The Covington Threat To Freedom of Expression Is Not What You Think

By now, you’ve seen every possible story and video angle and re-interpreted story/video angle and re-hashed commentary on said story/narrative/video angle/et cetera about the MAGA Hat Teens and the Native American Elder, Nathan Phillips, and the Black Hebrew Israelites spewing their usual nonsense — and your particular perspective on that situation is likely already cast in bronze, never to be moved until we excavate our history.

But I’m not here to talk about smug smiles or media ineptitude. I’m here to talk about the First Amendment—freedom of expression—and how it relates to this whole fiasco. Because frankly:

Individual rights should apply equally across the board, and regardless of your read on the Covington scenario, it’s clear that inequality was still rampant in the action, and the fallout.

In short, this whole situation—and the reaction to it—has been completely disingenuous. Let me explain.

Imagine a group of rowdy black teenagers had confronted a white Evangelical on the street.

As a thought experiment, reverse the dominant races in that initial confrontation between the Covington Catholic Boys and the Black Hebrew Israelites. How would the media—particularly, but not exclusively on the right—respond in this situation?

There’s a 99.9% chance that all the pundits would opine about the poorly behaved “thugs” who were interfering on the poor, innocent white preacher’s freedom of expression.

We’ve all seen belligerent white Christians spouting out language that some (including myself) would interpret as vitriolic bigotry. And we’ve all seen how the Fox News-o-sphere reacts with self-victimizing cries of “censorship” and “intolerance,” using this as evidence that the 1st Amendment is under attack.

So why weren’t the Black Hebrew Israelites afforded that same respect?

Don’t get me wrong: factions of the Black Hebrew Israelites have been condemned as hate groups (and rightly so, in my opinion). But so have many other predominantly white, predominantly patriarchal, predominantly Christian groups. And yet, if a group of teenagers—or anyone, for that matter—was caught on camera doing the Truffle Shuffle to a white Christian street preacher going on about homosexual sinners, it would absolutely be seen as demonstrative of the “Intolerant Left.”

And no matter what you think of the MAGA Hat Teens’ behavior, they were arguably infringing on the religious rights of those Black Hebrew Israelites—particularly if you’re looking at the scenario from a largely Libertarian/Conservative point of view that focuses on “individual rights.”

This is a pure example of inequality—holding different groups to different standards.

Even if you don’t think the MAGA Hat Teens were ultimately being racist or offensive or inappropriate in their behavior, you may have revealed some bias of your own if you refused to hold the Black Hebrew Israelites to the same standards as, say, the Family Research Council.

Which brings me to this, which I may as well get out of the way:

There was no rush to denounce the Black Hebrew Israelites because the Black Hebrew Israelites have very little power or influence or respect.

Some might argue that this, too, is an unequal practice. I would argue that this argument is a disingenuous distraction, ’cause c’mon — no one’s going out of their way to denounce that drunk guy on the corner every Saturday night screaming his obscenities about lizard aliens. No one’s going out of their way to denounce a 6-year-old who says something painfully ignorant because they literally do not know any better. Maybe you let your grandpa slide on his occasionally racist comments; that might not be right, but it’s very different from letting Rep. Steve King of Iowa get away with the things he says.

In essence, no-platforming the Black Hebrew Israelites is the same as no-platforming Milo Yiannopoulos. The difference is in status; and in who is doing the no-platforming. Those who think the Covington kids were angels fighting hecklers, while also railing about “fascist” college students, are revealing their hypocrisies.

tl;dr—the Black Hebrew Israelites are (IMHO) a hateful extremist group, very often espousing complete and utter nonsense, but they don’t even have a fraction of the social capital as a bunch of Catholic school boys. That being said: they are still American citizens, and thus still have a right to free religious expression (as hard as that is to accept for such odiousness). You can’t cheer on the Covington boys for heckling back if you don’t accept that same behavior from others against groups that you support.

Now let’s talk about the hypocrisy around Native Americans and religious expression.

I have a public Facebook page with about 16,000 followers, most of whom I do not know personally. Here’s a sample of things that were said this week:

Comments like this betray a quite literal ignorance of Native American religious practices. It’s not the first time that’s happened, either—consider the way that prayer gatherings at Standing Rock were interpreted as violent sedition by the private anti-terrorism squads assigned to surveil the protests.

For Mr. Nathan Phillips, the song he sang and played was medicine—spirituality—religion—and to silence that, or to assign malicious intention to it, is also a violation of our freedom of religion.

Again, a thought-scenario: imagine a white Christian approached a group of black teenagers in the very way, singing “Hosanna in the Highest” instead. There’s no way that would be interpreted as hostile. Even if you’re not familiar with the song—and even if it’s not your preferred means of worship—there’s enough pop culture out there that you should still have some shortcut point-of-reference to be able to figure it out. This is painful and ironic to admit, but c’mon—practically every stereotyped portrayal of Native Americans on TV/film involves drumming, and a similar style of singing to Mr. Phillips.

If you refuse to recognize that, you’re likely being willfully ignorant, or just straight-up don’t care because of those little subconscious racist signals in your head. And either way: it’s still an affront to the First Amendment, just as it would be if a bunch of black teens surrounded a white Christian and jumped up and down screaming while the prayed. If you believe in no-platforming, that’s fine; but if you don’t, then let’s call it what it is.

A little more context, because I think it matters:

Again, this suppression of free expression remains constant regardless of your personal interpretation of the Covington Catastrophe. But these double-standards did not stop with religious rights, either.

The over-arching, meta-conflict around this event has of course been about watching the “full context” of the video. Some people think this exonerates the students, largely because of the presence of the Black Hebrew Israelites; others think the added context still shows students behaving poorly. Along with this has come a clarion call—largely from the right—for the “Fake News” “Mainstream Media” to do their due diligence in reporting, ensuring they’ve uncovered all the details before publishing the story.

On the surface, this should be a given. We all want accurate news, including journalists (I count myself among that group, and yes, I’ve screwed up in the past, and it’s mortifying). But the same organizations de-crying “Fake News” have also perpetrated lies around Phillips in this same situation.

Unfortunately, there is no public proof at this time that Nathan Phillips has ever claimed to be a Vietnam veteran.

He has referred to himself as a “Vietnam-times veteran,” which technically is accurate—he served from 1972–1976, and the US pulled out in 1973. It’s true that he was not deployed to Vietnam himself, but his experience in the armed forces and as a veteran immediately thereafter was likely colored by the public disillusionment of that era.

And yet, these (largely Conservative) media outlets have seized on this odd turn-of-phrase to smear Phillips as a liar, feeding into the stereotypes of deceitful, sneaky Indians—without actually double-checking the words that left Phillips’ own mouth. (Added irony: an inaccurate CNN transcript has been used to “prove” Phillips deceit. The “Fake News” Crusaders have held that up as gospel, despite their hatred for CNN, and despite the fact that it, erm, doesn’t actually match the video.)

This is a hypocritical double standard that feeds into racist stereotypes, regardless of one’s reading of the MAGA Hat Event at the Lincoln Memorial.

Every news outlet should do better, it’s true. But it’s particularly disingenuous for a reporter to carry the standard of the “full context of the video” while also not doing their own research. In this case, it’s also important to ask yourself: why did these Conservative media outlets seize on that one specific detail about Nathan Phillips’ life, and try to show that it’s a lie?

Well, that’s easy: again, they could exploit the stereotypes about Native Americans that already exist, which further exonerates the MAGA-hatted teens from Covington Catholic.

Which means these media outlets were never actually interested in truth. And they didn’t dig into Phillips’ past out of any sense of honor, integrity, of full-context reporting.

It was purely a propaganda move. No matter what version of events you saw on those videos, or who’s side of the story you believe: this deliberate abuse of the “full context of the story” is disingenuous, deceitful, hypocritical, and just plain morally bankrupt. The only thing it actually accomplishes is the suppression of a veteran’s First Amendment rights.

Maybe instead of deliberately seeking something to smear Phillips with, this outlets should have looked into his offer to break bread with the students.

And finally: the disingenuousness of death threats.

Look, no one should be getting death threats, okay? Not the Covington kids. Not the Parkland kids. Not Native American community leaders who dared to talk out in defense of their people.

Yet this happens all too often. Hell, even I’ve received threatening and highly personal assaults on Twitter, thanks to my little blue checkmark. This is a problem with the Internet in general—but sadly, it is not unique to this situation. And it is further hypocritical and disingenuous to catch liberal/Democrat/progressive/Left-leaning people giving into their basest instincts, and hold that up as an exemplar of the moral bankruptcy of everyone who shares any kind of political association with them. The reverse is true as well. It’s right to be upset that the Covington kids are getting doxxed and threatened—but we should apply that some outrage to all people, in every situation, who are wrongly exposed against their wills. This is true regardless of your place on the political spectrum.

That’s out the way. Now ask yourself: why did the Covington Catholic Boys get more sympathy in this regard—from the left, and the right!—than Nathan Phillips did, or Michael Brown, or Zoe Quinn, or anyone else whose life has been tarnished and exposed by our animalistic outrages?

Maybe the Covington Kids aren’t mustache-twirling Evil Racists. But the double-standards of hate and power have still overwhelmed this whole fiasco. That’s something we’ll all need to grapple with.

(NOTE: I had originally pitched this article to several Libertarian-leaning websites, in hopes that they would evenly apply their self-proclaimed commitments to individual rights. All of them rejected me within several minutes, claiming that their coverage on the issue was full. Perhaps this was even true; but the irony is still there, ripe and waiting to be seen.)

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Writer of fiction, article, songs, and more. Enjoys quantum physics, Oxford Commas, & romantic clichés, esp. when they involve whiskey. HATES Journey.

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