I've been trying to think of something constructive to say about the whole "Catholic schoolboy vs. Native-American drummer" blowup. And I'm having a really hard time.
Of course there are lessons to be learned: Don't rush to judgement before knowing the facts; Know that there are some very powerful interests out there who desperately need for us all to believe that we are each others' enemies, and that "white supremacists" lurk around every corner; Know also that the media distorts the truth in order to have people see the world a certain way.
But there was something else going on beneath these – I think – pretty obvious takeaways: A vicious ugliness had stuck its head out of a hole in the earth and begun spitting venom at us all. Even if that ugliness slinks back into the hole, nobody is now going to forget that it is there. The viciousness isn't new. We saw it immediately after the 2016 elections, and probably most of us have seen it rear its slimy head at some point in our various lifetimes. But for me, for some reason, this particular incident stands out.
Here's a young teenaged boy, not much older than my own son, and in a matter of moments and with very little information to go on, he has become the target of an entire nation's rage. People are screaming that he is a racist, even a white supremacist; grown adults are saying they want to punch him; his family receives death threats. And even after it emerges that he did not "taunt" the Native-American drummer, that, in fact, the drummer had walked straight into the boy's group, had walked straight up to the boy himself, and had stood beating his drum right in the boy's face – even then, he continued to come under attack for such unbelievable offenses as "not moving out of the man's way", or "wearing a MAGA hat." Never mind that the boy's group had been being taunted and shouted at for an hour by a genuinely racist group of "Black Hebrews", never mind that the Native-American drummer had initiated whatever confrontation there was – somehow, the boy must be to blame.
I've seen people insist – after it became clear that the boy/boys had not been the instigators – that the boys were racist, that the boy wearing the MAGA hat was obviously a racist because of his "condescending smirk" (an assessment that I would have thought represented the very essence of prejudice) and I've been told that anyone who wears a MAGA hat is by definition a white supremacist. And as is so often the case in discussions with those who believe that group identity trumps both individual rights and rational discourse, attempts at reason go nowhere.
More than anything, it has reminded me of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I realize not many Americans know much about what happened then, but they would do well to read up on it, and to learn where such frenzied mob behavior can lead. It is nowhere good. One particular thing that seemed to happen over and over again, was that that frenzy would start to build on itself. What might start out as a "struggle session" against a particular "enemy of the people" would become more and more intense, with each person vying with the last to issue the most damning condemnation of the chosen victim, and prove themselves to be the most perfect of revolutionaries. And when it was over, of course a new victim would have to be found.
I sensed some of that frenzy in the attacks on this boy. But I saw something else too. I saw just a little of that frenzy in my own circles, among people who were going after those who had initially jumped on the steamroller aimed at the Covington Catholic High School student. I won't say that it was as intense or as crazed as the attacks leveled against the boy, because it just wasn't. But I saw a flicker of it.
I think what got to me was when a lot of people started dumping on one particular person – an econ. professor who had posted that he'd like to punch the boy. He later apologized, after the truth about what had happened had emerged, and also said that he wasn't quite himself as he was undergoing cancer treatment and the medication he was on was making him extra grumpy. I would have thought that would be enough to silence his critics for just a moment, to have them give the guy a pass just this one time. But no. Those who, admittedly, knew him better than I did said that the cancer meds were just an excuse and he was always this way. I didn't care. I still don't. There is just a point where being decent to other people, and recognizing their humanity, is more important than winning the argument or pointing out how wrong they are every time they screw up.
Maybe this is just what people do on the Internet, and I'm not used to it because the people in my social-media networks tend to be more civilized. But there are good reasons for being civilized. And decent to each other. There are good reasons for restraining our initial rage long enough to get the facts, and good reasons for being courteous to those we disagree with even vehemently. Lots of good reasons, in fact. But the first one that pops into my head is that once that frenzy begins, it starts to feed on itself, and to grow, and spread. And nobody really knows how it's going to end.