Loudoun’s rube-ocracy

We interrupt our usual flow of sarcastic humor for a few more-serious observations about the all-Republican Loudoun Board of Supervisors and their extraordinary resolution, unanimously adopted this last week, “defending” the Washington Redskins’ racially offensive name against the forces of “political correctness run amok,” in the words of Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn).

On one level the resolution was simply fatuous, indignantly asserting the team’s “right” to “weigh customer input and take action in the best interest of the corporation with regard to their brand,” as if such a “right” were in question among anyone who has simply exercised their right of free speech to argue that it is offensive and outdated to continue using a racial slur as the name of a prominent professional sports franchise that is a prominent part of American life.

But on an even slightly deeper level the entire episode shows a degree of hyper-partisanship, insularity and small-town smugness, and a very disturbing set of values that this Board has brought into local government — elevating the interests of business and capital to almost sacred heights, while continually showing contempt for representative democracy.

To begin with the hyper-partisanship. It has become a standard rhetorical gambit in recent years for those on the far right, whenever they are called to task for their retrogressive views and statements on race, to try to turn the tables on their critics by dismissing their outrage as “manufactured,” their motives as hypocritical, and their aim as one of enforcing ideological conformity (“political correctness” in that tediously overworked term).

But this is nothing new, in fact, in the long story of race in America. Throughout the final decades of slavery, and then through Reconstruction and the subsequent reassertion of white political and social supremacy in the South, the perpetrators of slavery and disfranchisement did much the same thing, accusing northern whites who came to the defense of the rights of slaves to be free or freedmen to vote as obviously hypocritical, motivated by crass political calculation, or attempting to manufacture false outrage that they could then exploit for personal or partisan gain: it was a shrewdly calculated way to avoid altogether having to confront the morality of their own actions in holding other men as property or denying them the most basic rights of citizenship and make the issue instead the motives of their critics — as if impure motives on the part of those calling attention to the moral crimes of the South negated the very existence of those crimes.

So now in a small echo of those much more terrible times we see the same political and public relations ploys at work. Take an offensive position that by design or circumstance plays to the unregenerate racists on the right—and then when anyone else objects, simply ignore the morality of your position and instead accuse your critics of insincerity and manufactured outrage and “political correctness run amok.” And, if you’re Chairman Scott York of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, add for good measure that you are “disgusted” by the critics, as if the truly offensive thing is not your defense of a racial slur but the “elitism” of those who call you to task for it.

There is also an element of simple isolation, ignorance, and smug superiority in the Loudoun Board’s action, and the way they sought to justify it. The CEO of the Oneida Nation, Ray Halbritter, who met with NFL officials the week before last  to press the Indians’ case for changing the Redskins name, put it very eloquently in his contribution to an online debate in which Chairman York also participated (and which York later said made him so mad he decided he had to come to the “defense” of the team’s name). It is always, Mr. Halbritter noted, those hurling racial epithets and slurs who insist that the target of those slurs should not really take offense at them; that those on the receiving end are just being too sensitive, or can’t take a joke, or are trying to exaggerate a trivial matter. (Or, as the Loudoun Board’s resolution unbelievably argued, that there really could not possibly be anything offensive about the Redskins name, as the team has “a proud heritage of Native Americans who have served as players and staff.”)

But as Mr. Halbritter rather drily observed: “Those who defend the use of the word ‘Redskins’ present themselves as the sole arbiters of what is acceptable. They present themselves that way because those engineering the racial assaults – rather than the targets of such assaults – have always claimed supremacy.”

The failure to show the slightest empathy for those in a minority who have suffered hatred and persecution, the easy and airy arrogance with which the all-Republican members of the Loudoun Board dismiss such concerns as “political correctness run amok,” their failure even to speak to, read the views of, or try to understand at even the simplest level the viewpoint of the Indians themselves who object to such a racially charged slander is exactly what Mr. Halbritter is describing.

Supervisors Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) both insisted during the Board’s discussion that “Redskins” is no worse than “Fighting Irish,” and tried to imply that anyone who criticizes “Redskins” is thus being hypocritical and insincere in not objecting to “Fighting Irish” as well. Mr. Higgins told one constituent in a subsequent e-mail that all of the hoopla is indeed just “a ‘liberal preoccupation with political correctness.’ I’m Irish, why aren’t they concerned with changing the name of the Notre Dame football team from the “Fighting Irish?” he insisted.

To that, one might challenge Mr. Higgins to undertake a small research project to learn how ethnic slurs are in fact perceived by the target populations themselves.

Let us have him drive to South Boston, get out of his car on a crowded street corner, and yell, “Fighting Irish!”

Then he could proceed to the Oneida reservation, get out of his car, and yell, “Redskins!”

Which experience would Mr. Higgins hypothesize is more likely to result in his having his teeth bashed in?

In the course of last week’s action — which, not for the first time when acting on highly ideological or controversial issues, was taken by the Loudoun Board with no public notice or input — numerous comments were made by the supervisors to the effect that it is illegitimate for ordinary citizens or their democratically elected representatives to criticize a business’s operations. Supervisor Buona gave this extraordinary explanation for why it was legitimate however for Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors to defend the team’s racially offensive name: it comes down to the fact, Buona said, that the county government is a “customer” of the team, having given the team $2 million in taxpayers’ money (a highly dubious arrangement that included as part of the package the team’s agreeing to supply a player once a year to speak to a private business group, the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, as well as giving the county government “one private suite at FedEx Field for one regular season game with 24 tickets and six parking passes, plus four club-level tickets, four pre-game field passes and two premium parking passes for four regular season games”). Here was what Mr. Buona said last week:

“Some people will say, ‘why is this our business?’ My first question is why is it the D.C.’s City Council business? The Washington Redskins do not play in Washington. The Washington Redskins are not headquartered in D.C. They’re headquartered in Loudoun County, Virginia. It’s our business … The resolution says the Redskins have the right to weigh customer input. Loudoun County is a customer of the Washington Redskins. We have a financial deal in place with the Redskins.”

The all-Republican Loudoun Board has repeatedly invoked the mantra of running government as a “business,” but rarely in such stark terms. Supervisor Buona was saying that since Loudoun County (or more particularly, its Board of Supervisors) is a “customer” of the Redskins, its voice may be heard, but being a mere citizen in a democracy does not entitle anyone to speak out about the way a business conducts itself anywhere in our nation. Indeed, by Chairman York’s view, apparently nothing that a business does warrants criticism as long as it is a “successful” business: he stated that “Government’s job is to help companies succeed,” and that he had introduced his resolution because he wants to “celebrate the Redskins as a successful business.”

The Board has previously invoked “business” as a reason to eliminate what it claims are “inefficient” programs that fail to produce an adequate “return on investment,” as if programs such as the Loudoun Drug Court, that worked to divert addicts into treatment and help turn their lives around rather than just throwing them into jail, were to be assessed solely on their financial bottom line without any larger concern for society or for humanity. The Board has also been quietly drawing up a plan that would tie future school budgets not to the number of students attending the public schools but rather to the county’s gross economic product: that is, the amount of private goods and services produced by the businesses located within its boundaries. The Board has repeatedly placed the interests of “helping” businesses, through special zoning exceptions and other rule changes, over the rights and interests of citizens whom it is supposed to serve as their elected representatives.

But it is a tenet of the libertarian right that the marketplace, not the political system, is the supreme and best arbiter of social good; Supervisor Volpe invoked the “Republican Party Creed” to make this point in explaining why the Board was passing its pro-Redskins resolution: reading directly from this document, Ms. Volpe asserted, “We believe that the free enterprise system is the most productive supplier of human needs and economic justice.”

The Founding Fathers whom the Tea Party right are forever invoking with varying degrees of accuracy would have been — to use one of Chairman York’s words — disgusted by such a calculus of rights and social values that elevates property over the moral worth of the individual. Mr. York’s claim that “government’s job is to help companies succeed” perhaps says it all about the values he and his fellow Board members hold dearest.

With such a belief, it is not surprising that these officials view their role as stewards of the public trust, as representative voices of the people, and as humble public servants with such casual contempt.

We began in the old South so perhaps we might end there. In the years before the Civil War, South Carolina, which had the most regressive and aristocratic system of state government among any of the United States, had permanent, constitutionally gerrymandered state senate districts that hugely overrepresented the planter class; apportioned seats in the lower house giving equal weight to population and assessed property values; allowed large landowners to cast multiple ballots, one in every district where they owned property; and reserved to the legislature, thereby controlled completely by the wealthy aristocracy that made up a tiny fraction of even the white population, the sole power to select the governor and presidential electors.

In its own small way, our all-Republican Loudoun Board is evoking those same values that place property over people, “financial deals” over representing their constituents, and money over morality.

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