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What Makes America Great?

On Saturday January 18th, 2019 during the Indigenous People’s March in Washington D.C. Nathan Phillips showed what makes America great. The videos of his experience show the Native American elder singing a healing song to defuse a conflict brewing between four young African Americans and a much larger group of white youth from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. The Covington students then began taunting and ridiculing Phillips with “build the wall” chants. Grotesque behavior like this is a choice.

One choice is to see the Make America Great Again hats, the defamation of decency, and make a decision to hate these haters. We see them everywhere—sometimes in large groups, sometimes just a few. These types called me a race traitor while I was in high school, they got angry when I didn’t participate in the racist jokes, it was just joking after all (or so they said). Under this social pressure, I did tell such jokes at times, shamefully.

Watching this growing intolerance is a nauseating manifestation of Trump’s campaign of racism. They trample the boundaries of morality, and their chanting is proof that “the Wall” has always been a racist symbol.

The other choice is to see the love. Nathan Phillips models that for us all. First, he must love himself and his cause. Curious people probably want to know more about how the American Indian Movement and being an Omaha has cultivated such peace and love in him, I know I do. Drawing on the divine has been a source for so many of my heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. to Mohandas Gandhi, who find something bigger—this is their source for principled nonviolence.

This is not the first time Phillips has had to keep his cool. He’s had to face harassment at previous events, Eastern Michigan University students put on stereotypical costume and taunted him, and upon returning home from Vietnam this veteran reported: “People called me a baby killer and a hippie girl spit on me.”

If we choose love, like these heroes do, then we provide hope for the future. These young boys probably don’t love themselves, I know I didn’t. That is why I said and did horrible things in efforts to fit in. I was vulnerable to my toxic environment because I was empty and afraid. I’ll bet Phillips understands that, as former director of the Native Youth Alliance he certainly has guided many young people through confusing times and helped them find meaning in life. In this case he proposes: “I wish these young men could put their energy to really make this country great, like feed the hungry.”

Hate is a socialized and learned behavior. Shame and guilt are only likely to reinforce it. Love, on the other hand, creates an opening for change. Like another friend of mine, Tom Hastings, asked of current social movements in the Washington Post, “Why shut that sympathy gap?” Street brawls, violent responses, threats, or even blocking freeways have all demonstrated negative impacts on movements for positive social change. Haters are expected to hate, but hating back doesn’t work. I can testify to this personally and practically.

In high school, I was in a bad place. My hometown taught me racism, sexism, and homophobia (to name a few), but I never meant to be a hater. I was educated through love—not shame—and I am still a work in progress. It wasn’t my wonderful parents; it was my desire to fit in to a toxic culture of mindless disrespect.

These Covington boys didn’t decide to hate on their own, they’ve been shown it over and over. Rage and hate can take white men to fantastic places in the U.S., it can help you to build tremendous fortunes, or, if you play your cards right, it might even get you into the Supreme Court or the Whitehouse.

What are we showing our youth? Our leader is who they see to emulate. “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Mocking a man with a disability. Belittling a Gold Star family because their US Army Captain son, killed in combat in Iraq, was a Muslim. The list goes on of hate outrages initiated and fanned by Trump, who encouraged violence at his campaign rallies and seemed satisfied to have it devolve into street brawls ever since. These expressions all have developmental impact on these kids.

Even in the best of times, young men misunderstand many things like consent and accountability. They are just falling on the side of the racist border wall this time, and they can’t argue it (nobody can, it is patently absurd), but they’re just doing the cool thing—sticking up for their racist leader—it’s what they know because it’s what Trump shows. It is the product of ignorance, and we shouldn’t blame the victims. Division has been fueled by the right, troll farms have even been employed to spread misinformation, and grown adults even debate or hope for another second civil war—this is the behavior that is expected!

There are answers and we can heal. The country is now generally doing the right thing in opposing Trump’s racist and classist border stunt, that is a good starting point, but we can do more than oppose the barrier, we can build bigger tables, raise bigger tents of inclusivity. We need to open dialogue; we could model the behavior of transparency and altruism. Youth must see value in honesty, it is the foundation of respect, and disrespect and dishonesty should never be seen as normal. Critical thinking and education also play an important role; I’ll wager nobody sat with these kids and asked “what do you think makes America great?” or “what purpose does mocking others serve?” There is no longer room for “boys will be boys” or “just joking.”

People who live with emotional pain tend to inflict emotional pain. If we can love these teens we can show them a different way. Their hate is an effort to heal themselves; they do not know any better. We can show them a better way. By eschewing our resentment over the disrespect we can give peace and justice a chance—Nathan Phillips has shown us how to make America great. America is great when it does not waver in its moral commitment to human rights; Martin Luther King Jr. said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”