By the time you receive this we will be well into stage three of the Covington Catholic high school scandal that erupted over the weekend. The brief video of a young white male wearing a MAGA hat
(surrounded by other mostly young white men) engaged in a staring contest with an elderly Native American Nathan Phillips chanting consumed social media, drawing the March for Life and nearly everyone else into its wake. As many people observed, the image was strikingly similar to those from the 60s of white people gathering around black Americans
, intimidating them with leering grins that remind me of scavengers gathering around their prey. The video thus played perfectly upon people’s prior assumptions about pro-lifers wearing MAGA hats and their purported callousness about race. For most of the world, that will be the end of the story.
There’s more, though, as there always is. Confession: I allowed myself to be pulled along and described publicly the boy’s actions as “reprehensible.” I did so, in fact, after seeing a slightly longer video which I thought (and mused privately) showed Phillips walking through the crowd of boys looking for a ‘mark.’ On Sunday, an even longer video came out that showed what a powder-keg the situation was
: a Black Hebrew street preacher harangues the boys, describing them as school shooters (1:10), after starting the video haranguing nearby Native Americans for not believing in the right God.
Unsurprisingly, people were inclined to analyze the particularities of the young man’s smile during the shortest video, as it was a peculiarly captivating encounter. On one interpretation
, his grin conveys the smug superiority of the untouchable. But look again, knowing that Phillips has wandered into the middle of the crowd, and the smile seems less comfortable, less self-assured; he’s acutely conscious about all the people watching, and steels himself to remain in a staring contest with an adult, knowing that the whole thing has become a test of power. Eventually people watching ask “what’s happening?” Which is the right question.
(I wrote this before the young man released his statement, which basically confirms that’s what he was thinking.
On Sunday, we entered Phase Two of the Internet Scandal Script. Now the young men are exonerated, effectively becoming victims of an activist’s prowess. And the young man was, in a real sense, even if one might also infer—perhaps not unreasonably, even if falsely—that the group had started the school cheers to drown out the haranguing street preacher
, thereby escalating the situation. (But what, seriously, could they do?) Phase Three of the Script requires that people suggest that the whole matter is even more
complicated than adults using young men for their political narratives. Just as one might think the young men are innocent of any real wrongdoing, one might also think such exonerating evidence might itself
blind us to deeper, structural conditions within American society and
within political conservatism which brought us to the point where we are talking about this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Such reasoning might go something like this.
And for many Americans, MAGA means something beyond mere support for Trump’s appointments of Gorsuch and and Kavanaugh. It is entangled with Trump’s approaches to immigration and the wall, and the broader questions of race in American life. Whatever else we think of the politics, as a matter of provocation its unsurprising that a group of high school males would take to it: the only class of people who enjoys getting under people’s skin as much as 16 year old males are activists. Both groups happened to converge on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this weekend, but only one set can claim the naivety of youthfulness: the adults got what they wanted.
But if the MAGA high schoolers don’t matter, I cannot help but think the Nazi saluters do. These things come from somewhere, after all. While events are publicized more often these days, it’s hard for me to imagine that it has always been the case that groups of white high school males felt free to take photos that even appear to be showing a Nazi salute. I have vague memories of racist jokes and comments being thrown around the lower-class, mostly white schools I attended in my youth. But when my peers wanted to push the boundaries of acceptability, they used gang signs—or they hooked up. It’s the overtness of the symbols in those cases that is so shocking to me, and the fact that almost everyone seems to be going along with it. Am I right to be troubled, or am I too nostalgic for an age that simply didn’t exist?
Not long after the election, I had an argument with a conservative pro-Trump, pro-life writer who asked me what my concrete concern about the administration was. Among other problems, I suggested, inflaming racial tensions by shifting the window for acceptable speech and behavior. But how do we measure that? It’s too simplistic to draw a straight line between Trump and what happened this weekend. Except, perhaps, in this way: Trump provokes, and so people are disposed to think that those who wear MAGA are doing likewise.
This weekend’s furor was heaped upon the March for Life, which is both unfair and inevitable given the movement’s close identification at this point with the President. By aligning itself so closely with Trump, the movement inherited the worst of his cultural effects. The differences between anti-Trump and pro-Trump pro-lifers in 2016 was easy: what counts as ‘success’ for the movement is exceedingly clear and defined (judges, more judges, and maybe a signed bill), while what counts as ‘failure’ or harm is theoretical, elusive, intangible. The movement made itself susceptible to just the kind of association that happened this weekend, in exchange for justices. Whether the trade-off was the right one, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, it seems to me that this is why President Trump’s flagrant disregard of norms about marriage and sex actually matters for our society, and for the pro-life movement. While I am averse to expanding the ‘pro-life’ label beyond what happens within the womb, it seems obvious to me that it is impossible to be pro-life without a deep concern for the structure of relationships out of which life emerges: for marriage. The pro-life movement has actively sought to avoid the association, for obvious reasons. But if the movement is trying to build a pro-life culture, it cannot do so without simultaneously encouraging prospective parents to form new lives justly.
Which brings me back to this weekend: what happens if a juvenile delight in taboo-breaking grows weary of sex, because our society no longer promises them boundaries that they may transgress? High schoolers have seen all the porn, and if they haven’t all their friends have. A group of people who might be particularly disposed toward rabblerousing might turn the only taboo left: race. If you utter a sexually-based profanity in public, few people will even notice or care. But if you use a racial epithet, you will lose your job. As I’ve said before, if nothing is sacred nothing can be profaned, and at this point race is sacred if anything is. Clinton began the desacralization of marriage: Trump has finished it, and has instead provoked at the last point he could. If that’s right, though, we should expect to see more events happen like this weekend in the years to come, not fewer.
This is longer than I meant, and on a more immediate topic than I’d planned on. Regular scheduling will return Wednesday. But it seems fitting on this day to reflect on how far American society has come in our treatment of each other, but also how fragile those gains are, and how far we yet have to go.