Orwell in 1984:
It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself — anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (incredulity when a victory was announced, for instance) was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.
Mulling over what Orwell got right and wrong will be the work of decades to come. The video screens he envisioned are indeed ubiquitous, but they’re in our pockets, not run by a central authority. Orwell got one purpose of incessant video monitoring right, though: to identify and punish those whose facial expressions don’t conform to the cultural orthodoxy.
The Covington Catholic High School boys, it is now obvious, were initially charged with facecrime. Regardless of everything else we know now about the Lincoln Memorial incident, they remain guilty of that. And also hatcrime, the newest hate crime. I initially thought the bizarre reluctance to let go of the original, false narrative was due to people’s stubbornness about admitting their first impression was incorrect. Now it’s becoming clearer that in the eyes of some, nothing could even partially excuse the Covington kids.
Ruth Graham of Slate, on the boy we now know to be Nick Sandmann, was one of many who rushed to put down thoughts like these:
But I think the real reason the clip has spread is simpler: It’s the kid’s face. The face of self-satisfaction and certitude, of edginess expressed as cruelty. The face remains almost completely still as his peers hoot in awed delight at his bravado. The face is both punchable and untouchable. The face is in this photo of a clutch of white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s, and in many other images of jeering white men from that era. . . .Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, “What? I’m just standing here,” if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins. [Emphasis mine.]
On Twitter, Jessica Valenti wrote, “I’m willing to bet that fifty years from now, a defining image of this political era will be that smug white MAGA teen disrespecting a Native elder and veteran. It just captures so much.” It’s 49 years and 361 days short of 50 years, Jessica, how do you feel about that bet now? Valenti also wrote, “I think so many of us have been on the receiving end of the face he was making: a smug, untouchable, entitled f*** you.” A Saturday Night Live writer offered via Twitter oral sex to anyone “who manages to punch that maga kid in the face.” Former CNN contributor Reza Aslan wrote on the same platform, “Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
A day after the initial story of what happened with the Covington kids fell apart, and after Nathan Phillips was exposed as having told a number of lies about it, TMZ was still offering headlines like, “MAGA hat smirking teen offers no apology to Nathan Phillips.” Why a teen must offer an apology to a purposefully annoying adult who walks into his group banging a drum inches from his face is unclear — unless you understand that wearing that hat and smirking are the crimes here.
Until the day before yesterday, I don’t think I would have had to say something this obvious, but: Let’s not leap to condemn people based on their facial expressions. Let’s not be an army of facecops making cultural arrests for facecrime.
When you hear Sandmann’s account of what happened — he was confused by Phillips’ act of aggression but thought the best way to defuse the situation was simply to smile and look non-threatening — it makes a lot more sense than Phillips’ blend of lies and distortions. At worst, a child was responding to a supposedly wise adult’s bizarre act of aggression with the visual equivalent of saying, “Bless your heart.”
On Monday, Molly Roberts of the Washington Post offered the following take: “Everyone is still wrong about the Covington kids.” Roberts re-introduces the idea that the teens shouted “Build the wall,” although her own paper has reported that there seems to be no video evidence of this. She castigates the many centrist and left-of-center commentators who have backed down from their initial take on the story because they’re just playing into the hands of a “fancy PR firm with Republican links.” (Do Washington Post editorial writers receive elementary instruction in the ad hominem fallacy?) She blasts the Covington kid who “ripped his shirt off in a gesture of self-assured dominance” (shirtcrime!) when in fact this “gesture of self-assured dominance” is better understood as a high-school sports cheer. We must re-condemn the Covington kids, Roberts scolds us, because “a smirk is a smirk” and because “Anyone who wears a Make America Great Again hat knows what it stands for, and who it stands against.”
Also on Monday, Laura Wagner of Deadspin made essentially the same argument. “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” runs her headline. Well, quite. She reminded us all not to cede any ground to “Right-wing trolls,” “gibbering masturbators” or “random MAGA chuds and Pepes” (ad hominem again) and charges the kids with being “draped in the symbols of white nationalism and misogyny,” by which she means the hats. Can you drape yourself in a hat? I don’t think so. Anyway, just to make sure we get the point, in the very next paragraph she informs us that the boys were “draped in racist, misogynist paraphernalia.” By which she again means the hats. Wagner mentions “MAGA” eight times in her piece. She just can’t let go of the fact that some people like the hats. She can’t believe anyone would side with “some s***head MAGA teens.” That’s question-begging unless you understand that to her it’s just a pair of synonymous terms.
I don’t doubt that people like Molly Roberts and Laura Wagner hate Donald Trump so much that they think the 63 million Americans who voted for him, and the many more who didn’t vote then but support him, are by definition racist, misogynist, and white nationalist. I feel bad for those who think nearly half of their own countrymen are evil. But the Covington kids simply got caught in the middle of all the fire progressives are raining on Trump. The Left started out incensed that the Covington kids were wearing hats and smiles, and now that we know those kids didn’t “mob” or “surround” a Native American but simply jeered a bit in response to an obnoxious activist who entered their group and pounded a drum in their faces, we’re back to the original charges: hatcrime and facecrime.