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We are all that smirking kid from Covington

This post is an online exchange I had with my friend CJ that was sparked by the viral video of Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips and the tense exchange during the Pro-Life rally that has stormed the American political landscape in 2019. CJ originally had posted on his Facebook about his perspective on the events, and I had responded with a comment.

I thought it was a very enlightening conversation that warranted sharing.

The following is the exchange, edited for readability and posted with CJ’s permission.
Content warning: suicide

CJ:

You know what bothers me about the whole Covington situation?
That kid’s freakin’ smirk.

Look, I spent about ten years in Catholic School. For large swaths of that time, I genuinely believed in Catholicism. I tried to be a good Catholic (with very middling success). I was Pro-Life. I believed in transubstantiation. I went to confession. I had a rosary ring, and I tried to force myself to use it semi-regularly (again, with very middling success).

In Catholic School, teachers and priests tend to harp on ideas of Christian persecution. Eleven out of the Twelve Apostles were killed. Christians were fed to lions in the Colosseum. St. Andrew was frigg’n rock star because, in the last moments before his death, he asked to be crucified on an X instead of a T.

I learned that these were all GOOD things because it let the Catholics demonstrate the strength of their faith and their love of God. It’s easy to be a Catholic when there’s no risk involved. The TRUE test of faith is standing up for your beliefs in the face of violent persecution.

Obviously, I can't speak for all Catholics. But, when I was in Catholic School, I’d occasionally have these persecution fantasies. I would literally fantasize about people challenging me about my faith, so that I could respond and demonstrate the strength of my own religious convictions. Of course, this never really happens in the U.S. It’s really hard to be genuinely persecuted as a Catholic. You can scream about being a Catholic all day long, and the worst thing that’ll happen is that people ignore you or call you an asshole. There’s literally zero chance of being flogged, burned, or killed. Growing up as a Catholic kid, there was something vaguely disappointing about all this.

So let’s turn back to the Covington Kids. These teenagers were in DC for the March for Life Rally. They were already expressing an inherently religious (and unpopular) opinion. Some decided to wear Trump hats to heighten their own unpopularity. This is about as close to “persecution” as a Catholic is likely to get in day-to-day life in the U.S.

But then, the Black Hebrew Israelites showed up with their poster boards. And they started jeering at these kids.

Finally, sweet persecution! This was incredibly exciting. It led to lots chanting, jumping around, and carrying on. Finally, as a group, the Covington Kids could stand up to persecution. How could this get any better?

But it did get better! Because, out of nowhere, some random dude started approaching the kids, beating his drum, and singing. Could this be more persecution? Possibly! How exciting!

We know from the videos that Phillips started to engage with one kid in particular. And, on the video, you can watch the kid’s face make all these spastic changes while he tries to figure out the appropriate expression for the moment. And finally, he settles on that freakin’ smirk.

I recognized that smirk. It’s the smirk of an individual who believes he is standing up for his convictions in the face of unreasonable persecution, believes himself morally superior, and knows, at his very core, that he’s not going to get hurt. That smirk is this weird manifestation of self-righteous, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, and a deep-down confidence that there’s no actual danger on the horizon. It’s an awful cocktail of human emotions.

So what happens next?

This one minute video emerges of this smirking kid. We’re told that (1) he blocked the path of (2) a Native American Vietnam veteran (3) just to harass him (4) after chanting “build the wall” with his schoolmates.

It’s our own weird little persecution fantasy. It’s fueled by the exact same sort of cocktail of self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, and basic sense of security as we sit behind computer screens.

A few days later, it’s now clear that: (1) he never blocked Phillip’s path, (2) Phillip’s might not be a Vietnam war vet, (3) Phillips approached the teenager, not the other way around, and (4) the kids probably weren’t chanting “build the wall.” It turns out these were just some teenagers in MAGA hats who were enjoying their persecution fantasies come to life. Are they assholes? Probably. But if so, they're garden variety assholes not worthy of national media attention.

How did that happen? How did we get so many basic facts get reported incorrectly? Why are we so focused on these stupid teenagers?

In my view, we got it wrong because we really, really wanted to believe that a bunch of awful, racist, Trump-supporting, wall-building, high school kids were running around DC behaving like tiny Hitlers. We wanted the villains to be real.

And we wanted them to be as bad as they possibly could be. That way, we could gleefully imagine doxing them, ruining their lives, and shoving them in wood chippers as near-divine punishment for acting like such little turds. It’s our own weird little persecution fantasy. It’s fueled by the exact same sort of cocktail of self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, and basic sense of security as we sit behind computer screens.

I don’t know where we go from here. It’s 2019 and everything is awful.

Simón(e):

CJ, despite that we hold and have expressed many different political positions, you always write great topical posts that resonant with me and compel me intellectually and emotionally to be a part of the conversation; not as a supporter or adversary, but just as a person. When this event originally happened, my general reaction was “not touching this one, even with an infinitely long internet-based pole.” But it’s your points you bring up about oppression that ring loudly in my mind.

What is good, is what you are willing to die for.

I never could’ve thought about this happening with this perspective, even as a fellow catholic school “survivor” (I think you beat me by a year, but who’s measuring…). And the reason I couldn’t have thought to see it this way is because of my relationship with persecution has been different than yours; in summary, you’re right about what catholic school teaches when it comes to persecution. We were taught that standing up for what is right, even in the face of death as Jesus did, was - like you said - GOOD; truly Good. Good in the way that it colors and teaches us how, what, and why we value the things that we do. It’s how we were taught that things were real, that our faith in god was real if we were willing to do such a thing. What is good, is what you are willing to die for. My very good friend calls this kind of thinking “Catholic Seasoning.” Just sprinkling that guilt and sense of persecution over every little experience, just to keep the existential dread of a meaningless life at bay.

But it’s how that perspective shaped us later that differs. In high school, I always felt like I was different, treated differently by classmates and teachers (I vividly remember the gym coach scoffing at my attempts at weight lifting in health class, as if I had a choice, and there was something about that apparently tiny action that has shaped my existence). But I didn’t know why I was thinking, feeling, and experiencing these what felt like oppressiveness. “I was taught that persecution and being oppressed is good, right? What is good is what you are willing to die for. People died for catholicism, so what’s a little bullying? What’s a bit of othering compared to that? My feelings and thoughts of being different just can’t be real. I’m not being persecuted for them so they’re meaningless.” The catholic view of persecution was so deeply engrained in my brain that I rejected the idea that my feelings and thoughts - literally ME - were in any way real. So much so that it nearly drove me to actually make myself not real.

The villain is us - all of us.

I think you really get at this idea of what persecution is and what it means for people. I think it’s deeply engrained in our societal consciousness. “Minorities can’t be persecuted at all, your experiences aren’t real because black, gay, hispanic, asian, literally died in the past because of who they are. You just can’t get over these ‘little inconveniences.’” And that’s what so terrifyingly sinister about this new kind of approach to persecution. It undermines those who are persecuted, belittles and diminishes their existence in the name of conformity, and takes the mantle of persecution - and thus, realness - and claims it as their own. Maybe that’s why we’re so focused on a bunch of stupid teenagers.

For one group, it demonstrates to them how pitiful all of these people claiming to be persecuted and oppressed are.

For the other, it is a small but powerful reminder of the parts of American society that have made their lives so fucking shitty.

For another, its reinforcement about how “above-the-fray” they think themselves to be.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, that as illuminating your insight is, that the villains are real. They aren’t the kids. They aren’t Trump. They are aren’t MAGA bros. They aren’t the Black Hebrew Israelites.

The villain is us - all of us. Seeing the video might have made us all feel self-righteous, that we are just not as bad as those dumbass kids, or the crazy protesters. They are the enemy, and thus, it relieves us of any responsibility to look at ourselves, and gives us permission to point fingers at other people.

I also don’t know where we go from here. It’s 2019 and we still haven’t learned how to treat people with humanity. That’s pretty awful.