Tuesday, January 22, 2019

News from Satyagraha

My screenshot from Christopher Bouzy's video, see below.

Wanted to say something about the Saturday incident at the Lincoln Memorial of the kid with the arrogant smirk blocking the path of the Native elder drumming and singing, but wasn't sure what until it occurred to me that this is such an MLK holiday story, with the setup of its being that weekend, when hosts from the now divided Women's March to the anti-abortion fanatics of the "March For Life" come to the capital in tribute to the legacy of peaceful protest associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., if not very often to the legacy of nonviolent civil disobedience: and that the performative utterance of the Omaha Nation's Nathan Phillips represents, precisely, a deployment of Dr. King's weapon of nonviolence against the forces of monocultural tribalism and hatred.

That is—I've seen a lot of contextualizing information—
and what I think are the relevant portions of all the video, some of it really well curated—

—and I'm fairly clear I know what was going on, which isn't a whole lot different from what Steve was telling us on Sunday, except it turns out that the confrontation between the several dozen anti-abortion marcher high school students (kids from an all-boys' Catholic school in Covington, KY, which is really a kind of suburb of Cincinnati, OH, and not your ordinary parochial school but a $10,000-a-year and virtually all-white south-midwestern analogue to Brett Kavanaugh's Georgetown Prep) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and four or five proselytes of the Black Hebrew Israelites (a fairly ridiculous cult group of black people who have decided they are Jewish and Jews are not, who heckle passersby in a lot of northeastern cities including mine—they congregate at the southeastern corner of Macy's at Broadway and 34th St., where I regularly walk past them) went on a lot longer than was evident when the story started circulating, at least an hour, and got extremely belligerent, acting out what may for all I know be the current style of bonfire pep rally maneuvers, which included a kind of imitation of the New Zealand Māori haka, but it became really nasty on what's known in the trade as both sides.

So Phillips, an activist from Michigan in Washington for the Indigenous Peoples March, decided to intervene, possibly worried that the increasingly crazy-looking mob of white kids, many with red caps, might really do something violent, and took his hand drum and began, followed by a couple of friends, to climb up the steps between the two groups, drumming and singing the wordless AIM Song, which has been used by the American Indian Movement for the past 50 years or so at powwows to "open up the drum" (a Plains Indians men's hand drum) and protests, to " unite people with a common cause and to develop a feeling of morale or spirituality," says Wikipedia.

The Black Hebrews welcomed the new group; kids in the high school group began by shifting position to make way for Phillips as he tried to get around them, except for the one kid who blocked him, and in whose face he suddenly found himself. He kept drumming and singing. That's the bit shown in the viral video, where the obnoxious kid is wearing the horrifying smirk. The other kids gathered around, effectively mobbing the Indians, and started looking very scary again for a while

but what happens in the very long video from the Black Israelites is not what you might expect:
Or as I might say the song has worked its effective magic.

Another thing I get from the episode is about multiculturalism. This kids, almost all white, aren't used to being in a situation they don't dominate (they don't seem to have any responsible adults with them), they can't read the cues they're getting from the strange people they're interacting with, which is understandable, and their only response is hostility, which is not so understandable. (It's also the case that Phillips doesn't understand that the Israelites, "these old black individuals," really aren't victims.) It didn't occur to them to ask what this old Indian guy is doing with his drum, what meaning it might have; they simply saw him as a threat. The same was true for a lot of conservatives defending the kids in my Twitter feed, who couldn't imagine a point of view other than the kids', and couldn't get over Phillips's facial proximity to the one kid, in violation of Anglo body language rules—

—without being able to see that it's the white kid who's maintaining that uncomfortable proximity.

Now conservatives who did see it from the visuals, from Rod Dreher ("The Catholic Bonfire at the Stake", there's some robust hyperbole) to Jonah Goldberg, have gaslit themselves into believing they were wrong and are falling over themselves in haste to disown the observation and apologize to the lads. And then there's David Brooks ("How We Destroy Lives Today"):
On Sunday several longer videos emerged showing that most of what Phillips had told the media was inaccurate. The incident actually started when members of the hate cult — the Black Hebrew Israelites — started hurling racist and homophobic slurs at the boys.
The Covington boys eventually asked their chaperone if they could do their school cheers. As they were doing that Phillips walked into the middle of their circle and banged his drum in the face of one of the boys. Everybody was suddenly confused. Students shouted, “What is going on?” Then there was confusion and discomfort, smirking and verbal jousting.
Everybody involved in the incident was operating in an emotional and moral context that has been set by the viciousness of the Black Hebrew Israelites. Of the major players, the boys’ behavior is probably the least egregious.
He, too, sees no reason to wonder what Phillips was doing. The only thing in Phillips's story that interests him is parsing it like a bad prosecuting attorney arguing an inconsistency that isn't there:
The man, Nathan Phillips, told two different versions of what happened. He told The Washington Post that he was singing a traditional song when the teenagers swarmed around him, some chanting, “Build that wall, build that wall.” He decided the right thing to do was to get away. “I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation.”
He told The Detroit Free Press that the incident started when the boys started attacking four African-Americans. So he decided to intervene. 
It just happened out of nowhere, as the students were—with̛ their chaperone's permission, of course—performing their school cheers, as one does in a preset emotional and moral context. And then they were suddenly confused, and in a situation like that, who wouldn't be jousting verbally and smirking? It's just obvious, to Brooks, and we liberals have misunderstood it because of our unsuppressable tribalism:
you had a gentle, 64-year-old Native American man being swarmed by white (boo!), male (boo!), preppy (double boo!) Trump supporters (infinite boo!). If you are trying to rub the pleasure centers of a liberal audience, this is truly a story too good to check.
Brooks's alternative story makes no sense whatever, with its gulf between motivation and action, and is also, as you can verify for yourself following the long video with Lisa Harper's tweets, demonstrably false. But what's really important is his refusal to imagine that Elder Nathan Phillips has any point of view at all—the view that Phillips is telling lies to which there's no reason to come up with a corresponding truth, that what he may actually have been thinking doesn't matter at all. The person who is not white, preppy, or Republican fades into nonexistence as we contemplate the sufferings of the real victims (when will Americans make up for the harm done over the generations by our anti-preppy prejudice?). The meaning of the AIM Song, and the meaning of the King-like patience and firmness and confidence that Phillips invests it with, just isn't visible or even conceivable to David Brooks and the other conservatives. The preppy is the only person, in their view, who can possibly be the protagonist of a story. And so he's determined to get it wrong.

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