The roller-coaster reactions following a video purportedly showing Covington Catholic high school boys mocking a native American who claimed he was a Vietnam veteran elder began with a wave of outrage and ended with a whimper of embarrassment when unedited source video showed the shoe was on the other foot. The humiliating reversal culminated in a correction by the Washington Post that the elder was not a Vietnam veteran at all. “Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Native American activist Nathan Phillips fought in the Vietnam War. Phillips served in the U.S. Marines from 1972 to 1976 but was never deployed to Vietnam.”
But by then it had involved the amour propre of literally hundreds of pundits and social media celebrities who simply couldn’t admit to being so cringingly wrong. The quantity of barbecued crow was so great it was difficult to ingest. Some flatly refused. One journalist wrote after the exculpating evidence came out: “I refuse to read it, but from what I have read, Reason has found in a MAGA teen video their own Zapruder film but for ‘disproving’ white supremacy.”
The urge to believe in something can be so great that people can sincerely see things that aren’t there. The social media obsession with racism and toxic masculinity eventually turned the Covington boy’s “smirking faces” into the new Evil Clown sighting of 2019.
The 2016 clown sightings were reports of people disguised as armed evil clowns in incongruous settings, such as near forests and schools. The incidents were reported in the United States, Canada, and subsequently in other countries and territories from August 2016. The sightings were first reported in South Carolina when a 9-year-old boy told his mother that two suspicious males dressed as clowns tried to lure him into the nearby woods. By mid-October 2016, clown sightings and attacks had been reported in nearly all U.S. states, 9 out of 13 provinces and territories of Canada, and 18 other countries.
Like the Clowns the “smirking faces” are everywhere, if you know where to look for them. Over there! There! As Noah Berlatsky wrote in an NBC opinion piece “white children are everywhere, but their whiteness is too often invisible and unspoken.” Now hardly anyone can believe there weren’t any supremacists taunting the drumming native American in the first place. If the Evil Clowns are absent surely there is some explanation. The Huffington Post, in their story House Intelligence Committee Looking Into Tweet About Viral MAGA Hat Teen Video says a high level committee is looking into dark forces.
But now there is additional scrutiny over how the video became so widely viewed after Twitter suspended the @2020fight account on Monday, following a CNN investigation into several suspicious aspects of the account. The @2020fight account followed over 37,000 users and averaged 210 posts and likes a day, which experts say are classic signs that an account may be automated or inauthentic. The account claimed to be a California school teacher named Talia, but the photo used matched a Brazilian blogger and model.
The House Intelligence Committee is now requesting more information about the @2020fight account. A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) ― who is vice chairman of the U.S Senate Select Committee On Intelligence ― also told HuffPost that the senator’s office had contacted Twitter regarding the video.
If the Russians did it the media are off the hook. However that may be it is worth considering that the Covington incident — like the Evil Clowns — was simply an instance of mass hysteria — something we psyched ourselves into seeing. All you need is a compelling narrative and a susceptible audience willing to believe the tale and you can have an online version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds where the skit about a Martian invasion was taken as fact.
The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally, the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall?
Maybe there are Martians but they were not there that night in New Jersey. Psychologists tell us that “adolescents and children are” most susceptible to hysteria and “those prone to extroversion or neuroticism, or those with low IQ scores, are more likely to be affected … Intense media coverage seems to exacerbate outbreaks.” That partly matches a Western population swept up in the Covington wave. About a quarter of U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online, a figure that rises to 45% among US teens. They live with the ‘news’ 24×7.
It’s easy to see how an an early characterization of the attack of the smirkers by prominent pundits may have cascaded in a Bandwagon Effect. Once X pundit had denounced them Y pundit was likely to follow. Once X and Y had spoken then follower Z automatically takes it as true. Eventually the racist MAGA smirking face becomes indisputable fact as more and more ‘hop on the bandwagon’. Once enough have come aboard almost nobody will want to admit they were wrong.
The result was a mess. Reputations were ruined. The boys were doxxed. Some police protection had to be sought. And next time it could be worse for there is going to be a next time. Our wired echo chambers guarantee it. Perhaps society’s best defense against mass hysteria is to back off from constant connectivity. The Right to Disconnect has been proposed by some activists as both necessary and proper to mental health. The cure for the Madness is to go fishing, turn off your phone, head for the boonies and listen not to YouTube but to the birds and the crackling of a wood fire. Come back 28 days later and things will be better …
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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.
For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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