll be glad to meet you there so you can point it out.

  5. Neil, like you I grew up in Ohio as a Tribe fan. Like you, I care much less about sports now than I did years ago. I like to consider myself a reasonable liberal, as you are. Still, one of the few items of sports fandom I coveted was a Tribe cap with the Chief cheerfully peering out over the bill. Which I procured in the 90s. Do you have one of those? I ask you -- may we never wear them outside in polite company again? I fear not -- I've hardly worn it that much to begin with, but have cut back to essentially not at all in the last few years, except in the house when they were in the World Series the year before last. I find it fascinating how ambivalent I am about this issue, though.

    "We'll love the next mascot too." It's not as simple as that, especially given that the preposterous "Slider" is the mascot...

    "But I did grow up." Me too, which is why I find it fascinating how ambivalent I am about this issue...

    1. I sure do. Wore it at the '97 series. I wear it without guilt or shame, confident that the odds of some Native-American taking offense are slim. I can't mourn his passing, particularly. Tempus fugit.

    2. Well, I guess I'm heartened to hear that. Thanks. It's not just the thought of a Native American being disturbed that concerns me, though. It's also that empathetic, liberal, do-the-right-thing Other-Americans might see the hat and automatically assume I'm a "Don't give me any of this PC crap," "Suck it, snowflake!" Trump-supporting s.o.b. ; ) '97 W.S. Game Four, myself. Freezing, snowing, but wonderfully fun, after a childhood spent rooting for the likes of Max Alvis and Fred Whitfield!


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