One of the advantages of taking Saturdays off the web entirely is that I wasn’t aware of L’Affaire Covington until it was almost over. It’s one of those occasions I’m deeply glad I quit blogging 24/7 four years ago and disengaged from Twitter last month. I’m not going to dunk on the multitudes who badly misjudged a moment in time. We’re all fallible. But I did make time to watch the full 100 minutes of YouTube footage that covered the scene in front of the Lincoln Memorial long before, during, and after the smirk that was seen across the world.
What I saw was extraordinary bigotry, threats of violence, hideous misogyny, disgusting racism, foul homophobia, and anti-Catholicism — not by the demonized schoolboys, but by grown men with a bullhorn, a small group of self-styled Black Hebrew Israelites. They’re a fringe sect — but an extremely aggressive one — known for inflammatory bigotry in public. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated them a hate group: “strongly anti-white and anti-Semitic.” They scream abuse at gays, women, white people, Jews, interracial couples, in the crudest of language. In their public display of bigotry, they’re at the same level as the Westboro Baptist sect: shockingly obscene. They were the instigators of the entire affair.
And yet the elite media seemed eager to downplay their role, referring to them only in passing, noting briefly that they were known to be anti-Semitic and anti-gay. After several days, the New York Times ran a news analysis on the group by John Eligon that reads like a press release from the sect: “They shout, use blunt and sometimes offensive language, and gamely engage in arguments aimed at drawing listeners near.” He notes that “they group people based on what they call nations, believing that there are 12 tribes among God’s chosen people. White people are not among those tribes, they believe, and will therefore be servants when Christ returns to Earth.” Nothing to see here, folks. Just a bunch of people preaching the enslavement of another race in public on speakers in the most inflammatory language imaginable.
Eligon actually writes: “Whatever tensions are sparked by Hebrew Israelite teaching, some adherents chalk that up to people being unwilling to accept uncomfortable doctrine.” The Washington Post ran a Style section headline about “the calculated art of making people uncomfortable.” In a news story entirely about the Black Israelites, the Washington Post did not quote a single thing they had said on the tape, gave a respectful account of their theology, and only mentioned their status as a “hate group” in the 24th paragraph, and put the term in scare quotes. Vox managed to write an explainer that also did not include a single example of any of the actual insults hurled at the Covington kids. Countless near-treatises were written parsing the layers of bigotry inside a silent schoolboy’s smirk.
Here’s what I saw on the full tape: a small group of aggressive, hateful men using a bullhorn to broadcast the crudest of racial slurs, backed up by recitations of Bible verses. I saw a young Native American woman make the mistake of engaging them. When she stood her ground, she was suddenly interrupted: “You’re out of order. Where’s your husband? Where’s your husband? Let me speak to him.” On the tape, you can hear the commentary from another member of the Black Israelites: “You see this? This is the problem, Israel. It’s always our women coming up with their loud mouth, thinking they can run and bogart things, thinking they can come and distract things with their loud-ass mouth, because they’re not used to dealing with real men. You think we’re supposed to bow down to your damn emotions when you come around here and run your mouth and distract what we’re doing instead of coming here with order … She’s coming around here being wicked.”
Wait, there’s more. Hollering through a bullhorn at a group of Native Americans, the speaker boomed: “You ain’t no child of God. You are the Indian. You are a blue-eyed demon. That’s the last Mohican.” Then: “You’re still worshipping totem poles. You out of your mind! You have to repent. You worship the buffalo. You worship the eagle. You worship the phoenix. These are the idols you’ve been worshipping. A damn buffalo ain’t gonna save you. You worship the creations and not the creator … That’s why you’re drunkards in the casinos and the damn plantation.” Another: “Dumb-ass niggers. Bunch of demons. You’re a bunch of Uncle Tomahawks.” They snarled the word “savages” at Native Americans. The yelling was deafening, aggressive, vile, and threatening. But an inscrutable smile by a white teen was enough for some elite liberals to urge punching a schoolboy in the face.
Here is how the Black Israelites verbally assaulted the schoolboys: “Bring your cracker ass up here. Dirty ass crackers, your day coming. We can give a hell about your police. No one’s playing with these dusty-ass crackers.” Another: “Don’t get too close or your ass gonna get punished … You crackers are some slithery ass bastards. You better keep your distance.” And this, surveying the scene: “I see you, a bunch of incest babies … Babies made out of incest. If you’re the great damn nation, get rid of the lice on your back. … You’re a bunch of hyenas. You outnumber us but you keep your distance. You couldn’t touch us if you wanted to. You worship blasphemy.”
Then they took it up a notch: “Look at these dirty-ass crackers. You’re a bunch of future school-shooters. You crackers are crazy. You crackers have got some damn nerve …” And again: “When you guys gonna shoot up another school? You all gonna shoot up a school.” Yes, the man was accusing a bunch of schoolboys from Kentucky of wanting to murder their classmates — solely because they’re white.
Once the Israelites figured out the kids were Catholic, they offered this about what appeared to be a picture of the Pope: “This is a faggot child-molester.” And this about Donald Trump: “He’s a product of sodomy and he’s proud. Your president is a homosexual. … It says on the back of the dollar bill that ‘In God We Trust,’ and you give faggots rights.” At that homophobic outburst, the kids from the Catholic school spontaneously booed.
The boys — stuck waiting for a bus — decided to respond to this assault by performing school chants. Most look a little bewildered, as one might imagine. Some even tried to engage. Here are the spoken words I heard, in response to the abuse: “That’s racist, bro.” “That’s rude.” “Why are you being mean? Why do you call us Klansmen?” “We don’t judge you.” One of them offered to shake hands, and was rebuffed. Another offered some water from a plastic bottle. The response? “You got some Trump water? What does it taste like? Incest?”
Yes, the boys did chant some school riffs; I’m sure some of those joining in the Native American drumming and chanting were doing it partly in mockery, but others may have just been rolling with it. Yes, they should not have been wearing MAGA hats to a pro-life march. They aren’t angels; they’re teenage boys. But they were also subjected for quite a while to a racist, anti-Catholic, homophobic tirade on a loudspeaker, which would be more than most of us urbanites could bear — and they’re adolescents literally off the bus from Kentucky. I heard no slurs back. They stayed there because they were waiting for a bus, not to intimidate anyone.
To put it bluntly: They were 16-year-olds subjected to verbal racist assault by grown men; and then the kids were accused of being bigots. It just beggars belief that the same liberals who fret about “micro-aggressions” for 20-somethings were able to see 16-year-olds absorbing the worst racist garbage from religious bigots … and then express the desire to punch the kids in the face.
How did this grotesque inversion of the truth become the central narrative for what seemed to be the entire class of elite journalists on Twitter? That’s the somewhat terrifying question. Ruth Graham on Slate saw a 16-year-old she’d seen on a tape for a couple of minutes and immediately knew that he was indistinguishable from the “white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s” or other white “high school boys flashing Nazi salutes.” Even after the full context was clear, Graham refused to apologize to the kid, or retract her condemnation: The context didn’t “change the larger story” which, she explained, was bigotry toward Native Americans. She cited Trump’s use of the name “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren as evidence. But using a bullhorn to call Native Americans “savages” and “drunkards at the casino” to their faces a few minutes earlier on the same tape was not worth a mention?
Graham was just one media voice among countless others, and I don’t mean to single her out. The reason I do is because her argument about the fuller context is now the norm in elite media, and it’s the underlying reason for the instant judgment. “Racism” now only means “prejudice plus power,” so what the adult Black Israelites yelled was nowhere near as bad as what a white teenager didn’t say. No empirical evidence could ever deny that underlying truth, as a piece at Deadspin insisted, after admitting that, well yes, there were “four black men who seem to belong to the Black Israelites … yelling insults.” No mention of the content of those insults, of course.
Across most of the national media, led by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the narrative had been set. “I’m willing to bet that fifty years from now, a defining image of this political era will be that smug white MAGA teen disrespecting a Native elder and veteran. It just captures so much,” Jessica Valenti tweeted. “And let’s please not forget that this group of teens … were there for the March for Life: There is an inextricable link between control over women’s bodies, white supremacy & young white male entitlement.” This is the orthodoxy of elite media, and it is increasingly the job of journalists to fit the facts to the narrative and to avoid any facts that undermine it.
There’s a reason why, in the crucial battle for the legitimacy of a free press, Trump is still on the offensive. Our mainstream press has been poisoned by tribalism. My own trust in it is eroding. I’m far from the only one.
The other night I was having a drink with a friend who said he believed that the Trump threat was essentially over, as the shutdown took its toll. He noted what might become an inflection point in the polling. He was heartened by the midterms. He might be right. But I think that misses the core point about this presidency. From my perspective, the Trump threat to liberal democracy is deepening, largely because its racial animus and rank tribalism are evoking a response that is increasingly imbued with racial animus and rank tribalism, in an ever-tightening spiral of mutual hostility.
“The red MAGA hat is the new white hood,” tweeted Alyssa Milano. In his debut Times column, Jamelle Bouie describes a border wall thus: “You can almost think of the wall as a modern-day Confederate monument, akin to those erected during a similar but far more virulent period of racist aggression in the first decades of the 20th century.” Charles Blow insists that “We have to stop thinking of the symbology of Trump’s presidency — the MAGA hats, the wall, etc — as merely physical objects. They have long since lost their original meaning and purpose. They are now emblems. They are now the new iconography of white supremacy … In much the same way that the confederate flag became a white supremacy signalling device, the MAGA hat now serves the same purpose. It is tangentially connected to Trump, but is transcends him also. It’s a way of cloaking racial hostility in the presentable form of politics.” A campaign slogan for a candidate who won the votes of 46 percent of the country in 2016 is to be seen as indistinguishable from the Confederate flag. This is not the language of politics. It is a language of civil war.
I can understand this impulse emotionally as a response to Trump’s hatefulness. But I fear it morally or politically. It’s a vortex that can lead to nothing but the raw imposition of power by one tribe over another. There can be no dialogue here, no debate, not even a State of the Union in which both tribes will participate. And none of us is immune.
What was so depressing to me about the Covington incident was how so many liberals felt comfortable taking a random teenager and, purely because of his race and gender, projected onto him all their resentments and hatred of “white men” in general. Here is Kara Swisher, a sane and kind person, reacting to the first video: “To all you aggrieved folks who thought this Gillette ad was too much bad-men-shaming, after we just saw it come to life with those awful kids and their fetid smirking harassing that elderly man on the Mall: Go fuck yourselves.” Judging — indeed demonizing — an individual on the basis of the racial or gender group he belongs to is the core element of racism, and yet it is now routine on the left as well as the right. To her great credit, Kara apologized profusely for the outburst. The point here is that tribal hatred can consume even the best of us.
And this is what will inevitably happen once you’ve redefined racism or sexism to mean prejudice plus power. It’s reasonable to note the social context of bigotry and see shades of gray, in which the powerful should indeed be more aware of how their racial or gender prejudice can hurt others, and the powerless given some slack. But if that leads you to ignore or downplay the nastiest adult bigotry imaginable and to focus on a teen boy’s silent face as the real manifestation of evil, you are well on your way to creating a new racism that mirrors aspects of the old.
This is the abyss of hate versus hate, tribe versus tribe. This is a moment when we can look at ourselves in the mirror of social media and see what we have become. Liberal democracy is being dismantled before our eyes — by all of us. This process is greater than one president. It is bottom-up as well as top-down. Tyranny, as Damon Linker reminded us this week, is not just political but psychological, and the tyrannical impulse, ratcheted up by social media, is in all of us. It infects the soul of the entire body politic. It destroys good people. It slowly strangles liberal democracy. This is the ongoing extinction level event.
Marijuana and Moderation
Just a couple of thoughts about the newish backlash to marijuana legalization. It’s an extremely good thing that people are following events on the ground, to see what impacts legalization has had, and to examine what it means that the THC content of commercial weed is much greater than most (but not all) of it historically was. We should track teenage rates of use and where the drug can do most harm to the developing brain. We should monitor crime carefully. And, yes, schizophrenics are well advised to stay away from strong weed. This is not new. We’ve known that for a very long time — even if we don’t really know what’s causation and correlation.
But the new book by Alex Berenson, uncritically lauded by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker? It’s been so thoroughly debunked — see here, here and here — that I don’t need to restate the case. It fails even to engage the strongest arguments on the other side. In this magazine, Jesse Singal picked Berenson apart, with Berenson finally conceding that his core point is unproven: “We don’t know yet whether cannabis is actually driving the violent crime increases in these states.” But the truly stunning thing about the book is how closely its rhetoric resembles the hilarious claims of the 1936 movie, Reefer Madness. The very title of the book, Tell Your Children, is actually a direct quote from the movie. The notion that smoking weed leads to countless people suddenly becoming violent and going on killing rampages is present in both anti-marijuana tracts — as is the scary idea of the madness-inducing demon, unleashing itself on an unsuspecting nation. It’s close to laughable. We still have zero overdoses, and no sign of increase in teen use. If you think the murder and assault rate is soaring because of pot legalization, well, read this.
But I do think some reflection on how superstrong weed is different than milder varieties in the past is overdue. Maybe it’s because people know they can’t overdose that leads them to push their weed hit into the stratosphere. But watching someone “dab” concentrated pot resin — i.e. vaporize it and inhale — has more of a crack vibe than weed. More to the point, a couple of dabs and you can’t really do much in the way of conversation. My first dabbing experience — and I’m not JV — was with a longtime friend, and we usually kick off long, digressive conversations with weed. But dabbing it made me want to go to bed to escape all the sounds and sights around me. It ended the conversation. It even made watching a movie unbearable. Dabbing or smoking super-high concentrates of THC doesn’t encourage sociability; it doesn’t allow a conversation to unfold and expand as milder weed slowly does; it also chips away at weed’s longtime culture of generosity, calm, and mellowness. More is often, in my experience, less.
Which means — guess what? — moderation is the key. There’s a difference between a meal where a bottle of red wine is slowly consumed, and an endless round of shots to get fucked up as quickly as you can. It seems to me that we’ll find a balancing point in due course. Perhaps high THC consumption gets you high more efficiently and pays for itself — but most people interested in smoking don’t want to be incapacitated and the benefit of legalization is that, sooner or later, the market will surely offer milder, subtler varieties. My medical card has opened up a whole world of nuance and choice unavailable before. I’ve found myself looking for lower THC levels, merely to help me sleep or enhance hanging with friends.
We’re learning. If concentrating drugs is a function of prohibition, maybe legalization could lead to a kinder, gentler high.
It seems to me not a coincidence that in the two most established democracies in the world — the U.K. and the U.S. — government is effectively gridlocked. And it may be worth seeing how Brexit is faring to guess where we might actually end up in a little while.
To recap: The British government has proposed a laboriously negotiated compromise deal for leaving the E.U., the Parliament has overwhelmingly rejected it, and no alternative has a majority in the Commons. This means that, if the gridlock continues, the U.K. will — yes, will — crash out of the E.U. in a couple of months, and return to trading with the E.U. on the basis of WTO rules. The overwhelming expert consensus is that this would be an economic catastrophe, knocking up to 8 percent off Britain’s GDP, causing medical emergencies, massive backlogs at ports, a European recession, and potentially a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But this week, an attempt to get Parliament even to vote on a second referendum failed. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is against it. He’s not budging an inch either.
And here’s the kicker: The latest poll shows the most popular option right now is … crashing out of the E.U. without a deal. There was a moment last week on a popular BBC political show, where a panelist mentioned “no deal” as an option and the audience erupted into a cheer. Many Brits argue that one referendum — which everybody on both sides said would be definitive — is enough. A second referendum would undermine a core principle of a democracy, majority rule, which, they say, would lead many to believe that Parliament was illegitimately thwarting the will of the people, and treat the voters as idiots who need to keep voting until they get it right. It did not help that Tony Blair, one of the most widely despised figures in British public life, kept giving interviews from Davos this week, telling the Brits to come to their senses and get a second vote, while the Alps gleamed behind him.
At the same time, those who favor a second referendum are in disarray. BuzzFeed reported this week that “Pro-Remain MPs and officials on the People’s Vote campaign are split on the overarching strategy of how to secure a public vote, on campaign events and tactics, whether People’s Vote should run the Remain campaign if a second referendum is called, and over the actions and motivations of its leading politicians, the sources said.” They’re waiting until the edge of disaster before making a move in the Commons. Meanwhile, a Labour honcho explained: “The second referendum campaign has totally overplayed its hand and is driving more Labour MPs to strongly oppose it. There are more and more of us on the frontbench saying to each other that we just will not support a second referendum.”
The poll this week gave Brits a multiple choice of options for what should happen next. Twenty-eight percent backed no deal, 24 percent backed a second referendum, 20 percent wanted a delay. Only 8 percent favored a compromise deal (May’s position), and only 11 percent wanted a new government though a general election (Corbyn’s position). The prime minister’s view is that she can renegotiate a new solution to the Irish border question with the E.U. — and win a majority in the Commons for it. There is no actual, you know, evidence that the E.U. is prepared to compromise, or that such a compromise would make a difference in the Commons anyway.
When politics gets tribal, compromise becomes impossible. This is one hell of a game of brinkmanship. But if no one compromises, and nothing happens, the U.K. will definitively crash out of the E.U. on March 29. That is the default option, voted for by the Parliament when they backed Article 50 for leaving the E.U. with 498 votes in favor. Most commentators in the U.S. still can’t quite believe this will happen. I’d say a no-deal Brexit is now the likeliest result. And a lot of Brits will be relieved just to end the entire Brexit nightmare once and for all — by just getting on with it and leaving.
See you next Friday.