Dignity in the Face of “The Smirk”

We’ve all seen the video by now. An indigenous American, a member of the Omaha tribe and a Vietnam veteran, beating his drum while chanting as he walks forward. A boy in a red hat stepping in front of him, a smirk on his face, to block his way. The crowd gathering, supporting their grinning friend, heckling the drummer and his companions, chanting “build the wall, build the wall,” at a people who were here long before any of their ancestors thought to come to the “new world.”

The story, as all stories are, is more complicated. The boys were heckling a group of four black Americans first, who had been preaching the bible nearby. Words were exchanged, the hostility grew. The man from the Omaha tribe – Nathan Phillips – moved slowly towards the crowd while chanting a healing prayer, hoping to defuse the situation. At first it seemed it might work, as folks settled down and moved out of his way. Then came the boy with the smirk, and the red hats, and the hatred. The rising tide of hatred took over for many long minutes, until the woefully inept chaperones of the young men in question (some of whom might be seen in the video laughing at the antics of their little turd blossom charges) finally told them it was time to board the bus and they moved on.

Make America great again, am I right? You know I am. The America they want is white, run by males, and defiant in the face of all sense of diversity for our great nation and the people who built it. Or the people we destroyed to rule it. I’ve heard a lot from conservatives about the terrible communists and how they murdered millions. We have our own shame for the millions we killed to steal their land, people who we forced into abject and enduring poverty so we could claim that we were the supreme rulers of this world. These young, rich, elitist, religious boys are Kavanaughs in training, learning how to be cruel and nasty to those who are different. I guarantee you more than one of these boys has been to a kegger in recent months and assaulted a girl. That smirk tells you all you need to know about the elitists of the world and their entitled sense of superiority. When the right screams about elitists, remember this video, because these are the real ones, right there in red hats and blue and white hoodies. The right breeds elitists who think they are better than anyone else, whether they are rich or poor. They just want to look down their noses at anyone who is different.

As I searched for more information about the story, because the right wing bot patrol was already out in force trying to swing the narrative to one of “peaceful boys giving a happy school cheer are nearly assaulted by old man,” I came across an article in the American Conservative regarding Trump and his wall. I was struck in particular by this line:

A Pew Research Center study published in 2017 shows that since 1994, both national parties have moved decisively to the left on social questions.

I could only shake my head at this attempt at re-writing a narrative I’ve lived through. It is selectively choosing certain years to present a viewpoint without examining the whole truth, and only looking at one part of what it means to be progressive or conservative. That truth is: the country moved profoundly right in response to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, particularly on issues of finances and corporations, as well as worker and consumer protections. The Democrats around 1992 moved right with them, becoming the neo-liberals of the Clinton era in order to regain the white house and giving up the high ground on protecting Americans from corporate malfeasance. By choosing 1994 as your starting point, and by only focusing on social issues like LGBTQ+ rights, you can effectively re-write the story of what has happened since 1980.

The truth is, we moved hard right under uncle Ronnie and his bullshit propaganda, his diatribes about non-existent welfare queens ripping the system off (the one story that he built this upon was a woman who was caught, arrested, tried and convicted… hardly a person getting away with something). The GOP decided that it was more important to tell us to be “personally responsible” as a reason to undermine social safety net programs like medicaid. At the same time, they told a story of beautiful “free” markets that would guide us to a new prosperity, raising all boats. If only we’d tax them less and regulate them less, we’d be far better off than we were.

If the multiple industry failures and bailouts hadn’t revealed the lie of this truth, the 2008 financial meltdown should have by now. Starting with the Savings and Loans collapse after it was deregulated under Reagan and the American taxpayer had to bail it out, we have watched industry after industry build a foundation of corporate prosperity on shaky footings, preferring quick profits over reliability, customer support, and worker rights. Those profits, which used to go back into worker pay and benefits prior to the late 1970’s, were now being directed at upper management and investors. Instead of raising the boat of the middle class, the new version of our system has been designed to protect the very rich at the expense of real working people and families. We have ridden a dangerous wave of right-wing economic philosophy that has, at least once, nearly destroyed the entire world financial system. And we’ve done precious little to make the structural changes necessary to fix it. Indeed, the tepid work done after the 2008 meltdown to create a consumer finance protection bureau has been repeatedly undermined by conservatives, who prefer to see it destroyed now that things are better again.

On social issues, it’s more of a mixed bag. Since 1994, we have indeed moved left on issues like LGBTQ+ rights. But the GOP hasn’t come along with us willingly, they’ve done so kicking and screaming, and many GOP politicians still harbor deep hatred for anyone not heterosexual. They pass anti-trans bathroom laws, they work at schools with anti-LGBTQ+ policies on the books, they worship at churches that preach against the “gay lifestyle.” They would happily undo the Supreme Court decision that allowed gay marriages if they could. Far from moving left as the article asserts, the GOP has stood it’s ground, and moved more to the RIGHT on social topics. Gun control? Far FAR right, with a sense of “all guns are good guns and we should have no bans on anything and no background checks.” Abortion rights? Ever more to the right. Education? They undermine public schools and the concept of free college at every opportunity (and yes, education is a social issue, not a financial one. . . educating our people should never be done for profits, but because it’s good for our country).

And yes, I’m talking about the GOP. Not conservative voters as a whole, because many of them have moved back towards the center on these issues, but their politicians are not keeping in step with their constituents. For example, on the matter of wanting more stringent background checks on all sales and purchases of guns with no exceptions, the American people support this at roughly 80%, including almost as many Republicans. That’s the moderate position by the way. The extreme left position is to ban all guns. Be aware when they are setting the bar in a way to make it seem as though they are being rational.

No, we haven’t moved left except in a few rare cases. We’ve gone far, far right, undermining worker rights, destroying unions, trying to kill off medicaid and social security, privatizing corporate profits while socializing their failures to save them when they fail, claiming corporations are not to blame when a sector falls apart but making all families personally responsible for any failing they may have. And when the inevitable price of this movement is factories closed, the heartland gutted, more and more people working low wage jobs to get by, educational opportunities growing ever more out of reach of the average American, what do we do?

Why we blame liberals of course, they’re to blame. The conservatives blame the media. The blame atheists. They blame Planned Parenthood. They blame anyone but the people who SHOULD be blamed. This is the price of profit growth at all costs over the growth of our American society. Instead of growing a stable middle class, we’ve moved to the right and promoted growing a wealthy elite who care only about how much money they can make. Supposedly that will make things better for all. The results speak for themselves, and is an utter failure of our society to see what’s truly important.

The lurch we’ve made to the right led to the rise of the Tea Party, and then the alt-right, and now this moment in time, a snapshot of who were are as a society. A man from a people who have lived here since long before we whites dreamed of coming standing before a young man wearing a symbol of new fascism on his head. That smirk on the boys face as his friends surround him and support him, that little smile that says “I’m the one in power here, and you can’t do a thing to stop me. If you touch me at all, if you try to go around me, you’ll be to blame for what happens.” The grin as they mocked him, and chanted about a wall to a man whose people were nearly destroyed by our quest to steal their lands, their way of life, their very dignity. That grin that all marginalized folks have seen on the faces of their tormentors when they are surrounded by them in hatred and tyranny. It was on the faces of those surrounding a black man at a lunch counter in the 1950’s. It was on the faces of those who beat up a gay man and dragged him to death behind their car. It was on the faces of those who screamed hatred at a young black woman as she walked to her high school for the first time. I’ve seen that smile myself, though as a white male I’ve never had to fear as minorities do. But yes, I saw that smile on the face of the bullies who tormented me on playgrounds as a child. It hurts to see it again, today, when rags like the American Conservative are trying to claim we’ve moved too far to the left.

More than anything though, I take away from this the power of Nathan Phillips. I hope that I would be so outwardly calm in the face of such hatred and anger. After all that we’ve ever done to his people and himself, his dignity remains intact. They couldn’t take that away from him. We couldn’t take that away from him and his people. Maybe there’s some hope for us yet if we remember his example.

They have that smirking, punchable smile. But they can never break Mr. Phillips, nor the rest of us.

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