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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.