Author Archives: Casey Schmitt

Dead Men Spinning: The Irony of Using Famed Ecologists as Metonyms for Environmental Concern

This year’s Earth Day is a tumultuous one for ecologists and nature lovers in the state of Wisconsin. In a state that lays claim to such celebrated ecological pioneers and naturalists as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, a series of proposed cuts to public funding of natural resource management has sparked alarm and protest. During a week generally reserved for celebration of ecology, several Wisconsin nature lovers are fearing changes and mounting efforts to defend the preserves and natural places they love.

Yet in published and online responses to the proposed cuts, opponents have adopted a familiar and recurrent and, frankly, somewhat curious tactic—that is, when seeking to defend and protect the import of the natural environment, free from human interference, these advocates are making public appeals not by describing natural flora or fauna or terrain or waterways but, rather, by making off-handed reference to human figures.

For instance, in response the the initial announcement of the proposed changes to the Wisconsin state Department of Natural Resources, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff ran a widely-circulated op-ed piece, that began: “Aldo Leopold didn’t just roll over in his grave Tuesday; he started spinning at accelerating speed after Gov. Scott Walker announced his proposed. The state’s hunters and anglers—and everyone else who loves the outdoors—should be just as shocked as the famed Wisconsin naturalist would be.” Leopold was a naturalist who worked as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, was instrumental in founding the school’s famed Arboretum, and gained worldwide acclaim with his posthumously published nature writings in A Sand County Almanac, based primarily on observations of the natural environment in south central Wisconsin.


Gaylord Nelson.

Gaylord Nelson.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold

Then again, this past week, when the state’s land board—led by treasurer Matt Adamczyk—barred state employees from speaking or writing on “climate change,” another paper, the Madison-based Isthmus, lambasted the action by evoking former state governor, state senator, and naturalist Gaylord Nelson. Granted, Adamczyk had targeted his comments at Nelson’s daughter, Tia Nelson, currently the head of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, but the article’s argument built its appeal to readers by evoking Nelson in a similar way to how the Journal Sentinel had cited Leopold, stating that on the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, “Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.”

Even as modern ecology looks beyond the human and pushes beyond the “anthropocene,” it’s remarkable that our public arguments in defense of the natural so frequently evoke the human. When biophysical environments or ecological policies are threatened, rather than describing the ecosystem and biological science at play, we decry these decisions by saying famed ecological thinkers are “turning in their graves.” When celebrating Earth Day and urging others to care for the planet, we frequently reference an anthropomorphized “Mother Earth.” When inspiring children and members of the general public to care for plants and animals, we frequently favor anthropomorphic characters like Smokey Bear and Hoot the Owl to actual wildlife or science. Our most popular and successful environmentalist campaigns have rallied around human figures like John Muir or Keep America Beautiful’s “Crying Indian.”

On one level, this is a savvy tactic. Humans are drawn to other humans. Anthropomorphizing any concern makes it easier for many people to understand and empathize with it.

On another level, citing an ecological hero like Leopold or Nelson is a kind of rhetorical metonymy, alluding to all of their ideas and writings and championed causes without having to repeat the arguments and ideas at length. That is, I can make reference to Leopold or Nelson rolling in their graves, or Mother Earth weeping, or John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt shaking their heads in shame, and, in doing so, present an artful, accessible, and concise way of saying the broader field of ecological expertise and tradition rejects a policy or action.

And yet, such metonyms do anthropomorphize ecological concerns all the same. They perpetuate a paradox of caring for biophysical well-being on a par with human well-being by favoring and spotlighting the human! By defending ecology with reference to Leopold of Nelson, we may be metonymically referring to their larger work and arguments, but we are also at the same time simply deferring to the unquestioned, unproblematized authority of a single human actor (one that is, besides, college educated, white, and male). Simple reference to a name allows, potentially, for lip-service sustainability.

As ecologists protest budget cuts and policies that place human interests, development, and profit ahead of environmental sustainability and biophysical concerns, they might recognize the irony involved and see that their own rhetorical word choices and metonyms often do the exact same thing.

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by | April 22, 2015 · 1:00 pm

Hidden Rhetorics and Secret Identities: The Question of Superhero Movies as Social Commentary – Part II

This is a co-authored post by our Casey Schmitt and Rebecca Keyel, a student in UW-Madison’s department of Design Studies.

This is a continuation of a two-part entry. See Part I  for context. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Of the major superhero franchises, perhaps none has been more celebrated as social commentary than  X-Men. The X-Men books and films tell the story of genetic “mutants” who are born with fantastic superhuman powers, shunned by greater society on account of their difference. The X-Men, led by the paraplegic telepath Charles Xavier, are “sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them,” often against the militant mutant known as Magneto, who holds ordinary humans at fault for their prejudice.

x-men 1

Since 1963, the X-Men have often been touted as an allegory for civil rights and the internal struggles faced in movements to counter prejudices against ethnic minorities, differently-abled individuals, and, more broadly, anyone who feels “different.” The comic books themselves were especially notable for the team’s diverse roster and celebrated storylines like writer Chris Claremont’s “God Loves, Man Kills” and “Days of Future Past” that focused especially on the universal dangers of xenophobic hatred.

Rhetorician William Earnest is one of many to trace how the X-Men films have stressed a particular attention to the stories as LGBTQ allegory. He cites the scapegoating dialogue of McCarthy-esque antagonists, conversations between characters about “passing” for normal, and a conversion-therapy mutant “cure” storyline that dominates much of the series’ third film. He also highlights a cleverly worded scene in which a mutant character “comes out” to his parents, to their dismay. The 2011 film, X-Men: First Class, includes not-so-subtle dialogue about mutant “pride” and a joking reference to “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. Beyond the screen, gay activist and actor Ian McKellan, who plays Magneto in the films, has repeatedly said he was drawn to the role by director Bryan Singer’s explanation that “Mutants are like gays. They’re cast out by society for no good reason,” while First Class screenwriter Zack Stentz has also stressed that the allegory is intentional.

With this in mind, audiences are primed to see the films as social commentary and advocacy. The series’ most recent installment, Days of Future Past, however, gives only slight nods to the LGBTQ theme. The plot mirrors the Claremont story, in which one hero travels back in time from a post-apocalyptic future brought on by the assassination of an anti-mutant demagogue to warn the X-Men of the past of the need to overcome differences without murderous violence. In a broad sense, this narrative is still in place. Yet overall there are many other elements in the film that overshadow this theme and, ultimately, there is very little argument or activism to speak of.

Set primarily in the 1970s, the film makes no reference to the very real civil rights campaigns and complications of the era. Beyond this oversight, however, the film really doesn’t forward broader civil rights interests in practice either. DoFP features an overwhelmingly white, male cast, and all are at least implicitly heterosexual. The one lead female role belongs to the shapeshifter Mystique who represents difference well when in her blue-skinned form but who spends much of the movie with conventionally attractive blond hair and blue eyes. Women and ethnic minority characters—crucial to the original Claremont telling of the tale—appear in supporting roles with very little dialogue, and are mostly killed off in the film’s climactic scenes.

x-men 2

The central characters of the film are the archetypical action hero Wolverine and Xavier himself, though Xavier’s handicap is removed for the better part of the story. The central allegory seems no longer to be one of social activism and civil rights, but of a single white man’s struggle with his own lost sense of masculinity and self confidence.

These changes are subtle, but for all the celebration of X-Men as minority allegory, the film is still very much about the concerns and actions of white, straight men. Would it have been difficult to write a script or cast roles that included a greater spectrum of ethnicity, gender, and physical abilities? No—though it might have worried studio executives. That is, for all the talk about social commentary and hidden rhetorics, these films are still designed to make money and to avoid alienating audiences by pushing partisan issues.


So are these films rhetorical? Well, yes, but not nearly as “revolutionary” as they might be. Imagine an X-Men movie with a young female minority traveling back in time instead of a middle-aged white man. Imagine an X-Men movie in which the team is made entirely of women, or one that features gay marriage as its central plot point. The comics have done all of these things. And even they haven’t changed the world but, rather, echoed the public sentiments already at play in American society.

The same might be said of Captain America, who of course sticks up for American ideals by rejecting overreaching government surveillance, but does so by fighting against Nazi infiltration and allying with morally ambiguous super-spies. The social commentary is perhaps palpable, but it’s also fairly elementary and ultimately secondary in purpose.

Superhero movies give audiences a chance to cheer for an idealized protagonist who pushes for a better world. In this way, superhero movies both present a constitutive ideal and contribute to larger social movements with their “hidden” rhetorical elements. Yet, as a recent article on Crave noted, studios like Marvel and Fox “don’t make complex motion pictures full of rich allegories; they make broad, universally relatable fables in which fun characters with superpowers overcome all odds.”

As lifelong comic book readers, we’re glad to see some of our favorite characters being embraced by world audiences and we’re glad to see their stories told in fun and creative ways, but we caution against celebrating Captain America and Wolverine as real champions of social change. The actual heroes are out in the streets, stomping the pavement, and making more regular, explicit challenges to the status quo on a day-to-day basis. Your mild-mannered social activist doesn’t even need a cape.

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Hidden Rhetorics and Secret Identities: The Question of Superhero Movies as Social Commentary – Part I

This post is a two-part, co-authored post by our own Casey Schmitt and Rebecca Keyel, a student in UW-Madison’s department of Design Studies.


Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow. Image from Marvel Studios.

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Captain America and Black Widow. Image from Marvel Studios.


It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a complex allegory for modern American social conditions! Or, maybe, it’s just some dude in a cape.

For years now, with an increasing popular audience for superhero stories, films, and merchandise, audiences have sought to trace literary meanings and social commentary in the content of comic-book escapades. Iron Man is, for many, a not-so-subtle metaphor for the military-industrial complex. Director Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic, The Dark Knight, is widely viewed as a defense of the Bush administration‘s post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. In Barry Brummett’s 2008 collection on “social issues in disguise,” William Earnest traces the “hidden rhetorics” of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise as subtle yet potent commentary on LGBTQ rights and activism. When film reviews for Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier circulated earlier this year, the film was framed through a political lens, being lauded as a smart and “scathing critique of 21st-century surveillance” by left-leaning outlets and lambasted as “shallow” and “lefty” by right-leaning sources. One favorable reviewer even wrote, “Edward Snowden could be on Winter Soldier‘s marketing payroll. It’s that revolutionary.”

As fans of some of these films and their characters, we found this emphatic turn in public conceptions of the superhero intriguing. Certainly these stories have political overtones and allusions. Even if unintentionally, as mere products of their place and time they might comment on dominant social concerns and conditions.  Yet we wondered how prevalent these elements of social commentary actually were in the films. That is, while these so-called “hidden rhetorics” may have critical social qualities, are the films themselves actually as “revolutionary” as some reviewers have claimed? A quick glance at two recent blockbusters provides some perspective.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is tangentially a sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, part of what Marvel calls Marvel Phase 1, the set of films that led up to the release of Avengers in 2012 and went on to break a number of box office records. Winter Soldier follows the super-heroic Captain America and Black Widow as they discover the intelligence organization they work for—known as S.H.I.E.L.D.—has been compromised by Hydra, a Nazi offshoot originally founded by the fist film’s  villainous Red Skull.

Captain America comics have long commented on social issues—in fact, the original stories were published in part to encourage U.S. entry into World War II—and, while their “hidden rhetoric” critiques have not always been nuanced or successful, Winter Soldier follows suit by engaging a number of contemporary political topics, most notably personal agency and privacy.

In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has developed a system called Project Insight, which allows the organization to predict and eliminate potential threats to national security. The system is meant to be a preemptive strike against domestic, international, and extraterrestrial attacks. However, Hydra’s leaders are using their control over the United States’ intelligence apparatus to mine the electronic records of everyone living in the U.S., giving them the ability to predict whether or not the individual will be a threat to the organization. This system identifies such potential threats to Hydra and eliminates them, a preventative measure to keep the control over society that Hydra spent the previous fifty years cultivating. Once the film’s protagonists discover this threat, they formulate a plan to thwart it by triggering the weapons system to target itself instead

Within the film’s narrative structure, the implications of this kind of power in the hands of an “evil” organization like Hydra are obvious. The film’s protagonists understand just how dangerous that ability is and must take down the system before Hydra can activate it. The story, for many viewers, echoed public concerns about NSA surveillance, drone strikes, and the potential for U.S. government agencies to infringe on citizen privacy in the name of security, law, and order.

The more subtle commentary of the film concerns the choices an individual makes, and the film engages with these issues on multiple levels with multiple characters. While Winter Soldier isn’t the first film to engage with issues of surveillance and “big brother,” or even the first superhero film to use surveillance as a plot point, it takes a particular stance against using surveillance on an unsuspecting population. The crux of the film’s plot is the threat to the U.S. population and the fact that an individual’s electronic records were what made them targets for assassination. The individual choice to commit or not to commit a threatening act was circumvented by the potential threat they represented.

The choice to act or not and the absence of choice is what makes the film’s “villain” and eponymous character—the brainwashed assassin known as Winter Solider—ultimately sympathetic. Hydra and its scientists remove his sense of identity and his agency. He is prevented from making any choices of his own and is actively turned into a threat to others. In contrast, in the film’s climax, the Black Widow character actively chooses to give up her privacy and the secrecy of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files by uploading them to the Internet, a la Wikileaks. However, in releasing her secrets, she also releases sensitive government information to the wider public, potentially compromising national security. She’s allowed that choice, but she takes the choice away from those others who are potentially impacted by her actions.

In a film like Winter Soldier, thus, superhero exploits seem to mimic popular sentiments and champion a social cause, but in sometimes muddy, inexact terms. In part two of this post, we consider another superhero film to demonstrate that the social activism of the superhero movie is not always as potent as it may at first seem.

See Part II for conclusion.


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Struggling, Resilient: The National Congress of the American Indians Gives Washington Some Alternatives

The National Football League’s 2014 Super Bowl broadcast included many controversy-sparking commercials. The one commercial it didn’t . . .


. . . also ended with such a pregnant pause. Late last year, Rhetorically Speaking ran a two-part post on the recent developments in the on-going controversy over the the NFL’s Washington franchise, its outspoken owner, and its heavily scrutinized team name. In 2013, and its allies mounted a renewed campaign against the term “Redskins” by appealing to Congress, to the NFL, to team sponsors, and, via web links and airwaves, to public opinion.

On Super Bowl weekend, the National Congress of the American Indians contributed to the public debate by releasing “Proud To Be,” a two-minute viral video circulated online as “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air.” Shot and edited in a style reminiscent of advertising powerhouse Wieden+Kennedy—the firm behind Nike and such politically-charged and unabashedly nationalist Super Bowl spots as Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” and this year’s Coca Cola spot, “It’s Beautiful”—the video presented an artful, emotional, at times blunt and blistering critique of the Redskins name and mascot.

We might debate the truth behind particular claims forwarding the video, implying the NFL or Fox had rejected the commercial—after all, even 30-second Big Game spots run for several million dollars and it is unlikely that the NCAI could have funded such a statement or even intended the spot to air—but its online presence was massive, with over 1.5 million YouTube views in its first week online and an accompanying Super Bowl weekend Twitter campaign aimed at capitalizing on the nation’s attention to keep the ChangeTheMascot movement growing.

The “Proud to Be” spot adopts a simple yet affective premise and structure. A montage of images of Native individuals, past and present, plays against a simple list of tribal titles, names, social roles, and adjectives that might describe Native Americans, and a swelling musical soundtrack. “Proud,” the narrator begins, “Forgotten,” he counters, “Indian.” These are descriptors of a people, both as individuals and as communities. The words are mentioned in brief stanzas, grouped in reference to  specific tribes, then individual qualities, then historical figures, then family roles. “Sitting Bull, Hiawatha, and Jim Thorpe” are followed by “Mother, Father, Son, Daughter.” The list follows an almost cyclical structure, beginning against the image of a rising sun and working towards a sunset near the video’s end. The mid-way point, at one minute in, includes adjectives like “Underserved” and “Struggling,” with images of weather-beaten reservation lands, a child rummaging through rubbish, and an overweight, slumped figure against a military mural. The list suggests honesty and admission of blemishes. Not all words for the Indian are glowing, but they are included all the same, suggesting candor and truth. Then the list begins to cycle back on themes, listing even more tribal distinctions, more social roles, more famous figures. We see powwows and regalia over and over again, each distinguished with a different name. It is a strategy of copia, going on and on and cycling back on themes to stress the vast diversity of Native American peoples before climbing to an assertive final note: “Unyielding, Strong, Indomitable. Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t . . .” and the increasingly rapid music and image montage cut to black. The pregnant pause gives way to a slow fade on the Redskins helmet logo and a football that stay on the screen in silence. The argument here is simple: despite all of the terms that the commercial has shared, it will not stoop to saying the derogatory word. The NFL and viewers nationwide should do the same.

There are many things we might deconstruct about the video. The inclusion of American flags, Native American soldiers and veterans, and blatant references to athleticism and football echo the shameless nationalism we’ve come to expect from Super Bowl ads over the past decade. The images of precocious children might strike some as pandering for sympathy. The pause at the end of the list functions enthymematically, inviting—or even subtly coercing—the viewer to fill in the blanks of the argument and thus take part in its construction.

For the ongoing discussion of the Redskins name controversy, however, we might consider how the “Proud to Be” spot echoes the strategy used by sportscaster Bob Costas in his October 13 comments. In my earlier post, I argued that Costas had introduced a new tactic in the debate by suggesting that neither those supporting nor those opposing Native American mascots at large were incorrect and rather bracketing the term “Redskins” in a tier of its own, separate from all other potentially offensive or controversial mascot names. Costas presented a list of other Indian mascot names to demonstrate how “Redskins,” as a term, differed—how it was particularly egregious and worthy of concerted reflection. “Proud to Be” utilizes the same strategy. It presents a copious list of other, acceptable alternatives, to demonstrate that just this one term is problematic.

It is unclear if this new strategy will change minds or mascots, but it has certainly spread and helped reinvigorate the anti-Redskins debate.

Of course, while Costas spoke to a broad television audience, the NCAI may be “preaching to the choir.” Their description of the video as “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air” suggests awareness that regardless of the video’s editing and music and art, the people in charge of the final decision have made up their minds and are unwilling to hear further arguments. And so the campaign, like so many these days, has moved to Twitter and Facebook and hyperlinks. Perhaps the NCAI is simply rallying a base. Perhaps they are following the maxim, attributed to Gandhi, that in fighting any status quo, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” By suggesting that the NFL is shutting them out, the NCAI seems to realize they are, at the least, no longer being ignored. They are, in their own words, then, both “struggling” and “resilient.”

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Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part II)

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

This is a continuation of last week’s post.

In his prepared remarks, Costas begins by clearing the air of potential accusations and affirming what Redskins fans themselves have stated time and again: that there is “no reason to believe” that Snyder, Redskins players, or their fans harbor any “animus toward Native Americans or [wish] to disrespect them.” He also acknowledges that, despite the Cowboys vs. Indians overtone to the evening’s game, the Redskins name controversy is not simply a matter of race, as “even a majority of Native Americans” are not offended by the name. These opening remarks seek to acknowledge that the people defending the name “Redskins” are not wrong before attempting to demonstrate that the name itself is.

Then, Costas presents his case. He explains that “there’s still a distinction to be made” and proceeds to present a list of other sport teams with Native American nicknames and mascots as a grounds for comparison—a kind of litmus test for when Native American-inspired team names are respectful (or, at least, innocuous) and when they occasionally cross the line. In his first tier he includes “names like ‘Braves,’ ‘Chiefs,’ ‘Warriors,’ and the like” as nicknames that “honor, rather than demean,” asserting they are “pretty much the same as ‘Vikings,’ ‘Patriots,’ or even ‘Cowboys,’” and notes that objections to them “strike many of us as political correctness run amok.” These nicknames get a free pass from Costas, though opponents of Indian mascots and team names have protested against them for years. Next, Costas lists a second tier of teams, with names that are “potentially more problematic,” but “can still be okay provided the symbols are appropriately respectful.” This leads him, implicitly, to a third tier, in mention of the Cleveland Indians, a team with a tier-two nickname that has “sometimes run into trouble” with its caricatured and hyperbolic Chief Wahoo logo. Fourth, Costas distinguishes a tier of teams, like the Stanford Indians, Dartmouth Indians, and Miami of Ohio Redskins, that acknowledged the potential for offense and changed their names, calling particular attention to Miami of Ohio. Washington is listed last and, at this point, Costas distinguishes it in its own tier, at the bottom of the list of increasingly problematic offenders. He asks viewers to “think for a moment about the term ‘Redskins,’ and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group” before using this reflection and distinction to assert “When considered that way, ‘Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

It is an original and potentially persuasive tactic. Through this series of distinctions, Costas breaks out of the stalemated, repetitive cycle of debate over Native American mascots as a whole and instead singles out the Redskins as a particular case. He is striving, here, it seems, for mutually satisfying compromise in a debate that rarely sees it. His description of team names in the first and second tier echoes perennial defense of Indian mascots, while his indictment of the lower tiers aligns more with the Indian mascot objectors’ familiar words and stance. With distinction between types of team names, Costas is seeking to affirm the arguments of both sides but also make room for compromise.

Yet we might also question the efficacy of such tactics. By excusing some teams with Indian-inspired nicknames of any offense, his words let some potential racism and insult off the hook. By equivocating and distinguishing between names and mascots, he is, in some ways, conceding parts of the “Change the Mascot” fight. Advocates of abolishing all potentially offensive nicknames might accuse Costas of throwing opponents of names like “Chiefs” or “Blackhawks” under the bus in his effort to critique the Redskins. Distinctions like these, while seeking to forward the anti-mascot cause on some fronts, stifle future efforts on others. The images, for instance, that appear on screen when Costas excuses the Braves, Chiefs, and Indians as less offensive incorporate tomahawks, arrowheads, and men saluting one another while concealing raised axes behind their backs. Costas does not call attention to the negative history surrounding such images when he uses them as he excuses the top tier teams. And, of course, any distinction between kinds of Indians or tiers of quality among Native American peoples or symbols hearkens uncomfortable associations with blood quantum laws and brown paper bag tests.

October 13 was not the first time Costas has dabbled in political or social commentary during a sportscast (see 8, for instance) and it is unlikely to be the last, but he seems to rankle viewers each time it happens. While seeking compromise, it’s likely that Costas pleased neither the most adamant anti-mascot campaigners nor the staunchest pro-mascot defenders. Then again, perhaps that was not his intention. Perhaps, in ending with the assertion that “’Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage,” he intended his remarks as an open rebuttal and challenge to Dan Snyder’s letter. Perhaps he sought only to prompt discussion with the hope that progress made now would lead to other progress in the future, chipping away at offensive sporting nicknames bit-by-bit over time.

Whatever the intent, the situation remains unchanged. At the end of October, Goodell met separately with Snyder and with Oneida Nation representatives. The stalemate persisted. The Redskins name remains, as does the controversy. And while we have an interesting new perspective in the ongoing discussion, the defenses are familiar and offense, as Costas phrased it, continues be taken.

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Offense and Defense: Bob Costas Weighs in on the Washington Redskins Name Controversy (Part I)

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

Bob Costas weighs in on the Redskins naming controversy. Image originally from NBC.

This is part of a two-post series on Bob Costas’ commentary on the Redskins naming debate.

It’s been an eventful year in the decades-old controversy surrounding the National Football League’s Washington Redskins franchise and its allegedly offensive team name. In 2012, the Kansas City Star publicly reiterated its policy of not printing the “Redskins” name in its articles and a bevy of other publications, including the Washington City Paper, San Francisco Chronicle, and Richmond Free Press soon followed suit. In March, U.S. House Representatives introduced a bill to void any trademark registrations disparaging Native American peoples and, in May, ten members of Congress sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins team owner Dan Snyder, and FedEx, the team’s primary sponsor, requesting that the team’s name be immediately changed (1). Snyder responded with a series of statements swearing the name would never change under his watch and polls conducted in May suggested that 4 in 5 Americans agreed that a change in name should not take place (2;3). Meanwhile, the Oneida Indian Nation expanded its “Change the Mascot” campaign through demonstration and advertisement across the nation and, in October, President Obama was called upon to comment in an Associated Press interview, stating that if he were the owner of a franchise with a name that was “offending a sizable group of people,” he would “think about changing” it (4). On October 9, Snyder published an open letter to fans in The Washington Post, again defending the team’s name as not offensive to Native Americans but, rather, a tribute to those people and the franchise’s own proud heritage (5).

These arguments are, by now, familiar ones across the United States. Protests against and arguments defending the use of Native American names, terms, and images as sporting mascots gained momentum in the 1970s and 80s and have since led to name changes at the high school, college, and professional level, while also inspiring, in some places (including Wisconsin, for instance) recent legal efforts to protect Indian mascots in spite of community or Native American complaint (6). Critics of team names like “Redskins,” “Indians,” and “Braves” assert that these terms rob indigenous peoples—already mistreated grossly by American history and heirs to a weighted, unequal social position—of their own cultural words and symbols, their own ability to define themselves, while reducing sometimes sacred elements of their culture to frivolous, commercialized, and insulting caricatures in the dominant culture’s control. Defenders of the team names and mascots often contend that the names are not meant to offend but rather to honor Native peoples, that many polled Native Americans are not offended, that the sporting symbols ultimately preserve Indian heritage for Indians and non-Indians alike, and that, in the modern day, such symbols are as much a source of traditional pride for decades-old sports teams as they are for Native Americans themselves.

While names have been changed and logos have been altered, these two camps in the debate have done little to achieve consensus. In many cases—including that of the Washington Redskins—the groups have reached a kind of stalemate, both staking their claims to the names and traditions as a matter of personal passion, heritage, and identity, as Snyder does in his letter when he reiterates, “Our past isn’t just where we came from—it’s who we are” (7). These kinds of appeals are difficult if not impossible to refute, as both sides are entitled to claim their own tradition and heritage for themselves. Both proponents and opponents of the names rally around claims to pride and tradition with self-determined certainty. When team names are changed, resentments still linger. When team names remain, often the best outcome is a vocal vow to respect each other’s opinions but agree to disagree.

For this reason, sportscaster Bob Costas’ October 13 comments on the controversy are particularly interesting. Costas, speaking during halftime of a game between Washington and Dallas (a potent ground for commentary, with the implicit Cowboys vs. Indians overtones) during NBC’s highly-rated Sunday Night Football broadcast, took two minutes and twenty seconds to address the controversy before a national audience not by taking up the old, tradition- and identity-based arguments championed time and again in the Indian mascot debate but by seeking compromise and distinguishing between some team names as harmless and others, like Redskins, as offensive. His novel approach invites a close analysis.


See Part II for continuation . . .


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Guerillas in the Mist: The Power of Images in the Penokee Hills Mining Controversy

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. There was a time when rhetorical studies may not have heeded the old maxim, but following the work of Lucaites and Hariman, Finnegan, and countless others over the years, image rhetoric has become an increasingly rich focus of attention—especially in a digital age when more and more folks get their news in ten second chunks of tweets, links, and screen caps and when digital cameras upload instant reports from the cell phones of tens of thousands of people every day.

In the ongoing debate over iron-ore mining in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills—a debate to which politicians and PR firms, tribal leaders and grass roots ecologists have all added a thousand words or so —a simple handheld camera has become a central figure, swaying public opinion in multiple directions.

Mining operations in the Penokees, along the Gogebic Iron Range, have stirred controversy from the moment they were first proposed. Gogebic Taconite, LLC, the Florida-based company currently testing the range and potentially developing the largest mine in the state of Wisconsin, has fallen under harsh criticism from the towns and tribes surrounding the site, along with several Democratic state politicians and ecologists. All are concerned that the mine will damage fragile ecosystems, infringe on public use of the nearby land, and harm waterways with acid drainage.

These protests did little to sway public opinion, though, or to halt the progress of the mine’s development. Gogebic Taconite moved forward with initial testing and desperate opponents of the mine flocked to the Penokee Hills to demonstrate and disrupt operations. Those sympathetic to the mine saw the demonstrators as hippies and hooligans. Those sympathetic to the protests struggled to sway opinion in a broader, largely indifferent or undecided public.


Bulletproof guard at Penokee Hills

Bulletproof guard at Penokee Hills

Then, in early July, an image hit the airwaves, taken by a visitor to the woods around the testing site. Gogebic Taconite had hired out the services of the Arizona-based private security firm Bulletproof to protect its workers and equipment from unruly protestors and protestors had, in return, captured one of these guards on camera. In a stretch of state-owned land previously open to public use, the image showed a camouflaged man, with his face partially covered and toting an assault rifle. The Bulletproof agent looked more like a special ops solider than a security guard in a publicly accessible place. Suddenly, the opposition to the mine had an opportunity.

The image of the soldier acted as an image vernacular—a visual enthymeme—for those who saw it on their television and computer screens. The striking figure, like something out of a Hollywood movie, played well on the evening news as it garnered more immediate attention than long-winded reports about the complexities of geological survey. This G.I. Joe, this skulking guerilla, found camouflaged and hidden in the simple Wisconsin woods made Gogebic Taconite’s actions seem aggressive and hyperbolic. It was scary for many to see the image and imagine that they, too, might be stalked by a trained soldier with an assault rifle the next time they took a walk in the forest. Suddenly, those indifferent and undecided audiences had a reason to be suspicious of the mine and its motives.

Initially, Gogebic Taconite defended its actions and claimed the Bulletproof guards would remain. However, as the image replayed on TV and computer screens and more and more voices—like that of Democratic Senator Bob Jauch—cried out that the Upper Midwest was no place for mercenaries, the guards were removed. The Arizona-based firm, it turned out, did not actually have a license for such operations.

Now, several months later, the license has been acquired and Gogebic Taconite has announced, to little fanfare, that the Bulletproof guards will eventually return at an undisclosed date. Still, the image has done its work and many more Wisconsinites are both aware of and suspicious of the mining activities now taking place just beyond their backyards.

For many, the mine is now synonymous with aggression, violence, and fear. It’s interesting then, that the images of the protestors have garnered less attention. That is, while the camouflaged soldier appeared around the state, few ever saw the images of the masked and rowdy protestors who first disrupted mining operations and supposedly prompted the Bulletproof hiring in the first place. On June 11, a group of militant protestors filmed themselves rushing a test site, screaming profanities and forcefully seizing one Gogebic Taconite employee’s phone and camera. The protestors were wrapped also like guerillas or freedom fighters, with their faces hidden, and, though unarmed, were unruly and aggressive in their conduct. Those who forwarded the video on conservative websites often described the protestors as “eco-terrorists,” and the conduct and dress of the protestors in the video make such terms and comparisons understandable. The incident led to a felony charge for one protestor, but the video got less public media play, perhaps because of the profanity used and its six-minute length.

As in all such cases, there is not a simple black and white, good and bad dichotomy to be made. Yet many now fear that the tension in the Penokees is still only building, and these images of armed and masked individuals are making the stakes seem more desperate from both sides of the issue. These violent images, reminiscent of scenes from a war zone, are causing the two sides in the debate to feel and self-identify more as two sides in a war. The debate will certainly continue, but the debaters are no longer armed only with their words.

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