Weekend events in Washington, DC highlight a simple question for our current politics: should anyone single out people who wear MAGA hats? I give an emphatic no. I give that answer not because I agree with people who wear MAGA hats, but because freedom of expression is our dearest liberty. Moreover, people who mind their own business should never be singled out.
Of the three groups on the Lincoln Memorial steps – Black Hebrew Israelites, Indigenous Peoples Movement, and Covington Catholic High Scool students – one group, the students, minded its own business as it waited for a bus. A member of Indigenous Peoples wanted to engage in verbal argument with the students, and Nathan Phillips does not appear altogether friendly toward Nick Sandmann. He initiated that confrontation, which became uncomfortable. I would say Nick Sandmann handled the situation with more maturity than anyone else on the scene.
Black Hebrews’ behavior is beneath notice. I do not want to comment on that, except to say that public behavior like theirs seems to be a price of free speech. Also, the students began their school spirit cheers to drown out the Black Hebrews’ obscenities.
You have to ask another simple question:
Would this mix of three groups on the Lincoln Memorial steps have occurred if the students had not worn MAGA hats? A large number of people gather on those steps: to rest, take photographs, to wait for friends or a tour bus, enjoy the sunset across the reflecting pool, to enjoy this famous setting. No one on the scene would have known or cared who the Covington Catholic students were if they had not worn the red and white hats. Student groups come to the Lincoln Memorial all the time, and no one singles them out. If they had left their hats in their duffels, Nick Sandmann would be just as anonymous today as he was last Thursday.
Wearing a political hat in public should not result in a series of events, where at the other end people threaten to murder you and your family. Death threats against the students became so widespread, they forced Covington Catholic to close its doors the day after Martin Luther King Day, a day we set aside to remember a leader who preached love and tolerance. Note also that Archbishop Kurtz and Bishop Foys in Kentucky both condemned the students. Kurtz accused them of a “shameful act of disrespect.” Here is a joint statement from Covington Catholic High School, and the Diocese of Covington, to chastise
the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general… We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. This matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.
Video of Friday’s events shows clearly that Mr. Phillips initiated an extended face-to-face confrontation with Nick Sandmann. Mr. Sandmann wrote a formal statement to explain events from his point of view, especially to explain why he behaved as he did. Nothing in the video record contradicts Sandmann’s statement.
Yet school officials and the diocese have not withdrawn or modified their initial accusations. When they conclude their investigation, based on interviews with students and the extensive video record, they will reach a different conclusion. Students from the high school did not treat Phillips with disrespect. Phillips ought to apologize to Sandmann, not the other way around. His decision to single Sandmann out subjected Sandmann to the attentions of a media mob. Phillips could not have known that would happen, but he ought to express his regrets that it did, and say why he confronted Sandmann.
One more note: the video I watched showed one tomahawk chop. It also showed some students jump to the beat of Phillips’ drum. The tomahawk chop is insensitive. Dancing to the beat of the drum, under the circumstances, is not. Students were already jumping up and down for the school cheers. Phillips’ offer to come to the school to talk with the students is a generous one, especially if it involves reconciliation, forgiveness, and an effort by Phillips to end the extraordinary, nationwide vilification of a small group of young adults. They do not deserve it.
So I say, everybody settle down. Examine yourself. Let’s end with a related passage from Boston College’s guide to Jesuit education:
Jesuit education …is a process that has three key parts, being attentive, being reflective, and being loving. It results in the kind of good decision-making that Ignatius called ‘discernment.’ The goal of Jesuit education is to produce men and women for whom discernment is a habit.
Mob behavior does not display discernment. That is why I say: examine yourself, settle down, love your opponents. As Martin Luther King said, “we must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.”
To save time, I intentionally left links out of this post. The internet is still populated with a large number of them, on both sides of this controversy. Have a look, especially at a video recording that shows how the situation on the memorial steps developed.
Yet I will include an outstanding article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, which appeared on January 23, 2019. Her essay takes time to summarize the varied video record of what happened on the Lincoln Memorial steps:
Here is Flanagan’s conclusion:
How could the elite media—The New York Times, let’s say—have protected themselves from this event, which has served to reinforce millions of Americans’ belief that traditional journalistic outlets are purveyors of “fake news”? They might have hewed to a concept that once went by the quaint term “journalistic ethics.” Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors, you didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it; you let yourself get scooped; and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.
At 8:30 yesterday morning, as I was typing this essay, The New York Times emailed me. The subject line was “Ethics Reminders for Freelance Journalists.” (I have occasionally published essays and reviews in the Times.) It informed me, inter alia, that the Times expected all of its journalists, both freelance and staff, “to protect the integrity and credibility of Times journalism.” This meant, in part, safeguarding the Times’ “reputation for fairness and impartiality.”
I am prompted to issue my own ethics reminders for The New York Times. Here they are: You were partly responsible for the election of Trump because you are the most influential newspaper in the country, and you are not fair or impartial. Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will casually harm them. Two years ago, they fought back against you, and they won. If Trump wins again, you will once again have played a small but important role in that victory.