When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Attributed to Mark Twain

Mark Twain died in 1910. The first appearance of a version of this saying is dated 1915, and the words are attributed to Twain. There are a series of citations from 1915 to the present day that each credit Twain, but the wording used in these quotations varies considerably. … Mark Twain’s father died when he was 11 years old. Thus, if Twain did say or write these words he did so while inhabiting a novelistic persona. The saying does not apply to his veridical life. But it might apply to a character he created, or one he was projecting during a speech.

Quote Investigator website

As most are aware by now, it’s hard to nail down just what happened in the curious “standoff” at the Lincoln Memorial during the convergence of the March for Life and the Indigenous People’s March, Jan. 18, on the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. But the image is iconic: A smiling, some say smirking, MAGA-hat-wearing, 16-year-old Nick Sandmann from Covington Catholic Boys High School in Kentucky standing eye-to-eye with Nathan Phillips, a 60-something elder of the Omaha Nation and a longtime activist, beating a Native-American drum and chanting. Neither gave ground. Neither looked particularly upset. The smartphone cameras were rolling.

As many have noted, this was a “Rashomon” or “Rorschach” moment, our interpretation determined by polarized political persuasions (and our tendency to leap to conclusions). Seeing what we want to see. Were Sandmann and his classmates being disrespectful? Was Phillips the aggressor? Was one (or both) the “victim”?

Sandmann could have stepped out of the way. Phillips could have gone around him. His classmates were enjoying the show but didn’t seem out of control, though some of them resorted to the offensive “tomahawk chop” cheer (I find it offensive anyway). And a number of the Covington kids were wearing bright red MAGA caps (identifying them as Trump supporters). Phillips seemed to regard it as a “teachable moment.”

Once the culture warriors on both sides weighed in, however, it was hard to sort out who was “right” and who was “wrong” and what was “real.”

I’m not interested in blaming. I just found the encounter fascinating and kept thinking, “Wouldn’t Joseph Campbell have a field day with this?”

The late, great Campbell (who wrote Hero of a Thousand Faces about the similarities of myths across all cultures) preached that mythology is a living force in our lives, or can be, and I suspect he would have relished this encounter. 

First of all, it was tribal — on both sides — Phillips representing the Omaha tribe, Sandmann representing the “parochial” Catholic school world, in this case all-male and mostly white. It was also Native American vs. European American, the latter being the ones who usurped ownership of the land, including Kentucky, pushing out the original inhabitants. Sandmann, by choosing to wear the MAGA cap, represented the extremely tribal Trump Nation as well. 

It was youth against the old, inexperience vs. experience, virtual archetypes face-to-face, one for the ages (so to speak), the young man standing up to this wisdom figure, part of the process of becoming an adult, a classic generation gap moment. Sandmann didn’t get in Phillips’ way but he give way either. While not necessarily a hostile act, neither was it neutral. And he looked cocky at first, though he looked less confident as the encounter dragged on. He seemed to be thinking, “What did I get myself into?” But he chose to make a statement by standing his ground. Phillips, meanwhile, was making a statement by not avoiding the standoff. He seemed to know exactly what he got himself into. 

Did either side “win” or “lose”? I don’t think it was about winning or losing. Sandmann said later that, in hindsight, he wishes he had stepped aside and avoided all the ensuing attention and notoriety, but the standoff was rich in metaphor, embodying something greater, the tribalism of the culture itself, which hovered voyeuristically through the ubiquitous technology that gives us all eavesdropping privileges.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help noticing Lincoln in the background of the videos, sitting on his memorial throne, the one who managed to re-unify this most un-unifiable of countries, still fractured 150 years after the Civil War, looking down as if thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Even the kid’s surname seemed metaphorical, the sandman being the bringer of sleep, since Americans could fairly be described as a nation of sleepwalkers. Nick Sandmann, however, is now very much awake. The national spotlight has a way of doing that. 

Joseph Campbell wrote eloquently about the young needing to be initiated into adulthood. He lamented the disappearance of structured traditional rituals that aid the psychic transition into maturity. Phillips himself could probably speak to this since, according to his Wikipedia page, he was taken from his mother around the age of 5 and raised by white foster parents. Sandmann and Phillips might have more in common than they realize.

I hope Covington Catholic High School invites Nathan Phillips to speak to the students. I hope this incident has a positive impact on both the school and on Nick Sandmann. It would be interesting to hear from him some years down the line to see if he’s impressed by how much Phillips, in mythological terms his “spiritual father,” has learned (according to the quote attributed to Mark Twain). 

I hope the encounter expands Nick’s world view and doesn’t constrict it further than it already is. I hope he studies the history of this country’s appalling treatment of Native Americans. And I hope he takes off that cap and becomes the kind of person who works to make America, not great again, but much greater than it is now.

That would be the greatest outcome of all.

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