The hubris of youth

There’s a certain age at which boys know everything, and way more than elders with vastly greater knowledge and experience of life. Life is simple then. Should we warn him this lovely simplicity won’t last? Nah, let him enjoy this moment and find that out in good season. Read story here and here.

Update: This incident has become a major news story, with conflicting accounts of what happened and the motives of those involved. Mother Jones offers its opinion of what are the best articles about it here.

The student in the photo, in a statement issued through a public relations firm hired by his family, says he was trying to defuse the situation. His statement, and conservative media reporting, make reference to a group of four “Black Israelite” provocateurs who were taunting the student group and the Indigeneous Peoples group, but don’t explain why the student might have thought the Native American drummer, identified as Nathan Phillips, was associated with that group. Read that story here and here.

Analysis and Opinion: It seems pretty clear from news reports that three disparate groups converged in the same space at the Lincoln Memorial: A group of students from a private Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky, who had just participated in a Right to Life March, a small group of Native American demonstrators, and four troublemakers (the “Black Israelite” demonstrators) who taunted both of the other two groups.

As the story continues to build in intensity, public opinion is largely lining up along partisan lines, with liberals portraying the Covington students as bratty rich kids, and conservatives coming to their defense.

I don’t think the conservatives have a good case, but I think everyone should cut the kids some slack, and at the end of this piece I’ll propose a solution. Now let’s break it down.

  1. Normally, at demonstrations, police keep groups separated to prevent incidents. Where were the Capitol Police when this happened? On furlough while Donald Trump holds out for funding for his wall? If the government shutdown has anything to do with the police not being there to control this situation, then Trump has fault in this.
  2. The student in the video, now identified as Nick Sandmann, claims he was trying to defuse the situation. But most people viewing the video will agree, if they’re honest about it, that Sandmann’s body language and facial expression is telegraphing a challenge to Nathan Phillips, the Native American drummer, who has made it clear in interviews that he interpreted Sandmann’s actions as threatening.
  3. Here are three other things wrong with Sandmann’s explanation, besides his behavior toward Phillips. (1) The fact a P.R. firm is doing his talking suggests, putting it gently, that he’s being coached and his statement was contrived to make him look good. (2) His story just doesn’t ring true to me. If there was a situation that needed defusing, why didn’t he and his fellow students summon the assistance of their adult chaperones, who were at the scene? That’s what adult chaperones are there for, and they’re much better suited to deal with “situations” than inexperienced kids are. (3) Finally, even the National Review, an influential conservative publication, says: “We’ll stipulate that the Catholic boys from a high school in Kentucky were a little obnoxious when an indigenous man named Nathan Phillips banged a drum at them in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Friday.” (Source here. The N.R. added that “Phillips was being a lot more obnoxious,” but hey, when even staunch defenders of conservative ideals like N.R. won’t defend your behavior, it’s not defensible.) Summing up, I know PR b.s. when I see it.
  4. Other members of Sandmann’s group later claimed they began singing school chants to defuse the situation, but that’s nonsense. They clearly were mocking and insulting the Native Americans. Everyone there saw them doing “tomahawk chops,” and that was captured on video. And that’s not all; they randomly harassed a white woman and her friends, too (see video here).
  5. In an interview with NBC News a few days later (read about it here), Sandmann said he wishes the incident hadn’t happened, but when asked if he owed anyone an apology, he said no, because he had a “right to be there.” Yes and no, mostly no. Public spaces belong to all of us, and we all have a right to “be there,” but the rules of social behavior and common courtesies still apply. Even in public spaces, you don’t really have a right to stand directly in front of someone and block their path. You’re supposed to let them pass. And if your behavior is menacing, you can be charged with assault (if you touch the person, it becomes assault and battery). Sandmann had a right to be in that area, but he didn’t have a right to challenge Phillips to a physical altercation, which is what his actions would look like to almost any American who hasn’t spent his entire life under a rock.
  6. The school itself has a problematical history. A photo has surfaced of Covington students in blackface at a basketball game. This is almost universally considered racist. Even worse, one of the students is taunting a black player and flashing a “white power” sign with his hand. Where is the teacher and parental supervision? Do the administrators who run this school let their students go to sporting events and do whatever? (Read that story here.) And if the school tolerates racism, and its students have a history of racist behavior, and were engaging in what looks like racist behavior (the “tomahawk chop”) at the incident in question, then why aren’t we entitled to believe the clash between the students and the Native American group was motivated by racism?

It’s possible this is all a great big misunderstanding, that two people who were simultaneously trying to defuse a tense situation, which is what both claim they were doing, accidentally got in each other’s way and came across to the other as aggressive. That could happen. Lots of things get misinterpreted in crowds, especially when everybody is hyped. But I just don’t believe that’s what happened.

Here’s my take. In today’s political climate, wearing a MAGA hat is provocative, given Trump’s history of inciting racism and violence against protesters and journalists at his rallies. You absolutely have a right to support Trump and fly your Trump freak flag by wearing his hat! I’m not saying otherwise. But some political allegiances and opinions are inferior to others, and I’m sorry, but if you’re wearing a MAGA hat I’m going to doubt your judgment right off the bat. Smart people aren’t followers of charlatans or demagogues.

A MAGA hat is a form of expression, as is beating a drum, but I just don’t put MAGA hats and traditional Native American drumming and chanting in the same basket. Do you? To me, a MAGA hat says “idiot.” To many people, it also says “racist,” so if you wear one in a racially charged setting you run the risk of people you encounter thinking you’re a racist idiot. That’s your privilege, but they have as much right to judge your ideology as you have to flaunt your ideology in their faces. However, if I encounter these people in public, I won’t confront them or say anything because I’m not looking for a fight, and they have a right to their opinions, and to not be harassed about their opinions. That’s a basic social norm in this country. This is a little different in demonstrations and protests, though, because if you go in public for the express purpose of making political statements, then you’re inviting others to engage with you, and you have no complaint if they express their opinions, including their opinion of your opinion.

But I think everyone should cut this kid some slack. We don’t hold children to adult standards, because they aren’t fully formed yet and need some room to make mistakes in order to learn from their mistakes. In addition, being young and inexperienced in life, Sandmann probably doesn’t yet understand crowd dynamics or appreciate the high potential for body language to be misinterpreted in this sort of heated setting.

What to do about it? I think the school should organize a field trip to a Native American cultural center, where their students can spend a day learning about the Native American experience during the settlement of our continent by European immigrants, and learn something of their culture including the significance of drums, songs, and dances. The hope is they would come away from this educational experience with a better understanding of the diversity of our society and a greater tolerance for the other members of our society.


0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Respect your elders #

    Some of us in our youth didn’t make our elders cry.

    Some of us were taught to respect our elders and that stuck.

    Are his Republican parents proud of him or ashamed of his boorish behavior of bullying a Native American Vietnam Veteran?

    An apology needs to be forthcoming for this ass-hat wearer’s behavior.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    He’ll be famous by tomorrow. The internet doesn’t forget or forgive. If you want to know where these kids get it from, click on the second link, and read what one of their parents had to say.