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Megan McArdle
Okay guys, new year, new tweet storms. It's time to talk Covington Catholic. Pull up a chair. I think we're going to be here a while.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
The overwhelming majority of the comments on this column fell into the category of litigating what happened on the Mall last Friday. So okay, let's litigate this.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
First let's get the timeline on the ground. A video goes viral seeming to show a group of kids surrounding a lone Native American activist who is banging a drum. Kids are wearing MAGA hats, screaming, and generally looking uncomfortably like a lynch mob working itself up.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
My paper, the Washington Post, locates the activist. He describes being taunted by March for Life People as another protest, the Indigenous Peoples' March, is breaking up. Chants of "Build the Wall" and other unpleasantness. He decides to remove himself to the Lincoln Memorial
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Nathan Phillips, the activist, is on his way to the memorial when Nick Sandmann, aka The Smirker, blocks his way. The kids have swarmed around him, cutting off retreat. They're at an impasse. Phillips starts beating his drum and praying, thinking of his late wife.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Then a longer video surfaces, proving pretty incontrovertibly that almost none of this happened.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Were there shouts of "Build the Wall" from March for Lifers? Could be. Was he praying and thinking of his wife? Quite possibly. But he did not get cut off by the group while walking up the steps. He marched straight into the group, past a clear and open path up the steps.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
The group had been holding what looks like an impromptu pep rally. They will later explain that they were doing school cheers because *they* were being harassed by the Black Israelites, a black nationalist religious group who was calling them some rather vilel names.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
After Phillips arrives, they continue what they had been doing--shouting and jumping up and down--but now in time to the drum. There may be some tomahawk chopping and the kind of fake war songs people do at Kansas City Chiefs games.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
I say "May" because we're not talking about a steadycam run by a professional cinematographer accompanied by an IATSE boom mike operator. The audio is terrible. The cameras are shaky, and the angles are weird. The boys were waving their arms long before Phillips arrived.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
I cannot distinguish the sounds the boys were making from the actual Native American chants being made by the group of Native American activists walking with Phillips.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
I also cannot be sure I'm looking at tomahawk chops rather than what the boys of Covington Catholic lightheartedly imagine to be dance moves, which were being performed long before Phillips waded in. I think I see at least one chop. But not 100% certain.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Phillips focuses on Sandmann; Sandmann doesn't give way. It's not clear to me that Phillips was trying to get him to give way; there's no audio of anyone doing the obvious if they were trying to get through: saying "Excuse me".
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Sandmann alternates between smiling and being impassive. He also bites his lip a couple of times, and looks down.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
This is obviously not even close to what Phillips said happened, and also, very hard to confuse with Phillips account; the discrepancies are not minor, and it's hard to see how they happened.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Phillips now gives another interview to the Detroit Free Press in which he tells a very different story. Now he was trying to defuse the escalating confrontation between the Black Israelites and the boys.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
He does not explain why he thought it would have a calming effect to bang a drum in the faces of the boys. This does not seem to be a technique generally recognized by experts in conflict resolution.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
So first, obvious thing: Any piece of information that comes from Phillips should be utterly discounted. Journalists do not rely on sources who tell two different versions of major events in quick succession, after video has disproven the first account. For obvious reasons.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
I can't say whether he was lying, as Kyle Smith has alleged, or whether he was simply confused. It doesn't matter. He's totally unreliable.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
So what do we see if we look at the longer context? We see a group of boys who are doing cheers, and an older man who strides into their group to bang a drum. We see boys who are smiling and cheering. They're not spewing racist insults.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
They're just standing on the steps. Eventually they leave. According to Sandmann, who will later hire a PR firm and release a statement, they left because the bus they'd been told to wait for on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial arrived.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Of course, that's not all some people see. Some people see The Smirk.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
So let's talk about the many, many people who claim, from a short, badly filmed video that a kid is smirking rather than, as he says, nervously smiling because he has no idea what's going on and is trying to stay unconfrontational.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
I believe they believe they "can tell". This is, unfortunately, not true.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
People are just not that good at reading other people, particularly out of context, particularly people they don't know. If they were, then society would look very different, because you could always spot liars and you'd never have to wonder about someone else's motives.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Can we read someone's body language and facial expression with better-than-chance accuracy? Yes. Is it anywhere near 100% accurate. No. Not even close to that. And the most reliable emotion to read is "amusement", not "superciliousness".
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
That's because most facial expressions are to some extent culturally constructed, even though we learn them so early we think they're innate reflections of our inner emotional state. They're not. And may expressions mirror quite different emotional states.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
Try putting on your "Joyous surprise" face. Now try putting on your "horrified fear" face. You'll probably find they're quite similar: wide open mouth, wide eyes, eyebrows raised, sharp intake of breath.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
You get my point; I won't belabor it. We rely on social context, cultural context, and our knowledge of the person to read expressions. The more distant you are on these axes from a person, the less accurate your read.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
For example, lots of people smile funny for one reason or another--they have bad teeth (or used to), they have funny facial anatomy, neck problems, etc. If they're a stranger to you, you don't know. Period.
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Megan McArdle Jan 23
Replying to @asymmetricinfo
So if you admit there's at least a possibility that you cannot accurately detect the difference between a "smirk" and a "nervous smile" in someone you have never met, what are you left with? You know what you're left with. The hats.
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