Two days ago, video was posted online that pretty much everyone who saw immediately recognized for what it was—footage of white teens taunting and harassing a Native American elder named Nathan Phillips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What was happening was clear and unmistakable, not just resonant but immediately recognizable as iconic. If you wanted to compress the history of relations between the powerful and the powerless in America, or the dynamics of the current moment, into a single image, you couldn’t do much better than to present a white teen in a MAGA hat, surrounded by a screaming horde of his peers, smirking into the face of an old Native American man.
Perhaps—probably—because what had happened was so undeniable, it was immediately denied. Right-wing trolls not only immediately proposed that the visibly aggressive teens, who were draped in the symbols of white nationalism and misogyny, were in fact the aggressed upon, but began a campaign of brutal online harassment against anyone—especially journalists and especially female journalists—who accurately described what they had seen, or reacted to it on the terms it deserved. In all it was an enactment of the culture-war tactics pioneered by Gamergate and used by Donald Trump to ascend to the pinnacle of global power: While random MAGA chuds and Pepes doxxed and threatened people online in an attempt to silence them and intimidate others, respectable types urged caution, proposing that if you were thoughtful enough you would perhaps realize that you hadn’t in fact seen what you had just seen, or that if you had, maybe it wasn’t that bad at all. Straight news reporters like the Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau turned the subtext into text, asking whomst among us hasn’t participated in a racially-charged frenzy of barely-restrained violence that they wish hadn’t been become an instantly iconic representation of what America has been historically and what it is now:
Yesterday, Reason’s Robby Soave, a professional contrarian, published a story built around a video, which is linked in the post, showing what was plainly visible in the initial footage—belligerent teens chanting and crowding around an old man until he was surrounded—but proposing that it added “important context that strongly contradicts the media’s narrative.” The video did add context, showing that Phillips and other demonstrators present for the Indigenous Peoples’ March were interposing themselves between between teens draped in racist, misogynist paraphernalia and members of the Black Israelite cult, but did not, despite Soave’s assertions, contradict the narratives set forth by either Phillips or “the media” (by which one can only assume he meant journalists straightforwardly describing what was there to be seen). Last night, the smirking teen, Nick Sandmann, was identified in a statement issued in his name by the publicity firm his parents hired for him, in which he suggested that he was in fact the victim in the situation.
The reaction to Soave’s story and to the public-relations firm’s statement was as depressing at it was predictable: Respectable news organizations and journalists, to whom being seen as balanced, level-headed, and more attuned to context and contingency than the reactive social-media mob is more important than reporting the most accurate version of the truth as best they can tell it, backed off, following Reason’s lead and doing the work of the gibbering masturbators who had risen up in defense of the MAGA teens. They were all too happy to say that the sky was not blue if it meant burnishing their credentials as serious and objective, and fell over each other to back away from what was right in front of their eyes.
Here’s the New York Times:
Here’s The Atlantic (complete with some transparently coded racist language):
Here’s the Huffington Post:
Here’s the Washington Examiner:
Here’s the Washington Times:
Strangely—or perhaps not—these stories either gloss over or fail to mention completely the fact that the white MAGA-clad students, from a pricey Kentucky private school called Covington Catholic, were doing the tomahawk-chop motion and mocking the way Phillips was singing. Neither do they detail the fact that Phillips only walked near the writhing mass of sneering young white men as a way to try and calm them. Relitigating what is as plain to see on the initial videos as it is on the one Soave surfaced or as it is on any others is as exasperating as it is depressing an exercise, but it’s perhaps worth noting that the clearest and most revelatory video—one that has not to my knowledge caused any reconsideration in respectable outlets of what actually happened here—comes from Indian Country Today, a vital news outlet covering Native issues. Here’s unedited video of the minutes leading up to the video of Sandmann smirking in Phillips’ face:
One lesson of the past two days is that you will see what you want to see here, if you are determined to do so; that does not mean that there is anything to be seen but what is there. I see a frothing mass of MAGA youth—who, since we’re taking in all angles here, go to a school where students fairly recently wore blackface to a basketball game—frenzied and yelling and out of control. I see four black men who seem to belong to the Black Israelites—a threat to women in their orbit, but not to random white people they’re heckling—yelling insults at the students. Then I see Phillips, as he has stated from the beginning that he did, walk up to the teens, in what seems to be an attempt to diffuse the situation. I see them laughing and dancing, red MAGA hats bobbing up and down in glee. I see them yell in Phillips’ face, and I see that he doesn’t falter. I see the smugness of a group secure in its relative power over someone more vulnerable than they are. Nothing about the video showing the offensive language of Black Israelites changes how upsetting it was to see the Covington students, and Sandmann in particular, stare at Phillips with such contempt. I don’t see how you could watch this and think otherwise unless you’re willing to gaslight yourself, and others, in the service of granting undeserved sympathy to the privileged. Many were more than happy to do just that:
I can only hope these journalists and public figures, so eager to perform reasonableness over something they didn’t even get wrong, will publicly self-flagellate just as vigorously when they actually fuck up in the future.
As for why so many people are willing to not trust their own eyes; why they’ll readily accept the MAGA teen’s shitty and unconvincing publicist-created explanation that he didn’t do anything wrong; why news organizations rolled back reporting based on little new evidence; and why so many people lashed themselves to the whipping post in the square and begged for forgiveness, the answer is, I think, simple: These people are willing to give the screaming mob of white teens the benefit of the doubt because it distinguishes them from the emotion-driven hordes. It’s something like virtue signaling, but instead of attempting to signal that they hold any type of moral or ethical principles, these people are attempting to show that they are willing to be chastened, and so are thoughtful. I can admit when I’m wrong, they say, so you can always trust me.
It’s never good for the likes of Robby Soave or Bari Weiss or the cool priest or The Atlantic or CNN to be too vociferously on the same side as people on the left angrily yelling about how a bad thing is bad, not only because it’s not the done thing but because their brands rely on finding middle ground and pushing back against anyone who seems to care too much about something they don’t. (Somehow, of course, this always seems to land them on the side of the powerful and the privileged.) They need to be seen as reasonable and responsible and responsive, different from the frenzied masses. If that means siding with some shithead MAGA teens and saying that 2 + 2 = 5 in the face of every bit of evidence there is to be had, so be it.