Always More to Learn

Some of the things I have learned, or internalized more deeply, this week, in the wake of the clashing of worlds at the Lincoln Memorial last week:

* I am quick to jump into the dogpile, to join the mob. We think of mobs as being misguided bigots destroying the objects of their hatred, but there are also vigilante mobs that take justice into their own hands, destroying those who are rightly deserving of justice before reasoning justice itself can take place. And this makes the original crime scene so very messy. I think the internet this week has been a little like a vigilante mob, tearing into those boys before reasoning justice had a chance to take place. I might never be the one in the mob who yells death threats or speaks of punching and hitting rude children, but my own energy was certainly part of that mob, and I feel a little sullied by my egging on of the ones at the center.

* I am not ashamed of my rage at the obvious racism, only at my part in the dogpile.

* I think one of the reasons vigilante mobs form IRL and in the virtual world is because we don’t trust reasoning justice to intervene. In the current political climate, with our awareness of the terrible injustices committed by our government toward families trying to enter our country, with our own knowledge of the moral rot at the center of our administration, it is only natural that the mob feel like we are the only justice available when boys seem to be taking cues from our bigoted president to disrespect an elder with a drum.

* I think perceptions are at the center of this story. Those who watched the first video and saw (like myself) aggressive, chanting, jeering boys were not wrong, exactly, but we were not privy to the whole story. Those who watched the longer video and saw a slight difference in how the scene played out were not wrong, exactly, but we were not privy to the whole story. And mostly, I think it’s really important to look at Mr. Phillips’ perceptions. Viewing the second video caused people to question his veracity, but if you were to come upon a large group of mostly white boys wearing MAGA gear chanting and dancing to their sports chants in the direction of a small group of black men, what assumptions would you make? Who would you see as the aggressor?

* The Red Hat and Hatred: We’re that divided. If you support this president, please understand that it’s no longer as simple as us having a disagreement about how this country should be run. We who question his competency as president don’t just think he makes bad policy. We see a dangerous bigot who is not only racist and misogynist himself, but who brings out those things in his supporters. To us, MAGA hats are declarations of one’s own racism and misogyny. Red hat has come to signify hatred. Yes, we’re triggered, but we have reasons to be, and we need you to try to understand why, or we begin to question your intentions as well.

* Sports chants. I am not a sports fan, so perhaps I am not the person to discuss this. Or maybe that makes me the perfect outsider to explain what I see. Sports chanting is aggressive. Sports are rivalries and competitions, and while good sporting behavior is often taught and learned in the context of sporting competitions, the chanting and dancing often moves past simple support for one’s team into primal aggression. Whatever adult said yes to those boys responding to taunting by doing their sports chants was irresponsible and thoughtless. And watching the videos of past sports events at Covington Catholic, it becomes pretty clear that these boys took their chants to a fever pitch of aggression, and aggression which included clear racist markers. I struggle to believe their claims of innocence of the knowledge of the implications of wearing blackface.

* More on perceptions: Did the boys perceive themselves to be acting out of racism there by the Lincoln Memorial? I’m not sure we can say. But I do think, either way, that we can say it was a racist incident. Yes, they were provoked. Yes, they were unprepared. Yes, they were woefully and unconscionably un-chaperoned. But they were acting with all the signs and markers of completely unquestioned white privilege. I might be working to eradicate the racist biases in my own soul, but when I act unconsciously out of my racial biases, then I am being racist.

* Even when (especially when) stories are more complex than they appear on the surface, there are no two sides to racism, no two sides to disrespect for elders.

* Where were the chaperones? I think if we bring a reasoning sense of justice to this situation, the boys certainly need to be held accountable for their actions, but if they’re the only ones who receive opprobrium in this situation, then injustice has been done to them as well, and the real culprits are left to continue ignoring their culpability: the teachers and parents, the school administration, and the chaperones on this adventure. These children have not been taught to question their privilege. They’ve been taught to lean into it, to revel in it, even. They’ve been encouraged to take on the mantle of wealthy white patriarchy. They’re being groomed to carry on the traditions of powerful white men controlling the religious and financial and political institutions of the world. The real culprits, in my opinion, are the ones who are grooming them. Real justice will only be done when the invisible adults are held accountable.

* And the moment I point my finger at those people, I feel a ripple of a shock wave in my own direction. While my own teaching and parenting are geared, to the best of my ability, at tearing down those structures, at getting the young people of my life to examine their privileges and their biases, I know that I, too, work out of my own biases and my own privilege. We who parent and teach and mold the next generation have a great weight of responsibility. And the boys of Covington Catholic, and especially their invisible chaperones, draw that into high relief.

* Addendum: I am so tired of that picture. I feel so manipulated. I feel confused. I feel sullied. I feel the continuing outrage that flows from me, through those boys, to the president. I am so tired of that picture. But: It is a mirror. No matter who put it up, no matter their intentions, no matter the unclarity of the boy’s own intentions and perceptions, it is a mirror. It is a mirror. Can I dare to keep looking into it?


Gratitude List:
1. Mirrors. The mirror of Nathan Phillips and his drum. The mirror, ugly as it is, of the Covington Catholic boys–I will never learn to question my own privilege if I don’t have to confront it in the ugly mirror of my own assumptions.
2. The holy blue of winter
3. Being able to lay down the weight of first semester and focus on the work of second semester
4. How the cats come up and gently greet me throughout the day when I am at home.
5. Silence and solitude.

May we walk in Awareness.


“Like water, be gentle and strong. Be gentle enough to follow the natural paths of the earth and strong enough to rise up and reshape the world.” ―Brenda Peterson


“Tyrants fear the poet.” —Amanda Gorman, U.S. Youth Poet Laureate


In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets.” —Jonas Mekas


“Are you enhancing your power to discern the difference between rash risks motivated by fear and smart gambles driven by authentic intuition?” —Rob Brezsny


“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. . . . Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. . . . The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.” ―Ursula Le Guin


“I wonder how the world would be different if we grew down?” —Someone in my House, a few years ago

Rounding Out the Story

I don’t think it would be a controversial statement to say that no story has a single truth, that our perceptions about the facts of a story are guided by our prior knowledge and experiences and prejudices. Plato’s Levels of Intelligence paradigm puts Opinion a simple rung above Ignorance, and true Intelligence two whole rungs above Opinion, with Reason in between.

Watch a video of a group of young men chanting and laughing as an old man, a Native American elder, walks into their midst, playing his drum. Observe their red hats, their regalia that marks them supporters of a man who has been divisive in our country, sexist and racist and xenophobic. Watch still images of a smirking boy standing in what appears to be defiance blocking the old man’s path. I formed a pretty strong opinion in response.

Then I watched the events from the angle of a video shot by the four or five members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were taunting and mocking the young men before the incident occurred. It was a long and frustrating video, showing the story in a different light. I watched as the BHI men singled out a black student in the Covington group, insulting him personally, calling him names. I watched how his friends gathered around him, shielding him from the vitriol. I heard the things the BHI men were yelling at the boys. I watched the boys begin their school chants to try to drown out the insults. I cringed at the in-your-face nature of sports chants in an already heated situation. I watched a couple other videos of the moments of direct engagement between the boy (Nicholas Sandmann) and the man (Nathan Phillips).

And then I read this two-and-a-half page letter from Mr. Sandmann. His tone is measured and thoughtful, if a little defensive. He states that he does not understand Mr. Phillips’ intentions, and can’t explain what the older man’s intentions were. He is an articulate and careful writer.

Were the boys in the crowd mocking the old man and taunting him? Probably some were. It’s hard not to see that in the videos. Is it possible that some of what appeared at first to be taunting might instead be boys chanting their school chants? Probably. Very likely. Looked at through that lens, the energy of the group shifts a bit, seems less sinister.

Some of my take-aways:
1. MAGA hats are a really unfortunate apparel choice for young white men at a faith-based march. They are saying more than they intend, perhaps, and they set themselves up for the sort of negative snap judgements that the BHI men, and I, and most of America, seem to have been making.
2. I am really judgemental about white men in MAGA gear. Not only do I rush to judgement; in the midst of a larger array of facts, I still struggle to open my mind when there are MAGA hats in the picture.
3. Even video can tell a misconstrued story. As we were discussing it last night, before I saw the second video, I kept saying, “But I saw that video. It’s really clear what was happening. You can’t just throw out video evidence.” Still, it seems that the story told by the first video is different from the one told by the second video. In the long and rambling video of the BHI group, I heard no chants of “Build the wall.” I don’t doubt that some of Mr. Phillips’ group thought they heard that in the school chants, but I don’t think they said it.
4. Looking at the various videos, I think it is highly possible–likely, even–that both Mr. Phillips’ group and the Covington boys had two separate understandings of the event, that both Mr. Phillips’ account and Mr. Sandmann’s account are “true,” because they’re true to their experiences.
5. As harsh and demeaning as much of the BHI group’s taunting was, they had some things to say that I wish these boys could hear and learn from. They are privileged. Their privilege is built on centuries of white exploitation of black people and people of color, from enslavement of blacks and genocide of Native Americans in the beginnings, to the hoarding and consolidation of resources and the means of production, to outright discriminatory laws and systems, to lynchings, to redlining, to police brutality. I am afraid that this experience will wall off the possibility for these boys to do any deep reflecting on this subject.
6. This would be an excellent opportunity for some real, deep education. Instead of expelling the boys, I think the school should bring in outside educators to talk to about stereotypes and stereotyping–both their own stereotypes and the ones they have experienced from others (people like me). I would love to see the diocese invite Mr. Phillips to talk, create a listening session where he can hear the boys and they can hear him. Bring in an outside mediator, someone who can help them talk, help them listen. This is a perfect opportunity to help these young people learn to think critically and compassionately.
7. I find it really problematic that a boys school would bus a group of young men wearing MAGA hats to protest a Women’s March. I realize that they perhaps put it in the context of Marching in a Pro-Life March, and they’re tying it to their compassion for babies. Still, when it comes down to it, the visuals are of a large group of young religious patriarchs being groomed to take up the reins of the patriarchy marching in a march deliberately planned to coincide with a March for Women. It’s ugly. (I added this point after the original post.)
8. I think I am pretty media savvy. I’m not as savvy as I thought I was. I think perhaps none of us are.