“Have you ever seen a more punchable face?” That tweet, sent out soon after the first video footage featuring students from Covington Catholic High School circulated, has collected some 20,000 “likes” as of the last time I looked.
Another one by a Hollywood figure read, “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life.”
And here is one from a BuzzFeed writer: “I have watched all of the videos. You can understand that the situation was more complex than the first video and still recognize why the sight of that face caused a visceral reaction in so many.”
The face, the face … there were hundreds of tweets and posts and commentaries, especially on “the smirk.”
Defenders of the Covington kids rightly went back to Orwell. The passage in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” reads: “The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.”
It comes up when the main character, Winston Smith, worries someone is watching him, and he must neutralize every appearance of dissidence even down to the expression on his face. Now, in real life, we have a bunch of “facecrime-stoppers” in our midst. And not only do they spy out for bad visages; they also have to tell everyone else what they’ve seen, to broadcast to the world their disgust and aversion and loathing. They can’t keep it in. Voicing their response is essential to their participation. It has the feel of a ritual.
I have asked several people about what the whole episode means and none of them have shrugged it off as one more case of identity politics zeal. This time, something surfaced in liberal media and leftist twitter feeds that surpassed previous instances, even the Kavanaugh affair. Here we have witnessed a fixation so malignant and fantastical that the customary language of partisan politics doesn’t apply. This isn’t about Republicans versus Democrats, pro-life versus pro-choice, Trump voters versus identity groups. To explain it, we must enter the dark, chthonic depths of human nature. The realm of primal fears and violent urges; the nether world of dark dreams and lurid demons.
The “face” remarks evince it. There he is, they said, the smiling boy, and they read in that frozen image an encyclopedia of crime. Here was white supremacy, European conquest, private school entitlement, Catholic sexism, frat-boy antics, and President Donald Trump, all incarnate. The young man didn’t have to speak. The face said it all.
It was wholly irrational, but that’s no reason to dismiss it now that the narrative has collapsed. On the contrary: Because this reaction to the first video was deranged, evidence of its falsehood won’t dispel it. People don’t give up a fixation because a specific object proves uncongenial to it. They merely transfer it somewhere else. It didn’t work this time, but there will be other occasions. The victimhood the video at first seemed to confirm is a religion, and people cling to it like St. Theresa in ecstasy. They believe they act out of righteous indignation. In truth, they act out the passions of the mob.
Politics doesn’t explain it. We must look to the poets for that—Orwell, Melville, Dante—and the cultural anthropologists, too, who talk not of partisanship but of pollution, purification, scapegoats, sacrificial violence, and the gods. This is the new tribalism, and it won’t stop by itself.
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and senior editor at First Things magazine.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.