While watching Nick Sandmann—the Covington Catholic High School student whose contemptuous gaze and taunting classmates were captured by dozens of cameras over the weekend—on the Today show, saying that he had not intended to be disrespectful to Native American Elder Nathan Phillips, I was reminded of a piece I read recently about the “credibility economy.”
Speaking about Brett Kavanaugh and the political and cultural power of the all-white, all-male spaces that produce and protect boys and men like him, Elizabeth Schambelan wrote in n+1:
By virtue of his race and gender and the education and upbringing his parents purchased for him, he entered the credibility economy with considerable wealth. And that meant others would grant him credibility, the way having money means you can borrow money.
Sandmann is soundly part of this fraternity. Video after video taken that weekend plainly show a mob of white teenage boys in MAGA hats tomahawk chopping the air around Phillips. The videos show Sandmann smirking, while his peers laugh and yell. But the Today show gave Sandmann, with the backing of a powerful PR firm, a platform to spin. To tell you that you didn’t see those things you saw. “Did you feel like they were stronger?” Today’s Savannah Guthrie asked Sandmann about the small group of Hebrew Israelites who were yelling at the Covington Catholic boys.
“They were a group of adults and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next,” Sandmann replied.
In reference to Phillips, Sandmann said, “I wish we could’ve walked away and avoided the whole thing. But I can’t say that I’m sorry for listening to him and standing there.” Sandmann, in his telling, was the victim. He was frightened, but brave. He was trying to listen and diffuse the situation, not mock an older Native American man or bask in the power of his classmates’ taunts. The very premise that this was an act of racism was impossible, Sandmann explained: His classmates, are not “racist people,” they—like he—come from a school that does not “tolerate racism.”
As Deadspin’s Laura Wagner wrote earlier this week, nearly predicting the Today show segment, the interview was done in the pursuit of some ideal of balance, one that undermines any need for truth.
Much like similarly sympathetic—and credulous—coverage of Kavanaugh, the segment granted Sandmann and his peers a wealth of credibility that their whiteness and class status secures them. It’s a necessary practice, the argument goes, because the alternative is unacceptable: “ruining” the life of one of our boys. As David French put it in the National Review, when he sees “activists” trying to “destroy” Covington boys, he thinks: “That could be my son.” He argues that it’s the same feeling conservatives get when they saw Kavanaugh and thought: “That could be me.”
“Credibility should rest on reason, on a person’s track record of truthfulness, on the presence or absence of corroboration,” Schambelan wrote in her essay. “But like any other currency, it ultimately rests on a consensus about value, about what matters.
The country’s treatment of Kavanaugh and Sandmann reveal the conclusion of that calculus. We have seen it before, we will see it again. Familiarity doesn’t dilute the poison.