Some expert in Bayesian probability ought to come up with an algorithm that would enable us to determine which of the multifarious daily outrages are going to catch on and, as the internet has taught us to say, “go viral.” Remember that hysterical (I do not mean “funny”) Yale student who was videoed screaming at the (as the title then was) master of her college at Yale because his wife had suggested the college had no business policing students’ Halloween costumes? That was an instant sensation and (I am happy to say) helped popularize the term “crybullies,” meaning the timid yet vicious creatures who, nurturing a hyperactive sense of grievance, seek to weaponize their coveted if generally make-believe status as victims.
But why that episode? Every day, or at least every week or two, there are equally outrageous examples of moralistic hysteria that, even if they are widely reported, die a quiet death as the news cycle buries every yesterday beneath the importunate clamoring of now, now, now . . .
I do not have an answer to this question. I merely note the puzzling fact and repeat my wish for the haruspex who can plumb the entrails of this beast and tell us if it is slouching towards notoriety.
Kavanaughesque In Its Viciousness
When I wrote about the now-infamous Covington Boys incident last Sunday, I had no idea that it would become the most sensational story of the week. I wrote before seeing the longer video of the incident but, even so, thought that the cataract of abuse that the boys were subjected to was way over the top. I acknowledged, “of all human passions, the passion of moral self-righteousness is the most delicious,” but went on to observe that “the problem is, the people who are the objects of our indignation often present a more complicated reality than we first assume.”
So, of course, it turned out to be with the boys from Covington Catholic. The boys did not approach or taunt the drum-beating fake-Vietnam-vet creep of an Indian activist Nathan Phillips. On the contrary, he waded in among them, obnoxiously taunting them while my new favorite group of wackos, the Black Hebrew Israelites, hurled a variety of racist and sexual slurs at the high school students as they waited for a bus to whisk them back to Kentucky after their participation in the annual pro-life March for Life.
Neither fact was clear from the original brief clip of the incident. The pretend Tonto, beating his drum, and skirling incoherently, stands there in front of Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-behatted Covington Catholic student whose visage has burned up the internet this last week. Sandmann just stands there smiling uncertainly. (His expression was widely derided as a “smirk,” but I disagree with that diagnosis: I think it is a nervous smile). His schoolmates stand behind him clapping and cheering and generally comporting themselves as well-brought-up male teenagers should when suddenly confronted by unexpected rudeness.
The wild abuse these boys, and especially Sandmann (whose name was not known for a day or two) was Brett Kavanaughesque in its viciousness and utter lack of foundation. Also for its promiscuous nature. Catholic bishops and officials from the boys’ school joined CNN lefties and HuffPo brats in calling down anathema on his head. A school announcement mentioned expulsion as a possible response to his behavior, while an angry lefty contacted a college to which she thought he had applied to encourage administrators not to admit him. (Actually, the instigator of this vile intervention got the name wrong, something for which she later apologized, without, nota bene, apologizing to Sandmann.) Then came the death threats and public shaming and calls for violence, credible enough that Covington Catholic was shuttered for a few days. The boys’ parents meanwhile have lawyered up and I wish them well in their defamation suits.
Where Conservatives Went Wrong
One of the most bizarre and disturbing aspects of this mob frenzy was the participation of many conservative figures and institutions in the ritual denunciations. Most of the truly egregious posts and tweets have since been removed, an understandable response but one that in my view comes close to being an abnegation of responsibility. I doubt, as some commentators have pointed out, that removing the offending material will achieve the absolution they now seek. The damage is done and is not undone by concealing the weapons that inflicted it.
In part, this side of the episode reflects the universality of that “passion for moral self-righteousness” I mentioned in my original thoughts about the episode. But it also bespeaks a disturbing phenomenon on the right, one that Mark Steyn has anatomized with his customary insight.
There is, Steyn noted, a “strange need of the right to virtue-signal to their detractors—as in the stampede of congressional Republicans to distance themselves from their colleague Steve King over an infelicitous interview with The New York Times.” Just so. And here is the kicker: “Democrats never do this; Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam declare that the Jews are pushing defective marijuana on black men in order to turn them gay—which would appear to be a prima facie slur on at least four Democrat constituencies: blacks, gays, Jews and potheads. Yet Clinton, Obama et al speak not a word against Calypso Louie.”
What Exactly Were They Guilty Of?
There has been an abrupt but not universal about-face in the aftermath of the release of the longer video showing what actually happened by the Lincoln Memorial last weekend. Some have issued full-throated and sincere apologies for their hasty denunciations. Others have issued half-apologies acknowledging that they were too quick off the mark, that their “tone” was inappropriate, or that they were sorry but were understandably blinded by the the fact that many of the boys were wearing MAGA hats, were white, were part of a pro-life March, etc.
Still others have dug in and redoubled their attacks. Sandmann in particular is still the object of widespread denunciation and ridicule. The unfunny anti-Trump comedian Bill Maher, for example, attacked what he called Mr. Sandmann’s “smirk-face” and went on to blame him and his schoolmates for the encounter with Nathan Phillips.
Stepping back from the episode, one gets the sense that most conservative commentators are inexpressibly grateful for the the release of that longer video. It offered a the perfect instrument of expiation. “If only we had known about the Black Hebrew Israelites,” they seem to have said, “if only we had known that Nathan Phillips was the instigator, and a mountebank to boot, then we would not have come down on these boys like a ton of bricks and tried to ruin their lives. Thank God for the video.”
Except that neither Nick Sandmann nor the other Covington Catholic boys required the longer video to be exonerated. As I noted above, even the original clip, although it does not show the BHIs or Nathan Phillips’ instigations, shows nothing incriminating about the boys. They neither say nor do anything untoward. The Heritage Foundation’s David Azerrad underscores this aspect of the episode. “Suppose,” he asks us to ponder, “the second video had never come out and the Covington Catholic High School boys had not been exonerated.” What then? “What exactly would the boys have been guilty of based on the 3 minutes and 44 seconds of footage in that first video?”
Answer: nothing. “No one laid a finger on Nathan Phillips and the other two Native Americans banging their drums and chanting. No one yelled at them. No one insulted them. No one asked them to leave. The boys chanted along and acted silly. They surrounded the men in order to see what was happening, the way any crowd would if someone was making noise or playing an instrument in public. They were all smiling and being rather good-natured.”
A Moment to Reassess Political Correctness
So, why the hysterical rage? Why the calls to destroy these boys? Why the eructation of moral preening, from the Right just as much as from the Left?
I think there is a specific answer and a more general one. The specific answer is Donald Trump, for whom the MAGA hats were effective metonymies. Donald Trump has driven certain segments of the American public, especially the elite American public, mad, as exhibitions over the Covington Catholic boys vividly illustrates.
The more general answer has to do with the poison of political correctness and identity politics, which have warped our civic discourse and blinded us to elementary truths.
A middle-aged Indian beating a drum and chanting wildly has no greater presumption of moral dignity than a white, Trump-supporting boy who participates in a pro-life march. But that is precisely what the imperatives of political correctness demand we acknowledge.
The public—though not, for the most part, the academic elite—has reacted with condign disgust at the treatment of the boys from Covington Catholic. It knows that Nathan Phillips is no more “native American” than Nick Sandmann: both were born here and have equal title to American natality. And it senses that the culprit is the political correctness that has distorted our common life and even our ability to speak the truth about sensitive issues. If there is a silver lining in this disturbing episode, it is that public revulsion at this episode may, just possibly, spark a reconsideration of our ill-advised and demeaning adherence to the tenets of political correctness.
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