Why Progressives Can’t Admit They Were Wrong About the MAGA Kids

It’s easier to blame “privilege” than it is to seek the truth.
January 28, 2019
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After all its twists and turns, the saga of the white teenagers in “Make America Great Again” hats supposedly harassing a Native American elder on the National Mall brings to mind Gilda Radner’s 1970s Saturday Night Live shtick as “Emily Litella,” the concerned citizen who would go on television to deliver an impassioned monologue on a current issue such as “violins on television” or “saving Soviet jewelry.” After a while, the host would gently interrupt to point out that it was actually “violence” or “Jewry”—whereupon Emily would pause in befuddlement and then, with a sheepish grin, deliver her signature line: “Never mind!”

“Never mind” is pretty much what happened to the initial version of this story—the one in which vicious Trumpenjugend boys chanting “Build that wall” accosted, mobbed, and jeered an elderly veteran attending an indigenous people’s rally. This was already exposed as fiction by the end of Day One. And yet more than a week later, large swathes of progressive punditry are still in denial about the collapse of their perfect iconic moment while others are trying to salvage some version of that moment. Yet in the process, they are boosting some key Trumpian narratives: rampant “fake news” and white victimization by “social justice warriors.”

Ironically, this hotly disputed incident is documented in some of the most extensive video footage of any recent news story. We know beyond doubt that it was Omaha tribe elder Nathan Phillips who accosted the teens, students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, with the apparent intent of intervening in a confrontation between them and several black preachers from a cult known as the Black Hebrew Israelites, themselves listed as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. We know that the “smirking boy” in the viral video, Nick Sandmann, did not get in Phillips’s face but stood still while Phillips got in his face, banging a drum. None of the extensive footage captured any “build that wall” chants. What’s more, Philips’s claim that he intervened because the boys were threatening the black men was entirely wrong: The preachers were the ones repeatedly taunting the boys with racist and homophobic insults.

That leaves the boys’ offenses downgraded to disrespectful behavior once they were confronted by Phillips (and several other Native American demonstrators). How disrespectful? That seems largely a matter of subjective perception. The whooping, jumping, and dancing has been interpreted as a mocking imitation of native chants; but the fuller video shows that it began before Phillips showed up, as part of an impromptu pep rally meant to counter and drown out preachers’ taunts. When Phillips comes up drumming and chanting, some boys appear to react by clapping and chanting along; Vox’s Zack Beauchamp believes it’s “problematic” for white kids to do that regardless of intent, but I doubt this is a big deal for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to “cultural appropriation” taboos. Were the boys cheering Phillips, initially thinking that he was being friendly? Were some mocking and taunting him? It’s impossible to tell. One, perhaps two, can be seen doing “tomahawk chop” gestures, which is at best stupid and insensitive, at worst nasty and racist. But that’s one or two boys in a large crowd, and definitely not Sandmann.

Faced with the new evidence—first summarized and publicized by Reason’s Robby Soave about 24 hours after the initial reports—many people who had rushed to condemn the teens retracted and apologized (perhaps none more graciously than tech journalist Kara Swisher, who tweeted that she’d been “a dolt” to put up several “obnoxious tweets” without waiting for the full story).  But there was also a lot of furious digging in—with much of the fury directed at the mainstream media supposedly duped by conservative “gaslighting.”

A number of people, including Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery, suggested that the full videos made the teens look worse. Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman tweeted a link to a “firsthand account” by one of the indigenous demonstrators, Hunter Hooligan, supposedly refuting the teenagers’ defense—a day after that account had been thoroughly discredited by multiple videos, including ones posted on the Native American news site Indian Country Today. (Incidentally, Hooligan’s confabulation is still up on the The Cut, a website published by New York magazine, with no update or disclaimer.)

A belligerent piece by Deadspin’s Lara Wagner, rather amusingly titled, “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” insisted that the initial reaction to the viral video was righteous and castigated the journalists who revised the story. They were, Wagner colorfully wrote, “doing the work of the gibbering masturbators who had risen up in defense of the MAGA teens” in a pathetic attempt to prove their objectivity. Along the way, Wagner puzzlingly claimed that the Atlantic headline, “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test: Next time there’s a viral story, I’ll wait for more facts to emerge,” contained “transparently coded racist language.” (Or perhaps she was referring to the article itself; I couldn’t find it anything racist there either, but I obviously don’t have Wagner’s special decoder ring.)

If someone decides to do “Worst Pundit Takes on the Covington Catholic Story” awards, Wagner’s screed may be tied with a later Guardian commentary by Jason Wilson, who lamented that conservatives today “can construct a parallel reality and have it accepted” by the liberal media. Among other things, Wilson would have us believe that a YouTube video with “clear and concise edits showing how aggressive and provocative the teens were” is more reliable than the full footage and that the actions of the Black Israelites (“a group unrelated either to the students or to Native protesters”) should be completely irrelevant to the discussion, even though their incitement directly precipitated the students’ encounter with Phillips.

Meanwhile, Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham simply ignored all the evidence exonerating the teens, dismissing it as “ridiculous spin” and “mendacious nonsense” peddled by the Sandmann family and lapped up by a bigotry-riddled culture. “To indict these terrible teens, swathes of white America must indict itself,” she wrote, calling the boys racists and “MAGA hat hyenas.” Graham also erroneously referred to Phillips as a “Vietnam veteran.” (He served in the Marine Corps reserve in 1972-1976 and has called himself a “Vietnam-era” vet, making a lot of ambiguous statements that were almost certainly intended to promote the misunderstanding.) There is no correction in sight.

One could go on and on. The attempts to rescue the narrative also included a frenzied and unseemly rush to find something else to pin on the Covington Catholic kids—from more out-of-context video snippets to bad things other Covington students may have done.

There was the 8-second clip posted by an activist attending the Women’s March that supposedly showed several boys from the school yelling “MAGA” and “Build the wall” at some teenage girls walking by, sometime before their altercation with Phillips. (The faces are blurry, though one of the boys does seem to be wearing a Covington Catholic knit cap, and the words are indistinct.) There was the snippet of a boy calling out, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it” during the altercation on the Mall; Playboy writer Amee Vanderpool, who posted it, admitted herself that she doesn’t know if the boy is a Covington student, and later added that a longer version of the video shows another boy saying, “He does not go to Covington Catholic.” (Another poster pointed out that the boy’s bad joke was a response to a rape taunt from the “Black Israelites.”)

The hunt for incriminating material also dug up a photo from a 2011 basketball game at Covington Catholic High where students were supposedly taunting a black player while wearing blackface. As the fact-checking website Snopes pointed out, the photo came from a “blackout game” where some kids in the cheering section wore black paint—part of the tradition of face- and body-painting at sports events. Many were quick to see proof of an entrenched climate of bigotry at the school; suggestions that such a practice wasn’t necessarily seen as offensive seven years ago were met with incredulous scoffing. But, well … it wasn’t. Arizona State University, hardly a hotbed of white supremacism, didn’t start discouraging black face paint at blackout games until 2014—around the same time Covington Catholic apparently banned it.

(There was an even more absurd controversy about Covington basketball players flashing “white power” signs at a 2015 game—otherwise known as the sign for a three-point shot.)

Amid the derangement, some progressive commentators have tried to find a middle ground. At Vox, Beauchamp concludes that “it’s impossible to know with certainty who has a more accurate read of the situation”; The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer concedes that the teens were unfairly vilified but thinks the sympathetic narrative is an “overcorrection.” Likewise, GQ’s Mari Uyehara credits the full context of the incident but insists the boys are now being let off the hook too easily.

But is this a reasonable middle? No reasonable person thinks the Covington boys are saints or martyrs; however, Serwer himself admits that the responses to their supposed crime included “calls for doxing, violence, or permanent shunning,” as well as death threats that at one point forced the school to shut down. The critics of “overcorrection” fault Soave and others for describing the students’ reaction to the Black Hebrew Israelites as “calm and restrained,” pointing to their raucous pep rally. But the videos also show plenty of moments where the teens calmly conversed with both the preachers (who called them “crackers” and “incest babies”) and with the Native American activists (one of whom told them to “go back to Europe”). There is even, as Soave points out, support for Sandmann’s claims that he tried to defuse the confrontation: at one point, he signals a classmate not to argue.

Both Beauchamp and Uyehara also try, at least partially, to defend the original narrative. Uyehara writes that it’s “undeniable” that some of the boys “mocked [Phillips] with tomahawk chops, dancing, and laughter”; Beauchamp insists that “it’s … clear some of the kids were making racist gestures.” I think they overstate the case considerably; Beauchamp himself says elsewhere in the article that only one boy was definitely doing a tomahawk chop. And Uyehara’s search for additional incriminating clues leads her to do some reaching of her own. She notes when one of the Black Israelites taunts, “Y’all got one n****r in the crowd,” two Covington boys shoot back, “No, we’ve got two” and “We got one at home but he ain’t here.” Uyehara reads this, very uncharitably, as a de facto use of the slur by the boys, “a remarkably disgusting way to speak about students of color.” But the disgusting language comes from the black preacher; are the boys endorsing it, or sarcastically pushing back? (These are, remember, two teenagers involved in a heated exchange with aggressive strangers.) Uyehara never mentions that the boys also told their black classmate, “We love you!”, or that these Catholic schoolboys in town for a pro-life march reacted the most vehemently to the Black Israelites’ anti-gay slurs such as, “You give faggots rights!

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To be sure, not all the bad behavior in this depressing saga has been on the left. Some on the right who quickly jumped on the chance to use the Covington boys for political mileage and literal profit. Some in the MAGA camp saw the incident as an opportunity to bash “Never Trump” Republicans who were initially critical of the teenagers based on inaccurate reports—and  explicitly suggested that conservatives should have given the kids the benefits of the doubt because “this is my tribe.”

And yet overall, the left owns this debacle. No, the Covington boys are not martyrs and their lives haven’t been ruined, as some have suggested. Still, they are teenagers who suddenly found themselves at the center of fifteen minutes of infamy that included calls for lifelong ostracism and physical harm. When the pro-Trump website The American Mind runs a piece on the Covington story titled “Smirking While White,” it’s easy to decry this as an appeal to “the alt-right’s white victimization and grievance complex”; but the uncomfortable fact is that it’s a fairly accurate description of much left-of-center commentary.

The Covington kids’ victimhood may   been exaggerated; that does not make the conduct of their detractors any less reprehensible. Too many progressives have shown themselves to be just as prone to disregard for truth, reality denial, wild conjectures and paranoid fantasies as the worst of Trumpist “deplorables.” They have also provided a dramatic example of the peculiar “woke” morality in which, as David Frum once wrote, the sole standard for judgment in any situation is to identify and blame “the bearer of privilege.” You don’t need to have warm feelings toward MAGA hats to see that this stance is profoundly inimical to both justice and truth.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday, a contributing editor to Reason, and an associate editor at ArcDigital.