The smirk


the smirk.JPG

The Sandmann-Phillips face off/KC Noland,You Tube



An American social eruption that has exploded around an encounter between Nathan Phillips, an elderly Native man, and Nick Sandmann, a white teenager, in the nation’s capital has a whole lot more to do with us and our technology than with them.

Reject for a moment your opinion on what you think happened in that encounter, and take a few minutes to consider how you arrived at that opinion.

Electronic media – mainstream, social, left, right, whatever you want to call it – and the tribal baggage from tens of thousands of years of human evolution helped push you into a corner.

So which corner are you in?  Which tribe are you backing? The Phillips tribe or the Sandmann tribe?

Then ask yourself this, the really important question:

Why are you so incensed that others – friends, enemies, acquaintances, commentators, even internet trolls – might decide to support the opposing tribe?

My old friend Howard Weaver – the editor of the Anchorage Daily News back in the day, later a bigwig at The McClatchy Company, and now a social-media power in his dotage – was so upset by opposing opinions that he today posted this on Facebook:

“Watching smug rich preppies skate by their obvious display of racism, ignorance and bad manners sickens me. I’m checking out for a while.”

If you know how much Weaver loves social media, it’s simply astounding this confrontation in which nothing happened would lead him to abandon it for even an hour.

All this over a couple of people staring each other in the face and then peacefully going their own ways? No shots fired. No bones broken. No blows exchanged.  No real harm to anyone.

Christ, the residents of Chicago’s South Side would be in the streets celebrating if every confrontation ended with this instead of with another body bleeding out onto the pavement.

White privilege

As for the rest of Weaver’s tome, overstatement would be an understatement. These aren’t “rich preppies.” They are a bunch of Catholic school kids from Park Hills, Ky. – median household income, $47,115; median property value, $190,000; poverty rate, 19.3 percent. 

Are they all racists?

They could be. One would hope that they’re not, but there are likely some racists in the bunch somewhere.  Racism haunts the human species. It can be found everywhere and in every tribe.

And then there’s the church. The Catholic Church has its own nasty history as all Alaskans know. The Jesuits shipped their pedophile priests north to remote Alaska villages to be rid of them. It was tantamount to throwing wolves in with the sheep to keep those predators away from the cattle.

Personally, I knew Catholic school kids too well. I grew up with them in Minnesota. We didn’t always get along. There was a high-profile Catholic school a block from the public school, but it only ran through the eighth grade.

So after junior high, all the Catholic kids trooped over to the public school to finish their education. Relations between the Catholics and the non-Catholics, as well as between the farm kids and the city kids, tended to be a little contentious, especially for some reason on the football team.

Some of the Catholic players nicknamed me “nigger lips.” There were no African-Americans in our part of state, and some of them didn’t like some non-Catholic kid playing running back.

There were a few fights. I got suspended from school after one. Small towns aren’t always the great places they’re made out to be.

But they change as the world changes. The N-word is now a no-no almost everywhere. And next to Sandmann in some of the video of his now infamous encounter with Phillips is an African-American classmate from his school.

At least give the Catholics credit for making progress in a time when a whole lot of America is regressing.

Gone tribal

But there will be those for whom it is impossible to see anything good about those with whom they disagree.

A whole lot of America has fallen victim to the tribalism of the tubes. Nobody planned it this way. It wasn’t the fault of the Russians or Mark Zuckerberg or Google or anyone else.

The internet and social media are wonderful inventions. The problem comes in the way they interact with tens of thousands of years of evolutionary biology.

Humans evolved to function as social animals in tribes. We have a long, ugly history of tribalism to go along with that social construct. It’s not racial or cultural.

It’s natural.

And it has shown its ugly side in every race and every culture from long before the Catholics of the Spanish Inquisition  through the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia near the end of the last century to the Kamuina Nsapu in the Democratic Republic of Congo today.

The United States of America, whatever its flaws, was founded on the idea of eliminating tribalism.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness,” the Declaration of Independence asserted in 1776.

The men who wrote those words unfortunately had a tough time living up to them.

America was at its worst in the century that followed as the multi-ethnic American tribe pushed aside the aboriginal tribes that had preceded it in North America in a quest to take over the continent in pursuit of an idea that was pure and good, but even more so in the name of money and power.

But American tribalism hasn’t always been bad.

It was at its best when white Americans in the northern states gave up their lives in a bloody civil war to free black Americans from slavery, and when Americans white, black, Native, Hispanic and Asian went to war in the 1940s to help save the world from global tyrants, and when white Americans again joined hands with black Americans to eliminate the scourge of segregation once and for all.

Tribalism is not an inherently bad thing. It is simply what it is. It is the way we evolved. We clustered together as tribes to survive because we had to or we would have died.

Without tribes, we’d be as extinct as the dinosaurs. Instead, we became the most sophisticated and adaptable animals ever to roam the planet. Not only did we prove an ability to survive in every habitat on the globe, we managed to push into space and prove we could survive in the most unfriendly of all habitats, the one almost devoid of oxygen.

At the same time, we have threatened ourselves with our own advances. There are those now who worry mightily about climate change, but it might be the least of our problems near term.

For better or worse, the internet has empowered tribes at the same time that social media has fractured them. The internet gives tribes an unprecedented tool to market themselves. Social media, on the other hand, breaks them into ever smaller coalitions of the like-minded.

Most people reading this probably know someone who is by now shrunken to a tribe of one because in American society as it exists today you don’t really need anyone else. Or maybe you don’t really need anyone other than your imaginary internet friends.

We are watching the Balkanization of the U.S.

People who venture into and take up residence in the bowels of social media have no motivation to hold any sort of tribe together unless it serves their purpose, and their only purpose is to win, no matter how they happen to define that.

To come out ahead, to demonstrate their superiority in the battlefield of argument. Once this was tempered by social contact. It’s hard to call people names face to face. But now everyone can fire away from their sniper post safe within the tubes.

You can blame this all on evolution, too. We echo the natural world and the two prime directives that apply to all animals there:

  • They all want to get fat (which is why capitalism is so successful among our species).
  • And they all want to demonstrate their superiority to attract a mate.

Our desire to demonstrate superiority might now transcend sex, but sex drove genetic selection for these genes for tens of thousands of years. And these genes drove human achievement.

Without this, we’d still be living in caves. The “look at me; see what I can do; see who I am” gene fueled human progress. Without that gene, Bill Gates remains forever a little nerd.


Phillips is clearly possessed of such genes. He is not some innocent caught up in this story by accident.

As to his intentions, only he knows. They could be as pure and as good as he claimed in comments to the Detroit Free Press:

With a confrontation possible, maybe, between the Covington school kids and some Black Hebrew Israelites “it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong. “

Then again, his intentions could be otherwise. He accused Eastern Michigan University students of racism in 2015, and he marched toward the Covington students banging a drum and singing, by his own admission, the American Indian Movement anthem. 

Rebecca Bengal at Vogue calls this “a song of strength and courage, protection against the kind of taunting that Phillips has endured his entire life.”

A tribal victory song would be a better description.

The history, according to Leonard Peltier a member of AIM now in prison for murder, dates back to Crazy Horse and the Cheyenne Indians who “wiped out Custer and his band of murderers and rapists of children, helpless elders, women and babies.

“On their way back to camp, the young heroic Cheyenne warriors made up the song now known as the AIM song and rode into camp singing it, and the women and men joined in and the whole camp began to sing it,” he wrote for Native News Online.  

“The song says thank you to the Great Spirit for allowing our young men to be brave and courageous to fight off and to protect the young children, the women, unborn babies, the elderly woman and men and our leaders….

“This is the meanings behind the words of the AIM song.”

AIM was a more restrained, Indian version of the Black Panthers started in Minneapolis, Minn., in 1968 that became increasingly militant over the years that followed.

I was an early fan as were many rebellious Minnesota high school and colleges students of that time. The country was in chaos over the Vietnam War and the “establishment” was the enemy.

AIM’s militancy reached a peak during a 71-day standoff with the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1973.

The movement continues but it’s profile today is much lower than in the confrontational 1970s. Until Phillips, it had been little in the news.

‘There still are sanctioned groups by the original Minnesota AIM, but there are resistance warriors popping up with water camps in support of Indigenous Sovereignty, just as AIM has always advocated,” Mark Maxey wrote for People’s World on the 50th anniversary of the organization this year. “So there is still the warrior spirit within the younger generation fighting for treaty rights still as a verb, AIM, not a noun.”

Phillips appears one of those “resistance warriors.” According to the Bismark Tribune, he spent much of the winter of 2016-17 at the Dakota Access Pipeline opposition camp.

In the summer of 2017, he helped lead a protest against a Dexter (Mich.) Township pipeline near his daughter’s home in Ypsilanti. 

Given this and Phillips’ effort to portray himself as a victimized Vietnam veteran although he never got close to Vietnam, there is certainly enough out there for a reasonable person to form an opinion that Phillips is a near-professional protester who confronted a group of high school students.

Another side

There is less to support the view that the Covington kids disrespected Phillips – who didn’t help his case by appearing on Democracy Now to double-down on claims the teenagers were chanting “build the wall,” words no one has been able to find in any of the various video recordings of the confrontation – but taking Phillips’s side is not wholly unreasonable either.

The teenagers could have backed away. They could have avoided the temptation to start dancing and chanting in time with the drum.

They might well have been suffering from, to use Weaver’s word, “ignorance.” And they were wearing those “Make America Great Again” hats, which some now believe to be a symbol for ignorance, racism, bigotry and Donald Trump – God on earth to some Americans and devil to others.

As one Alaskan posted on Facebook, Sandmann’s hat was all she needed to decide who was behaving badly in this confrontation.

And that more than anything might define where we are at in this country today. In this tribal war, as in most tribal wars, symbolism trumps substance.

The tribes unite against “the other.”

The unity creates its own feedback loop. The more people on either side want to believe the more they believe.

Evidence of an opposing view is dismissed. Flaws in the prevailing view are rationalized away.

Phillips’s attempt to paint himself as a Vietnam vet is stirred into the oblivion of  his word salad of “I’m a Vietnam-times veteran.”

Sandmann’s smirk is dismissed as “fake news.”

Only Sandmann knows what he was thinking in that photographic moment, and now that he has received the help of professional PR advisers, its unlikley he will ever reveal his thoughts.

He has said only that he wasn’t smirking, although smirking or something close to it would be a natural enough for a 16-year-old backed by a mob of friends when confronted by a seemingly crazy old man chanting and banging a drum.

Insolence is a teenage norm.

Look carefully at the now iconic photo of his confrontation with Phillips, and you can almost see the words forming that say, “Look old man, I’m not moving because you’re banging that stupid drum and chanting.”

And there was just about that much substance to their confrontation: A man bangs a drum and a teenager refuses to move. This is what we’re worried about?

When you step back and look at this from a distance, the story is almost a national embarrassment.

The American government is shutdown because right and left can’t find a way to negotiate a settlement of their differences, and our response is to have a national argument about a confrontation between an aggressive old man and a teenager because the latter didn’t show the former enough respect?

If you think this country has problems, forget Congress and go look in a mirror.

Correction: An early version of this story mistakenly attributed a Howard Weaver Facebook post to Twitter.















42 replies »

  1. Hope you get millions.

    In a major warning to purveyors of fake news, Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann and his family have hired a high-powered attorney who specializes in suing the media for libel and slander.

    The Sandmann family have hired RunSwitch PR, Kentucky’s largest public relations firm, to help them deal with media appearances, but the family has also now hired aggressive Georgia attorney, L. Lin Wood, WCPO-TV reported.

    The Sandmann family attorney, Todd McMurtry, noted that Wood is “committed to bringing justice to 16-year-old Nick Sandmann and his family.”

  2. Being a recovering Catholic I have little time for that criminal organization or its adherents, young or old. The only positive is the young have time for to repair.

  3. “The American government is shutdown because right and left can’t find a way to negotiate a settlement of their differences…” I thought this a bit of an oversimplification as this shutdown is clearly a pissing match between two powerful government leaders who need to be shown which of them has the cojones here.
    Once this has been determined the negotiations will follow IMO.

    • Great, now I have a mental image where on one side Trump is showing Pelosi his balls and on the other Pelosi is showing Trump her balls! Not a pleasant picture at all.

      On the subject of cajones, do you have the cajones to own up about what you said about this kid or do you still think he incited the mad staredown riot between himself and the old drum beater?

      • Steve-O, I have no idea of what you speak. What did I say about this kid??
        Govt. shutdowns are never a pleasant picture.

      • I’m waiting Steve-O…………………… still looking at Pelosi’s balls?

      • BY has to be worried about the state of KY actively investigating threats to schools and saying they will issue warrants for online threats.

      • Boy Steve-o and Mongo, check out those cojones on Pelosi! And no SOTU speech until govt. is funded. Don Trump’s just shriveled up to nothing-just wait till Coulter has a fit.

      • Bill, I’m not so sure you or Pelosi should be spiking the proverbial football just yet. It’s strange to be celebrating illegal immigration and not protecting the citizens of this country, but to each their own.

        Have you ever heard the idiom ‘if you give someone enough rope’ and what happens with said rope and the person it was given to? Pelosi said she wanted three weeks with the government funded to start negotiating in good faith, the clock is ticking. If you haven’t read or seen what Trump said when he announced this deal you probably should.

      • Steve-O, while you’ve been looking at Pelosi’s cojones you’ve completely forgotten about my question: “What did I say about this kid?”
        Did you just mistake me for someone else, or did you dream something??
        Anyway, as you are watching Trump’s cojones shrivel up perhaps you can give us a hint as to what occurred with your drive-by, shoot from the lip. Put up or shut up, I say!

      • Bill,
        I posted this yesterday, apparently it’ awaiting moderation for some reason.

        January 25, 2019 at 7:15 am
        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        Good point Bill, I must have misread your meaning when you were responding to others:

        Here is one look at a “moral battle for humanity:”
        I suspect the outcome here to be reflective of our collective humanity James.

        Say Bryan, did your “one student” bother to identify himself??
        Or did you write that?

      • OK Steve-O but you specifically mention that I “said” something about this kid and your “awaiting moderation” post refers to your misreading my meaning, relative to a couple of posts.
        So ………………………what is it??
        Further, the kid I referred to in that one post is an entirely different kid.
        I’ll just come out with it and suggest that you were just itching for a pissing match and overloaded your own ass. If you meant otherwise then please let us in on your reasoning.

      • Bill,

        Like I said, I must have misread your meaning when you were responding to others. I posted your comments and a link to all the other comments to provide context.

        What is a pissing match where one overloads ones ass, is that a saying where you’re from?

      • I’ll say it again, Steve-O: You did not refer to my meaning in your original post and specifically referred to what I had said (not what I meant). You also wanted to know if I “..still think he incited the mad staredown between himself and the old drum beater.”
        You were full of chit then Steve-O, and nothing I’ve read since shows that you know the difference between accusing me of saying something and now having a come-to-Jesus moment where you must have misread my meaning.
        Plain and simple, you made a blunder and are having trouble owning up to it. My guess is you were itching for a pissing match (someone pissed in your brandy again) and you got careless. No harm done as I like nothing more than pointing out where you are full of chit.

      • Bill,

        I like to see that you are learning how to properly use quotes, your lessons here are starting to pay off.

        What did you mean when you said “you were just itching for a pissing match and overloaded your own ass”? I’ve never heard that heard that phrase, please tell me what it means.

        I’ve already answered your question twice, if you don’t like the answer I would suggest asking another or moving on.

      • Steve-O, your answer was not sufficient IMO. You don’t get to accuse me of saying something and then cop-out by saying you “must have misread my meaning.” Further, you accused me of thinking this kid incited the mad staredown, etc. and wanted to know if I still think that.
        I either said something or I didn’t-what is it Steve-O??
        I’m not interested in your bullchit answer about misreading my meaning-you didn’t refer to any meaning, only what I said and that did I have the cojones to own up to it. Well-do you have the cojones to own up to your own blunder??

      • Bill,

        I’m sorry to hear that you feel your question wasn’t answered to your satisfaction. I guess if I were in your position I would re-read what was written, maybe click on the link and re-read the comments and the context involved.

        Does this mean that you aren’t going to tell me what you mean when you said “you were just itching for a pissing match and overloaded your own ass”?

      • Steve-O I’m not needing to look at what was linked, only what you accused me of. Obviously you don’t have the cojones to own up to your own blunder.
        You, for whatever reason, felt that you needed to get into a pissing match with me and perhaps confused my comments with someone else. None of that is important since you aren’t man enough to admit your fuck-up (whatever it was).
        You’ve been full of chit in most of your dealings on this site Steve-O and this is just the latest. You will need to move on as I’m not going to let it go. You either produce what is was that I said or shut up. Nothing was mentioned about my meaning, only what I said.
        So, man up or shut up!

      • Well I guess we now know what “overloaded your own ass” means!

        Bill, you are in a one man pissing contest and you are losing. You asked “What did I say about this kid??” I provided what you said and a link to it and said I must have misunderstood. Now you are dropping F-bombs while writing “chit” it’s hilarious really.

        You’ve definitely “overloaded your own ass” here Bill.

      • Well Steve-O, you got your pissing match but lost your cojones-they shriveled up like raisins on here.

    • When I see someone in a MAGA hat, I just see someone with a big “L” on their forehead. But it’s nice that they advertise it for all to see.

      • Doug, funny, I felt the same way whenever I saw somebody sporting the “you didn’t build that” community agitator shirt. I always checked to see if they put the right shoe on the right foot. They always fell into 3 categories:
        “where is my free chit, racists, or just plain stupid”.

  4. The kid was smiling that way because he has very crooked teeth. Find some other photos of him online and see for yourself. When I was young I had crooked teeth and smiled the same way in order to cover them up. When the man walked up to the kids banging the drum it looks like they did not quite know what to make of it. At first, some of them started to clap along and then they just stood there. When someone is vigorously swinging a drum stick two inches from your face, it means that person is trying to get you to react in some way, or trying to intimidate you. First the group of black people were hurling racial slurs at the kids, and then the native man walked over to the kids and very rudely started banging a drum in their faces. Of course it is all the kids fault – to think otherwise would make you a racist. Just remember – Orange man bad – and you wil be OK.

  5. When I 1st saw that pic circulated, I admit, I wanted to smack that kid in the jaw. Then I spent a few minutes reflecting on what I would do if I were in this kids place. I would like to think that if I were in this CHILD’s shoes, I would have turned the other cheek and walked away. However, I’m young enough to remember what I was like when I was 16 – insecure, juiced up on hormones and naive. Top that off by having a mob of my best friends around (who are all under the same influences that I am), thinking that I’m in DC at the bequest of god to literally save babies, being taunted by some real classy clowns (Black Hebrew folks) AND then having some dude with a drum step up to me and start chanting…. I know that I would have been lucky not to go to jail for assault. I’m not saying that this kid is innocent of being a punk ass, I’m just saying that he was surrounded by tens of people who were also ALL being punk asses – his classmates, chaperones, the black hebrews AND the native elder. What else would you expect when traveling the DC?… the land of punk asses and showmanship.


  6. Tribalism is always with us. There was a time when it was expressed as support for various sports teams – entertainment – rather than for real. The trick is to channel it into less damaging venues rather than reintroduce it into every facet of our daily lives. Cheers –

    • Bottomline, we hate the other side’s values, which is quite normal for humans and Americans. Things are no more hateful than in the past. Probably less. When was the last time our leaders settled political differences like real men e.g. Hamilton and Burr, founders of the greatest country in the history of the world?

      How we feel has not changed in thousands of years. What has changed is technology and the macro value of advertising. Today everyone has an atomic detonator in their smart phone and we have millions of activation attempts daily. Like a lottery, every so often someone wins and all heck breaks loose. Often, in order to maximize the number and intensity of eyeballs, the content is out of context or just plain bogus, which matters not. The hog needs to be fed. Media requires constant content and it doesn’t matter if it is real. The financial incentives are perverse – Covington is a win! There isn’t anyone involved who won’t be able to monetize the experience if they want. Certainly Phillips is a more valuable property is the activist category. The media already has. Be interesting to know the value of the incident as a standalone enterprise.

      VR will be here soon. Then everybody will get the reality they want.

  7. Craig, you said “the story is almost a national embarrassment”, I must disagree, it is a national embarrassment. The adults in this case acted like children and the teenager acted like an adult, albeit with a strange grin.

    • In my youth, when accused of things I didn’t do, my involuntary reaction was a nervous chuckle. I can see the kid having no clue what to do and the “smirk” simply reflecting a nervous twist of emotion.

      • For sure you are probably right. About emotions and nervous smiles,Also It is responsibity of elder to be good example show the right actions. Not to instigate a problem. Pretty telling of this elder mans intentions to create a scene using an immature youth . Though the youth restrained himself better than many his age so he should be commended for staying reasonable. It was unessasary to defend the ground he was standing on as no one was in danger. Better if he had walked away . He would have shown strength and control of situation. Again my opinion is it was elders responsibility to show a good example. Beating a drum in a young ( scientifically immature boy ) mans face is an effort to antagonize without doubt . It was an embarrassment to his / our nations great history of courage .

  8. One group was there to protect life and the other group was there to celebrate ending life. The Black Hebrew Israelites are nothing but radical racists. Starting their usual racist garbage where ever they go. Lying Phillip’s, the fraud who never served in Vietnam, actually went AWOL 3 times. What we saw was severe restraint from the students for not pounding their racist faces. A lot of the Covington students come from hardworking parents who give up a lot to better their children’s education. Is that “entitled”?
    This whole story shows the disgusting face of the radical leftist, Democrats in the media, Hollyweird, and Congress and their rabid rush to judgement to further their agenda. And these lunatics are coming for your guns. This vocal minority cancer should be stomped out by all means.

  9. Damnit Craig. I disagree with u sometimes but this time u swerved into the truth big time. U did a good amount of research to faret out the professional “Vietnam activist” and to expose the truth of what happened. CONGRADULATIONS SIR…Well done. Deservers KUDO’s

  10. One thing is certain, we need to train all white boys proper behavior when a crazy old man moves in to chant and bang a drum in your face. But even though untrained, the boys handled the situation pretty well. They smiled, which is polite. What’s wrong with being polite? Some say it was a smirk. I say it was a nervous smile. They didn’t retreat in the face of bullying, which is risky but commendable.

    I am curious where Mr Phillips gets funding to be an activist. That might provide some interesting context, or maybe there’s nothing interesting there. Following the money is often informative. Some journalist should exhibit at least the same aggressive investigative behavior towards Phillips as the children.

    • I really like Craig’s comment . Look in mirror . I wasn’t good at following my mother’s advice but she said just walk away . If you don’t then it’s a weakness becouse you allow another to control you . My grandma said if you don’t have something nice to say then say nothing at all . I never was able to live up to that but I aspire to . Thanks for insight Craig!

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