Friday, April 7, 2017

Giving tradition a bad name

Garrett Epps in The Atlantic bids "Good Riddance to the Filibuster", referring to the Republican majority's decision to abolish the 60-vote minimum needed to end debate ("invoke cloture") on a Supreme Court nominee, and to proceed to a full vote of the Senate. Epps argues that the filibuster has perpetuated bad conditions like separate-but-equal by allowing a determined minority of Senators to obstruct justice for minorities who aren't Senators.
I remember as if it were yesterday those spring months when 18 old white racists in white suits stood in the doorway through which the South, white and black, needed to pass to attain full membership in the American family. Over and over they proclaimed, in the immortal words of George Wallace, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
You can certainly envision nobler uses for the filibuster, but ultimately it's a tool of obstruction rather than construction. In our current political environment, where statesmen are not to be found, it's a tool that casts aspersions on those who employ it.

In much more local news, a school board needs to decide whether Napa High School should change its mascot, the "Indians". In its report on the controversy, KTVU included remarks from those who want to preserve the mascot. The argument they make is that the mascot has been around for over a century and it would somehow harm, or perhaps disrespect, alumni of the school to make the change. Meanwhile, Native Americans argue that the mascot dehumanizes them by reducing them to a caricature.

The ditch-the-mascot movement, I understand. The stick-with-it side? Not so much.

"If you take away the mascot, you might as well take away the name 'Napa High'," implored one parent.
What does that even mean? I truly do not understand the sentiment here.

In both the filibuster and mascot cases, change has been resisted because of "tradition", the idea that because things have been a certain way for a long time, somehow that hallows those things.

I respect the conservative impulse. We shouldn't follow all the wild impulses that occur to us: there's wisdom in not throwing over everything that has been for shiny newness.

However, I very much doubt that George Wallace or his Senatorial sympathizers made a cogent argument for preserving segregation that didn't come down to, "Those nigras don't belong anywhere near us!"

Those protesting the mascot change didn't use such language. However, they were short on rational reasons to keep the current mascot. They resorted pretty much exclusively to nostalgia, to an appeal to preserve tradition. And really, what other argument could they muster? Even if they believed it was acceptable to treat Native Americans with less regard than, say, African Americans, they wouldn't say so with a TV camera present.

(One "Indians" supporter argued that the harm to Native Americans had been done and nothing we could do today would change that. He is grossly mistaken that the harm is "done": the offensiveness of being reduced to a literal caricature is ongoing.)

But in both cases, citing "tradition" as the reason to resist change just gives tradition a bad name.

Traditions bind us; they give life meaning. But you sometimes have to take a step back and ask, is what you're preserving of such worth that it justifies exploiting or degrading others?

The change to the filibuster is contentious and we likely won't arrive at a consensus in my lifetime. The mascot is a different matter.

Changing the Napa High mascot will not change the school's athletic records. It will not change or diminish individual students' achievements. It will not alter or eliminate people's memories of their time as students. The pride students and alumni take in the school is rooted in their accomplishments, not the mascot.

So, anti-change Napa High alums, I ask you: what harm is it going to do to you if the school changes its mascot?

Can you not, for just a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Native Americans, and understand, however imperfectly, how it feels to be associated with a grotesquely reductionist caricature that crowds out the reality of who you are?

Can you not get beyond your desire to keep things as they are, and recognize that changing the mascot will be a small but positive step toward reducing ignorance of, and prejudice toward, Native Americans?

Isn't that worth overturning tradition?

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