Our media cycles through stories like a giant dry cleaning operation. The dirt comes in, we churn it over and over until the toughest stains unloose themselves from the original threads, something’s purified for us, and then more dirt arrives, an endless sliding door of sins spotted, scrubbed, forgotten.
We should let our dirty clothes air a little longer. For example, I’ve been wanting to write about the Covington High School boys debacle—you know, those teenagers in MAGA hats and the Native American drummer—a spectacle of our American dynamic writ large only to reemerge from the cleaners as a lesson in call-out culture and journalistic carelessness. How dare we pick on those boys?
Now, we’ve moved on. The primary boy involved put on a pressed shirt his mother picked out, went on the air, and tapped his feet for us. No sneer, all smiles and genuflection. We did our due diligence in tarring Nathan Phillips’ validity (can’t trust those natives!). Now, we’re onto better dirt: a governor and his racist yearbook photos.
But I want to go back, because all the “voices of reason” about the Covington High School scandal missed something important, even the voices I trust. What they missed dovetails right into our latest scandal. What they missed is the power of what Saussure and Barthes would call the relationship between signifier and signified. That’s fancy critical theory talk for: symbols carry meaning whether we intend for them to or not. There’s no such thing as a neutral MAGA hat—or a jesting white hood--even if an altar boy wears it, even if every Black nationalist on the continent hurled vitriol in his face, even if a veteran turns out not to be a veteran, at least in any sanctified war (“Aren’t all Native Americans veterans? insists my snarkiest self”).
Let me back up. We know that the originally released video of the incident edited out some important context. We know that it was released intentionally to bait and stir up political unrest. We know that the boys were caught in a complex American moment. We know even some of the most reputable media outlets weren’t thorough enough on their first stab at the story. However, the dismay from all fronts at our attack on the Covington High School boys in question makes my skin crawl. I say that as a teacher at a mostly white prep school who can imagine the boys in question and imagine loving them too.
First, Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Douthat is unapologetically conservative and Catholic in the way that makes me embarrassed to perform the sign of the cross where anyone can see me, so I’m not primed to love his opinion anyway (in my head he’s always Ross Ass-hat, but that’s…not very Christian). Still, he responded in the obvious way, his “Id” asking, “Oh, O.K., so if a teenager wears a cap associated with the president of the United States he’s asking to have media figures fantasize about punching him, to be doxxed and harassed, to have adults from his school temporarily stampeded into talking about expelling him, even to have half of Catholic Twitter, priests included, briefly damning him as a racist? Blame the victim much, do we?”
I love that: “A cap associated with the president of the United States.” Only it’s not. It’s a cap associated with racial profiling and pussy-grabbing, with an American man who once called someone “Pocahontas” as an insult. Even Douthat admits the hat is “culture-war signaling.” In other words, if you wear one, you’re armed for war.
Then, we’ve got David Brooks in the New York Times, also a conservative -- although our country’s polarized politics have bestowed him with a reputation for moderation that I’m not sure he deserves -- lamenting the moral superiority each side craves. He writes, “The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment –it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping – I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point.“
I love that too: “Such crude prejudice and social stereotyping.” He’s suggesting that a white, prep school male in a MAGA hat should be, in his opinion, afforded the presumption of innocence, that the “crude prejudicing” is not, in fact, already carried inside the hat’s own semiology.
Finally, we have Caitlin Flanagan, NOT a conservative and a writer I admire, admonishing The New York Times’ coverage of the story in The Atlantic. She points out that in the Times' first story the boys are called “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats,” while in a later story they’re simply “Catholic Boys.” She asks, “How had the boys been demilitarized from wearers of MAGA hats to Catholic boys in twenty-four hours?”
It’s a good question. How indeed? Only, while she implies that “Catholic Boys” would have been the responsible moniker in the first place, I think the problem is that “Boys in MAGA hats” is the whole heart of the story here. The problem wasn’t the descriptor, the descriptor was accurate, they WERE boys in MAGA hats, only the dynamics of the situation were more complex than they first appeared. By demilitarizing their description of the boys, the Times made another mistake. They too fell back onto a presumption of innocence in the scramble to cover their own mistake, signaling the boys’ piety rather than their attire.
Here’s the thing, though: a MAGA hat is a weapon. It may not contain bullets, but it certainly has a chamber eager for loading. The self-righteous protection of these boys makes them complicit in a national gas-lighting incident. They started the fight (unwittingly, perhaps), and now everyone’s mad people fought back. But those hats provoked the conflict whether we like it or not.
Those boys might not understand that they’re walking around, for all intents and purposes, openly carrying a weapon, and as an educator, that’s the saddest thing about this to me. How badly are we educating our children if they don’t understand their own messaging? How badly are we parenting if we help our children divorce hatred from its symbols? Many people have asked where the adults were in this scenario; they were there, it turns out. What I want to ask is where were they before? Politics aside, why would you let high school students walk around in Washington, D.C. in MAGA hats if you had any semblance of understanding of our socio-historical moment? That borders on negligence, and certainly disregards their bodily safety. It also prevents them from entering a beloved community; it potentially isolates them. If my black son were older, I’d tell him not to interact with a stranger in a MAGA hat. I'd have to. We ask our children to redeem us all the time, and we expect them to resolve the sins of our past with each other. How can they do that if we don't disarm them first?
Sigh. I feel like I’m always writing the same essay, one about the white innocence our country so desperately needs to believe in above all else. I can already imagine the comments, “But they didn’t mean anything by wearing the hats. But Governor Northam didn’t mean to be racist by celebrating Halloween costumes based on our country’s most shameful history.” Maybe. But as my senior high school students (hopefully) know, the New Critics, mostly white males, would remind us of the Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter, in art or representation, what we intend. It matters what we do.
We want to take our dirty clothes to the dry cleaners and emerge as an ideal America. We want, understandably, for our children—especially the white, male ones--to have lives untouched by ethical and historical inheritance.
Meanwhile, we’re cloaked in it.