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If There's One Thing I Despise, It's a Mob

Or: "Driving Through The Caution Lights."

In 1932 my grandfather was the judge in a case where the lynching of the defendants was a very real possibility. This is what he said to the court:

Now, gentlemen, this is for the audience, and I want it to be known that these prisoners are under the protection of this court. The Sheriff and his deputies, and members of the National Guards, are under the direction and authority of this court. This court intends to protect these prisoners and any other persons engaged in this trial. Any man or group of men that attempts to take charge outside of the law are not only disobedient to the law but are citizens unworthy of the protection of the State of Alabama, and unworthy of the citizenship which they enjoy. I say this much, that the man who would engage in anything that would cause the death of any of these prisoners is not only a murderer, but a cowardly murderer, and a man whom we should look down upon with all the contempt in our being; and I am going to say further that the soldiers here and the Sheriffs here are expected to defend with their lives these prisoners and if they must do it, listen gentlemen, you have the authority of this court, and this court is speaking with authority, the man who attempts it may expect that his own life be forfeited or the guards that guard them must forfeit their lives. If I were in command, and I will be there if I know it, I will not hesitate to give the order to protect with their lives these prisoners against any such attempt.

I am speaking with feeling and I know it because I am feeling it. I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit and that spirit that would charge the guilt or innocence of any being without knowing of their guilt or innocence. Your very civilization depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner. I am here listening to this case trying to sift the truth or not the truth of it and I am going to strengthen that guard if necessary and I am going to let everyone know that any attempt, and I believe these boys understand, that you have got to kill them before you get these prisoners. That is understood and they have told me they would, and they will do it. Those are the instructions and orders given to the guards.

I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. I could never have been a lawyer, but I did inherit enough of my grandfather's spirit to put me in absolute agreement, intellectual and emotional, with him. I am speaking with feeling and I know it.

That was my initial reaction to the Covington Boys vs. Progressive Opinion affair, though not my initial reaction to the incident that sparked the conflict. In that reaction I'm happy to say that I passed the Covington Catholic test, as described in The Atlantic by Julie Zimmerman. That is, when I first read of the incident I thought Hmm, that looks bad, but there's probably more to the story. And I waited to see what facts would emerge when the dust settled. One lesson that we all ought to have learned in recent years is that sensational stories in the media often prove to be far less sensational when more light is shed on them.

Of course there was a great deal more to the story, so much so that the original "narrative" was shown to be largely false. I know there are still holdouts for that view, but I don't think it's tenable. As an assessment of the facts these two pieces speak for me:

Andrew Sullivan, in New York magazine: "The Abyss of Hate vs. Hate." 

Caitlin Flanagan, in The Atlantic: "The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story." 

Note that neither of these is a conservative publication, and neither of the writers is a Trump supporter; quite the contrary. I'm not sure what Sullivan's views in general are these days, but I don't think he can be described as a conservative. I had pretty much given up on him a while back and only saw this piece because someone linked to it. Flanagan is, as far as I can tell, more or less a conventional liberal, but clear-eyed and not an ideologue. She's one of the few writers currently at The Atlantic whom I'll take time to read.

For me this was something of a Young Goodman Brown moment. Brown is the protagonist of the Hawthorne short story which bears his name. In brief, it describes the crisis of a young Massachusetts Puritan man who discovers that all the respectable people of his town are participants in a rite of devil-worship held at night deep in the woods. Nothing ever looks the same to him afterwards. (You can read the story here.)

The initial reaction to the Covington story among journalists, various celebrities, and the left in general was the work of a mob in every respect except that of physical violence, and that was vehemently threatened (which put me in mind of Yeats's line "had they but courage equal to desire"). It disgusted me. On a visceral level I was sickened by the mindlessness of it, by the way a mob joyfully discards all constraints on its ugly passion. A mob is an entity in itself, something bigger, more stupid, and more wicked than the individuals who constitute it. 

But internet mob actions happen fairly often. What made this one so disturbing to me was similar to what disturbed Goodman Brown: not that there were devil worshipers in the woods, but that the respectable people were among them, as excited and happy to be there as any witch. Usually these mobs are made up of anonymous people with no power apart from whatever they can collectively exercise as a mob. But the mob attacking the Covington boys was led by institutions and people who have a great deal of cultural influence: The New York Times; The Washington Post. CNN. Pundits and entertainers. One of the first of these I saw, after the initial story appeared, was from Michael Green, one of the screenwriters for Blade Runner 2049. Green said (on Twitter, naturally) of the now-famous boy in the MAGA hat :

A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.

My interest in seeing BR 2049 again died a quick death when I saw that.

There were worse, of course, including the Beauty and the Beast co-producer who thought the boys should be fed head-first into a wood-chipper. Some of the attackers deleted and apologized for some of their most offensive and violent comments.  The press backtracked to a degree, but at least from what I saw most went no further than to admit that the situation was more complex than they had initially said.

I don't know whether any of them have ever admitted that their story was just plain false in every important respect. At worst the boys were guilty of bad manners and "disrespect" (an odd complaint to make in 21st century America)--unless you believe that a MAGA hat is only and always a symbol of white supremacy, and anyone wearing it a white supremacist, morally equivalent to a Klan member. Or that the silly "tomahawk chop" gesture, used by fans of every sports team with an Indian name, is the moral equivalent of burning a cross. It's one thing to say that the hat and the gesture are offensive and insensitive, combative where reconciliation is needed. I would largely agree. But it's quite another to say that they are threats of violence, even a species of violence, and only used by racist monsters. I know there are people who believe these things, just as there are people who believe Obama is a secret Muslim. Reason is powerless in such cases. 

Part of the secret power of a mob is a truth of human nature that we would all prefer not to see: it feels good to hate. Really good. There's a kind of ecstasy in surrendering to it. There is a lot of hate in our politics now. There is plenty of it on the right, but there is at least as much on the left. And many or most of those on the left are unable to see it, even when, in cases like this, it is on striking public display.

To a degree this is to be expected as the normal human tendency to be blind to one's own faults while having a keen eye for those of others. But part of it is that progressives have defined themselves particularly and explicitly as we who do not hate, we who are not those who hate. By definition, then, hate is something that other people, their enemies, do. It's the very essence of their opposition to the right, which they see precisely as the party of hate. Therefore whatever indignation they feel and express is not hate. If you see something in them that you might be inclined to call hate or malice, it is their righteous anger. It is an aspect of their virtue, so of course they aren't ashamed of it.

Empathy, openness, and fairness are also among the qualities on which the left prides itself, and ones which were nowhere to be seen in this affair. How was it that thousands, at least, of presumably sane people were able to focus so much hatred on one teenage boy, caught in a strange situation which he did not create, with a look on his face which they deemed arrogant, and moreover symbolic of the world's greatest evils? (Of personal grievances as well--some commentators were enraged because the picture reminded them of someone they hated in high school. If I felt that way about someone I would not expect anyone else to take it seriously.) In matters like this the left is absolutely unwilling and/or unable to consider the possibility that legitimate disagreement can exist, that anyone can see the matter other than they do and not be an evil person. In this view it's simply not possible that anyone could have reasons for supporting Trump that are not evil or at the very least hopelessly and culpably stupid, and in any case beyond respect, dialog, or simple courtesy. (I'm speaking generally; there are individual exceptions.)

All this has been under way for a long time, but it's reached a dangerous pitch now. There are a couple of remarks that I see frequently on conservative web sites: "This is how we got Trump" and "This will not end well." Both are applicable to this situation.

Flanagan and Sullivan are worth quoting in confirmation of those two observations. Flanagan, on how we got Trump, and may get him again: 

I am prompted to issue my own ethics reminders for The New York Times. Here they are: You were partly responsible for the election of Trump because you are the most influential newspaper in the country, and you are not fair or impartial. Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will casually harm them. Two years ago, they fought back against you, and they won. If Trump wins again, you will once again have played a small but important role in that victory.

Sullivan, on the bad end toward which we seem headed:

A campaign slogan for a candidate who won the votes of 46 percent of the country in 2016 is to be seen as indistinguishable from the Confederate flag. This is not the language of politics. It is a language of civil war.

I can understand this impulse emotionally as a response to Trump’s hatefulness. But I fear it morally or politically. It’s a vortex that can lead to nothing but the raw imposition of power by one tribe over another....

This is the abyss of hate versus hate, tribe versus tribe. This is a moment when we can look at ourselves in the mirror of social media and see what we have become. Liberal democracy is being dismantled before our eyes — by all of us. This process is greater than one president. It is bottom-up as well as top-down. Tyranny, as Damon Linker reminded us this week, is not just political but psychological, and the tyrannical impulse, ratcheted up by social media, is in all of us. It infects the soul of the entire body politic. It destroys good people. It slowly strangles liberal democracy. This is the ongoing extinction level event.

And a commenter at Rod Dreher's blog offered this warning: 

We are driving through the caution lights because we trust our civilization, our safety, our wealth, our technology, to be secure against self-destruction. It’s never safe to ignore the caution lights. C. S. Lewis wrote that “pain is God’s megaphone.” We would be fools to ignore the signals.

One lesson that a mob teaches us is that the restraints of civilization can be more easily broken and discarded than we like to think. And this recent incident teaches us, if we were so naive as not to know it already, that education (or "education") is no guarantee of resistance to the impulse.

I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. I am speaking with feeling, and I know it.


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It is all regrettable, that's for sure. But you conservatives should be happy because the liberals spend as much time attacking each other as they do people on the right. Example: the silly blackface escapades going on in Virginia right now.

My only issue with those kids isn't even really with them, it is with the adults responsible for them. While I don't think the MAGA hats = KKK hoods (and nor do I think the women in white at the state of the union resemble KKK cloaks), that hat is undeniably a political statement.

That said, it wasn't a great idea to have a group of teens walking around making a political statement when they should be representing their school. Catholics marching in a Pro-Life rally is not a political statement, but a statement of our faith. They should have been wearing hats of their school, or something like that. New England Patriots hats would have looked really good on them.

I wonder what your grandfather would think of the current state of affairs on the internet? Even before we reached this level of toxicity with regard to left/right politics it was still atrocious the things people would say to and about others under the guise of web anonymity.

I have wondered if perhaps the reason they wore those hats is that there is a connection in their minds between making America great again, and ending abortion.

The thing about MAGA, is that somebody, I don't know who, has decided that making America great again means oppressing people of color, and I don't think that that is what Trump means by it, and, while there are certainly some white supremacists who see it that way, there are certainly many, many others who do not.


I was watching a PBS documentary thing several months ago ... it may have been the one on "The 1960s". I didn't know this, but apparently when Ronald Reagan first appeared on the scene he used the "Make America Great Again" saying. An interviewer was talking to an older black man about that, and he said, "Whenever we hear that, we know what that means!" It seems that black Americans have always understood/felt that this was aimed at them in a roundabout way, America being not great having something to do with them. Trump did follow our only African American president as well.

I was happy to see that the Bishop did apologize publicly, and said that he said, “We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely, and we take full responsibility for it.”

The bishop's premature condemnation is the aspect of the whole affair that bothered me most, so I am glad he did the right thing.

Changing topics . . .

I have been thinking for a while that the attempts to impeach Trump are really going to backfire if they are successful. If he is just impeached, it will just stir up his supporters, and if they manage to get rid of him, then the Republicans will have candidate that they can get behind, while the Democrats look like they are set for the sort of primary season that the Republicans had last year.

The Sullivan article is good. I haven't read the other one.

The post is good, too.


I have also wanted to say somewhere that it is rather ironic that Phillips was talking about them wanting to build a wall, and saying, "This is indigenous land; we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did...," when his friend was telling the boys behind Sandmann to go back to Europe.


I agree, Janet. I want him voted out, not impeached. Any impeachment of a president would be terrible for the country.

As Caitlin Flanagan says, this kind of thing gets votes for Trump. I didn't support him and in fact was appalled by him, but so much of the opposition to him is so crazed that I find myself sympathizing with him. I certainly would have to vote for him if I lived in a swing state and his opponent was someone like Kamala Harris. I don't see any end to this polarization.

As I saw more and more of what went on in this incident I came to the conclusion that Nathan Phillips was actually the villain in this piece. Either he was lying or delusional in some of the things he said that fed the mob's rage.

I was glad to hear the bishop apologize, too. But I wonder if it was because of the lawsuit threat.

"It seems that black Americans have always understood/felt that this was aimed at them in a roundabout way"

Yes, and I can certainly understand why they would at least be skeptical and suspicious. But the fact that they took it that way doesn't mean it's actually meant that way by the people who say it.

Anyone who really, truly believes that the MAGA hat is the equivalent of the KKK hood has just lost touch with reality. I don't know what you can say in response besides "snap out of it!"

"If you listen to fools, the mob rules!" -- Black Sabbath

[insert devil-horn metal gesture]

By the way, re the Wicked Hats and the March for Life: I agree the hats should definitely have not been worn during the march. But I haven't seen any definite statement that these boys were wearing them during the march, and there was one report (can't remember where now) that said that Sandmann at least had bought his from a street vendor while sightseeing after the march itself.

Just casually looking at photos from the march, I don't see many red hats, and those that are red don't really look like MAGA hats. This series for instance:

Oh, another interesting tidbit: if you saw pictures of Sandmann apart from the famous ones, he looks like a much smaller person than he appears in the Incident. According to one video he's standing on a step higher than Phillips, which makes it look like they're the same height. The effect would have been quite different if Phillips had been looking down at him.

He definitely looks very different without the cap. I am not sure I would have recognized him.


I've never gotten past Trump's announcement of his presidential run, when he told us about all those rapists coming in from Mexico. Is it fair of me to assume that anyone sporting a MAGA cap has no problem with that statement?

I was wrong about the Covington kids and I have a reason. I was in DC, on the March. When I got to where the State buildings are (lets face it, I couldn't identify them, but important looking State buildings), there was a group of school boys in MAGA hats. They looked like they were on the march but not of it. They were surly looking and Im not imagining it. They looked 'out for a good time' which is not how anyone else on the life march looked. Maybe at best would be 'out for a good time' and at worst 'looking for trouble.' So when I got back to the MidWest and read that some highschool boys in MAGA hats had been involved in an incident, it didn't surprise me. I thought it would be them. There was a 'third video' in which a group of boys in these hats mocked a woman and called her a whore. Don't know if you were turned off it all by the time that video came out. Obviously, people got it wrong about the group who got involved with the 'native American veteran' and the Nation of Israel people. But there was in fact a nasty element in MAGA hats on the life march on that day. I saw them.

My guess would be that these kids that I saw were told by their Catholic school that they could sign up for a day off school in DC on the life march. They picked up the first part of the sentence, about the day off school in DC. They were not especially interested in the second half.

That's entirely possible. Let me keep to my point, which is not to defend every teenager wearing a MAGA hat, which I said in the post is offensive to many people.

My point is that a false story was used to whip up a nationwide frenzy of mob hatred against these specific boys and among them specifically Nick Sandmann. We have no evidence that Sandmann did anything wrong, or that any of those specific boys did anything that went much beyond bad manners. It was the lynch mob mentality in action, straight up.

I'm not using "lynch mob" idly. This is the crowd psychology phenomenon that has taken many lives in the past and which we are supposed to be beyond, now that we're all modern and stuff. Well, we obviously aren't.

I did see that "whore" bit, though it wasn't clear to me that the boys who did it were part of the Covington group. At any rate that was not a part of the original media storm.

Marianne: "Is it fair of me to assume that anyone sporting a MAGA cap has no problem with that statement?"

No, I don't think it's fair. I don't think most people deal with politicians' rhetoric in the way you suggest, and especially not Trump's. Neither Trump nor most of his supporters are much into precise language. What people absorbed from Trump's speeches was not any specific statement but that he wants to stop illegal immigration and that he cares about protecting citizens from the criminals who do, after all, sometimes come into the country illegally along with others. So yeah, it's fair to assume that anyone sporting a MAGA hat is hostile to illegal immigration, but not that they have evaluated and agree with everything that comes out of his mouth. In the case of high school students chances are excellent that the kids wearing the evil hats were not even aware of that specific statement.

Amendment: I don't think it's *entirely* fair. I don't think it's entirely unfair, either. I mean, there's no getting around the fact that Trump appeals to people's fears and hostilities.

Of course you are right, Mac, that a weird intensity of hatred was suddenly firected at that boy. People who should be responsible adults were saying horrifying things. A professor and widely popular author said the kid had a punchable face.

Speaking of mob craziness, apparently a BBC cameraman was attacked at the tRump rally in El Paso. The press should just stop covering these rallies.

I know I'm something of an alarmist, but I think people are calling up forces that they don't understand and can't control. The journalists and entertainers and semi-intellectuals who say these things live in a world of words and images and play-acting and don't really think their words could have physical consequences. They themselves have no real intention of following through on their threats. But much of the rest of the world doesn't see it that way. I've seen a number of comments and "memes" from the right with the basic theme "They actually want to kill us. No wonder they want to take away our guns. No way." More votes for Trump is one of the more benign effects.

The guy who said the boy is punchable is a widely respected author. I've heard him on the Sierra Club

Speaking from the left I believe we remain rather alarmed also, Mac. Some of the people that attend his rallies are crazy, many of them would have no problem being violent against immigrants, LGBTQ people, blacks, etc. essentially those that are already marginalized in our society. I know you don't like the word "racist", but if tRump is not one he at least gets a kick out of acting the part. So whatever the right might feel, white kids of privilege being bad-mouthed seems like not a very big deal in comparison.

C. S. Lewis said that when he was young, adults were always telling him to wipe that look off his face, but he couldn't do it since he didn't know what they were talking about. I've thought about that a lot since the event. If course Lewis had that look all his life, but people don't usually say that to adults. ;-)

That mob mentality is pretty much the Zeitgeist, but I am not sure I have thought about it in those terms. It is so much easier to join an online mob, and the fact that you can't see what's really going on except at second or tenth hand makes it so much less likely that you will think straight.


I was pretty much exempt from the test since the for item I saw was your Facebook post, but I am pretty sure I would have been skeptical anyway, since I always am.


Stu, Could you tell me specifically some racist things he says. I admit I don't hear much news, but I haven't heard it.


Grumpy, re Aslan and his tweets: I know Twitter doesn't have to be used in a bad way, but there certainly seems to be something about it that tends to bring out the worst in people. That's true in online venues across the board, but seems to be even more true on Twitter.

Stu, I'm afraid you're missing my main point. I'm not sure I can explain it any better than I have. But it's not about individual acts of aggression. A mob is a very different thing.

I also think the "well it doesn't really matter if [a certain type of person] suffers" is a bad road to start down. They weren't just being "bad-mouthed." The call of the mob was for them to be destroyed, if not physically then economically and socially.

My problem with the word "racism" by the way is its misuse. And overuse.

Janet, re "wipe that look off your face": a sort of amusing sidelight to this is that "having a bad attitude" used to be something that people on the cultural left tended to be sort of proud of. It was a sign of resistance to The Establishment. So it's funny seeing them having public fits about basically the same thing on the part of this kid.

I am pretty much of the opinion that any 16 year old us likely to have that kind of face on at any given moment and it may or may not mean what we think it means.


Janet, the most egregious example was following Charlottesville and his inability to tell the difference between marching white supremacist types, and the girl that ended up dying who was protesting them. He has incessantly attacked black players in the NFL for kneeling, claiming that this was an insult to our troops, and then causing a backlash where his base also is upset at them. He calls Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas", poking fun at her NA heritage. He would like to stop immigration from black and hispanic countries, but would like people from Norway. Why they would come, I don't know.

Mac, sorry to sound like such a liberal, but no I don't really feel sorry for the kid or for Brett Kavanaugh's terrible suffering. It is laughable. Those kids were there and wearing those hats, I don't think anyone was injured so they should consider themselves lucky. The entire thing was so blown out of all proportion. Yes, the NA guy was a real jerk also and a worse one than them.

It kind of reminds me of Chrissie Hynde being badmouthed when she said her sexual assault was partly her own fault. If you show up someplace and get involved with idiots, in a way you deserve what you get. Guilt by association, or actively being involved or around bad people.

All I'm trying to say with my mumbo jumbo is that the LEFT are not the only ones at fault. The RIGHT is very much at fault also a lot of the time.

I'm sorry but I think you really are missing my essential point. Also I think inaccurately describing what happened with the MAGA kids.

I'm certainly not saying that the right is not at fault in many situations. On a fundamental level my point is not about right and left per se, except that the phenomenon I described happened on the left. It would be every bit as alarming if it were on the right.

I can't believe I need to point out the scary implications of your "guilt by association", "around bad people" remark.

Your examples of Trump's racism illustrate my point about that word to some extent. I don't think all of those merit the term and in fact tend to devalue it.

If tRump isn't a racist then no one is. We might as well just retire that word, along with the "N" word and others we don't want to deal with. He is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, and seems intent on actively making marginalized people feel moreso.

Guilt by association is unfortunately a constant in life, and a good lesson to learn while you are a teen-ager. There are most likely many people in our jails there because of it, and not having proper legal representation.

There are two Americas (if not more), the one you and I enjoy, and the other that less fortunate people deal with every day, and made harder by the president. That's why I could care less about Sandmann. He is pretty much me, I was also once an annoying privileged white kid.

So what is your essential point, inaccurate reporting and idiots online jumping to persecute people wrongly? If so, I agree with that point, but I don't find it to be what upsets me very much. We are already told that the news is "fake", so therefore you can't believe what you read unless you feel some sort of "relationship" so to speak with who is reporting it. And then you are taking your chances still.

I just looked up the definition of "racist", tRump is one. Comments about "s*&^hole" countries in Africa compared to people in Norway we would like as immigrants. This shows racism. The Obama Muslim/Birther incident. The current border fiasco with Mexico. Seems like problems could come from the north too, but no talk of a wall between US and Canada. What is different about the Canadians? Oh, they're white!

That's the difference you see?!? I could make a strong argument that *that's* the racist view.

I can't see this conversation going anywhere so I'm going to back out now.

I think I need to re-read Ulysses...


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