Two American faces dominated media screens this week: aboriginal elder Nathan Phillips, and teenage Donald Trump supporter Nick Sandmann, apparently standing mano a mano amid chaotic demonstrations last Friday in Washington.
The scene is striking: Sandmann, flanked by other boys, appears to mock Phillips, who stands his ground, singing and drumming. A video of it went viral, sparking a blast of outrage in global news and social media – the explosions continuing even as perceptions changed, other participants were reported, other images revealed other angles, as Sandmann, Phillips, and multiple others issued statements.
The day has become both a portrait of modern America – and a teachable moment.
That’s not to say anyone is receptive (yet) to being schooled. Players from America’s president to social media trolls, have leapt to judge everyone involved. Death threats and White House tweets are flying. Regular folk joined trolls to sling denunciations left and right on Facebook and Twitter.
Having followed a range of stories over several days, I still have no clue what, exactly, happened. I would argue that nobody else does, either – including those caught up in the fray, each in their own small patch of it.
Here’s what we do know: demonstrators showed up, as they often do, at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. An anti-abortion protest included Sandmann and fellow teenagers from a Catholic boy’s school, many wearing the red MAGA hats that mark Donald Trump fans. There was an Indigenous People’s March. There were religious activists known as Hebrew Israelites.
In other words, it was just another American, democratic, dysfunctional, noisy, messy, angry, clash of stories and ethnicities, demands, claims, statements and counter statements.
Then Sandmann and Phillips came face to face. Then cameras moved in to immortalize them. And suddenly the world had an infectiously gripping story, a media feeding frenzy, a new recipe for Instapot moralizing outrage.
The problem with the moralizing is, the story continues to evolve (pesky details!).
Now, as waves of outrage rise and fall, and grandstanders step up to condemn or condone then slink away, the paid spin doctors are furiously trying to spin gold from the soiled straw underfoot that day.
As I watch the mess unfold, just one clear thought emerges: I’m glad I was born before viral videos. Glad that my own banal acts of youthful cruelty and ignorance as a stupid adolescent were never immortalized on YouTube or Twitter, that my own youthful emergence into the political world, as a sign-carrying teenage protester who had second thoughts, never hit social media.
In my own childhood and adolescence, I said things and did things that fill me with shame when, decades later, I remember.
I’ll bet that you did, too.
If I’ve acquired any wisdom over the years, in the human search for context, selfhood, clarity, and strength, it does not erase my youthful stumbles. The glad thing is, I enjoyed the privacy which shielded earlier generations to mature, learn to resist peer pressure, to (hopefully) embrace kindness over cruelty.
But woe to today’s young human who blunders into the media maw!
Woe also to the youngster whose parents place him in a religious school built for indoctrination, not education. Woe to any kid who slaps a MAGA hat on his head, oblivious to the fact he’ll be stuck on the wrong side of history if he later runs for sane politics or enters any other public life. Woe to adolescent opinions set in stone by fame before they’ve had time to evolve.
Look at the face of Nick Sandmann, that well-fed, all-American MAGA-sloganeering, Catholic-school-attending child. Consider, as this child writhes in global fame and deals with death threats, that he’s getting an education far different than was provided by his religious school. Will it burnish, or burn him? Time will tell.
I would not wish any of this on one of mine.
Much of the world, on the basis only of a viral video, evidently views this kid with the harsh glare of an inquisitor. Even though I’d have instantly stood in solidarity with Nathan Phillips, I do not share their condemnation. I see Sandmann through eyes trained as a parent, schools volunteer, ski instructor, friend of many kids over many years.
The inquisition should leave Nick Sandmann alone, and train its sights instead on all who set him, and his fellow students, up: the parents, school, community, the president who encourages children to embrace his idiotic MAGA slogan.
Everyone who has hung around kids knows they act and talk in ways we know they’d regret – were they mature enough to reflect.
And there’s the rub. Each ugly deed or saying by a kid is a teachable moment – provided there’s an adult around to teach.
Are there any adults stepping up anywhere, using the Lincoln Memorial mess as a teachable moment? If not, will social media step into the breach? And what kind of lesson is social media teaching?
Statement by Nick Sandmann, via CNN.
From the Covington school and diocese, a joint statement on the actions of Covington Catholic High School students
Nathan Phillips page, Wikipedia
Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students, by Sarah Mervosh and Emily S. Rueb, New York Times Excerpt:
Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.
YouTube video of the Hebrew Israelites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3EC1_gcr34&feature=youtu.be
A Washington Post video news report that tries to include all points of view:
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