As a young(ish) blogger, I learned, the hard way, that one should never go full-frontal jerk on the Internet. Partly because one should generally eschew jerkhood. And partly because of what happens if facts later prove your initial response was mistaken.
After you’ve been lobbing flaming insults from the moral high ground, any subsequent climbdown is humiliating. Frequently, people are tempted to cling to their increasingly untenable position, which only extends the period during which they look utter fools.
This brings me to Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who over the weekend became the national stand-in for privileged white Trump supporters everywhere.
By now you’ve probably seen the video: a lone Native American beating a traditional drum, surrounded by a mob of shouting white teenage boys, several wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, fresh from Friday’s March for Life in Washington. Sandmann is nearly face to face with the drummer, wearing a slight smile — or a smirk, as it was invariably described Saturday when the story burned through social media like a blowtorch on dry kindling. “Smirking” was probably the kindest thing that was said about Sandmann.
The Post soon located the drummer, activist Nathan Phillips, who had been on the Mall for the Indigenous Peoples March. He said the March for Life participants had begun taunting the indigenous group as they dispersed, including shouting, “Build that wall.” Phillips said he had tried to get away by climbing the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, until Sandmann blocked him as the other boys swarmed around. Phillips and Sandmann were “at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
Denunciations were issued left and right, including from Covington Catholic and its diocese. Then a longer video emerged, which showed that none of this had, well, happened.
The incident didn’t start with white boys harassing Native Americans; it started with them being harassed with racist and homophobic epithets by a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites. Sandmann later said in a statement that the students chanted school cheers as an attempt to drown out the abuse. In the longer video, it sounds like an impromptu pep rally, not a Trump event.
Phillips walked straight into their circle, past a clear pathway up the steps, and banged his drum near their faces. In context, the boys seem more confused than threatening — there are shouts of “Does anyone know what’s going on?” as they continue cheering and jumping. Sandmann repeatedly bites his lip and looks down, as people do when they’re uncomfortable and unsure of what to do.
After the longer video emerged, Phillips told a very different story to the Detroit Free Press; he had, he said, sought to defuse the confrontation between the teens and the Black Hebrew Israelites. He didn’t explain why he thought banging a drum in someone’s face would have a calming effect.
In the longer video, as Phillips wades in, you can hear one of the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting, “Look at the Make America Great Again hats. Look at the hats!” As the initial narrative collapsed, that cry was echoed by an emerging band of Lynch Mob Truthers.
Many people who saw the longer video quickly apologized; the Truthers held firm. Sure, you couldn’t see any of the awful alleged behavior, but we could see what they are, a large group of white males wearing those hats. At Deadspin, Laura Wagner wrote a piece called “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” harping on how the boys were “draped in racist, misogynist paraphernalia,” rather than what they weren’t doing: threatening Phillips.
I myself think Donald Trump engages in immoral and corrosive racist pandering; I think his supporters are at best gravely mistaken. But “Make America Great Again” hats do not emit reality distortion fields that can change plain facts. Nor do they render those facts irrelevant.
Certainly, the boys could have moved, or ignored the abuse, rather than childishly outshouting their harassers. And at least one boy seems to make a tomahawk chop, which is horribly culturally insensitive.
But then, they are children. The charges against them are now downgraded to “not knowing the proper response when a Native American activist bangs a drum in your face.” And how many teenagers can be expected to have mastered that particular point of etiquette?
Adults, however, can be expected not to yell anti-gay slurs, or bang a drum in a stranger’s face. Which means that other adults can be expected not to single out the teenagers in this episode for failing to behave like grown-ups. And they can also be expected to apologize when they’ve wronged an apparently innocent child.