Rorschach and Rashomon on the Washington Mall

washington-mall-video-grab.jpgI don't share the view that the recent media blowup over the Covington Catholic kids and the tribal drummer at the Lincoln Memorial was much ado about nothing. It may have been too much ado, but it was about something.

It was about the use and abuse of social media to drive an ideological agenda (quite possibly from a fake Twitter account), the carelessness and gullibility of the news media (exemplified by the initial BuzzFeed News account, only a day after their discredited Michael Cohen "scoop"), and the toxic tribalism of the Trump era.

But it was also about other things: a Rorschach test of the national psyche, which suggests a kind of borderline personality disorder on both sides. You watched the numerous videos, from a misleading snippet to a stupefying two-hour real time recording, and saw what you wanted to see: Either these schoolboys were entitled white junior patriarchal oppressors and racist monsters, whose "red MAGA hats are the new white hoods," or they were innocent "targets of the media-led outrage mob."

Then there was the Rashomon effect, the plot hinge in the classic 1950 Kurosawa film in which multiple eyewitnesses and participants give divergent and even contradictory accounts of the same incident. Nick Sandmann, the Covington 16-year-old at the center of the media firestorm, released a statement of his account, crafted with the help of a crisis PR firm; Nathan Phillips, the Native American drummer, offered shifting accounts of his own in various interviews; a lengthy video posted by a half-dozen Black Hebrew Israelites, who helped escalate the confrontation, told yet a different story; and virtually every partisan who saw a video or read an account declares with certitude that they know exactly what happened and whose fault it was.

No reporters personally witnessed the events, not that it would necessarily have cleared anything up even if they had.

Too much of the analysis, I think, has missed the point, dwelling on superficialities. Why were the boys standing where they were, instead of further away from the demonstration? Where were the chaperones? Did the Native American drummer falsely claim to be a Vietnam veteran? Was the crisis PR firm connected to Sen. Mitch McConnell? Were the Black Hebrew Israelites only proselytes, or provocateurs?

It's all a willful distraction from the deeper problem, and it long predates Donald Trump and his presidency: and that is a fundamental ignorance of, indifference toward, and contempt for First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of assembly. Too many people today, across the ideological spectrum, not only disdain respect for differing or opposing viewpoints--they seem to reject even the abstract principle of tolerating dissent at all.

It's a profoundly unhealthy development, and we've seen it cut both ways in similar situations. After the Parkland, Florida high school shooting last Valentine's Day, student David Hogg and some of his fellow survivors emerged as outspoken supporters of gun control. They were lionized by the Left and showcased on national media. But almost immediately, the gun lobby and its right-wing allies launched a campaign of personal attacks and character assassination to ridicule, discredit, and intimidate Hogg into silence. Progressives howled in outrage, and the effort to silence Hogg failed--but it largely succeeded in squelching the gun-control debate and blocking any meaningful national legislation.

Fast-forward to today: Nick Sandmann, a 16-year-old schoolboy only a year younger than Hogg was at the time of the Parkland shooting, similarly did not seek out the limelight, but found himself thrust into it by circumstances. But he was no articulate, media-genic public-school shooting victim; he was a parochial school kid (one strike) in DC for an anti-abortion rally (two strikes) wearing a red MAGA hat (three strikes) appearing to treat disrespectfully an elderly Native American. And so the positions were reversed: now it's activists and self-righteous commentators on the Left who are attacking, doxxing, and even threatening his family and the school, which has taken down most of its online media presence.

It's not even the first time a kid simply wearing a MAGA hat triggered an aggressive response; last August, a 17-year-old student was charged with battery against a classmate (she later called her act "a political statement.") Imagine a boy attacking a female student for wearing a pussy hat, and trotting out such an excuse!

After all the threats, bullying, incitement and confrontations that characterized the Trump presidential campaign, it's no wonder the political debate is so fraught today. But it's still no excuse to abandon basic principles of tolerance and civility, no matter the issue and no matter the opponent. Who could forget that uplifting moment when Michelle Obama declared at the 2016 Democratic Convention that, "When they go low, we go high."

That November, of course, we saw how well that seemed to work out. So it was bracing to hear former Attorney General Eric Holder tell a campaign gathering in the heat of the mid-term elections last fall, "No, no. When they go low, we kick them."

But when Michelle was later asked to respond, she answered in words that Dr. King and the great civil rights leaders of the past would have embraced: "Fear is never a proper motivator," she said. "Hope always wins out." And she added, "We think of the values we try to promote to our children. Which model do you want them to live by?"

As a parent, as a citizen, I know that she's right. In the news coverage, and the social-media reaction, we adults should have shown more respect, restraint and common decency. It was a teachable moment, and being better role models would have been the most powerful positive lesson for those kids. That's my takeaway from the Covington kerfuffle.


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