Why Do We Care So Much About The Covington Students?

It seems, at this point, like just about everything has been written about the Covington Catholic boys and their racist (or not racist, if you’re still sticking with that narrative) rants and taunts in the face of a Native American man banging a drum.  And now, of course, we have the footage of one of them yelling, “It’s not rape if you enjoy it!” to some young women and jeering and yelling at other young women things like “MAGA!”

Either way, it seems like we’ve been caught up in this drama on a deeply personal level, and one that has led to us writing about it almost exclusively, at least relative to the larger-scale issues we’re dealing with like the government being shut down.

To many, this is a sign that we view “politics as entertainment” or that America is obsessed with trivial “identity politics” over substance.

Still others are critical of the fact that there were those of us who wavered over the story when the overcorrecting right wing narrative hit the scene, that just because some context was missing, we did not need to suddenly buy into the reality that this all was a farce and fake and fake news, and we had to apologize.  Then others have bought so deeply into the counter-narrative that they see those who dare to stick to the original narrative as the threat to the nation, the people who will take out the pitchforks and destroy children’s lives without taking a moment to review the “facts.”

All of this, I think, reveals that there is more happening than meets the eye.  This is not just about us consuming politics as entertainment, nor is it (only) about where we fall on the political spectrum.  This is not just a mob, and it’s not just about competing narratives.

There is a reason that for so many of us, this was not something that just felt like another item in the news, but more of a deeply personal, deeply important narrative that had to be resolved as a national community.

So many of the stories in our press are discussed from the perspective of politics.  From a perspective that is defined by externalities: how our “echo chamber” and other realities affect the disagreements we have.  All of this is valid.

But in the last few days, as I felt myself get caught up in the story, I could not help but feel that this story is much more about what we are all experiencing as a country within our souls than just what it says about our various tribes.

I felt my mood profoundly affected by the story, from the moment I had created an shared an image, in a moment of anger and frustration, that compared the intimidation to intimidation of Jews during the Holocaust to the intimidation that was seen in the confrontation between the Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann.  As the reactions started to roll in, and as I got into arguments that I couldn’t seem to pull myself away from, I could already feel the story both having an almost irresistible pull, and, just as equally, a feeling of toxicity that was entering my blood stream.

Then came the “new facts,” which led to a sort of crash from the high of the experience of being caught up in the story, which led to me eventually deleting every post I had put up, apologizing, and watching, again, as the comments came in about whether I was right or wrong, good or bad, thoughtful or shameful.

All of this quickly followed by videos from new angles that showed them clearly mocking Nathan Phillips, as well as the others that clear displayed them as a misogynistic mob of teens that were set loose and causing chaos in their wake.

And then the next question: should I get involved? Again? It felt wrong to have apologized for something that didn’t necessarily need apologizing for, but just as wrong to jump in, again, and let this whole thing ride.

But then, as with so many others, I saw a narrative that felt wrong spread further, and I saw the messages of leaders in minority communities calling us out for being weak in the face of the counter-narrative, and felt deep shame over my mistake.

And so, then it started all over again.  A Twitter post calling them out that led to a Twitter mob coming after me, which led me to removing my post and shutting down my account for a few hours.  A Facebook post that led to an extensive debate.  Another Twitter post.  Another debate.  Then a random writer in the Jewish community angry about another critique of another piece that had nothing to do with this, which then led to another person calling me out for my Holocaust comparison, which led to more anger from me, which led to more exhaustion, which finally, ultimately, led to me walking away from my computer and my phone in frustration, disgust, and, most importantly, exhaustion.

I tell all these details because I think they matter. I think they matter for two reasons:

First, I think my experience is common.  This is what everyone went through, to varying degrees.  It did not matter what side we took, the emotional experience was relatively the same.  We were all angry, frustrated, and exhausted.  We were all trying to figure out the truth, and once we had found the truth we believed in, we tried to send it out into the world.  We all felt some responsibility to the world to get it out there (right or wrong, the emotions are what matter here).  We all felt that the other side winning was incredibly consequential, and we had to be part of a mass movement to set the record straight.

All of this is to say that the debate about the Covington Catholic boys was, in many ways, a microcosmic example of what we’ve been experiencing at large since the moment Trump came onto the scene (and since social media began to define our realities more and more, a phenomenon accelerated and exacerbated by Trump’s “fake news” presence on the American landscape).  As many have pointed out repeatedly since Trump came on the scene, one of the primary dangers of authoritarianism is that we begin to question our reality more and more.  Not only that, the people who are most likely to try and do what in other situations may be logical (try to balance opposing perspectives, for example), in the framework of authoritarianism are actually useful tools for those who will take advantage of their good faith and use them as weapons against those who hold steadfast in their perspective of the truth.

Add the nativism and racism of Trump’s presence (and a tool of authoritarianism in general), and you have the perfect tool for separating between the people willing to believe the lies of authoritarians, those who are steadfast in their refusal to accept it, and those who fall in the middle (due to their own blindness around racial bias or their deep, personal insistence in the good faith of “both sides”) and become the tools of the others.

The fascinating difference between this story and others like the migrant caravan conspiracy, is that this was not started by Trump.  In fact, it was a counter-narrative brought about through a combining of forces of both the useful middle and the propagandized right.

And this, I think, is part of the reason this became so personal.  Part of why we got so caught up in the story.  This was a story that was about something larger.  True, the young men (boys?) were wearing MAGA hats, but they were a sign to many of us of what happens when all of the authoritarianism that surrounds us has been let loose.  It scared us deeply because it was a sign that this story would not be over after Trump is gone.  The boys represented not just the fact that this was a reality no longer completely shaped by Trump, but one that is being learned by a new generation of young people.

All of which brought out the fears and anxieties of so many of us.  This was the future, not just the present.  This was our culture, not just our government.

Finally, combining all of this the conversation about “What is true, and what does our perception of truth say about us?” made this feel close to an existential drama.  On an emotional level, this entire story was about almost every debate we’ve been having until now.

Which would explain our anger, frustration, and exhaustion around the story.

We have been having these fights seemingly nonstop since Trump started running for office, and they are only getting worse.  Every day is a new fight, every moment a new exhausting experience.

In other words, we are in pain, but we won’t take the time to admit it.  The fight seems just too urgent.  But it is the fight that is taking its toll on us, and causing us to fight in ways we may never have just years ago.  And every day that passes, we are in more pain, and transforming more and more as people.

I once read a tweet by Leah McElrath that described all of this as “Complicated grief – also known as traumatic grief.”  In many ways, I think that sums up what we are going through, and it helps explain our reaction to a seemingly minor story.

When Trump was running for president, 69% of Americans reported anxiety directly linked to Trump possibly becoming president, and in the same poll, therapists reported an increase in anxiety among their patients.  Since then, things have gotten much worse. In 2017, two thirds of Americans saw the nation’s future as a “very or somewhat significant source of stress.”  And a study from May, 2018 discovered that, 39 percent of people said their anxiety level had risen in just one year. And 56 percent were either “extremely anxious” or “somewhat anxious about “the impact of politics on daily life.”

This on top of a country that has, in general, already been suffering from an epidemic of depression and mental illness, that even in 2011 was making big headlines.  We are unhappy, and getting unhappier.  We are unhealthy, and getting unhealthier.  We are addicted to substances like opioids, and it’s getting worse.

And, on top of all of that, 78% of us are living paycheck to paycheck, as others continue to benefit off of our hard work and misery.  All of this has gotten so bad that suicide rates rose significantly in every single state in the United States except for one from 1999 to 2016. And things are even worse for our children, for whom suicide is now the second-leading cause of death (it is the tenth-leading cause among adults).

In other words, Americans are suffering.  We were suffering before Trump, of course, with many of these issues very much leading to his rise.  But Trump is like a disease that slipped in when our immune system was already suffering from another disease.  One that made it all that much worse, and made us all that much more broken, miserable, and pained.

Which is part of what makes this so hard.  For many of us, there is a dawning realization that we can read all the “self care” articles on the internet, the fact is that living under an authoritarian and among authoritarian followers by definition takes its toll on us (Others, of course, attribute this toll to the people who stand up to the authoritarian and his racist nativism. I’m not here to bend the truth for them, since this is just as high stakes in my heart as I am describing others here).

In other words, it may be that while there may be things we can do for ourselves to make our lives better, none of this will get better for ourselves (and definitely not for others, like minorities, immigrants, and women who are being actively targeted) until the larger illness is eradicated.

And so when we see people defending the young boys of Covington Catholic, the part of our brains that sees the threats Trump represents, his authoritarian followers represent, and the racism that has motivated all of this represent, says that we must act.  We must do something.  We cannot let them win.  Or the disease spreads.  The loss of truth becomes further ingrained in our lives.  Minorities will continue to suffer.  But so will we, as the pressure of a post-truth, post-democracy, post-economic-stability, reality begins to set in as a permanent instead of temporary (It’s no wonder, then, that the Kavanaugh confirmation created much of the same reactions, a man who represented a position that would last long past a Trump presidency and give permanent power to a misogynist abuser who was sponsored by a post-truth authoritarian?).

And so we went to social media, a technology designed to addict us, feed our need to impulsively express, and increase the power of our basest emotions, especially anger, hoping to fight and win the war of public opinion.

But in so doing, we were using a tool that has, in many ways, been part of the disease of post-truth reality.  In other words, the more we fight the larger disease of authoritarianism, the worse we feel, and thus the more angry, frustrated, and exhausted we become.  The larger fight leads to further pain, and we then express that pain in more and more extreme ways.

This is not to say that we should not be speaking up.  Part of the pain and difficulty of the moment, I think, is that many of us recognize that these debates do matter, and that standing up for the truth and against things like racism and misogyny are not games.  After all, it was the proliferation of memes that helped spread the post-truth lies about Hillary Clinton (that she was hiding a serious illness, for example) that then directly contributed to Trump’s win.

If we have learned anything in the past few years, it is that social media actually matters.  So much so that foreign adversaries have found it to be a potent, inexpensive, and unique weapon in spreading disinformation, division, and bigotry.

This is all to say that our anger, our frustration, and our exhaustion are valid.  They are real.  And is quite possible they are not going away for some time.

Instead of looking around and wondering about our mistakes in these specific situations, it may be worth learning to accept this new reality.  And rather than constantly spreading the message that there is something wrong with it (we already know this), it might be better to discuss how we can manage the anxiety, pain, and confusion we are all dealing with.

We are having many important national conversations, from the #MeToo movement to a new consciousness among some about racism that they once found easier to ignore.

Perhaps it is time for another national conversation: what can we do about our pain? And how can we direct it in healthy ways while still fighting for what’s right?  And, perhaps most importantly, how do we make sure that the pain does not so overwhelm us that we lose sight why we are fighting in the first place, the morals that bind us, and, ultimately, who we are.