JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
ABOUT THOSE COVINGTON BOYS
My friend and former Hillsdale College colleague, Dan Bisher, has gained some prominence as a regional historian through his book, Faded Memories, which examines Michigan’s frontier period, as well as through presentations he gives at libraries and schools.
A special focus of his work is the Potawatomi Indian culture that flourished in south-central Michigan until the infamous “Trail of Tears” episode that saw removal of indigenous people to reservations in the American southwest.
Dan’s talks are well attended, and they generate plenty of questions, especially from children, who are always interested in native American life.
Indian lore is a fascination for kids, exposed as they are from a young age to storybooks, TV shows, movies, and school lessons about the earliest residents of the Western Hemisphere. When they learn about the displacement of native culture by European civilization, youngsters tend to feel a special empathy that blends romance, nostalgia and a sense of loss. I dare say no other people have quite the same hold on their hearts as American Indians do.
Which is why I was quite perplexed when I saw the first video images of those Covington, Kentucky, school boys confronted by a native drummer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The story, as originally given, was that these Catholic kids wearing MAGA hats were harassing the elderly native man, identified as Marine veteran Nathan Phillips.
Yet the kids’ appearance — and especially that expression on the face of junior Nicholas Sandmann, who was eyeball-to-eyeball with Phillips — didn’t seem particularly aggressive or mocking or sarcastic. Not to me, anyway.
In fact, Sandmann’s look was rather ambiguous. It was almost a Mona Lisa smile, suggesting he might have been amused by the Indian drum being struck right in front of him, or at the very least, uncertain what to do about it.
Since the accusation of harassment didn’t jibe with what I knew about kids and Indians, my reaction was…
There’s more to this story than what I’m seeing here.
And, indeed, there was.
Other videos, shot over a longer time and from other vantage points, have since revealed the Covington kids as the ones being harassed (by members of a religious cult called the Black Hebrew Israelites).
Phillips has claimed that he was trying to use his drumming to defuse what he feared was becoming a tense situation. And that might be so.
But it’s clear that somebody saw in that charged moment a perfect chance to tar a group of clean-cut, middle-class, Catholic — white — schoolboys as Trumpenstein Monsters. And so the spin put on the incident was that this was a bunch of smartass teenagers disrespecting an old war hero.
Naturally, social media went wild with calls for the boys to be punished, even physically attacked. Their school disavowed their alleged behavior and made oblique threats of disciplinary action.
Real threats and harassment soon followed, aimed in particular at Sandmann’s family.
It was all based on a few seconds of very carefully selected video.
But hey — these students had come to Washington to participate in the March for Life (horror of horrors!). They were Trump fans (even worse). They were from a private, religious school (privileged and coddled).
Oh, and did I mention they were white?
It doesn’t get any better than that combination. So how much do facts matter when there’s a great propaganda opportunity at hand?
Well, propagandists do what propagandists do. What was striking to me was how so many other people swallowed the narrative hook, line and sinker with very little reflection. Not to mention how many have clung to their first impressions even in the face of much exculpatory evidence.
One Catholic blogger with a regular presence on Facebook has taken the narrative even farther. He posted…
“The MAGA goons [meaning the Covington students] were threatening confrontation with a small clutch of black protestors. As is done in his tradition, Phillips intervened with a drum and a chant to draw fire to himself. It was an act of peacemaking. The goons then mobbed and mocked him and he did not respond in kind. This was classic non-violence. The attempt to paint this as ‘elderly man with drum terrorizes 70 innocent athletic douchebags’ is a narrative only the Right Wing Lie Machine would have the gall to promote. But as has ever been the case in US history, the rich and white have a ton of money and media resources to shout down the truth and Nathan Phillips has jack because he is a member of *the* most screwed-over community in American history.”
That’s as may be. But even if Nicholas Sandmann was being a smartass and his schoolmates were egging him on, do these students — these children — bear the weight of a long, complex and difficult racial history? Is it their fault? For that matter, how much can we even assume about their attitudes toward it?
And if the boys truly were used as pawns to discredit the Prolife Movement (which seems more likely the case), are they not entitled to, at the very least, an honest evaluation of the circumstances in which they found themselves?
That last question is especially relevant to the behavior of Covington diocesan officials and school administrators who appeared rather desperate to avoid being seen as out of step with the current orthodoxy about white racism and ethnic oppression.
Now, God forbid I should be partisan in this bizarre business, so let me point out that people on the right aren’t without blame either. As this online graphic demonstrates, too many are eager to cast a callow high school kid as a living symbol of resistance.
Have they considered the peril in which Nicholas Sandmann and his family are now living? Do they care?
There’s more to this story.
Even Donald Trump made that point in a tweet — although given his lightning-rod presence, I don’t think hearing from him on this issue was altogether helpful.
But if there’s one truth that’s become clear, it’s the corrosive influence of social media. Mattias A. Caro, executive editor of the online journal, Ethika Politika, expresses the situation well…
“The toxicity of social media is that we make the judgment, we comment, and thus, we’ve committed to a position that neither lends itself to retraction nor to nuance. It’s just easier to hold onto our quick opinions. It’s a very human reaction that serves us well in moments when quick judgments are needed, like swerving to avoid a car, but in inter-personal relationships and in public affairs, it’s an utterly primitive and unproductive way to operate.”
This is a time when everything is political: even a bunch of high school kids and a beating Indian drum. So it’s ever more important that we take some time and think about things.
Because, like it or not, the beat goes on.
Here’s a slick little meme that illustrates how Nathan Phillips is also being made into a symbol…
And here’s a despicable bit of provocation from writer and media figure Reza Aslan, one of those loving, tenderhearted lefty intellectualoids who always have deep thoughts to share…
Newly elected Democrat Congresswoman Deb Haalan of New Mexico (herself native American) blames this situation on — guess who? — Donald Trump…
With such examples of what Nicholas Sandmann is facing, his somewhat edgy tweet comes as no surprise…
Julie Irwin Zimmerman, a writer based in Cincinnati (just across the Ohio River from Covington, Kentucky), saw the initial video and leapt to the conclusion that the kids were being jerks. She questioned her first reaction when more footage appeared on the web. Writing in The Atlantic, she explores the human tendency to opine without thinking, and how social media encourages that inclination…
“Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness. Why are we all so primed for outrage, and what if the thousands of words and countless hours spent on this had been directed toward something consequential?”
Incidentally, here’s a link to some information on Faded Memories, that book about Michigan’s frontier period by my friend, Dan Bisher. That’s Potawatomi Chief Baw Beese on the cover …
Apropos of absolutely nothing — but because a little silliness is always cleansing — here’s an old clip of Sonny and Cher singing “The Beat Goes On.” Incidentally, Cher’s mother, Georgia, claimed to be of partial Cherokee ancestry. Just thought you’d like to know…