Attack of the Techno-Lynch Mob

The Covington Lie offered the perfect occasion for the electronic mob to pounce—after temporarily licking its wounds following the BuzzFeed fake news hysteria. And it did so without shame or even much regret after the fact, as Jason Leopold, the BuzzFeed fabulist, ceded center stage to a kindred serial prevaricator, Nathan Phillips. The latter in his 15 minutes of fame did not make a major statement that was not contradicted by an earlier statement or by the facts.

The entire psychodrama boiled down not to what the facts on the ground showed, but rather who each party was perceived innately to be.

On the one side, the suspects were seen as rambunctious teenage kids (thus easy targets not especially schooled in the arts of rhetoric or repartee).

They were white (enough said) and smiling (indicative of their smirking privilege and lack of victim status).

They also were doctrinaire religious (the current upsurge in left-wing Catholic bigotry is our updated version of the “whore of Babylon” smear wave of the 19th century).

They were mostly male (toxic masculinity, Gillette just reminded, is the font et origio of our sins).

They were pro-life, and anti-abortion (insensitive to the reality that an ascendant Planned Parenthood just announced record annual income of $1.67 billion and its highest annual profit in history with $244.8 million).

Some were wearing red Trump MAGA hats (or as Joy Behar justified the lynch mob frenzy, “Because we’re desperate to get Trump out of office. That’s why.”)

Add it up and they were fat targets from Central Casting.

On the other side, the stereotypes were even more striking. Nathan Phillips was Native American (and not just in Elizabeth Warren boutique fashion).

He was a tribal “elder” (apparently deemed “venerable” at 64 in a way Donald Trump is not at 72).

He (falsely) claimed to be a Vietnam War veteran (not necessarily a noble pedigree for the Left unless of minority ancestry, and thus contextualized as someone once “used” to fight someone else’s war).

He was a “peacemaker” and “musician” trying to calm tensions. (Using an indigenous drum, no less, and chanting in the manner of his victimized ancestors).

Phillips in tribal fashion was soft spoken and spun yarns nonstop to the press and media (posing as reconciliatory and as an innocent bypasser who intervened for everyone’s safety.)

Add that all up and we had a Medieval morality play ripe for exploitation. Like racing dogs leaving their starting blocks, the electronic mob sprinted out in competition to lynch the Covington kids within seconds of the initial staged video posting that purportedly showed a supposedly solitary native American “swarmed” by a crowd of young smirking Brett Kavanaughs intent on bullying and blocking the “elder’s” passage.

Supposedly, the young man in his red MAGA hat blocked and then stared Phillips down, as the latter tried in vain to calm the situation with his melodic Native American chants and beats of his drum. It was our Trump-era version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee all over again.

The rest was psychodramatic foolery. Progressives, NeverTrumpers, identity politics activists and associated social justice warriors all rivaled each other to see who might be the first and the most venomous to indict, try, and metaphorically execute the cookie-cutter whites and privileged. In our new race and gender morality, a teenager when confronted by an activist adult must play the adult as the activist adult plays the role of teenager. The idea that an adolescent has a right to stand still when confronted by an agitator in his face, beating a drum is, well, racist. As David Azerrad dryly put it, the Covington teen was guilty of nothing more than “smirking while white.”

The key in these Internet lynchings is to get in first and worst—and keep at it. Yet, in French Revolutionary street style, the initial outraged tweeters and posters were almost automatically seen as passe in a nanosecond: Dox the boys. No, write their school to abort their careers. No, go to their schools and protest at their homes. No, punch them. No, burn them alive. No, stuff them into wood chippers.

I guess the rationale that drove Disney film producer Jack Morrissey to post a photo of a wood chipper, Fargo-style, spitting out blood and entrails with the caption, #MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper, was to be able later among chums to claim the most authentic, creative, and drastic expression of outrage—predicated, of course, on his cowardly assumption that his Disney corporate bosses either would ignore or silently congratulate his edgy editorializing.

We have been here before, from the Tawana Brawley farce and the Duke Lacrosse myth to the Ferguson “hands up, don’t shoot” and the University of Virginia fraternity rape yarns—and dozens of staged truth-to-power race and gender mythologies in between. And we know that past purveyors of those lies, whether Al Sharpton, or the Duke faculty, or Rolling Stone, were hardly contrite, but rightly assumed that because such fantasies could be true in a racist society, then they should have been true–and damn the bothersome facts.

When the correct ingredients are present in these melodramas, the script is predictable. Add Donald Trump and electronic instant communications to the equation, and the result is a guillotining without even a perp walk before the mob. In our case, that translated into mostly suburban, safe, and affluent social justice warriors, eager to find some cheap expression of their singular virtue (as opposed to putting their kids in a barrio school, having universities use summertime empty dorms as sanctuaries for caravan crossers, or moving into East Los Angeles to feel first-hand the dynamics of an exciting new demographic.)

Many of the social media mob were prominent celebrities, directors, writers, intellectuals, and pundits. Apparently, thousands of affluent folks daily scan the internet for stories or rather rumors of social injustice, which they see as opportunities to emphasize their underappreciated righteousness—and thereby easily and on the cheap square the circle of their own privilege. And they weigh in often, given that there are no consequences for misidentification, error, or simple crudity and injustice.

In the proverbial Western, a pot-bellied sheriff with a double-barrel shotgun met the lynchers in the street, as they screamed to hang a suspect without trial. While outnumbered, the sheriff usually made it clear that at least he could blow the head off the loudest and first one to rush the jail. Thus, the cowardly crowd dissipated. But if the sheriff himself was terrified and left town, the mob grew, the jail was breached, and the suspect hanged.

We may have iPhones instead of rope, but human nature has not changed. The competition to appear tough, cruel, defiant—and morally superior—is fed by crowds of anonymous laptop and smartphone shock troops. But what has altered is that we now have no sheriff. Or rather, our town marshal—Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc.—are on the mob’s side, as if the bulwark between civilization and savagery has left the porch, joined the mob, and handed them the keys to the jail.

Our tech giants selectively censor views. They ban “extremism” only when defined as loud counterrevolutionary conservatism. And they warp searches to privilege correct results.

We live in a society, in which defamation and libel are abstractions that we occasionally threaten, but in fact never really reify with convictions and fines. After all, when celebrities rhetorically rival each other, publicly and with impunity, to burn, hang, stab, behead, shoot, and blow up President Trump, we certainly cannot expect a local prosecutor to pursue written threats to the safety and security of parochial school students. So there is no real deterrence to internet lynching, and certainly rewards when those to be strung up are the incorrect color, sex, religion, and ideology.

Had the students acted in the same fashion, but been black and female, attending a pro-abortion rally, wearing pink pussy hats, and staring down a white biker with a real Vietnam combat record who was humming country Western tunes on a bullhorn, then, mutatis mutandis, the same evidence would just as easily and equally have been discarded, and the students would have been deified for speaking truth to the power of a scary alt-Right racist professional provocateur.

So powerful are our myths, that we always print the legend. We accepted the lies that Nathan Phillips was not a fabulist who constructed a fake combat tour, but instead a real Vietnam vet who risked his life to wade into a hostile crowd of white kids to stop them from defaming African-American activists. And for his sacrifice Phillips was then crucified as Christ by latter-day Roman soldiers.

Phillips was also posed as a mere passerby, not in truth a professional protester, liar, and racist, who had a long history of race baiting at staged demonstrations to lasso celebrity and notoriety. The next night he and his band of professional agitators tried to storm a Saturday evening Mass held at Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—and half-succeeded in destroying a solemn service.

We were to accept all the lies that Phillips was a peacemaker rather than a careerist disruptor and racist. His cadre alleged that the boys were yelling “build the wall,” when in fact he and his associates were defaming them as racists.

Again, almost everything Nathan Phillips alleged was untrue: he crossed the street to instigate the confrontation, not the boys. He got into the faces of the boys, not they into his. He banged his drum, not merely stared. His group yelled inflammatory taunts—and served as an intermission between the racist and homophobic slurs leveled at the kids from the unhinged Black Hebrew Israelites, who were not victims but racist provocateurs.

What, then, must we relearn from the latest progressive fantasy?

Media truth is relative. Low truth is bound to bothersome facts that are irrelevant. Higher truth is fact free and deals with cosmic justice: people of color confronting whites. End of story. The reason so many lynchers did not apologize is because their targets were guilty of who they were, not what they did.

Rhetoric not action matters. Professing outrage and virtue signaling count more than actual acts of generosity and charity or the life one lives. Guilt is assuaged not through real contrition or reparatory acts, but virtually through clever social media posting. A man in a Mercedes who makes $1 million a year in Beverly Hills can become just as hip and marginalized a victim, as a college kid shouting in the face of his instructor or a Black Lives Matter protester at Starbucks. And he can keep his money and his lawn man and maid, and enjoy them without guilt—as long as he tells the world that Catholic punk kids need to be mechanically ground up.

The progressive cause feels it is close to victory. Big money is now hard left, whether defined as Michael Bloomberg or Warren Buffett high finance or Silicon Valley’s Apple, Facebook, and Google. Universities, the media, Hollywood, professional sports—they are all now progressive. The 2016 election is seen as an aberration, a road bump on the path to utopia. From now on the Left feels it has the material resources and informational clout to construct any reality it wishes. We can see that clear enough, from Phillips’ apologists who never backed down, but instead insisted that the kids’ faces and “attitude” nonetheless exuded privilege and thus culpability.

Eventually these Reigns of Terror come to an end when a few finally scream that the emperor is naked and push back—but usually only after thousands of lives are ruined. And we are not even close yet to making Internet lynching an unprofitable venture.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.