Better Angels Magazine
Not too long ago, I was a high school student brimming to overflow with passionate, untested political convictions, just old enough to see the world beyond my head, but too young to understand anything about it, and just cognizant enough to engage in it, without having any real clue how to check myself if things didn’t go according to plan. Somehow, I wound up being a conservative kid-in-the-street squabbling with liberal protestors in a park in Washington D.C. The confrontation de-escalated before anything happened, but sometimes I wonder what it could’ve been.
It was the late autumn of 2011, I think; D.C. was covered with a grey sky. A few months earlier the Occupy Wall Street protests had kicked off in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, aided greatly by the continuing proliferation of social media. Occupy protests started cropping up in cities big and small around the country, and Occupy D.C. set up a tent city in McPherson Square soon enough. My family had just relocated to D.C. a few months earlier, and high school senior me decided to go test out his newfound love of politics by interacting with the people on the street.
I was incredibly and conventionally conservative back in those days. I’m still pretty red now, but back then I had just finished reading Atlas Shrugged and was more interested in mocking what I thought to be the unwashed hordes of liberal socialist revolutionaries and college students polluting the streets of our fine, hard-working, small-government, low-tax Real American nation. Having recently read some Federalist Papers on anarchy and order, I was half-expecting and half-hoping I’d find perennial street-fighting, trash scattered about, burning tires, and broken windows in McPherson Square. It would confirm to me everything I knew to be true about this neo-anarchist scum who didn’t care about America and were willing to sacrifice their patrimony, disrespect the military, and fight the cops.
But I didn’t find that, except maybe some trash scattered here and there. There were a few police posts around the tent city, National Park police and DC metropolitan police, but not many. The protestors, who had been there for at least a few days when I showed up, I think, were mostly a mix of harmless bearded young white men, harmless somewhat older white women, and harmless people of various ages and ethnicities dressed for cold weather, fine people expressing their concerns. They waved colorful signs with irreverent messages, sometimes hateful but far more often crudely funny, the kinds of signs I’ve seen at protests for years afterward. I remember talking to a few people about why they were there, trying to get one of those “gotcha” moments that goes viral on Conservative YouTube, but for the most part people’s answers were either honest or intelligent or both.
Then I heard a commotion at the other side of the park: some of the young men had a radio with loudspeakers blaring a techno-funk beat of some sort, and black-clad people, some in masks and some not, were dancing around near the base of the McPherson statue. Not really anything interesting, per say, but then I noticed a young bearded white man dancing in the group, holding an American flag on a flagstaff, but the flag was turned upside-down. I was filled with a first-cultivated, then-truly-felt indignation and rage. My naval officer father has sailed under that flag for longer than you’ve been alive, I’m trying to do the same, Americans are dying for it in wars overseas, and loser thugs like YOU are disrespecting it in the nation’s capital???
As I approached the circle to make a scene, a bunch of different things clicked in my mind. I don’t want to look like the aggressor- I want this loser to be the one who makes the scene, I want to look like the reasonable one- he probably doesn’t know anything about flag etiquette and that can be my line of attack- I need to defend my country’s flag and make this liberal loser look like he’s the one who started it. The group was porous and I moved towards the middle and confronted the guy (who, in retrospect, was probably no more than two or three years older than I was.)
“Excuse me sir! The U.S. Flag Code says that the only time the American flag can be flown upside-down is when someone is in distress and needs rescuing. Do you consider yourself to be in distress?”
He looked confused- not sure if he was being attacked or egged on, maybe- but after a moment just said “Yes!” and continued dancing. I had nothing left, meekly said “OK,” and turned and walked out of the crowd.
At that point all my pretensions to being some kind of great slayer-debater-crusader and humiliator-of-the-street-anarchists and protector-of-Real-America dissolved into thin air. I left McPherson Square, not really proud but not really ashamed, just kind of disappointed and confused. As a naturally deferential person to a fault, confrontation of any sort had never been (and really still isn’t) something I knew how to do well. I went in alone, thinking I was going to stand up for a just cause against those monsters who opposed it; I left alone, questioning the premises I’d entered with.
I’ve been around and observed various protests of other sorts since then- Tea Parties, BlackLivesMatter, the Women’s March, the March for Life, the FightFor15 minimum wage protest in Los Angeles and the LA outcropping of anti-Trump protests in November 2016, the 2018 Unite the Right whimper in front of the White House- but in these cases I’ve always been warier to talk to anyone in the protest about anything. Not that discourse isn’t a good thing- it almost always is and must be. But how you talk to people in a public protest, whether you agree with them or disagree with them, can have real consequences no matter the situation, especially in these days of ubiquitous social media virality. And for someone who is interested in the life of society, but who simultaneously shrinks from seeking out conflict, being the ghostly, silent observer of public protests is often the best and only way to go.
In the years since 2011, I’ve thought back to the non-incident at McPherson Square, and wondered if it could’ve turned out differently. In my moments of rage at liberal friends in my Facebook comments sections, I’ve wished that I had escalated things in 2011- accused the guy of not being a patriot, shouted other things at other bystanders, even grabbed the flag from him and set it properly on its staff. Speculative rage can take you to weird places- that could’ve proved something about me to myself. That could’ve shown I have the fire of a fight in my otherwise boring and technological existence. That could’ve proved I’ll stand up for flag and country, and put my safety on the line. I could’ve gone viral; the left would hate me, the right would worship me, for doing the right thing. When this Kaepernick stuff started no one could accuse me of being inconsistent or opportunistic. It’s a guilty pleasure, whenever I think like this.
On the other hand, I wonder at times what would’ve happened if I’d had someone filming the incident, or if someone had filmed the incident unbeknownst to me and it went viral- either as it actually happened, or in my more confrontational and escalatory fantasy about it. There are occasional videos that surface and show either kind of incident- banal titles like “Conservative Guy DESTROYS Liberal Feminist Racist at BLM Rally” and “Trump Supporter PROVES He’s Actually White Supremacist to Reporter”[i] are the kinds of stunts that high school seniors, college freshmen, and passionate young influencers love to stage, film, edit, and promote. (If my incident were filmed, a good title would be “Awkward Patriot-Kid is Awkward.”) Meanwhile, edited versions of more extreme incidents- the innumerable edited clips of Tea Partiers socking people at rallies and the innumerable edited clips of Occupy Wall Streeters socking people at rallies, and later Trump supporters and Bernie supporters occasionally doing the same thing, and then the Proud Boys and the Antifa blackmasks and more- you can find these if you look for them. It isn’t hard. They’re almost statistics. I could’ve become a statistic, if I hadn’t chickened out in my own confrontation attempt, and if I had an iPhone at the time.
But none of that happened. I wasn’t filmed, the moment didn’t go viral, and the only people who know are people I’ve told, and I suppose the people who were there, if they bothered to remember the strange and apparently innocuous question posed by an awkward high schooler. Nobody has their own ways to interpret it, because no one knows or cares about what it is.
So I didn’t become the center of unneeded national media scrutiny and intrusive social media interest. (Bear in mind that was already a thing by this time; the social media firestorms over the Trayvon Martin shooting would start up within a few months. Coming years would bring similar unwanted social media attention to traditionalist Christian bakery owners, teenage protest leaders, rude customers at restaurants and gas stations and stores, and people who said something they didn’t realize was racist on YouTube.) I got to keep my life, to keep exploring politics in a relatively private way, to keep living as a relatively normal person of my background. I got off easy.
I didn’t start getting death threats and unsolicited emails from people who thought I was scum; my family didn’t start getting ostracized by half our acquaintances; we didn’t have to erase our information online for fear that angry protestors and worse would figure out where we lived and worked; none of us had to make any public statements about how we respect everyone’s concerns while holding to our beliefs. Neither did I start getting offers to come talk about my travails on late-night talk shows, come speak to activist groups who believed I was innocent and wanted to take inspiration from my experience, get sponsorship from political groups to endorse campaigns or figures, or get offers to write op-eds in pugilistic partisan publications. I got to keep my life, an obscure political watcher in the middle of the sidelines, living the story of teenage and young adult America in the 21st Century, winning and failing and winning and failing, proceeding along with my life as a non-celebrity.
There’s always a little thing in the minds of ambitious, romantic young teenage men like teenage me that desires fame and notoriety and wants to be a somebody. Luke Skywalker watching the binary sunset on Tatooine trying to get out of his uncle’s farm, Alexander Hamilton growing up working as a clerk on St. Croix and wishing for a war as an opportunity to be a somebody, Eminem in his days as an ignored white wannabe rapper in Detroit working a day job. We hope for an opportunity to prove ourselves with some kind of challenge, some dragon to slay, some hero to become. Suppress this wish, or sate it fully, and you’ll reap the whirlwind; channel it towards the public good, and you’ll get reasonably upstanding citizens.
Most of us, thankfully, don’t get thrown into a meat-grinder the way, say, someone like young Henry Kissinger does, fleeing the Nazis as a teenager and returning to Europe in the U.S. Army to fight them and finding that they slaughtered your co-religionists by the millions; or like young George H.W. Bush does, a son of privilege volunteering to serve in the Pacific and being shot down over the ocean, realizing your comrades died and you didn’t save them, wondering what you could’ve done; or like young Daniel Inouye does, having your home country send you and your family to the internment camps because of your race, and volunteering to fight for it in uniform overseas anyway, and fighting with distinction even after your arm is blown off; or like the young John Lewis does, fighting for civil rights next to legends and demigods, persecuted and beaten and hosed by your countrymen in the streets, never submitting to violent revenge, overcoming and accomplishing the outlines of the dream of equality in the end.
To be sure, we do have some among us who grow up like this, but most of us young men in 2019 have grown up more like Bill Clinton or Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio or Barack Obama- generally middle-class or thereabouts, we’ve faced real hardships and poverty and exclusion and identity crises, to be sure, but not the physical drama and challenge and fortitude of the GI Generation and the Civil Rights marchers. Instead, we’ve struggled to navigate a changing modern social ecosystem where the solid melts into thin air, where the things we thought we earned are no longer ours, where intellectual and social excellence, and only excellence of certain sorts, can put you on the radar of the powers-that-be to help you climb the shiny, chrome-gilded pole into security and leadership in the 21st Century world. In this world, it makes sense that more people get dragged into the chase for fame and dominance, the seeking-out of conflict as a way to express their identity, perhaps to attain admiration from strangers. The situation alone doesn’t justify this raucousness by any means. But with paths to glory closed to all but the best and most well-connected, it does help to explain it.
I can imagine why a less-astute, more-passionate, less-intelligent, harder-working Grade-A Student who still did not get into the Ivy League, might feel a little more validated by becoming a star on social media, a lone warrior entering single combat against the unhuman barbarians who question their deepest convictions. I can also see why so many of my peers, male and female- so many good people, with otherwise excellent moral compasses and convictions, decent and hardworking lives, nothing but goodwill for the country and their countrymen in their hearts- might be more drawn to political stunts, either acting them out or virally sharing them. After all, once upon a time, I tried to start one myself, and failed not out of a sudden revelation of magnanimity, but of a mere inability to figure out the logistics of such a thing.
As a general rule of thumb, I try and stay out of viral controversies so far as possible these days, and give them a few days to burn out before making any comments, if I address them at all. It’s not because I’m ‘objective’ about them or that I feel ‘above’ them- I’m not objective, and I don’t always feel that I’m above the pettiness. In the past, I’ve participated in enough commentary and flame-wars on super-hot-button things to know there’s not much use in doing it for its own sake. There’s no benefit to engaging in the social media flame wars if you don’t have a significant reason to do so. And moreover, with these social media pops that feature scapegoats for the anger of either side, there’s no reason to help destroy people’s lives just because it fits your own narrative, or just because everyone else is commenting too.
A few days ago, when images of a smirking white boy wearing a MAGA hat staring down an elderly Native American man started filling my Facebook feed, I followed this advice-to-self. Better not to waste time watching the footage and reading the stories and getting mad over something that didn’t concern me; even better not to start defending people who may well be guilty as charged, or attacking people who may well be innocent victims of a hit job. The worst thing of all would be to write about the stakes of the moment and trace the facts available at the moment, because this would inevitably be both terribly incomplete and likely to reinforce the ongoing narratives rather than arrive at some objective, interpretation-free Truth Of The Matter. I’m neither a lawyer, nor a detective, nor a philosopher; all I would be doing is joining the chorus of unfounded opinions. So I stayed quiet, and let my understanding of the (really meaningless, I think) incident change in private rather than in public.
At the time of this writing, it seems that the Covington Catholic High School kids are being largely exonerated by the centrist sides of the mainstream press and the thoughtful sides of the conservative press, as more video footage comes out revealing the apparent complexity of the situation, and the wide gulf between how it was originally reported and how new footage suggests it actually happened. It doesn’t look like the older Native American man, Mr. Nathan Phillips, or the Black Hebrew Israelites, the other subjects in the video’s entirety, will get cross-questioned by any serious media entities, or that the sensationalist sides of the progressive media will retract and apologize their original coverage, but that’s fine. This isn’t about revenge- what matters is that the temperature cools down, and once that happens, perhaps some understanding can come out. Mr. Phillips appears to want a conversation with the Black Hebrew Israelites and the Covington students, which of course would not be perfect but, if planned and moderated properly, would be a welcome end to this mess.
The story made me think back to my own high school days, the non-incident at McPherson Square, and made me wonder- what if I’d been wearing a Gadsden Flag shirt or hat emblazoned “Don’t Tread On Me,” the 2011 equivalent of a red trucker cap reading “Make America Great Again”? What if the conversation had gone longer than three sentences, and had included angry slurs, unintelligent accusations, and physical altercations? What if it was a woman of color waving the flag upside-down, so me (a mixed-race white male) confronting them would have looked more racist and sexist than it did when I was just confronting another white male? What if someone had been filming all that, catching the whole thing, and had put it on social media? What if they, or someone who published it for a wider audience, only shared the most inflammatory snippets of the clip? What would have happened then? Would it have been a quick two-day kerfuffle, or would it have gone on for weeks? How deeply would it saturate the news coverage of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party- not at all, a tiny bit, enough to make a splash, a lot, entirely? How much unwelcome social media scrutiny would my family and I have started receiving, over a stupid and uninformed high school political stunt gone viral?
Would I have been able to have a reasonably normal life with my family for the remainder of high school? Would I have been able to maintain a good relationship with my high school friends from previous places we’d lived, some of whom were passionate members of the Occupy Seattle protests at the time? I’m sure I would’ve gotten into the same universities I got into, but would suddenly having been a face everyone vaguely recognized from a social media controversy been a good thing on orientation day, in classes, and in college life in general? How would my first internship and job interviews have gone, especially if I wasn’t applying to work for conservative media sites? Possibly most importantly, I’ve struggled for years now with crushing mental health issues, been through therapy and been hospitalized, and muddled through school and work and life despite that. But would being actively and personally hated for a bit from afar by a large swathe of the American population, have helped to worsen my situation? Is that even a question?
If I had stayed in political work, despite all that, how would things have turned out? I edit a web publication for a civic organization working to promote depolarization through family-therapy methods, nowadays- you’re reading that publication, Better Angels Magazine. I also do some freelance writing on my true love, the history of American political thought. I’ve done some work for California Republicans in the post-Schwarzenegger Age, in practical campaign politics; I’ve dabbled in the reformist side of things, third-parties and such; I’ve left behind the angry knee-jerk conservatism of my earlier days, and tried to cultivate a self-aware and humane conservative moderation in my political opinions, to be a better analyst and amateur historian, and, ultimately, to help build bridges between my politically and socially diverse friend-groups who might otherwise politically hate each other. Could I have done this if I were the target of my own Two-Minutes-Hate in high school? Would I have had the grace to get past it all and forgive? Would anyone be able to blame me if I didn’t have the grace?
For another example of teenagers who really shouldn’t be the focus of an extended National Two-Minutes-Hate—remember, a year ago during the post-Parkland Shooting March for Our Lives, when a young Parkland student who had survived the shooting named David Hogg made impassioned speeches condemning the National Rifle Association and politicians who take money from them? He had some moments of fame, supported so profoundly as he was by much of the mainstream media. He also was cruelly and unjustly roughed up and slandered in some of the conservative media, including by some smart commentators who should’ve known better than responding to the youthful rhetoric of someone below the drinking age; it would seem that, next to his fame on the left, he was subjected to plenty of hate-mail and threats from the right.
It is one kind of “unjustifiable” when a social media feeding frenzy erupts around an adult. It’s not that they deserve it or that they don’t- it’s that, at some level, adults are prepared to handle this kind of thing to some degree. This kind of thing happened to the owners of The Red Hen restaurant, and to Tucker Carlson and his family; it also happened to Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh confirmation controversy, and so many other sexual assault survivors/accusers. They’re all adults and professionals. They’ve grown up seeing this stuff happen to other people. They might never have expected this to happen to themselves, but their minds and characters have already been formed, and won’t be warped at a foundational level by this kind of stress. They usually have some kind of resources and network to fall back on as their notoriety destroys other opportunities for them. It shouldn’t happen- it is terrible when it happens- but an adult can cope through the injustice and get on with life, once things cool down.
But when a kid is doxed like this, and people in high positions like Reza Aslan and Laura Ingraham condemn them- what are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to defend themselves? How are they supposed to live and learn and succeed, in an economic environment where it’s already hard enough to make real money and a social environment where it’s already hard enough to make real connections, with this ball-and-chain of moral untouchability dragging on their legs? How could they not be filled with an insatiable, burning, pure, unmediated hatred for the impersonal social forces and institutions that tortured them and took away their young lives? How can they undergo the reflection and service and cultivation necessary to become good citizens, when the trauma of being the focus of a real, nation-wide, unjustifiable Two-Minutes-Hate lies at the beginning of their adult memories of public life? Can they really be expected to be filled with the Stoic grace to take what society gave them, and have a normal life?
This is normalized, institutionalized cyber-bullying in the name of fashionable higher causes, pure and simple. It is nothing new in American politics, and nothing new in modern societies. It is rooted in the real limitations of human nature, not mad conspiracies or postmodern ideologies, but in our communal need for sacred norms and our primal instinct to punish norm-breakers, our need for a secular system of transcendent values to govern the godless universe our way of conceiving of politics and society unofficially inhabits. There’s no institutional fix, though there are perhaps institutional ways to limit and allay the viciousness by redirecting it. There’s no fix to broken and savage human nature, though perhaps moral education towards epistemic humility and other-directed compassion can restrain our baser tendencies towards pious cruelty. But in the end, it’s something to be dealt with, to fight within ourselves, to be aware of as we navigate the winds and currents of society.
Not to be preachy, but I’d suggest we all start by pledging not to be sensationalistic on social media, and then practicing that pledge, even when stories surface that sensationally confirm all of our priors and make us feel superior and righteous and fuzzy inside. I’d suggest we step a bit outside ourselves and think from all angles, even if in thinking we miss the opportunity to act first. I’d suggest we torment ourselves with Socratic questioning on why we think the way we do, what our ultimate values are, what the political ends we’d fight and die for are, and if they’re really worth fighting and dying for. I’d suggest we render ourselves confused, and proceed as though we do not know.
It’s not that there’s no truth out there. But with the current state of things, it seems like it’d be prudent to assume we don’t know as much as we think we do. At the very least, the next time a dumb high school kid, male or female, liberal or conservative, of any ethnicity, gets caught on camera in an awkward situation in our ever-more-complex political and social environment, we’ll be a little less quick to destroy his or her life and feel good about it. Is that too much to ask?
Luke Phillips is the Editor of Better Angels Magazine, the official review and newsletter of Better Angels. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Better Angels as an organization.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece marked Farragut Square as the location of the 2011 Occupy DC protests; the actual location was McPherson Square. We regret the error.
[i] These two particular video titles are fictional, I made them up just now- but a quick Google search will probably find near-matches and lots of other similar stuff in the genre.