Protesters gather outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on January 22, 2019.John Minchillo / AP

Boys from a Catholic high school in Kentucky are hanging out near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., doing pep-rally cheers to drown out slurs and homophobic taunts from the Black Hebrew Israelites, when an American Indian man unexpectedly arrives on the scene, beating a drum as he interposes himself between the groups.

It’s the sort of conflict that … virtually never happens.

Yet after watching a viral video of that singular event, many observers felt that it was … a symbol of all that’s wrong with America. “The clip focused on one red-hatted boy staring directly at the man with the drum,” Katie Herzog wrote in The Stranger. “His stupid, smirking face seemed to symbolize everything wrong with America right now.”

Like many, she reconsidered her initial reaction when additional video of the encounter offered context that cast the boys in a better light. Newspapers published follow-up stories. Pundits issued mea culpas. They were right to do so; and commentators who stood by their original condemnations even as new facts emerged were wrong. (Though it was fair to scold the couple of boys who acted badly by miming tomahawk chops). Even that “smirking” facial expression was more changing and nuanced than it appeared in the initial video.

For the sake of argument, however, imagine there were a way to prove what that kid was thinking, and it turned out that his inner monologue was, Ha ha, I’ll disrespect this man approaching me by refusing to move out of his way and smiling in an irritatingly smug, conceited, and silly way.

What would that signify?

I have no pithy answer. But I know that this would not follow:

People are responding so strongly to these videos because they are so emblematic of the violence that indigenous people have suffered for over 500 years in the United States. We have been raped, relocated, trafficked, separated, degraded, demoralized, and massacred by the United States government and a culture of media, economy, education, and religion that has dehumanized indigenous people for the entire history of this stolen country. Presently, this country continues to poison indigenous people by defiling our water and pumping drugs and alcohol into indigenous communities; regulate native bodies through tribal numbers and blood quantum laws; and force assimilation (culturally, spiritually). These are tactics of genocide.

How strange to treat a smirking teen’s face, something known to every parent and schoolteacher in the world, as an emblem of “tactics of genocide”—as though the root of ethnic cleansing were adolescent insolence.

And that claim was not uniquely inapt.

“What was happening was clear and unmistakable, not just resonant but immediately recognizable as iconic,” Laura Wagner wrote at Deadspin. “If you wanted to compress the history of relations between the powerful and the powerless in America, or the dynamics of the current moment, into a single image, you couldn’t do much better than to present a white teen in a MAGA hat, surrounded by a screaming horde of his peers, smirking into the face of an old Native American man.”

I could do much better.

If I were compressing “the history of relations between the powerful and the powerless in America” into a single image, I’d represent “the powerful” with someone old enough to vote, not a scrawny high-school kid. My horde would look like the Confederate army, not a pep rally.

Treating a smirking teenager as a stand-in for the wanton slaughter of indigenous people, the brutal abomination of chattel slavery, the persecution of anti-war activists, the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, or the internment of Japanese Americans utterly trivializes bygone atrocities. Did these commentators swallow the trendy notion that microaggressions are “violence,” and apply it backwards in history?

Were I to distill “the dynamics of the current moment into a single image,” focusing on negatives, I’d seek out photos of children forcibly separated from their parents at the Mexican border; or addicts dead from opiate overdoses; or mass-shooting victims at a synagogue; or white supremacists beating counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia; or lobbyists facilitating rent-seeking; or homeowners blocking the construction of apartments in their neighborhood; or segregated schools; or signs of climate change.

If you think the better choice is a photo of a smirking white 17-year-old, I suspect that the Donald Trump reelection team would thrill at letting you define the 2020 election. And I say that as someone who hates both the MAGA caps and the vicious campaign that popularized them.

Rebecca Traister wrote:

It’s the easily extracted concern for these grinning boys—amidst the deportations & family separations, the harassment & assaults, the low wages, poverty & incarceration, the shootings & police brutality, the lack of access to medical/repro care—that’s going to finally do me in.

Many who are sympathetic to the blue coalition’s concerns are baffled that a large faction within it spends so much energy on culture-war pile-ons, even opining that children are punchable or irredeemable or deserving of doxing. It’s the bizarre focus on these boys as what ails America, rather than on any of the many powerful people doing identifiable harm, or on any of the things that might end family separations, avert assaults, increase wages, reduce poverty, reform police, or increase access to medical care, that’s going to do in the left.

This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.

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