Is seeing believing? Today we are going determine the nature of reality. In America, politically, what you see is what you want to see. It’s a pretty neat trick. Alternate facts reproduce like bunnies in spring time. Today’s crime against world literature tackles why reality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you have seen the video of the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial between high school students, Native American tribal elder Nathan Phillips and the Hebrew Israelites, which occurred at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. This video has it all — something for folks of every political stripe to seize as evidence that their side is correct and the other side is pure evil. The primary high school student shall not be named as he will encounter a passel of troubles for grinning at Phillips. Let’s call the student Archie. Now to explain how perception works.
The best college teacher I ever had was an English professor named Rollin Lasseter. A half century ago, Dr. Lasseter explained the nature of perception to our literature class one bright spring day by holding up a cigar. He asked us to look at the cigar and tell him what it was. The class, still having bright young minds, which had not yet been pounded by the real world, unanimously agreed it was a cigar.
Dr. Lasseter told us we were correct, but that while we perceived it was a cigar, what we really saw was light filtered through our optic nerves which was then converted into electrical impulses, which Mr. Brain then interpreted as a cigar. Dr. Lasseter pointed out, “You really do not have a cigar in your brain, because if you did, it would clog you in some fashion.” I have never forgotten this advice. What you see is subject to interpretation and filtration.
Back to Archie and Phillips. There are two opposed narratives about their meeting, which differ based upon what you think of Donald Trump. As they say, let us teach the controversy. The Beatles once sang: “Let me take you down/ Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields/ Nothing is real/ And nothing to get hung about.”
Version A, short-form video: The video of Phillips and Archie that spread across the internet like a digital flood shows Phillips surrounded by chanting, mocking students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. The students are menacing Phillips, who is playing a drum and singing a prayer song.
Archie stands up close and personal to Phillips with a frozen grin on his face while appearing to block Phillips. Adherents of Version A were outraged by the students’ actions, intimidating a man who had served his country in war. Phillips calmly chants a prayer song while confronted by a crowd who might do him harm at any moment. Phillips is quoted saying, “When I took that drum and hit the first beat ... it was a supplication to God. Look at us, God, look at what is going on here; my America is being torn apart by racism, hatred, bigotry.”
Now let’s look at Version B, long-form video: In Version B, the high school students are shouting cheers to drown out insults from the Hebrew Israelites. Phillips then walks into the crowd of students to A, try to calm things down between the students and the Hebrew Israelites, or B, insert himself into the crowd of students to provoke an incident. Phillips walks up to Archie and refuses to go around him. Archie says, “He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. I did not speak to him, I did not make any hand gestures or other aggressive moves. To be honest, I was startled and confused as to why he had approached me ... I was worried that a situation was getting out of control where adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.”
So, you take your choice. Pick your interpretation of what happened. Archie and his friends were punks trying to intimidate an older Native American activist who was trying to defuse an escalating confrontation between the students and the Hebrew Israelites. Or, Phillips was totally at fault for walking into a crowd of peaceful high school students who were blamelessly waiting for a bus while being harassed by Hebrew Israelites.
It doesn’t matter which perception you choose, as it won’t convince the other side that you are correct. Call each other names on the internet if you like. Like cement hardening under a hot July sun, America continues to calcify into camps that get along as well as the Shiites and the Sunnis. It may be that the result of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and America’s political arteries is not going to work out as well as either side hopes.
What have we learned today? Again, almost nothing. Better luck, next column. However, keep in mind the immortal words of the late, great singer Roger Miller, who advised us: “You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd/ But you can be happy if you’ve a mind to.”