The year 2019 in its very early stages already has produced two remarkable incidents of gaslighting. Deriving its name from the title of a successful stage play and film, gaslighting refers to the practice of deliberately manipulating people to alter their perceptions of their perceptions — in the play and film, the victim even came to question her own sanity, as was the manipulator’s intent. Normally, we think of gaslighting as something that requires a certain amount of time to execute. But in these two cases, particularly the more recent, the successful coups were carried out virtually overnight. These incidents illustrate very nicely that we currently are living in the Golden Age Of Gaslighting.
If you have any doubts of that, just look at who is presently occupying the White House. He is a lifelong wastrel, liar and conman who has convinced millions of people that he is a brilliant businessman, a strong and competent leader, a paragon of virtue and even a Good Christian. He’s convinced millions that Sean Hannity is a solid journalist and CNN is “fake news”. And he’s convinced millions that all the evidence the FBI has dug up about him and his associates is proof that the FBI is corrupt, not him. Not surprisingly, the two incidents in question both pertain to him — one directly and one indirectly.
First, there’s the matter of the government shutdown, the longest in the nation’s history. It was carried out by a putative president throwing a snit because Congress wouldn’t approve funding for his ultimate monument to himself. Just before it happened, he proclaimed that he would be “proud” to shut down the government; that he would accept sole responsibility and wouldn’t blame anyone else. Then, as soon as it did happen, he started blaming everyone else, calling it the “Schumer-Pelosi” shutdown, calling Democrats obstructionists who didn’t care about border security, etc. etc. And his chorus of enablers picked up the chant. I’m happy to report, however, that this time — if the polls are correct — most of the public did not buy it. But a sizable portion did. And many in the media did, relentlessly pushing the customary narrative of “both sides” being to blame. And when he finally caved in (probably the first time in his life he’s had anyone stand up to him without getting fired), many in the media, honest to Pete, credited his “leadership”.
The second exercise in gaslighting was rather more successful. It concerned a highly publicized encounter in Washington, DC. between a small group of Native Americans, a small group of African-Americans, and a very large group of white school kids wearing MAGA hats.
The undeniable facts that everyone agrees on are these:
1. The kids were there to participate in a “March For Life”.
2. They were verbally harassed by a very small group from a radical faction known as the Black Hebrew Israelites,
3. A small group of Native Americans, participating in an event called Indigenous Peoples March, interposed itself between the two groups.
4. One of the Native Americans in particular, an elder named Nathan Phillips, beat his drum and chanted in the midst of the fracas in an effort to restore peace.
But beyond that, there’s been a great deal of dispute — and much of it unwarranted. The initial reports that deluged social media included only a brief clip, the heart of the incident, and suggested that the kids had invaded the space of the Native Americans and behaved aggressively toward them. That wasn’t exactly the case, but they clearly were being disrespectful, even mocking. Indeed, school officials apologized and promised disciplinary action, “up to and including expulsion”. Even the website of the “March For Life” condemned their behavior.
Within about 24 hours, however, the narrative had totally flipped on its head. Now, all of a sudden, the kids were innocent angels who had been targeted by a malicious cyber mob of leftists and dishonest media. And the particular lad at the center of the storm — one Nick Sandmann — was now being pitied as a victim of persecution. What happened?
For one thing, additional video footage was put into circulation that showed a more extensive, more nuanced series of events than the clip initially released. This footage indicated that first reactions had been somewhat overblown. From there, the manipulators started to build the narrative that first reactions were totally uncalled for — and even that Phillips had been an aggressor who was trying to stir up trouble. The additional footage, they claimed, provided “context” that totally exonerated the Catholic school youths. The spin was that the media (and social media) totally bungled their coverage of the incident.
Not so. The media certainly sensationalized and skewed, as media are known to do; but they still got their facts straight — at least their essential facts . (It was reported at first that Phillips is a Vietnam veteran; he did serve in the Marine Corps, but not in Vietnam. This has no bearing on what happened at the Lincoln Memorial.) And the additional footage still shows that, even though Phillips approached the group of students rather than vice versa, Sandmann clearly stepped up right in his face and smirked at him without budging, as if challenging him to something or other. Videos also show that the white schoolboys were making fun of Phillips, mocking his chanted prayer, and even making disrespectful “tomahawk” gestures, among other things. Even the Black Hebrew Israelites, despite their abrasive comments, conduct themselves aristocratically in comparison.
It’s very interesting that in their desperate search for the “context” provided by additional footage, the reactionaries quite overlook the footage provided by Native Americans who were present. And if you really want context, why not dig a little deeper. Phillips testified, fighting back tears, that he was in fact frightened by the teens.
I was scared, I don’t like the word ‘hate.’ I don’t like even saying it, but it was hate unbridled. It was like a storm.
He also said that he heard some of them chanting “Build the wall!”. So far, no recording has confirmed this; but what a recording has confirmed is that one of the students yelled at a group of girls that “it’s not rape if you enjoy it”, and the others hooted and hollered their approval. This is more significant than it may sound, because the culture of the MAGA cult is closely intertwined with the rape culture, the white pride culture and the culture of male superiority — it’s not mere coincidence that the defenders of the Covington kids are almost invariably defenders of Brett Kavanaugh. By any means necessary. (The evidence indicates that the White House occupant was elected by a core of white male Christians who were in a panic because they feared their stranglehold on American society was in jeopardy.)
It’s also known that the students were there participating in a “March For Life”, which is really about depriving women of autonomy. And they’ve been known to wear blackface at sporting events. (Their defenders have insisted this is no big deal because they paint their whole bodies black, and it’s part of a “school spirit” thingamajig sanctioned by the school. Oh.) And they’ve been known to wear MAGA hats in an apparent attempt to provoke people. In fact, the hat itself is almost all the context you need.
Meanwhile, Sandmann’s wealthy family tried to dispose of the matter by (fanfare, please) hiring publicists to churn out some spin. (Just to give you an idea of the character of these publicists, they have a history of working for Mitch McConnell and the Bush family.) Shortly thereafter, they released a statement that put words in Sandmann’s mouth, protesting that he was not only an innocent widdle victim of character assassination, but a noble heroic figure who bravely strode into the fray and tried to diffuse tension (by getting in Phillips’ face). The statement was worded in an articulate and thoughtful manner, and we’re supposed to believe that it was written by a pampered teenager who thinks MAGA hats are really cool.
Needless to say, the putative president jumped into the fray, seizing any and every opportunity to pursue his unabashedly fascist dream of de-legitimizing journalism, history and science and establishing himself as the sole source of Truth. He figured that since the kids were wearing the official headgear of his cult, it was his duty to defend them no matter what they’d done. (Not unlike the murderous “very fine” Nazis in Charlottesville.) Accordingly, he tweeted, “Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.” And his official hired liar, Sarah Sanders, lamented that “I’ve never seen people so happy to destroy a kid’s life.” Really, Sarah?
And just like that, Sandmann was transformed from media goat to media darling. He was even interviewed on NBC’s Today Show, on which he robotically mouthed the words he’d been primed with, insisting he had nothing to apologize for and “every right to stand there” — reaffirming the perception of him as confrontational, and reflecting, as Salon points out, the reality that whites operate under different rules of engagement than everyone else. If you have the stomach to watch the interview, notice how his rather loose-fitting clothes seem designed to give him a waif-like appearance.
In the aftermath, many people who had been quick to criticize him engaged in a sickening chorus of mea culpas, apologizing because they supposedly had him pegged all wrong. Even many in the mainstream media imagined egg on their faces for doing their jobs, and thereby failing to reinforce the official right-wing narrative.
And the right-wing fringe media, needless to say, was all over it. The same folks who went apeshit over an old clip of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (gasp) DANCING in college just shrugged and said “boys will be boys” over the much more recent clip of the Covington brats. The unfortunate National Review, which is unwavering in its mission of trying to make itself look as asinine as possible, initially published a piece condemning the students in harsh terms, but then retracted it and jumped into the spin cyclone. It tried to deflect attention away from Sandmann and his pals by picking apart the “lies, inconsistencies and nonsense” of Nathan Phillips. (These folks are real sticklers for truthiness, at least in other people.)
NR’s unfortunate columnist Kyle Smith, whom we’ve encountered before, likened the public outcry to something out of 1984 and went on a silly rant about how we have no right to chastise the youngsters for inappropriate behavior when they didn’t actually commit any crime fer gawd’s sake. Indeed, he facetiously salted his screed with the word crime numerous times in an attempt to downplay by contrast the Covington crudeness.
NR’s unfortunate columnist David French dutifully made the Sandmann-Kavanaugh connection in a piece called “Just How Easy Should It Be To Destroy a Young Man’s Life?”. Good thing it wasn’t young person’s life — someone might construe that to include female targets of sexual assault.
In the Kavanaugh case, conservative men and women looked at decades-old, uncorroborated allegations, the unquestioning acceptance of those claims, and the furious effort to destroy a man’s reputation and career – even by passing along the wildest and most implausible claims – and thought, “That could be me’ or ‘that could be my husband.’
Now, these same people look at the reaction to the Covington Catholic kids and think, “That could be my son.”…
That’s the message that sent a shudder up the spine of husbands and wives during the Kavanaugh hearings. That’s the message that sends a shudder up the spine of moms and dads as we watch men and women try to ruin the Covington Catholic kids. This isn’t just a media scandal. When we see the hate, some of us see our sons, and we know that in America today, their futures, their reputations, and – given the prevalence of death threats – perhaps even their very lives are in the hands of an angry mob.
If that doesn’t make you puke, you’re impervious to nausea.
In writing what is perhaps the most thorough and even-handed examination of the episode, Zack Beauchamp at Vox observes:
The answer is that the Covington videos are [a] kind of Rorschach test, showing each side seeing what it wants to in a way that’s more revealing about their own worldviews than the actual incident.
Okay, but that in itself is disturbingly revealing. This particular Rorschach blot bears the distinct image of a bunch of adolescents being asses. The fact that so many people are tying themselves into knots in an effort not only to exculpate but beatify this behavior — to, in effect normalize “white privilege” — is a sad comment on the age of alternative facts and the reality TV presidency.
In the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, Chico famously asks, “Who ya gonna believe — me or your own eyes?” We live in a time when the manipulators have become very skilled at persuading people to believe the “me”. The gaslights have never burned more brightly.