The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.
The clash between the rowdy teens of Covington Catholic and the stoic drumming of Native American activist Nathan Phillips is a perfect Magarorschach test—that’s when you somehow work an image of a MAGA hat into one of Hermann Rorschach’s original inkblots.* The standoff and resulting social media meltdown syncs with America’s fault-lines better than any meme or post dreamt up by the fanciest of bears working inside the Russian disinformation machine.
As good as that machine has become at inflaming America, it has nothing on Americans ourselves.
The confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial jabbed a finger at the most sensitive nerve within the cavity that is the national discourse. It had everything: Trump, white kids, a Native American elder, black cultists in the background throwing anti-gay invective, abortion, (remember, the teens were there for the March for Life), and forensic videography. The only way it would have been more polarizing would be if the footage had been found on Anthony Weiner’s hard drive.
By now the vindication of the inappropriate teens of Covington Catholic has bled into near victimhood, with central figure Nick Sandmann having comported himself well enough on the Today show, mainly by acting appropriately overwhelmed. A backlash to the backlash to the reframing of outrage may yet occur, but for now there is no second smirker theory. So let me use this opportunity to recast the impertinent teens of Covington Catholic. With apologies to Mr. Overton, I aim to move the Covington window from a consideration of the teens as cruel/evil to insensitive/buffoonish.
The thing to remember about the dumbass teens of Covington Catholic is that while they are dumbasses, they are also teens. They take their cues from adult instruction and cultural messages. Their chaperones failed them in not thinking of a different course of action. Instead they allowed their charges to play the dozens with the Black Hebrew Israelites, a collective of notorious provocateurs. And I blame the adults for allowing the wearing of MAGA hats. That headgear is more than an endorsement of a political figure—it’s a rebuke to any claim to faith-based compassion.
A phrase some Catholics use to describe their social teachings is the “seamless garment.” It is the concept of the “consistent life ethic” that considers all life worth protecting—from fetuses to murderers—and also extends concern to nuclear weapons and the treatment of prisoners of war. The MAGA hat is the embodiment of a president who gleefully calls for the execution of convicted criminals, accused criminals and even exonerated non-criminals. To wear the hat doesn’t mean the clueless teens of Covington Catholic are ipso facto embodiments of privilege, power, and malice. But it does indicate they were poorly supervised, and that Sandmann’s “silent prayer” of de-escalation was to a warped kind of deity.
The worst act of the obnoxious teens of Covington Catholic was to engage in the “tomahawk chop” and accompanying chant in the face of an actual Native American. That said, two days after the showdown, football fans rooted for the Kansas City Chiefs with that exact gesture and similar chanting, as touched off by the beating of a big, faux-ceremonial war drum.
The presence of these chants in a sporting context does not excuse them in this one—aimed at an activist attending the Indigenous Peoples March. But it is the job of the adults to make clear the difference of those contexts, or perhaps to change the norms in all contexts.
To Ben Shapiro and Laura Ingraham and Donald Trump, the teens of Covington Catholic are heroes, with their heroism lying mostly in the fact that they caused the libs to own themselves. To those who have not tempered their condemnation one bit, like Laura Wagner writing in Deadspin, news organizations that pulled back on their initial assessments are “so eager to perform reasonableness” because their desire to be seen as level-headed “is more important than reporting the most accurate version of the truth”.
This doesn’t resonate with me at all. When I convey to listeners (or readers) my most careful and full interpretation of what happened, I don’t use “accuracy” to seem reasonable. I use reason to be accurate. I’d rather save my outrage for that which is outrageous and be set aflame only by that which is incendiary, not that which is stupid.
By the way: One of the more interesting defenses of the foolish teens of Covington Catholic was that though they were accused of shouting “Build the wall!” There is no video evidence of that. Think about that. “Build the wall!” is the signature proposal of the president of the United States. It is the issue animating the most pressing short term dispute in America today (the shutdown). It is also shorthand for fighting words. Every conservative commentator who came to the defense of the obnoxious teens of Covington Catholic cited the fact that they, while perhaps obnoxious, did not say “Build the wall!” That’s remarkable—to not endorse the president’s platform out loud is cited as exculpatory, often by the very same people who think building a wall is the right policy.
In any event, I have a strong suspicion that if we never saw this video, Phillips, Sandmann, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and all the people in each of their social groups would be going on with their lives today largely unaffected. I don’t think the petty mockery of ill-mannered teens would have seared itself onto the conscience of Phillips for years or even days to come. “What a bunch of jerks,” he probably would have said, and moved on.
We have as a country expelled so much angst, so much societal tsuris over deeds best considered ignorant, rude, and forgettable. The Russians know us well. They’re so good at exploiting our fissures because we jump to outrage over actions that often fail to rise above irksome. The bothersome teens of Covington Catholic aren’t heroes or horrors. They’re not victims or villains. They’re symptoms of this fever that we ought to contemplate with our intellect, not lash out against with our emotions.
Correction, Jan. 24, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Hermann Rorschach’s first name as Herman.
This piece has been updated to include the term Magarorschach and the author’s definition of it.