The affair exploded onto the national scene and rumbled along with a clamor, as exchanges of verbal bombardments pummeled opponents until only one side was left standing, wounded and disgraced, but defiant and unforgiving.
The most hated and reviled elements in the country were targets of vituperation, groundless accusations, and stomach-churning profanity, amidst death threats and intimations of continued assaults in the future.
One of the best chroniclers declared: “The protagonists felt a grandeur in the storm that battered them. Decadence was exorcised in the violence of their feelings. … Hate, evil, and fear encompassed them as well as courage and sacrifice. Their combat was epic and its issue was the life of the Republic.”
It seemed inconceivable that the political thunderstorm would relinquish its destructive onslaughts on the public sphere so the sane minds of reason and maturity could claim their rightful place in political debate.
The incident in question is known as the Dreyfus Affair, an 1890s political case in France that involved a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to punishment in one of the most horrible places on the planet, a Dantesque hellhole known as Devil’s Island. There, he languished until a highly publicized retrial resulted in the same verdict: guilty as charged.
In the meantime, the tortured soul of the country was exposed to an international audience, revealing hatreds and political agendas described by Barbara Tuchman, quoted above, in her brilliant depiction of pre-Great War Europe, “The Proud Tower.”
Which brings us to the subject at hand: the most recent political affair involving a clutch of high school students. As they waited for their bus to take them back to Kentucky, they were approached by assorted “activists,” who apparently spied low-hanging fruit, ripe for political plucking.
Everything then descended into a maelstrom of epithets, accusations, foul language, and fictitious observations, with the establishment media complex slobbering over the incident like pit bulls rampaging through a slaughterhouse. No one, it seemed, could help themselves, regardless of the emaciated factual basis for informed commentary.
But commentary flowed nonetheless, and it isn’t my goal to recount the ongoing battle about who said what to whom under what circumstances. As Dee Dee Bass Wilbon and Deana Bass Williams stated, “The full story … is really rather simple.” They then provided a succinct outline of what happened, including a delicious comment about these unsuspecting teenagers: “But Lord help their silly selves.”
Actually, the term “unsuspecting teenagers” hardly captures their situation; surprised, befuddled, and incredulous also come to mind, as revealed by Nick Sandmann, who unwittingly found himself at the center of the imbroglio. “I am mortified that so many people have come to believe something that did not happen—that students from my school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African-Americans or Native Americans,” he said in a statement.
Actually, the entire country should be mortified, because, as with the Dreyfus Affair over a century ago, this incident, though far less encompassing in scope, exposed America’s cultural divisions in one of the ugliest, most disgraceful ways imaginable. Hatred, lies, filthy language, death threats, a corrupt media establishment—all burst into public consciousness, unfiltered and unrestrained.
Themes brought into bold relief here, in what I call America’s second Civil War, deserve our treatment.
Leftism’s War Against America
I’m going to take a leap here and suggest that the youngsters waiting for their bus weren’t culpable, or at least only minimally culpable, for the exchanges surrounding this incident.
For instance, Jonathan Capehart’s essay in The Washington Post titled “Nothing Justifies What the Covington Students Did” strikes me as an incredible stretch, especially given the line that appeared next to a photo showing a smiling Sandmann facing Nathan Phillips, who is speaking to him. The caption beneath read, “Omaha elder Nathan Phillips and high school student Nick Sandmann give their versions of viral moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Really? Different versions? Is that all we have here? Not quite. For an hour, Covington students were on the receiving end of accusations and profanities, to which they responded with a few school chants and a smiling Sandmann. Apparently, his disarming smile was a problem as well, revealing a face “you just wanted to punch!” There’s no way anyone has an answer to this charge: smile and you’re arrogant; frown and you’re contemptuous; no expression and you’re insensitive—lose, lose, lose.
In fact, to borrow a Cold War expression, it wasn’t what the Covington students did that was problematic. The fact they exist is the problem. Mostly white and male, Christian, patriotic, pro-life, Trump supporting—they are the objective enemy; they represent everything the political left despises and wants to annihilate. Which brings us to our second theme.
A War of Abstractions
The most benign meaning of the expression “rush to judgment” implies coming to conclusions made prior to evaluation of the facts, and a readiness to change views on the basis of a more complete examination of an incident—in short, rationality and good faith.
Nothing even approaching this occurred within the first few days of the Covington confrontation.
Quite the contrary; prominent news media outlets and a large number of braying celebrities hurled abominable accusations against the students without even a pretense of exploring what actually had happened. In popular parlance, they were “following the narrative,” which means that the necessary ingredients were present on that fateful day.
Perhaps a better term than “narrative” in this case is “template,” which implies roles to be assigned, spots to be filled, fields in a spreadsheet that make an operation work. Thus, facts don’t matter because the persons involved are simply embodiments of abstract categories; their individual behaviors can be “spun” or twisted as needed.
Just as in the Dreyfus Affair, the officer’s specific actions were irrelevant—he was a member of a suspicious, often despised category of people and, therefore, must be guilty; he must play a role. So it was with Jews in Hitler’s Germany, kulaks in Stalin’s Russia, and the Covington Christians in Washington.
Immunity From Consequences
There are perhaps only two occupations in the country that don’t have to face the consequences of failure: professors and pundits.
Since so much of what passes for journalism in the United States seems to be a thin masquerade for political preaching, a more accurate way to characterize reporting of the Covington Affair is to classify much of it as propaganda. Thus, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and hosts of equal and lesser organizations leaped into Covington coverage, only to slink away sheepishly when their journalists and editors discovered what they had “reported” was factually wrong.
None of this is new, of course; it’s been going on for years, decades. A few retractions have appeared and will continue to lurk in news pages here and there, but in terms of a full-blown “Mea culpa!”, forget it. Talk is important, but retractions are cheap. Those responsible should be fired and replaced with journalists committed to professionalism and factual reporting. But it seems that few journalists—admittedly, I don’t have data on this—are fired for botching stories. In contrast, if a high school coach prays publicly in defiance of an order to refrain, he or she is fired, period.
This leaves them and the rest of America’s media establishment free to continue working as though nothing had happened. After all, America teems with Covingtons; virtually every day offers possibilities for a diligent media scrounger to fill out a template to advance the narrative. And, who knows, if you’re lucky, you might even stumble across something resembling the Dreyfus Affair, with all its drama, glory, and magnitude.
Reporting on that would really establish one’s reputation—regardless of whether you told the truth.
Marvin Folkertsma is a retired professor of political science and a fellow for American studies with The Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College. The author of several books, his latest release is a novel titled “The Thirteenth Commandment.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.