National Opinions

The Covington controversy and the narrative fallacy

WASHINGTON -- When a white, Catholic-school boy wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap is shown staring down a Native American ex-Marine, sending the media scrambling for their pitchforks and torches, one might want to pause and stroke one’s chin.

Haven't we seen this flick before?

Indeed, the plot doesn't vary much among these episodic teaching moments from which we apparently learn nothing. The common denominator? White boys presumably exercising their white privilege at the expense of a minority victim -- whether a black dancer (not) raped at a Duke lacrosse team party or a female student (not) gang-raped at the University of Virginia. If the media doesn't create a story from whole cloth, it stampedes to justice with the ethics and instincts of a starving honey badger.

In the current rerun, several longer videos of the incident show a much broader context than did the initial clip and widely circulated video stills. As it turns out, a picture isn’t always worth a thousand words; sometimes it’s worth just one: Wait.

Suffice to say, this did not happen. Within minutes of the clip going viral, 11th-grader Nick Sandmann was no innocent kid but instead a racist brat. In the images, he is vaguely smiling as he stares at Nathan Phillips, an activist leader of the Omaha tribe -- and not actually a Vietnam War veteran, contrary to initial media descriptions. For the record, he served in the Marine Corps but was never deployed to Vietnam. But the compounded effrontery of mocking both a Native American and a war veteran makes a much more tantalizing story. Moreover, it was actually Phillips who initiated the encounter, during which he stood inches from Sandmann, banging his drum.

Quiz: What do you see in this snapshot of Sandmann? The face of white supremacy, as was quickly alleged on social media? Or the nervous smile of a kid who isn't sure what to do after a fellow gets in his face, seemingly intent on a staring contest?

Perhaps, one can see a little of both -- and, perhaps, both impressions are somewhat accurate without necessarily representing a whole truth. Both Phillips and Sandmann subsequently told differing accounts, but with one similarity: Each said he was trying to convey calm in a tense situation. The boys, in fact, had earlier been the targets of a stream of profanity and invective from a third group -- the Black Hebrew Israelites, who believe that African-Americans are God's chosen people.


According to Sandmann, the Israelites shouted at one of his black classmates, saying that the white students would "harvest his organs." One can see how things might have gotten out of hand -- but they didn't. Despite the obvious intent to provoke a confrontation with the Catholic kids, the boys didn't take the bait. They may have acted out a bit -- shouting school cheers, doing tomahawk-chop gestures and arguing with a Native American who told one student to "go back to Europe." But, largely, they acted just like dumb high school kids, if you'll pardon the redundancy.

All things considered, this potentially combustible situation was relatively innocuous compared with what transpired afterward via social and other media. White men may not be able to jump, but they sure can leap to a conclusion. White guilt is a thing, too. But how many times must we witness these rushes to judgment before skepticism gets a chance to show off?

The reason the response to the initial video became so vicious, forcing Sandmann's high school to close down Tuesday because of security threats, is that the inferred events in these cases so perfectly fit the prevailing white-privilege narrative. But doesn't everyone deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Our tribal politics and the Trump Effect have liberated resentment and amplified minor differences. So, note to parents: Please don't send your white boys to a Washington march wearing "MAGA" hats. You may as well put an apple on their heads at a William Tell festival.

The added fact that Sandmann and his classmates are Catholic school students only fueled the narrative by providing a reiteration of sorts of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's ordeal. For many Americans, thanks to confirmation hearings that were a kangaroo court of satirical excess, Kavanaugh will always be the white-privileged, prep-school guy accused of assaulting a girl in high school.

Which is to say, sorry, boys. You are a victim of terrible timing, by birth and by history. You didn’t stand a chance. Shame on us for being duped yet again. Anybody should have seen it coming.

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Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker writes a twice-weekly column on politics and culture for the Washington Post. In 2010, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for “her perceptive, often witty columns on an array of political and moral issues, gracefully sharing the experiences and values that lead her to unpredictable conclusions.”