The MAGA Teen News-Cycle and Our Toxic Era of ‘Event Politics’

Screen Shot 2019-01-26 at 11.16.59 AM.png

The Guardian recently ran a stupid item on this story where the author was seen lambasting Mr Turnip for supporting the youth in the video.

It was not until the 16th paragraph that the author bothered to ‘update’ readers to the fact that ‘new video had emerged’ that perhaps changed everything that preceded this sentence. ‘But,’ he continued.

But? As in ‘but I am going to continue with this line of logic because, hey, I started out with this plot and I’d like to get paid for the work I’ve already put into the non-story story?’

Why publish the item as-is if the ‘but’ had superseded everything upon which the previous argument had been built?

And why on earth continue the same arguments long after that ‘but?’

Who the hells knows. I mean seriously. Who the hell knows.

James Porteous
24 Jan 2019 | | Slate

“I’d naively hoped that America would spend the anniversary of Roe v. Wade talking about what the future holds for the tired and embattled women of this country, some of whom have finally won a little political power. Instead (and as usual) the nation spent the day arguing over the inflammatory actions of a bunch of dudes.

The inciting incident was a short video of an inconclusive confrontation. It was shot—absurdly, but maybe appropriately—in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It depicts an adolescent white teen—who subsequently identified himself as Nick Sandmann—staring and either smirking or smiling at a Native American elder now known to be named Nathan Phillips. In the clip, Phillips is playing his drum and singing.

What the first wave of reactions registered was a spoiled white youth in a MAGA hat, surrounded by his pals from a private all-boys Catholic school, intimidating a Native American elder who was singing a ceremonial chant in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

It’d be tough to more neatly distill what many see as the problems of the present down to a purer set of symbols: This was Trump’s ethnonationalist idea of “America” literally blocking the path of a Native American.

What the second wave of people saw wasn’t the clip but the response: They saw a kid being condemned as an aggressive racist for doing nothing but wearing a MAGA hat and staring. In their eyes, he was being publicly excoriated for the crime of supporting the president.

The clip needed context, they argued, and what that context showed was that Phillips approached Sandmann, rather than the other way round. This, they argue, is exactly how young white men in America are persecuted and ruined, particularly if they lean conservative.

Since then, many media figures have apologized for their part in rushing to judgment. There have been many subsequent stages of discovery and response. It was revealed, for instance, that the teens had been loudly insulted by a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites—who had earlier targeted the Native American group for abuse as well, calling one man an “Uncle Tomahawk” and accusing them of worshipping buffaloes.

Footage surfaced of what looks like a subset of Covington Catholic students harassing women as they walk by. Contrary to early reports, Nathan Phillips is not a Vietnam War vet. Even the media self-flagellations have acquired improbable layers: The PR firm Nick Sandmann’s family hired appears to be run by a frequent guest on CNN.

It was a perfect storm, in other words, for today’s sick political news cycle: an incident that symbolically crystallized the shear and strain of America’s culture wars—without, in itself, meaning anything much at all.

This is just the latest instance of a phenomenon you could call “event politics”—that familiar flurry of knee-jerk responses sparked by a single image or clip that a little too perfectly illustrates one side’s worldview. There was the notorious Melania jacket that launched a feverish outrage cycle as soon as she appeared in it.

There was the photograph of the little girl crying at the border that went viral and ended up on the cover of Time because it put a face and a feeling to the cruelty of Trump’s family separations. The problem: She herself wasn’t separated from her mother. When an alt-right troll stole a video taken by Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer and miscaptioned it as “man walking to grocery store in Berkeley mistaken for being a Nazi is beaten into a coma,” the clip went viral and was shared by—among others—Jonah Goldberg of the National Review and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.

First of all, it seems pretty obvious that antifa’s definition of ‘fascist’ is remarkably elastic, including defenders of free speech and mainstream conservatism,” Goldberg wrote in his defense of leaving his tweet promoting the mislabeled video up. “I for one refuse to defer to masked vigilantes as the arbiter of who is or is not a fascist,” he said, adding that “the victim may indeed be a member of the alt-right, or even just a provocative ass. I don’t know.”

You’ll probably recognize elements of Goldberg’s logic. In short: The details don’t matter, and neither does what the guy was doing in Berkeley—or whether he was a Proud Boy or a member of Patriot Prayer. Then things take an odd turn. “Unless there’s some evidence the victim initiated violence, there’s no excuse for antifa’s behavior in that video,” he writes, but then immediately changes his mind: “And even if he did initiate violence (there’s no evidence he did), trying to stomp a man to death is unjustifiable.”

This is motivated reasoning, the kind everyone uses when an image that seemingly proved something—whether it’s that antifa is a danger to society or that Kavanaugh-lite teens are entitled and racist—collapses into irresolution.

To the people circulating it, that the image doesn’t portray exactly what they thought it did matters little. They knew the truth it demonstrated before and still know it after the image is debunked. The image was a convenient piece of viscerally persuasive evidence. It was the kind of thing one posts because one understands it, ultimately, as a recruitment tool for others.

Event politics are in part, I suspect, a response to uncertainty. We’re in a moment when so much is truly bananas—the president can’t spell hamburgers and was investigated by the FBI for being a possible Russian agent, to pick two examples at random—that reassuring framings are welcome.

An unmoored people likes to be reminded of what the heroes and villains are, and social media allows snippets of events to circulate freely in a contextless vacuum. If we can’t know what’s going to happen because a changeable clown is in charge, we can at least discuss what individual images mean, with satisfying if deluded definitiveness.

And Trump, with his flighty attention span and obsession with sound bites and shorthands, is an ideal emcee for our age of event politics.

Imprecision is his default mode; his way of never being wrong is by never being right. Did he say San Antonio was a border town that had a wall, even though it isn’t and doesn’t? Fine, he meant San Diego. Who cares. He cherishes the spectacle of people who care about these real places—with real people—getting upset, as long as he’s at the center.

Original Link: The MAGA Teen News Cycle and Our Toxic Era of “Event Politics”


a new anti-war novel by

James Porteous

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s