|Medusa, by Damien Hirst|
Last week, I asked the paper for Monday off, because I would be in Raleigh researching a story, and didn't want to be distracted. But I had time in the airport Thursday, and so wrote the following about L'Affaire Covington, thinking I might run it Monday. But the government shut down ended, I came back a day early, Covington suddenly seemed Old News, and a profane, Trump-loving cabbie gave me a column I felt more topical than this. It's a little rough, but will have to do on a Tuesday. And if not, well, there's always tomorrow.
One of the glories of my job is that I don't have to swing at every pitch. If I feel I'm going to dribble it into the dirt, or a topic is coming in a little tight and inside, I'll let it sail by and wait for another more my liking.
The Jason Van Dyke verdict? Pass. With the entire city in full cry, I didn't feel anything to add, or, rather, my perspective seemed too minor league. To me the triumph was that he was tried at all. Six years and change isn't much of a sentence, but it's an improvement over nothing, which is what Van Dyke certainly would have gotten had that video not been released. Also, at the back of my mind, it's a policeman on duty trying to do his job. Whatever else you can say about firing 16 shots, it isn't something someone does after carefully weighing the options. The shame is the man was too afraid, or too hyped up, or too something, to simply pause.
Never underestimate the power of waiting. Those boys from Covington High School in Kentucky, caught on video in some kind of exchange with a Native-American man? The first critics who leapt out of the blocks, attacking and defending, what was the point? Initially, the incident was cast as mockery, and the internet exploded in condemnation. The main kid in the video, was to be hounded to his grave for that smirk.
With Twitter lighting up like a pinball machine, I thought I would join the fun. My initial thought did not pass the smell test—let's say it was an unkind observation about the level of Jesus-like love that one can expect from the inmates at Catholic boys schools. That's the thing about unkindness—it's impatient, it wants to leap, it feeds on itself, and encourages others to join in without really thinking either.
But I did think, and what I thought was: "Don't say that." So I didn't. Upon reflection, I decided to tack the other way, and find someone to sympathize with.
"Call me a softie," I wrote, but I can't help feel a little sorry for the administrators and teachers at Covington school, who did not expect to see their national reputation turned to shit in a day.
Or words to that effect. I had to quickly deleted it as a blunderbuss of contempt was fired in my direction. "Apologist!" cried someone I don't know, while someone I do know crafted a mocking parody. Usually deleting ill-advised tweets is pointless—it's already been copied and passed around derisively. But I figured, I don't need this, and returned to the living world: assuming that hasn't become online, and the flesh and pancakes world just a squishy necessity until we become brains-in-jars wired into the Internet.
Before I weigh in on my actual opinions on Covington, let me explain a theory that I have, based on lots of interactions with bigots. I believe the central harm they do is to themselves. Sure, they sometimes find a victim and inflict damage, such as was directed supposedly at Nathan Phillips, that Native-American drummer—if being elevated from complete obscurity to nationwide lionization can be considered a kind of harm; it strikes me as ample compensation for an awkward five minute encounter.
But day in and day out, the people the bigots are hurting are themselves. They're the ones always around, forced to squint through their tiny keyhole of a perspective at the wide green world. As the Covington Affair unfolded endlessly—the boys may yet show up at the White House to meet with their spiritual leader—a profound sadness settled in. I couldn't muster any anger toward them and was disappointed that so many of my fellow libs could. My main thought was: how poorly prepared they were to encounter the world, one filled with all races and backgrounds. Some are hostile, such as the Black Hebrews who supposedly catcalled them, priming them for this interlude (though how being insulted by group A allows you to then mock Person B is something of a mystery). Some are enigmatic, like a chanting Native-American beating a drum in front of you. The impulse to mock what you don't understand, on full display here, will not serve those boys well.
Unless it does. Unless it carries them to the presidency. It certainly didn't hurt Donald Trump. I have the sneaking suspicion that I'm working off an old playbook. When raising my boys, nothing earned stronger paternal disappointment than when I thought they were being cruel or deceptive. I hope I didn't hobble them for the nation we are becoming.
I focus on Right Wing lapses plenty, though the Left has nothing to feel good about here. The Left reflected what I call Slasher Movie morality. You know how slasher movies work (or did, I understand there are also variation on the classic theme)— establish a bad guy, who does these horrible things, and then the hero finally gets the upper hand, and inflicts all the sadism and brutality on the bad guy that we supposedly condemn him for doing. Only it's alright, because he deserves it.
The Trump era is an open invitation to be vindictive. The question isn't, "Does the person you are heaping your scorn upon deserve it?" The question is, why are you doing it? Toward what end? And does the act say more about you than the person you are supposedly condemning? Because everyone deserves contempt, more or less, at one moment or another.