Sacred Drumming versus the Covington Catholic Kids: Shark Jumping or the Death of Truth?

On January 19, 2019, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Nathan Phillips, American Indian activist and star of the Skrillex and Jr. Gong Markley’s dub step video “Make it Bum Dem,” accompanied by a small band of protestors, having just finished participating in the Indigenous Peoples March rally, marched into a crowd of teenagers, who were at the Capitol in their capacity as Covington Catholic High School students, singled out one teenager and pressed extremely close to him while chanting loudly and banging a drum in his face. The teenager responded by occasionally smiling and making sure that his friends did not agitate Phillips’ group. Nearby a group of men identifying as Black Hebrew Israelites—a recognized hate group by the Southern Law and Poverty Center—were harassing the students by calling them “crackers,” “peckerwoods,” “faggots,” “niggers” (the students were not monolithically white), and other derogatory names.

Nathan Phillips and a Covington Catholic High School student

Initially, a heavily edited version of the encounter was broadcast on Twitter from an anonymous account subsequently deactivated for violating the rules of that social media platform. The edited version (which left out the role of the Black Hebrew Israelites, as well as the aggressive actions of the Phillips’ group) made the encounter appear as if the teenagers—to be presumed racists because they were white, with some wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, the campaign slogan of current president Donald Trump and past president Ronald Reagan—were harassing and mocking an American Indian Vietnam veteran and “religious leader” (as federal prisoner Leonard Peltier referred to Phillips in an open letter carried in Counterpunch). The audience was told that the teenagers were chanting such things as “Build the wall,” a reference to Trump’s campaign promise to build more security barriers along the United States border with Mexico. In the context of a federal government shutdown, with the problem of illegal immigration the core contention, the edited version served as propaganda for the identitarian left to delegitimate advocates of greater border security and to advance its own agenda of open borders.

The irony that a group claiming injury from the mass immigration of Europeans into North America could be symbolic of open borders appears to have escaped everybody. At any rate, the edited video was anything but representative of the actual event. When the full video came out and revealed that Black Hebrew Israelites had been antagonizing the high school students and that Nathan Phillips and his group had piled on by getting in the teenagers’ face (violating the western cultural sense of personal space), those who had pushed the initial account lost a piece of powerful propaganda, powerful because it did not rest on explicit claims around identity but rather took advantage of implicit assumptions long enculturated in the masses by the postmodern politics of identity. It was a dramatic test of the efficacy of multicultural programming in framing political discourse in America. (Why go home? We’re becoming more European every day.) But the truth of the event did not stop left identitarians from continuing to pound the drum of white privilege and guilt. Purveyors of this species of politics quickly developed and disseminated several positive heuristics to defend the failure of negative core of their argument, which is to say that the heart of the argument—that the boys were to blame because of their racial identity—was not revisable (albeit flipped) and other claims were necessary to sustain the initial narrative. Much of the approach was rhetorical (e.g. the deployment of academic jargon such as “centering whiteness”), but the most impactful was the practice of alleging confirming evidence.

One of these alleged pieces of confirming evidence is the reason the boys were there. They were bused to the Capitol to support the March for Life rally held that day. They shouldn’t have been there in the first place, we are told, since the anti-abortion cause is illegitimate (its advocates seek to enslave women—which is true!) and the boys are males who are justly denied an opinion on the subject because they cannot have babies (subtleties and other fights are glossed in warfare). I could spend some time discussing the absurdity of this position (especially the essentialist claptrap), but since the reason they were there is immaterial to the situation, it would be a digression. They could have been there for a myriad of reasons. Only one reason would be relevant, namely had they been there to protest the Indigenous Peoples March rally, and only then if they were the ones who provoked the confrontation.

Another alleged piece of evidence is a brief and shaky video of a group of boys, said to be from Covington Catholic High School and from that same day, yelling at a couple of young women who are walking by. This is held up as proof of malice (and depends to some degree on the fumes of the Kavanaugh outrage). The absurdity of denying common knowledge of the obnoxious reality of teenage boys and girls gathered around park benches to malign the character of the individuals harassed at the Memorial illustrates well the penchant for rationalizing that lies at the heart of the method of identity politics. It would be charitable to say such heuristics are hardly compelling as arguments. But they aren’t arguments at all. 

Those insisting on a racial interpretation of the incident share video footage and images of Covington Catholic students in 2012 (probably on November 27 according to Snopes, which is always on the case) that they insist indicate blackface worn by students at a basketball game. Coventry has a tradition of students painting their entire bodies a solid color. One of the colors used is black. It is associated with what they call “black out” games. Some argue that intent doesn’t matter, and, apparently, that some colors are never to be used by white people as body paint; anybody who is sensitive to the plight of African Americans knows that painting a white body black is offensive and therefore forbidden. Trying to find reason in this argument is difficult. If somebody does or says something that offends you or that you believe is offensive to somebody, but the person intends no offense and has a plausible explanation for/or you can charitably recognize a plausible alternative for why he did/said what he did/said that has nothing to do with offending you or being offense to others, yet you still hold that person accountable for some wrongdoing, then what you’re really saying is that another person should be responsible for your perception of what he did/said, that he should acknowledge your power to define his actions in a particular way (which just happens to serve your agenda) and enlist others in vilifying him.

What authority does a person have to define for somebody else the meaning of an ambiguous action or an action with a contrary intention? It can’t be because that person is black or speaks for black people (pick any race), since an appeals to the authority of identity is not a rational justification for accepting a claim. I hope we all recognize the power of perception and the act of harassing, defaming, and mobbing people who self-appointed authorities think acted wrongly. History has given us dramatic examples. The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind. And while losing one’s reputation is not as bad as losing one’s life, it is not a negligible injury. In light of the vast history of examples, why should anybody cow to those who are so self-righteous that they think they have moral permission to ruin the reputations of teenagers by insisting on particular (and self-serving) interpretations of at best ambiguous events? Moreover, supposing that students wore blackface back then, how is a teenager today responsible for what other people did when he was nine years old? This makes no rational sense. This is the way religious people think.

Yet another angle is to suggest—by way of some temporal-defying modified deLorian-jujitsu move—that the event was orchestrated by professional conservative operatives the services of which the teenager’s family had retained: RunSwitch, a public relations firm run by Scott Jennings, Steve Bryant, and Gary Gerdemann. Jennings, for example, served in senior positions in Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaigns and was senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He also worked for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and was special assistant to former president George W. Bush. This attempt to save the narrative is as absurd as the others and tells us a lot about the politics in play. But there is also a deep moral failing expressed here: This teenager is being tried in the public court of standing his ground while being bullied. His parents are to be his only immediate advocates? They are expected handle this without any help? Who established this rule? Here’s where empathy comes in handy. Imagine you and your family are attacked for something somebody else did. You’re 16 years old. Your whole life is in front of you and it’s possible that you will always be wrongly known as that white supremacist punk who mocked an American Indian war veteran. You’re being defamed. Your parents—who love you very much—contact a PR firm with political savvy to help you get your story out to the public. Sounds like a smart plan. But, no, that makes you guilty of something else. 

How can people find untoward a family seeking expert help in crafting a message to counter the overwhelming press of national and social media forces determined to wreck the reputation of their teenage son? If they sued any of them for defamation, would they not turn to a legal expert? Do people really think that ordinary people are equipped to defend their kids from the modern media assault? The response I get is this is no ordinary family. They are white and therefore privileged. They are already guilty by virtue of being members of the “oppressor race.” Nonsense. I am white and I am neither privileged nor an oppressor. Nor is this teenager. A person cannot possibly be responsible for anything somebody else may have done in the past. Guilt by virtue of demographic designation is a thoroughly immoral doctrine (on par with vicarious redemption). If it were my kid being hammered like this and I did not have the ability to help him craft a response, I would seek out professionals, just like I would a lawyer if he were in legal trouble or a doctor if he were sick. People sometimes need advocates.

The hysterical left is determined to make sure the teenage can’t win for losing. Anything he does to try to get some semblance of his life back short of validating a warped interpretation of his nonaction by admitting wrongdoing and apologizing (the pseudo-left loves confession and apology) is going to be used against him—and even that will help this wretched species of destructive politics to continue thriving. So it’s my job—and hopefully yours—to assert his innocence and to tell the truth: people are either embarrassed or desperate because they judged a situation based not on what happened but on what they wanted to be true, and they will use anything to save face and make this thing fit their political agenda. For many of you that means taking a long hard look at yourself. Why do you hate this kid so much? Have you still not gotten over high school?

And then there’s Nathan Phillips, a man who, according to Vincent Schilling (the associate editor of Indian Country Today), told him in previous interviews about being spat on when he returned home from Vietnam yet was never in Vietnam. That’s doubling up on mythology! Some have it that we’re supposed to agree that Phillips and his drum have something special to offer humanity (the Great Spirit is just like every other religious claim: nonsense). The talk centers on the need to respect him as an elder. A woman with the band said she was raised to treat her elders with respect so it hurt to see them treat Phillips so badly. But assuming that we are supposed to respect elders even when we disagree with them, the fact is that he wasn’t treated badly. Watch the video. Nonetheless, today he is in the press forgiving the teenager. For what? This is wisdom? (I wonder how much the mass display of reflexive faith in the claims of a shaman is rooted in the penchant among progressives to fetishize the exotic. They do the same with the hijab, treating the obligatory modesty rules of the most extreme interpretations of Islam as expressions of authenticity.)

And what about Phillips’ comrade? The man who said to the teenagers, “You white people should go back to where you came from. This is not your land.” When the teenagers note that it is in fact their country, the man says, “Not it’s not. You have been here two or three generations. Compared to us. We’ve been here a million fucking years.” The politics of social justice warp things in such a way that “woke” people are expected to reflexively deny the racism of an individual of one race telling an individual of another race to go back to a continent he likely never resided in as long as the person being told to “go home” is white. When the man refers to “us” being in the US for “a million fucking years,” he enters the realm of mythology. To be sure, it is a matter of historical fact that there were humans in North America before Europeans migrated there (albeit not a “million fucking years”). But it has no bearing on the right of citizenship, a right guaranteed by Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A couple of days ago we might have charitably suggested Phillips didn’t understand what was happening. Self-righteous people are notorious for not bothering to find out what’s going on before they throw down. However, the fact that Phillips agrees with the hateful views of the Black Hebrew Israelites (they speak the truth, according to Phillips), and then today obnoxiously forgives the teenager, gives the game away. Phillips wasn’t trying to calm anything down. He walked into a crowd of boys to confront them because they were white, the same reason the Black Hebrew Israelites were harassing the students. Phillips’ comrade tells us why they were confronting the boys: to blame them for something they didn’t do, a crime no living teenager could be responsible for. The teenagers were being harassed by people who operate on the basis of a confused cosmic and moral paradigm, absurdities the identitarian left enables—absurdities that even find purchase in the halls of the academy.

Those of us on the left who still cast our lot with the struggling proletarian masses have to start speaking out against the nonsense of identity politics and deep multiculturalism. This process of critical self-reflection begins with recognizing this essential and universal truth: If our politics make assumptions about who people are, what they believe, what they do, what they’re responsible for, and what they deserve on the basis of the color of their skin, then our politics aren’t just shitty, they’re antithetical to premise of human rights and the interests of working people. Perhaps the most disappointing development in my 56 years on this world is watching the left embrace the politics of identity that the capitalist class constructed to perpetuate the core system of exploitation and oppression: the appropriation of the social surplus for private enrichment. The notion that an individual is to be regarded in terms of the group to which he is said to belong should lie on the trash heap of history. Instead, it has been weaponized and taken up by the very people whose interests it undermines. If the left had been pursuing the politics of class this whole time, the right wouldn’t have much of anything to stand on. As it is, it enjoys the attention of tens of millions of disaffected working class people who are tired of being blamed for the sins of others.

For the advocates of identity politics, their “truths” rests on the basis of group membership, not on what is actually happening. Such is the cognitive rot of postmodernism. Everything Phillips’ comrade said to the boys is utter nonsense, but because he is American Indian, and therefore the eternal victim of white western man (a crime in which I am implicated by virtue of my skin color), his words are to be received as wisdom. Denying his wisdom is said to be an expression of white supremacy. Of course, his identity is not what makes him wrong—but by the same token it also cannot make him right. And it is this nonsense that is fracturing the proletariat. Explaining the world through racial categories obscures the class dynamic and frames political solutions around something other than the class struggle. The hegemonic strategy of the capitalist class depends on the proletarian fractions carrying out the plan. Getting the victims of a scheme to herald the virtue of the scheme is the gold standard of Astroturf. The left today has been transformed into a bulwark against socialist ambition. Neoliberalism is crafty indeed.

If the future of the West is to fight things out along left and right identitarian lines, then the West doesn’t have much of a future. I know for some that would be a welcome outcome. But it would be a disaster for humanity. The abuse of the Covington Catholic High School kids is a microcosm of the political error of our times.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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