News & Politics

The Disgraceful Covington Catholic Pile-On

The daily media smearing of Donald Trump and his followers is one thing, but the readiness not just of the media but of self-righteous types from all walks of life to demonize a bunch of Kentucky high-school kids on the basis of a couple of news reports was truly breathtaking.

Presumably everyone knows the story by now. Last Friday, after attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C., several boys from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, were waiting outside the Lincoln Memorial for their bus home when something happened. The early reports accused the boys, some of whom were wearing Make America Great Again caps, of encircling and harassing an elderly Native American activist and a group of African-Americans. A snippet of video seemed to confirm this account, which was based largely on the testimony of the Native American activist. Next thing you knew, media around the world were reporting on this gang of racist pro-Trump louts and accusing them of White Privilege (even though several of them are black) and famous names on both the left and right were spewing the kids with vitriol.

Then longer videos emerged, and the story turned completely around. The group of African-Americans, who turned out to belong to a racist, anti-Semitic cult, the Black Hebrew Israelites, had been screaming at the boys, calling them “crackers” and “faggots” and the products of incest, among much else. The elderly Indian turned out to be notorious left-wing mischief-maker Nathan Phillips, whose claims to be a Vietnam vet have been challenged and who in 2015 accused some Michigan college students of harassing him. Last Friday, he wasn’t surrounded by the boys from Kentucky; he got up in their faces, banging a drum and chanting. Other Indians with him called the Kentucky boys interlopers on Indian territory and told them to go back to Europe.

Far from doing anything wrong, the high-school boys responded to these outrageous provocations with extraordinary restraint.

I spent much of my weekend following this story, because the savage assaults on the boys on Twitter and elsewhere struck me as supremely emblematic of the ugliness at the heart of our holier-than-thou, white-hating, male-hating, and Trump-hating establishment culture. Even if the boys had behaved in an unseemly manner, the spectacle of all these politicians, journalists, and celebrities piling on to them with such intense shows of moral indignation was far more unseemly. Especially reprehensible was the way in which so many of the boys’ critics reacted when the real truth came out. Many of them quietly removed their tweets. Others choked out extremely lame apologies.

There’s enough of this material to make a hefty book, but I’ll single out three commentators who struck me as being particularly egregious. One of them is a Jesuit named James Martin, who is an editor of America magazine and is apparently some kind of guru for left-wing Catholics (he has half a million Facebook followers). Martin ripped into the Covington boys like nobody’s business. Then, when they turned out to have done nothing wrong, Martin, instead of exhibiting real humility and issuing a straightforward apology, wrote stiffly on Facebook: “I will be happy to apologize for condemning the actions of the students if it turns out that they were acting as good and moral Christians.”

Martin then suggested that this was a “Rashomon-like” situation and that “we may never know precisely what happened.” Nonsense. By the time he posted this, the truth was clear. Martin pretended otherwise, writing: “I hope that the truth emerges, and apologies are forthcoming. Mine will be, if necessary. And I hope that the students are ready to apologize as well.” See how he did that? Maybe I have something to apologize for; maybe not; maybe they do; maybe we all do. Who knows? After all, each of us is an imperfect sinner. If you’re looking for classic Jesuitical equivocation, look no further.

Martin then moved quickly past his own responsibility in the matter by pretending to be concerned about the Larger Issues raised by this episode: “[D]ialogue is essential. Among Covington High School administrators. Between the students and indigenous peoples. Or simply between that group of students and Mr. Phillips.” Note how Martin neatly slipped out the door here, removing himself and his own moral culpability entirely from the equation. He even suggested “a service trip for the students to a Native American reservation — as a learning opportunity.” Suddenly it was the kids, not Martin, who required a “learning opportunity.”

Then there was this: “Another essential lesson, which transcends whatever happened in Washington this weekend: an understanding of the appalling treatment that Native Americans have endured in our country. That lesson needs to be learned regardless of what you think of Covington High School.” Note how swiftly Fr. Martin left behind his own very recent “appalling treatment” of those schoolboys and ended up treating them, with profound condescension, not as innocents who deserved a real apology from him but as ignoramuses in need of “learning opportunities” about “appalling treatment” that happened generations ago and for which none of them should be held responsible.

That posting by Martin got thousands of shares and occasioned hundreds of comments. Many of the commenters not only joined Martin in vilifying the boys but also took advantage of the opportunity to engage in some Trump-bashing. One woman accused the boy who figures most prominently in the videos, Nick Sandmann, of having “smirked” at Nathan Phillips, the Indian activist. Several other women agreed, one saying she’d like to smack that smug look off of Sandmann’s face and another attesting that, as a teacher, she recognized that expression on Sandmann’s kisser and could tell he was no good. Great educator.

Other commenters, however, faulted Martin for misrepresenting the incident. On Monday afternoon, apparently realizing that he’d screwed up with his non-apology apology, Martin returned to Facebook, this time to offer an actual apology — but not much of one. “[I]t seems that we may never know exactly what was going on inside the hearts of those high school students,” Martin ventured. What did that have to do with anything? This was a question not of what was or was not in anyone’s hearts, which is always by definition a secret, but of simple behavior. The boys had conducted themselves with exemplary restraint. Period. Case closed. Again, this wily Jesuit was shifting the grounds of the discussion.

“So I would like,” Martin went on, “to apologize to them for my condemnation of their actions.” But get a load of what he wrote next: “Others will disagree, but my conscience tells me that it’s unjust to condemn someone’s actions when their actions are unclear.” He was still being a slippery Jesuit, foregrounding his precious conscience while pretending that the boys’ actions were “unclear.” Martin then did the old Jesuit two-step, changing topics pronto, insisting that “several issues still need to be addressed,” and then raising several of them, including the “lack of adult supervision of the students” and the boys’ wearing of MAGA hats.

Neat tactic: spread the guilt around. He closed by repeating his BS about all this being a “teachable moment.” But, again, he didn’t acknowledge that he’s one of the people who need to learn something. On the contrary, he implicitly insisted throughout on his unchanging role as preacher and teacher, as someone who by virtue of his vocation was above it all, as the gent in the collar who was going to explain everything to everybody and was not about to step down and line up for the confessional along with the rabble.

Then there was Nicholas Frankovich of National Review. Talk about going over the top. His piece, posted at NR’s website late Friday night, was actually entitled “The Covington Students Might as Well Have Just Spit on the Cross.” Frankovich described the Kentucky boys as “mock[ing] a serious, frail-looking older man and gloat[ing] in their momentary role as Roman soldiers to his Christ.” Some observers called the boys bullies, but not Frankovich: “‘Bullying’ is a worn-out word and doesn’t convey the full extent of the evil on display here.” Yes, evil. Frankovich went on to compare the boys’ supposed tormenting of Phillips to “the humiliations heaped on Jesus in the final hours before his crucifixion, the consummate humiliation,” and to liken Phillips to the good Samaritan.

Even more reprehensible than Frankovich’s piece was the way he behaved after the boys were vindicated. NR pulled down his screed (which can still be read, however, at the Internet Archive); editor Rich Lowry, who had posted his own snotty tweet about the boys, put up a glib, obnoxious item stating that the incident was “another reminder — even for an old hand like me — that it’s best not to make snap judgments”; soon a new piece was up, this one written by Kyle Smith and headlined “Nathan Phillips Lied. The Media Bought It.” Smith’s piece was splendid, but it didn’t mention NR’s own role in the pile-on.

And where was Frankovich’s apology? It finally appeared on Monday evening. Here it is in its entirety:

Early Sunday morning, I posted a “strongly worded” (Rich Lowry’s description) condemnation of the conduct, seen far and wide on video, of a group of high-school students at the conclusion of the March for Life on Friday afternoon. I was preachy and rhetorically excessive, and I regret it. The overheated post I wrote has been taken down. Let this apology stand in its stead, both here on the Corner and in the memory of readers who justifiably objected to my high-handedness.

Note what’s missing here? He says he was “preachy and rhetorically excessive” and “high-handed.” But he doesn’t say he was wrong.

My third and last item for examination appeared in Norway’s largest newspaper, VG, and postured as a news item, not an opinion piece. Suffice it to say that the reporter, Jørn E. Kaalstad, took the occasion of the Kentucky boys’ supposed harassment of an American Indian to bring up the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and Donald Trump’s use of the nickname “Pocohontas” for Elizabeth Warren. Kaalstad’s point was obviously to paint a picture of an America that has been saturated with anti-Indian prejudice throughout its history.

Not only did Kaalstad convey a bogus story about what happened at the Lincoln Memorial, he also misrepresented Trump’s reason for mocking Warren, stating that the president had “sown doubt” about Warren’s Indian ancestry and that his charges had been “thoroughly refuted.” Kaalstad was apparently betting that most of his readers are unaware that Warren used her ancestry claim in job applications and that her percentage of Indian DNA turned out to be so tiny as to make her a nationwide laughingstock and effectively tank her presidential chances.

On Monday afternoon, after the truth about the Kentucky boys had been out there for over a day, I wrote to Kaalstad and asked if he was planning to update his article accordingly. He replied that he had done so that morning. To be sure, he had made a couple of minor changes, but they had nothing to do with correcting the gist of the story. “Do you call this an update?” I wrote back to him. “The videos show that the angle in this article (and in others’ articles) is totally wrong. Wounded Knee and ‘Pocohontas’ have nothing to do with the matter.” He didn’t reply, but he did update the article again later that day, adding material indicating that the story had perhaps been misrepresented — but keeping all the Wounded Knee and “Pocohontas” material. Why let a good opportunity to bash Americans go to waste? He’ll probably win a journalism award.

All in all, then, a disgraceful weekend — topped off, as it happened, by an admirably thoughtful and well-written statement from Nick Sandmann that was more generous-spirited than any of the calumnies directed at him and his Bluegrass State schoolmates by sanctimonious mediocrities around the world. They could all take a lesson from this teenager in maturity, strength of character, and grace under pressure. But don’t hold your breath. Also, the president put out a tweet in which he stood up for the Covington kids. Let’s hope he invites them all to the White House for burgers and pizza.