Boston University’s mascot, Rhett the Boston Terrier, as depicted on the school’s hockey sweater. Credit: Brad Slager/RedState
Famed psychologist and founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung once said, “No tree, it is said, can grow to Heaven unless its roots reach down to Hell.” Applying this to our society, or to humanity in general, we cannot achieve our highest aims (heaven) without acknowledging that our “roots,” meaning either our past or our ability to do harm, reach down to hell.
As a (somewhat struggling) Christian I believe that every one of us and, therefore, society, are imperfect and in need of grace and redemption. That same faith causes me to believe that redemption and forgiveness are possible and to know that by understanding how I’ve failed (or how we as a society have failed, depending upon how micro or macro the analysis is) in the past, I (or society) can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Or, in secular terms, I believe that by knowing history our society is less doomed to repeat it.
But in 2020, a year that’s set all kinds of records for being “extra,” it seems that any history that doesn’t reflect a shining example of progressive perfection isn’t allowed to coexist, and that even the tiniest reminder of historical imperfection cannot be allowed to continue. It’s truly become ridiculous.
The latest example of this ridiculousness comes courtesy of my alma mater, Boston University. I matriculated in the fall of 1990 as an International Relations major and economics minor (yeah, yeah, spare me the AOC jokes), but graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts (spare me the liberal arts jokes too; that degree was the only one I could finish online) after taking about 20 years off to get married and bear and raise three sons. Wednesday morning, while perusing my email inbox, my eyes stopped on a subject line reading, “BU Committee to Consider the Name of Our Mascot.”
Intrigued and a little irritated, I opened the email from Boston University President Robert A. Brown. In the first paragraph of the email he said:
“[A] number of you have pointed out that our mascot’s nickname, ‘Rhett,’ pays tribute to a fictional character associated with the Confederacy, slavery, and sexual assault, and that has prompted important conversations.”
The slight irritation turned into disgust. Once again, one butthurt person with a questionable understanding of the subject matter has suddenly morphed into “a number of you,” and now there has to be an “important conversation,” only it won’t be the necessary conversation about how ideas and symbols and words we don’t like or don’t agree with or find offensive are allowed to exist and that that’s a good thing. It won’t even be a conversation. It will be a wringing of hands and self-flagellation session.
No, it wasn’t “a number of” us. It was one person. One alumnus, inspired by an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, started a change.org petition that received a grand total of 500 signatures in two weeks, and now the university must take action? For reference, approximately students attend BU every year (undergraduate and graduate. Five hundred signatures is nothing.
Brown’s characterization of Rhett Butler’s character and its relation to Boston University’s mascot is laughable. Yes, Rhett is a fictional character, but to say he’s associated with the Confederacy, slavery, and sexual assault in any way other than as a character living in the South during the antebellum period and the Civil War is ludicrous.
The nickname Rhett wasn’t given to Boston University’s canine mascot to “pay tribute” to the fictional rogue. Boston U’s mascot was chosen in 1922, Brown wrote, but it’s “less easy to pinpoint” when the mascot was given the nickname Rhett, or by whom:
“We know that the University mascot was chosen in 1922 by student vote, with the majority favoring the Boston Terrier (over the bull moose). It is less easy to pinpoint when the nickname ‘Rhett’ came into common use. What is clear is that ‘Rhett’ is a reference to one of the lead characters in Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind, which was made into the Hollywood film with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. In the Boston University context, the ‘Rhett’ nickname is, of itself, a play on words. Since our school color is scarlet, it was a short leap for students—or perhaps a sports publicist—to link Rhett to Scarlett O’Hara, the other romantic lead in the book and movie.”
If Brown or university historians aren’t able to pinpoint whether it was a student or a sports publicist who initially came up with the nickname Rhett, is it so clear that it refers to the character in Gone With the Wind? Other than Brown’s email, the only other official explanation I could find for the origin of the “Rhett” nickname was a 2018 BU Today article, “Rhett the Terrier: Through the Years.”
In the early decades, real Boston terriers would appear at athletic events. Sometime after Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind, was published in 1936, the mascot was named after its male protagonist–Rhett Butler. Why? Because Rhett loved the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara (scarlet, of course, being BU’s signature color).
Well, that meaning is pretty innocuous (except to those who believe Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship was dysfunctional or toxic and that the famous staircase scene is a prelude to marital rape, which is a discussion for another time).
Continuing with the email, Brown links the movie and the mascot’s name then uses a “dog whistle” phrase (emphasis added):
Despite this seemingly cute connection between the movie and our mascot’s name, the fact is that the movie’s portrayal of the American Civil War, postwar reconstruction, and slavery is offensive.
Is it offensive, or is it historically accurate? Is it offensive, or is it a dramatic rendition of what people thought the antebellum South was? That conversation won’t occur, because President Brown doesn’t believe it should. His passive-aggressive tone proactively dismisses criticism of the action he wants to take as coming from people who see slavery and sexual assault as “seemingly cute.” By his phraseology it’s clear that he doesn’t want to hear dissenting views and, more importantly, that he believes that alumni, faculty, and students who possess dissenting views or even question his narrative aren’t intelligent, reasonable people. That, too, is offensive.
But do you know what else is offensive? History.
History is littered with examples of racism, sexism, class warfare, religious bigotry, slavery, raping, pillaging, and more. There are numerous historical figures who did offensive things, who also did some very good things. Does that excuse the bad things they did? No, of course not. But we erase these people from our collective history at our own peril. And in this instance we’re not even talking about a real person; we’re talking about a fictional character.
Brown’s cringe-worthy, vomit-inducing email continued:
“And it is reasonable for people to question why, at a university founded by abolitionists, we have a mascot nicknamed for a character in a film whose racist depictions are completely at odds with our own tradition. It is time to address this question.”
About the only true statement in this paragraph is that the university was founded by abolitionists. Rhett may or may not be named for the character of Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind,” and whether that depiction is “racist” and whether that’s at odds with the Boston University tradition is entirely up to interpretation.
So, yes, let’s address the topic, but not necessarily your question.
As referenced earlier, the concern brought to President Brown was inspired by an LA Times Op-Ed calling on HBO Max to pull “Gone With the Wind” from its library. The network complied, briefly, in order to place a “context” warning on the film. A number of influential voices, including my RedState colleagues Kira Davis and Sarah Lee, took issue with this.
As my colleague Sarah Lee said in her column:
The fact is that regardless of how [Hattie] McDaniel was treated by Hollywood — and thank God we’ve much improved beyond that silliness — if we can never speak of the film we have no context to discuss her stellar accomplishment. Which is also true of the Civil War in general. If we cannot speak of those periods in time and the evils and triumphs it gave the world should we do away with problematic films like “Django Unchained,” “Amistad,” and “Roots”? And do we lose the context to discuss how we’ve improved? Because we have improved. And we keep improving.
Indeed, as Sarah pointed out, the context we need in this situation is the context to discuss how we’ve improved and how we keep improving.
President Brown concluded his email by announcing the formation of a committee to study the issue of renaming Rhett. The committee will be charged with bringing a recommendation to him by October. This, too, is ridiculous. There are at least a hundred other things the faculty, students, and alumni of Boston University should be concerned with at this moment in time. Some say that renaming the Terrier is easy and a visible sign that Boston University isn’t going to tolerate racism in any form. I say that it’s too easy, and it does nothing to combat racism (or something far more pervasive on campus – elitism) or advance Boston University’s mission.
If Boston University wants to do something real and tangible in “this moment,” it can use that endowment to give scholarships to students who have the opportunity to be the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree, or to students from poor neighborhoods, or to non-traditional students (like older single moms, ahem) who are working hard to finish their degree and provide a better life for themselves and their children. After refusing to change Rhett’s name.