For centuries, people have stared at the Mona Lisa, pondering, quizzical, trying to make sense of the expression on her face. In the last few days, millions of people around the world have similarly scrutinized the image of Nick Sandmann, a now-famous junior at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, as he encountered Nathan Phillips in front of the Lincoln Memorial on January 18.
The story that first went around was that Sandmann and his fellow students, who had attended the March for Life last Friday and were waiting for their bus back home, had encircled, threatened, and insulted Phillips, a Native American activist who had served in the military.
The Covington students, all boys, many of them wearing “Make America Great Again” caps, were instantly demonized. But video evidence later showed that the boys were innocent—quite remarkably and impressively innocent, in fact. Over the course of more than an hour, they were confronted, first, by a fanatical group of religious bigots, the Black Hebrew Israelites (who claim to be the real Jews), who pelted them with racist and homophobic abuse, to which the Kentucky boys, quite admirably, refused to reply; and, second, by Phillips, who, accompanied by a handful of hangers-on, got in their faces, chanting, banging a drum, and telling them to go back to Europe because they had no business in America, which belonged to Native Americans. As Phillips marched through the crowd of boys, all parted except for Sandmann, who silently met Phillips’s gaze.
Reactions to Sandmann’s expression poured out from every corner. Many people described him as sneering. Rosie O'Donnell was one of several who called him “smug.” Since he is white, his expression was interpreted, by the kind of people who are determined to interpret such things in such ways, as the condescending reaction of a privileged young straight white male toward a much older representative of a minority group, who was supposedly carrying out a sacred ritual.
Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen, the author of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, responded to the image of Sandmann by saying “how deeply familiar this look is. It’s the look of white patriarchy, of course.” Sandmann is a 15-year-old boy who attends high school in small-town Kentucky, but you’re never too young, never too obscure, and never too powerless, apparently, to represent the patriarchy, and never too privileged, with a wide readership and a large Twitter following, to be its victim.
Reza Aslan, who was fired by CNN after he responded to the June 2017 London Bridge terrorist attack by smearing President Trump, responded to the episode by tweeting a screenshot of Sandmann looking at Phillips and writing: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” Bakari Sellers, who is still at CNN, agreed on Twitter that Sandmann was “a deplorable” who should be “punched in the face.”
In recent years, Western society has moved steadily into Orwellian territory. When the first brief clip of Sandmann made the electronic rounds, Right-Thinking People joined together in making him the object of their Two Minutes Hate. His offense, in their minds, was what in 1984 was known as a facecrime.
It’s all strange to me, because when I look at the same picture of Sandmann, I don’t see a smirk. I see an all-American boy, brought up in a decent home, raised in a decent community, and educated in decent schools, who has been cornered by somebody who, for all he knows, may be a harmless, pathetic nutbag, a genuinely dangerous character, or just a publicity hound. Sandmann wants to treat this older man with respect right up until the moment when the older man might force him to take defensive action. Sandmann is smiling, but his smile makes it clear that he is no sucker, that he doesn’t want trouble but is prepared for it, if need be.
“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm,” wrote Sandmann in a statement released after his return home, “I was helping to defuse the situation.”
Indeed, that is what you can see on his face. It seems to me a very American look—wholesome and mannerly but no wimpy pushover, either. This is what used to be called being a man. I wish I had been such a man at his age. And I wish that most of our cultural, political, and media elites had even an inkling of what I’m talking about here.