The smirk heard round the world

By | Wednesday, January 30, 2019 3 comments

photo by KC Noland/YouTube

[Note: I suspect that this post might generate more than the usual reaction. These are just my thoughts, please don’t be offended. I look forward to your comments.]

By now the smirking face of Nick Sandmann facing off with Nathan Phillips has become old news. I am just now coming to some conclusions for myself. About a week ago I was having lunch with my friend Diane. Discussing the weekend standoff, she said, “…it doesn't take a PhD in biology to recognize aggressive pack behavior among a group of adolescent males--of any species.” That comment was banging around in my brain all week. It finally found a spot to settle.

Looking at the photo of Nick Sandmann again, I realized that I recognized his face. It was the face of every meathead kid sitting in the back row of every cultural-enrichment class or assembly we had at my high school. I would bet that it is the face of every kid sitting in the back row at every high school. You know the type, he’s Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. The kids in the background are his minions and wannabes.

If the school wants to teach a group of students about Native American cultural traditions, these kids are in the back row, ready to smirk and sneer and make fun of the exercise. They don’t know a damn thing about Native Americans beyond depictions on TV and in movies. So, they pantomime tomahawk chops, or flap their hands over their mouths pretending war cries (not that they know what they are doing, what the symbolism might mean, nor that the subset of Native American tribes that used ululating war cries made the sound with their throats, not their hands.) But it wasn’t about the Native Americans. These kids weren’t actually racists. They were happy to ridicule anyone and everyone. If the topic of the day were French culture, they’re whispering “ah, wee wee”, puffing imaginary cigarettes and donning and doffing invisible berets. Germans are easy, goose step and put a finger under the nose suggesting a Hitler mustache. Any Asian group causes them to pull the edges of their eyes, crying “Ah so!” All Asians are one to them – they don’t discriminate. They don’t know enough to discriminate.

These kids may or may not have been prejudiced against a given group. That wasn’t the point. The point was to show off by mocking whatever the teachers presented. If a donkey had been led into the room, they would have brayed. Shown a cow, they would have found a way to “moo” derisively. Even a dog or a cat would have brought forth a creative act of rudeness beyond my capabilities. They don’t care what the object is. All they know is they don’t want to be there and want to show off their imagined superiority. The smart kids that care about that sh*t are all f’ing nerds – the kids in the back of the room sure as hell don’t want to be mistaken for one of them!

I can also picture the teacher, or the vice-principal, or whomever is running the class. They know all these meathead kids. They’re tired of them. They’re exhausted by them. For a while they try to bring these kids into line, but eventually, the adults either give up or send the unruly to the principal’s office… again. Either way they will have to apologize to the guest that has been ritually insulted.

Now it’s time to take the class on a field trip. That includes everyone, including the meatheads who make a big show of not wanting to go. However, they do enjoy a day away from the classroom; they’re gonna take full advantage of the opportunity to be a nuisance. Now they get to show off to the world, not just their teachers and classmates.

There have been many articles asking where the teachers, parents, and other chaperones were that day in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I certainly don’t know. Maybe they were lousy chaperones. Maybe the chaperones were themselves racists that condoned the kids’ bad behavior. Or maybe they were overwhelmed. Maybe there weren’t enough of them. Maybe it was just too much, trying care for the good kids while simultaneously corralling a dozen trouble makers with no principal’s office to which they could be exiled.

Much has been made of previous bad actions by Covington Catholic High students. Perhaps Covington Catholic High is a breeding ground for racism, sexism, and intolerance. Maybe the parents don’t spend enough time inculcating good behavior in their kids, or maybe they encourage intolerance and bigotry. Again, I don’t know.

But I know that deep down we all recognize these kids. The character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is funny because we recognize him. If we didn’t know the stereotype, we wouldn’t be laughing. The way he treats George McFly is painful to watch – unless you are in on the joke.

If I am right, why did this classic conflict between trouble-maker kids and a Tribal Elder get any attention? I believe it was the MAGA hats. If you take away the hats, then the Covington kids are just another bunch of unruly meatheads on a field trip without adequate supervision. In such a case, the video would have been viewed by a few hundred people. There may well have been complaints to the school. However, in this case, the video went viral and became the subject of heated debate about our social values. The MAGA hats turned these boys from ordinary idiots into Trump Republicans. The Native American Elder became the totem of the Liberal Democrat. It was this battle of symbols that so inflamed our attention. Not that I am suggesting we should let the Covington kids off the hook for their rudeness, nor that Phillips shouldn’t have been offended (thankfully he very much took the high road.) I’m just not sure that it should have made international headlines.

Some will say that I am gaslighting. Others that I have been gaslighted. But, from the very beginning I have been uneasy about this news story. There has been an unstated sense that a hidden agenda was being played out. That these kids in MAGA hats were sent out to onto the mall to instigate an incident. That the Christian Right, or even the White House itself, was behind this. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the subtext I am sensing wasn't in the reportage at all. Or maybe Covington is a training-ground for intolerance and bigotry. But I cant help feeling like these are just the usual dumb kids showing off, or as Diane said, "aggressive pack behavior among a group of adolescent males."

I am not saying, "boys will be boys - forget about it." But I am saying that if we want to have a conversation about this, it should be about education and child-rearing in this country. Why is there a group of meatheads at the back of every schoolroom? How do we make education something that all kids desire? How do we make the bully a pariah? How do we educate this generation so that the next generation will have the best possible parenting and the greatest desire to understand their world?
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  1. Two things I'd like to point out:

    1) Nick Sandmann looks like a scapegoat to me. The idea of him as a meathead seems misplaced. Naive, yes. Idiot for taking part in this, yes. Smirk, cringeworthy, yes. But he looks like a nerd himself, trying to play the part with, that's right, the rest of the meatheads. I don't understand at all why the focus remains on him. At the beginning, the image of him was larger than life. But then, as more footage was piled on top of more footage, we see the mob acting far worse. I don't know how you could read in his silence something worse than what was happening all around him. The reaction to all of this, by his school, his parents, everyone else forced to take a stand behind the seemingly singular youth who has been named, yes, there is a lot to call out about that. Meathead is not the term. Perhaps sheep would fit better. Kavanaugh himself, who has set a fine example of how to get out of misbehavior. If a Supreme Court Justice can get away with youthful shenanigans, who could argue that this boy shouldn't be able to - at least until somebody else gets the blame. A precedent has been set

    2) The video being released as it was, seems to be much akin to the Islamic State claiming responsibility for bombings it had little to do with. Except that they can certainly lay claim to have riled up the crowd. Not once do you mention the Hebrew Israelites. Doesn't their behavior, and role in the release of the video seem rather central to what went down? I can't see leaving them out of the equation.

    I'll leave a picture of Sandmann, lest you retain the meathead picture in your mind.

    1. Hi Ted - while I was writing my mind was focused on the group, though, as Sandmann had become the "face" of the story, I (unintentionally) put him front and center. While I saw him as the "Biff Tanner" leader with his "posse", that might not be fair. I really dont know what kind of person he is "in real life." In fairness, perhaps I should re-write this removing Sandmann from the center of the story.

  2. But your comment about symbols is so perceptive -- and as for packs, I highly recommend Frans de Waal's book "Chimpanzee Politics." Adolescents jockey for power--an opportunity for a young aggressive male to step up and display bravado in front of his peers may be too compelling not to take. In our conversation, I was simply pointing out that the body language and other visual cues were characteristic of a dynamic that is ubiquitous and easy to spot. What it all signifies for our national politics has everything to do with what we the viewers bring to the table as we respond to the freighted symbols tof the hat, the native dress, etc. Lots to think about here. Thanks, Andrew!


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