Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Au revoir L'Affaire Covington

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.


  1. The lesson I took out of this is that any parent who lets their kid wear a MAGA hat is asking for trouble not just for themselves but for their kid as well. Given the hate directed toward Trump, it may be disappointing but not surprising that it spills over on those who support him and that's what the MAGA hat means to a lot of people.

  2. Speaking for myself, I agree with your last sentence...grudgingly.


    1. Agreed. I am no more perfect than the next man but not necessarily worse than either.

  3. I grew up in the Cincinnati Archdioceses. I was ill-prepared for the real world when I moved to Chicago at age 23. The greater Cincinnati area has always suffered from some isolation. (Linguists have long recognized that it has its own dialect and a unique vocabulary. Imagine my surprise when I learned that a mango was a tropical fruit -- not a green pepper!) I've often hoped that with the emergence of the internet and social media things would change -- more progressive ideas and attitudes would begin to prevail as they once did when the community was home to the Underground Railroad and a hotbed of the abolitionist movement. But I don't believe this is the case. Conservative institutions like the Catholic Church seem to have "circled the wagons" to protect their people from an influx of more progressive ideas. It’s not surprising that the boys from Covington Catholic behaved badly. What’s surprising is that their clergy and administrators set them up for this encounter which could have had even more tragic consequences.

  4. Is the only harm being done to the bigots and wingnuts themselves? I feel they are hurting a lot of good people, sometimes physically, more often emotionally and psychologically.

    The opposition needs to get more pissed-off, or at least to tell these clowns to quit clowning and to STFU. Instead of being called-out, the haters just continue on their merry way, doing more and more damage to an already badly-damaged country. And the vast silent majority says nothing. Thirties Germany, anyone?

    I fail to understand why the left has been relatively quiescent these past few years. Someone named John Morley once said: "You have not converted a man becuse you have silenced him." That silence needs to end.

    Sure, the haters will continue to hate after a call-out, but they also need to be shown that theirs is the minority view. What I fear most is that those on the left...and the left-center...are silent because despair has triumphed over anger and outrage, and that they've mostly given up.

  5. It's such a weird set of circumstances I would hesitate to draw conclusions: the church school boys wearing fascist hats on their field trip were being shouted at by psychotic black racists when a native-American started playing a drum in the kid's face. It'd be hard to make that up.

    I don't think the kid was in the wrong at all and I think he'll be remembered as the kid who got attacked by the crazy drummer.

    His smile doesn't help, though, because it reminds me of the sickening smile on the anti-abortion protester outside my kid's high school. (Downers Grove)

  6. Think before you speak. I resisted judging the initial video I saw, knowing that the face-off was just a small part of the story. The MAGA hats an impulse purchase, not a continuing political statement by the students. Hearing them afterwards, I deemed them typical immature Catholic school boys. And I have standing on that issue. This was a common mix of students, not an elite group, like the Parkland kids who rose to the top of their class in the cauldron of their crisis. When I went overseas in the military I was couple years older than many of the other sailors. I recognized immediately that 2 years had given me enough maturity to avoid the automatic impulse many guys had to look down on other cultures. I would wager that many of the Covington kids will wise up quicker from this experience.

    1. Why John, are high school boys in a public school more mature?

    2. I attended Catholic high school, all boys. Theory was that we were more prone to immaturity as there were no girls to impress. Partly true I would guess, but I believe that every institution is different. Better teachers garner respect while the defective ones( my school had priests who'd failed elsewhere and should not have been teaching) contribute little. Leadership flows from the faculty through the student body with the total quality of all involved making or breaking the system. Catholic schools paid less and relied on the clergy. Some nuns were talented and dedicated, more so than the priests on the whole. But my experience was unique and I could be wrong. I didn't say that public school kids were any wiser than Catholics, but my impression was they seemed like the underclassmen I matriculated with, and this experience will hasten their maturity.

  7. I believe it was Mark Twain who said that when the world ends he wants to be in Cincinnati. Because Cincinnati is always 20 years behind the times.

    Catholic education is known for its rigor. In one of the better back handed compliments, Evelyn Waugh said "ever since the Jesuits stopped defrocking their members for pederasty you can't get good proof reading." One wonders how priests struggle with their retrograde ideas about sex when instructing their charges.

  8. The real "crime" here is that the school sent high school boys to protest a woman's right to control her own body. Drop mic. Walks off stage.

    1. These little brats shlepped all the way from northern Kentucky to D.C. so they could be in the annual anti-abortion march. Which means, in other words, that they got out of school and took a long field trip, in order to engage in highly partisan political activity. Did they, at the very least, have to write a report on what they saw and heard and learned at the march? Or will they just get extra credit for the long bus ride--and the partying (and outrageous behavior) that accompanied it?

      Even more amazingly, Covington Catholic is supposedly some kind of elite and exclusive private institution. Seriously? Are they kidding? What a load of bullcookies.

  9. In the matter of L'Affaire Covington, a lot of people formed opinions based on minimal facts, including news organizations that should know better. Taking Nathan Phillips cockamamie version
    of events, and edited video at face value. There are at least a half dozen unedited videos that show what actually occurred. The students had tolerated a long barrage of insults like:
    go shoot up a school
    calling them faggots, homosexuals, and pedophiles
    you're a bunch of incest babies
    get rid of your lice
    put a bra on
    Challenged as a bunch of white crackers, a black student steps forward, they start chanting n-word, n-word. Another black student is seen, they call him a house n-word. Here is a video taken by the Black Hebrew Israelites, queued up to before Phillips makes his appearance. The students got permission from a chaperon to perform some of their school sports chants. It shows Phillips is nothing but a liar. No video shows the kids chanting "Build the wall", using derogatory language, or attacking anyone. Overall the Covington High School kids acquitted themselves well. It was the adults acting like a lot of damn fools.


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