A while back, I attended a Saturday morning meeting for a group of Democratic Party supporters in northern New Jersey. Former FOX News personality and Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky was the special guest. She talked about, among other things, having conversations with people who hold different political views, and at one point, fielded questions from those in attendance.
Anna Wong, a tireless activist and someone I know from her work with Indivisible NJ-5, stepped up to the mic, and with a sense of due frustration, asked how we’re supposed to reach across the aisle when we can’t even agree on a set of facts, let alone whether facts matter.
Anna’s question and how she delivered it prompted laughter from the audience—myself included—but she was very earnest in her query. Thinking back to this scene, as I frequently do, I too wonder how having a dialog with people of opposing ideologies is possible when both can’t agree to the same qualitative or quantitative data—right down to what we see.
The episode which jumps to mind, especially as a tone-setter for the Trump administration, is the whole business about whose inauguration crowd was bigger: Donald Trump’s or Barack Obama’s. It seems like eons ago when Sean Spicer—remember him?—was trying to persuade us to believe that the president’s detractors were manipulating camera angles of aerial views to diminish Trump and his achievements.
Meanwhile, in the real world, objective visual analysis showed Obama’s numbers clearly bested Trump’s. Like, it wasn’t even close. If Washington, D.C. transit numbers are any indication, Obama walloped Trump in attendance, managing 513,000 trips on the Metro by 11 A.M. in 2009 to his successor’s 193,000 by the same time. The numbers, at least in this case, don’t lie.
And yet, Trump et al. held to their erroneous claim. As Groucho Marx would say or is thus attributed, who are you going to believe: me or your lying eyes? Like some errant, erratic philosopher, President Trump seemed to be arguing against the very existence of verifiable truth. To borrow a phrase from Kellyanne Conway, there were no lies—only “alternative facts.” Seeing is believing? No, no—believing is believing. If you’re not on the side of the president, you’re not on the side of America. How are we supposed to make the country great again if you don’t buy in?
We’re in 2019 now, but the same tactics are being used by conservative commentators and, in turn, centrist media outlets to make us question what we see and know. Back in November, there was an uproar from the right after CNN reporter Jim Acosta was alleged to have manhandled a female aide who tried (unsuccessfully) to grab his microphone during a Trump press conference. Abuser, they cried! Assault, they railed! Of course, there was a proportionate uproar from the other direction when the Trump administration moved to revoke Acosta’s credentials (and deservedly so), but with various critics calling for his ouster at CNN, one might’ve been concerned the network would give in to the calls for Acosta’s head.
What was truly disturbing about the whole episode was not Acosta’s conduct—the CNN correspondent may have been a bit defensive about giving up the mic but he did excuse himself as the young woman grasped for it—but rather the attempts to discredit him. Instrumental in the effort to get Acosta canned was a video shared on social media by InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson and later passed along by Sarah Sanders that showed the interaction between Acosta and the aide.
The clip appeared to show Acosta arresting the woman’s arm with a “karate chop” of sorts. Casually omitted from proliferation of this video segment, however, was the knowledge that the action had been slowed or sped up at points to make Acosta’s movement seem harsher than it actually was. The audio of Acosta excusing himself also was removed. The footage from the press conference was, in a word, doctored.
By the time the clarifications could be assigned a day later, the right was already off and running with its narrative. To this day, conservative trolls maintain that Acosta should’ve been fired for his “attack” on the aide. In doing so, they have chosen a very convenient point at which to come to the defense of a young woman when members of the Republican Party are generally so intent on circumscribing women’s power and freedom. But I digress.
These cases are a little bit different in their presentation. With the aerial shots that proved Obama’s crowds were bigger beyond the shadow of a doubt, there was little Donald Trump and his cronies could do outside of arguing for the relativity of truth in the abstract. Re Jim Acosta vs. the female White House aide, there was intentional manipulation at work(Watson denies it, but it’s not like he and InfoWars have built a strong sense of credibility), though there were other versions of the clip from more trustworthy sources available. Either way, you were made to doubt what you saw or thought you saw. The eyes, they play tricks. And as we know, tricks are for kids. You’re not a kid, are you?
It is within this context that we can view the much-talked-about interaction between Covington Catholic High School (KY) students in Washington for a March for Life and Nathan Phillips, a Native American and veteran present for the Indigenous Peoples March. The iconic moment, if you will, happened when Nick Sandmann, one of the students and one of a number of them wearing a MAGA hat, stood face to face with Phillips while the latter beat a drum and sang. As Phillips has said in interviews, he was attempting to intercede between the students and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, who shouted epithets at the high schoolers and preached about how they were “cursed Edomites.”
In the initial reaction to video from the interaction, most people regarded the Covington Catholic H.S. students fairly negatively. They were akin to a mob, standing in menacing opposition to Phillips, who was but one man. And that smirk. The enduring image of Sandmann staring motionless and speechless with a smirk on his face conveyed notions of racism and white privilege. Here were a bunch of white kids ganging up on an older person of color, a veteran and Native American no less. What better symbol of Trump’s effect and how discriminatory values are inculcated in future generations?
Not soon after, though, the narrative began to change. Additional videos were released that showed additional footage, including the students being egged on by the Black Hebrew Israelites. All of a sudden, these boys were the victim or were regarded with less contempt than before given the circumstances. Actually, now that I look closer, Phillips accosted them, not the other way around! We owe them an apology! We’re so sorry, Covington Catholic High! Our mea culpas and retractions can’t come fast enough!
Thankfully, not everyone is buying the “both sides” arguments and self-flagellation many among the media, their associated outlets, and Hollywood’s elite have begun to make. Laura Wagner, reporter at Deadspin, for one, advises us not to doubt what we saw with our own eyes.
Recounting the predictable shift from immediate condemnation of the boys’ conduct to downplaying if not outright denying any wrongdoing, Wagner addresses the notion that the kerfuffle on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is nothing more than a Rorschach test for what you personally believe:
One lesson of the past two days is that you will see what you want to see here, if you are determined to do so; that does not mean that there is anything to be seen but what is there. I see a frothing mass of MAGA youth—who, since we’re taking in all angles here, go to a school where students fairly recently wore blackface to a basketball game—frenzied and yelling and out of control. I see four black men who seem to belong to the Black Israelites—a threat to women in their orbit, but not to random white people they’re heckling—yelling insults at the students. Then I see Phillips, as he has stated from the beginning that he did, walk up to the teens, in what seems to be an attempt to diffuse the situation. I see them laughing and dancing, red MAGA hats bobbing up and down in glee. I see them yell in Phillips’ face, and I see that he doesn’t falter. I see the smugness of a group secure in its relative power over someone more vulnerable than they are. Nothing about the video showing the offensive language of Black Israelites changes how upsetting it was to see the Covington students, and Sandmann in particular, stare at Phillips with such contempt. I don’t see how you could watch this and think otherwise unless you’re willing to gaslight yourself, and others, in the service of granting undeserved sympathy to the privileged.
And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Various individuals backtracked, excused themselves, blamed their “reptile brains.” They ignored their initial emotional responses and, without much else informing their decision-making, reversed their position. I apologize. I regret. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.
As far as Wagner is concerned, the reason for this is simple: it makes them seem more reasonable and trustworthy. They’re not among the followers of the news who react impassionedly to it, betraying their better judgment for the sake of an outrage fix. Even if that means, as Wagner puts it, “siding with some shithead MAGA teens and saying that 2 + 2 = 5 in the face of every bit of evidence there is to be had.”
Whatever the reason, the final outcome still stands. These people failed to believe what they had seen with their own eyes.
One criticism from people tracking this story is that these kids are being demonized by some, but what would you have them do instead? Unfortunately for promoters of this line of thinking, the answers are pretty easy. Walk away. Find a chaperone. Certainly, don’t make mocking tomahawk chants. For those suggesting “boys will be boys” or pointing to the folly of youth, that shouldn’t be an excuse. If Gillette can make an advertisement about toxic masculinity (which you may hate for being too preachy, but that’s another story), these Catholic school kids can behave in a respectful manner. Blame the parents if you want, but let’s have some responsibility assigned.
Otherwise, some might point to the remarks made by Nick Sandmann and agree with his side of the story. But come the eff on. Why would this kid and his family need to hire a PR firm if, as the saying goes, the truth shall set you free? And that smirk. I know I’m harping on it, but it’s pretty hard to get past. Sandmann says he was trying to diffuse the situation, but he could’ve taken any of the prescribed actions to do that rather than standing within feet of Nathan Phillips and smiling like an entitled little asshole. That Savannah Guthrie would encourage his defense of his “right” to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and listen to Phillips as part of a softball interview is downright nauseating.
The last objection to deliberation on this altercation may be perhaps the most valid: “Who cares?” That is, why are we spending so much time on whether some high schooler was smirking at an older Native American man when there’s a crisis in Yemen, lead is still being found in drinking water, and other catastrophes abound? Relatively speaking, the events of this past weekend are a blip on the proverbial radar.
Their symbolic value, meanwhile, carries more weight. It’s about media portrayal of members of different ethnicities. It’s about how pressure by conservative commentators and right-wing trolls—including threats of violence and release of personal information—can influence individuals and media outlets to spin the national conversation toward white victimhood. And it’s about how people irrespective of gender or political ideology can be made to doubt what they see. It has nothing to do with “intelligence” either. When group dynamics are at work, the pressure to conform is a powerful force. We’re all susceptible.
Returning to the anecdote from the start of this piece, if it’s hard to agree on what is factual or whether that matters, it’s that much more difficult to have a meaningful conversation when something is right before our eyes and we can’t come to a consensus on what we see. That’s the most disturbing implication of the Covington Catholic/Nathan Phillips standoff and why people like Laura Wagner invoke 1984‘s dystopia. When you’re made to question your own judgment, you’re liable to believe anything.
Should Nick Sandmann or anyone else involved herein be sent death threats? Of course not. But should he and his peers be absolved of all culpability? I submit no, and neither should the antagonists of the Black Hebrew Israelites. If you saw what I saw, you’re not wrong—lying eyes and all.