A confrontation in Washington DC this past weekend has introduced yet another image certain to join a disturbing history of white America:
About a year and a half ago, we were asked to confront this:
As the Covington Catholic student controversy has been unfolding, I felt compelled to add this warning on social media:
Don’t be distracted. Regardless of exact details of the controversy around the private school students and the Native American veteran, stay focused on how this PROVES the ugly power of white/wealth privilege. Every. Time. White/wealthy insures a calvary will rush to protect you, to lie if necessary, but in the end, you will be insulated from your behavior regardless of your innocence or guilt.
And then the predictable occurred: White men inserting themselves into the comments, attacking me and offered the standard “white male privilege is a myth” response.
As a white man with a great deal of social capital and economic slack, I am a first-hand witness to what people say and do when only whites are around, when only men are around. I am not speaking about hypotheticals, but about how this world absolutely functions.
Few lies are more flimsy or toxic than denying white male privilege (skim the evidence). But we must note how it is always white men who rush to deny, and attack.
Simultaneous with the shifting and expanding narrative around the Covington Catholic student confrontation, I watched the newest Coen brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
I have long been an admirer of the craft of the Coen films, but their work also presents a disturbing problem: While there is a high-level of art and craft in the work, we must also acknowledge that the work is very white, and possibly too often uncritically white.
Ballad has received the usual critical praise the Coens enjoy. Richard Brody is effusive:
The Western is the most inherently political genre, and, with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” their two-hour-plus anthology of six short Westerns, Joel and Ethan Coen have made an exemplary political film. (It’s already in limited theatrical release and will launch on Netflix this Friday.) It is a movie put together from bits and pieces of cinematic tropes, conventions, and clichés, including ones borrowed from a range of genres, from ingenious physical comedy to romantic lyricism to Gothic horror. But all are united by a giddy Western revisionism centering upon a common theme: the relentless cruelty, wanton violence, deadly recklessness, and cavalier abuses of unchecked power that prevailed in the thinly and casually governed Wild West. Whether with outrageous antics or metaphysical mysteries, the Coen brothers fill the film with a subtle nose-thumbing; they’re laughing up their sleeve at the long-standing exaltation of the West as a primordial realm of titanic heroes, and at a society that even now consumes Western legends and spits them back in the form of historical verities and political pieties.
Brody gives the Coens one of the usual passes, in fact: “The movie sets up its action with the droll framework of an old, illustrated book of Western stories, further emphasizing that this movie is—like the Western stories that it parodies—a batch of back-constructed tall tales.”
Parody is among the safest refuge for those artists with privilege. “We are just depicting the world as it is, in all its flaws,” they shrug, “so that the audience can draw their own conclusions.”
And Matt Goldberg offers the ultimate stamp of approval by suggesting that this film rises to the level of universal in the final story, “The Mortal Remains,” a tour de force of Coenesque dark humor: excellent acting driven by loquacious characters, each representing a different philosophy:
What these kinds of conversations point out is that we struggle to put everything together, but we can only do the best through our own point of view. We’re extremely confident in that point of view, and as the Englishman notes, “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.” We’re all guilty of confirmation bias, and yet that will not save us. The Lady is just as dead as the Frenchman who is just as dead as the Trapper.
It is another story, however, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” that fits best into the real-world controversy involving private school boys, Black Israelites, and a Native American veteran.
“The Gal” involves some of the most enduring, and problematic, elements of the Western film: a wagon train and the ever-present threat of attacking Indians.
The climax of this story finds one of the wagon train leaders, Mr. Arthur, and the central woman, Alice Longabaugh, trapped in a gun fight with the standard image of Indians appearing menacingly atop a ridge.
Aided by prairie dog holes, the rugged (white male) individual, Mr. Arthur, poises himself against several waves of Indians on horseback; in the balance is Alice’s womanhood-as-assumed-virginity.
Among those of us with at least a modicum of experiences with Western films (John Wayne, spaghetti Westerns/Clint Eastwood), this story triggers thoughts of “circling the wagons” (used uncritically, this is packed with racist stereotypes and erases imbalances of power and Westward expansion as genocide)* and the calvary.
This brings me back to the confrontation in Washington DC, a confrontation among two marginalized groups—blacks and Native Americans—and the privileged white male students from an expensive private school.
Of those three groups, only one has hired a PR firm, and despite the apologists for the Covington Catholic students shouting that the whole picture absolves, somehow, these young men and the culture that spawned them, that whole story now includes video of the boys in their red MAGA hats taunting a young woman and truly incriminating evidence that the school has at least allowed a deeply antagonistic culture of white arrogance:
I suspect the apologists do not really want the whole story, no more so that America wants the whole and ugly story of our so-called Wild West.
Regardless of all the details, as I cautioned, we must be willing to see that the Covington Catholic students are examples of the power of privilege, the guarantee that privilege insures a white calvary will come.
For those interested in the truth and not mything truth, I offer here at the end some of the best full pictures of the confrontation:
- Native Elder Nathan Phillips reflects on his stare down with Kentucky students and the lingering legacy of white privilege
- The incident was more complex than it seemed, but new footage doesn’t exonerate the MAGA kids.
- How conservative media transformed the Covington Catholic students from pariahs to heroes
- Twitter thread from Lisa Sharon Harper
- Twitter thread from Susan Schorn
- Twitter thread from feminist next door
- Twitter thread from Anne Helen Petersen
- Twitter thread from Marshall Jolly
* This post and blog title have been revised to addressed racially insensitive use of language.