This shift occurred along a queasy sort of redemptive arc: People judged, and then they were judged in turn. The students’ denouncers, eager to cast these children as the embodiment of Trumpism in all its entitled deplorability, were truth-tellers on Saturday. By Monday, according to the revised consensus, they were emblems of the entire rush-to-judgment, politically correct punditocracy.
In the new reality, which many observers have chosen to define as footage shot from an alternate vantage linked to in an article in the libertarian-leaning Reason, the teens themselves had been harassed by those Hebrew Israelites screaming homophobic profanity. (Hebrew Israelites are members of a religious movement who preach that African Americans are the true descendants of the Israelites in the Bible.) Nathan Phillips, the Native American man, then inserted himself into the confrontation. The boys may have been rambunctious, but by and large they had just stood by. Even the smirk on one student’s face that once inspired such ire was recast as a nervous attempt to defuse the situation.
Somber mea culpas from the mainstream poured forth, promptly followed by self-satisfied self-congratulation. They may have erred at first, the commentators now told us, but they had adjusted their views, even when it did not suit their political inclinations, to accommodate nuance.
The latest wisdom on Covington Catholic only swaps one neatly spun narrative for another. The original story was about how the racist, ignorant superiority that undergirds the Trumpist ideology could move privileged white teenagers to chant “Build the wall,” as Phillips said they did, at someone whose ancestors were here long before theirs. The story now is about how the hyper-polarization of today’s society can move right-thinking Americans to condemn those who do not deserve it.
The first version was concocted by progressives of influence, perhaps with the help of some inauthentic Internet actors, and amplified by news outlets that aired that initial damning video. The second comes from a fancy PR firm with Republican links that was hired to defend the Covington crew. This version, too, has been catapulted to prominence by some of those same outlets, eager to correct what the country suddenly sees as a massive mistake.
The problem is, neither of these distillations captures the truth, which is hidden somewhere in a mess of different segments of different recordings showing different offenses by different parties. It’s true that the Hebrew Israelites shouted invective at the kids, and it is true that the kids chanted school cheers to drown them out. It’s also true that the schoolboys, whether someone else was mean to them beforehand or not, were giggling as they let loose with offensive war whoops and tomahawk chops while a Native American man beat his drum before them. It’s true that one of them ripped his shirt off in a signal of self-assured dominance. And it’s true that a smirk is a smirk.
Most important, it’s true that context demands more than watching a single event from all possible angles. It also means understanding the world where the event happened. Anyone who wears a Make America Great Again hat knows what it stands for, and who it stands against. Anyone with an understanding of American history knows that white people have long made excuses for other white people’s racist behavior — protecting their own as a method of protecting themselves. There’s a sense that outright condemnation often misses some essential reality. But sometimes, instead, condemning what is genuinely condemnable is the most real thing one can do.
The quarrel over the Covington teens is not only a story of social media hate-mobbing. It’s also a story of the groupthinking tendency to hop off a bandwagon as unthinkingly as we hop onto it. More important, it’s a story of our desire to make every cultural controversy fit into a framework that tells some distillable truth about the state of our country today. Any actual truth about the rifts running through America right now can’t be cleanly distilled. That’s a harder story to tell — which might be why so few are trying.