At the risk of diving into the debate of what really happened in the confrontation between a group of white Covington Catholic High students and Native Americans, I suspect many individuals will interpret what they saw take place based on their own prejudices and allegiances to Donald Trump or their contempt and animus towards Trump. Personally, I view wearing a Trump MAGA hat as the nearest thing one can do to donning KKK robes without actually doing so. My Republican "friends" will object, but supporting a vile racist who espouses racist policies, like it or not, makes one a racist or at best a white supremacist sympathizer. Thus, the Covington students wearing MAGA hats to me do not merit the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, as a column in the Washington Post points out, one can sometimes be intimidating and threatening without violence. A smug smile or sneer can speak volumes as many in the LGBT know from first hand experience. Given other stories surfacing about the bigotry and homophobia rampant at Covington Catholic, I suspect these students who are now proclaiming their innocence may, in fact, have know precisely what they were doing. Here are column highlights:
“Rorschach test” already feels like such a weary metaphor for what happened last weekend on the Mall between a Covington Catholic High School student and a Native American elder. But it’s hard to think of another recent incident that’s metastasized so quickly and been interpreted so disparately — an insight into how you see the world and how you understand your place in it.Meanwhile, the story grows, or maybe it finishes: On Wednesday morning Nick Sandmann, the smiling teenager at the center, sat for an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips,” he told Savannah Guthrie.
We could quibble about his word choices — is “listening to him and standing there” what really happened? — but that’s the point: We quibble. Conversations unravel. All week long, personal experiences have been unpacked like suitcases and brought forth as evidence.
A man I know who went to an all-boys Catholic school saw only typical adolescence in the videos: a group of kids, already hyped up by an encounter with the profanity-yelling Black Hebrew Israelites, firing off testosterone like careless sparklers.
I floated this with another friend, a woman, who raised an eyebrow. Maybe some of the other students were caught up in a fog of poorly supervised hormones, but Sandmann wasn’t, this friend pointed out. He wasn’t screaming. He was making the conscious decision to stand in Phillips’s path, and to smile.
It's the smile that we've been dissecting all week. Sandmann meant it to defuse the situation, he told Guthrie.
Is provocation a chant and a drum, or is provocation a flat smile and a decision not to move? (“As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” Sandmann said.) Which one of them is the peaceful act, which one could be misinterpreted?
Here’s where the Rorschach test comes in: As much as we might try to see what happened from Sandmann’s perspective, or from Phillips’s, the perspective we’re ultimately seeing it from is our own.
The most insidious bully in my junior high wasn’t someone who stuffed smaller kids in lockers, but a smaller kid himself: slender, handsome, with a last name that appeared on a big building in town. What he would do, mostly, was stare. Stare and smile, and walk very close to his less-rich, less-handsome targets. Not touching, but close enough to show that he could have touched them if he wanted to.
And it’s funny, how awful “not doing anything” can feel to the person it’s not being done to. How infuriating or unsettling.
It’s funny, what a slender rich kid’s vehement denial can do to your mind-set: Maybe he wasn’t doing anything. Maybe he was just smiling. Maybe he was just smiling even when you made it clear you were trying to pass, and you were on the verge of tears? Maybe he was trying to defuse the situation, and you’re the one who was crazy.
That scene in front of the Lincoln Memorial was a circus . . .That interview with Sandmann was measured, and filled with the right words: “in hindsight,” “respect.” But I don’t think my friends and I were crazy in junior high. I think our classmate knew exactly where the line was, and how to walk up to it. I think making people uncomfortable wasn’t the point; the point was making sure the uncomfortable people knew there was nothing they could do about it.
The Covington Catholic students were minors who were apparently mature enough to participate in the abortion debate — one of the most complicated issues of our time, and what brought them to Washington — but not mature enough to walk away from hecklers.
Does it matter that they were in MAGA hats? It’s hard for me to imagine anyone wearing them now, in 2019, wouldn’t understand they’re not just a sartorial choice.
It’s hard for me to talk about what happened on the Mall without bringing in every experience I've ever had: the knowledge that people who are used to having power know how to wield it in subtle ways. The knowledge that I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and once or twice, the giving end of it.
Maybe you think Sandmann didn’t do anything and is a victim of an Internet mob.
Or maybe you think, as Guthrie wondered aloud in the interview Wednesday, that standing there was its own act of aggression. The appearance of doing nothing while actually doing something.
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s minds changing by this point, though.