I was in a local tire shop a couple of years ago and a young man, probably not twenty yet, walked in sporting a t-shirt with large letters proclaiming “FUCK JESUS!” While I’m not a Christian I was offended. Not so much for myself but for others present, friends, who I knew were. Correct or not, I challenged the youngster and asked him if he got out of bed that morning intent on pissing people off? He just looked totally stupid at me as if he hadn’t read and considered the content of his chest. I told him that while he had the right to wear his shirt I questioned if he had a justifiable reason. Was it appropriate for the environment in which he found himself? Speech has consequences and the consequences that kid potentially faced were far more serious than some old man asking him if he was trying to piss him off.
My career was spent teaching American History and the basics of the US Constitution. I am a strong believer in the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. If the thought police busted this kid I would have gone to his defense. The Supreme Court has ruled that speech that offends is protected speech. Americans have no right to not be offended.
All of this comes around to what happened on the steps of Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial this past weekend when a group of students from a private Catholic high school in Kentucky appeared to confront an older Native American Vietnam Veteran and challenge his right to be present and conducting a traditional drum ceremony.
These students had been bussed to DC to participate in an anti-abortion rally. Most were proudly sporting MAGA ball caps and were probably fired up from their protest rally activities. Moments before the eye to eye with the drummer these students were reported to have been harassing a group of Black Hebrew Israelites who espouse views not friendly to white Catholic kids from the mid-West. As the pictures show the event ended up with the drummer and a very smug appearing student in a face-off stand-off. Nothing violent took place but it easily could have. The videos show there was a growing sense of mob rule in the air.
For over twenty-four hours now a debate has raged about who was at fault. The debate is mostly divided along liberal-conservative lines with liberals supporting the drummer and conservatives taking the side of the student/s. I engaged in a Facebook discussion and tried to be open minded. The snag for me, however, was the wearing of those MAGA caps. While there is nothing symbolically threatening about an elderly man playing drum those caps come with a built-in message of white nationalism, xenophobia, supremacy, racism, and opposition to all things appearing foreign. To place one on your head is to advertise and welcome confrontation with and from others. The MAGA ball cap has become arguably THE symbol of one of the most excluding and divisive administrations in our nation’s history and as such made it very difficult for me to keep my mind open.
I look at that older man with his primitive ceremonial drum and think about what his people have and do face and then I look at those privileged white students and what their chosen haberdashery says of them, and my support automatically goes to the Native American veteran. Before I could possibly approach this topic with an open mind someone would have Photoshop away all that MAGA represents about today’s America. Just as a fully donned Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan can’t expect my respect and objectivity, neither can these overtly smug faced children who before being listened to, need to have their little bare behinds blistered in front of the parents who don’t appear to have taught their children anything about respect for others, especially those of a different ethnicity, race, age, and life experience.
I’ll close with a couple more thoughts. First, as I said, I support the right of the students to their views but not their right to confront in the threatening manner suggested by those caps. They had no reason to challenge or taunt this group of peaceful indigenous peoples. Where were the adults in the room, where were the chaperones? Maybe they should have their asses blistered as well. Finally, Catholics might want to spend a little time remembering that it wasn’t that many decades ago in which they were often the targets of such confrontations and threats. I grew up in an era where it was doubtful a day would come when a Catholic could be president. Possibly Covington Catholic should teach a little empathy since there were so many times in history when they needed more than just a little.