Having mistakenly thought that he had killed his rival during a fight over a girl, 16-year old Simon Kenton headed west from Virginia into Kentucky. Before he turned 20 Kenton had established himself as a first-rate ranger and Indian fighter, and he had become a frontier icon by the time he died in 1836 at age 81. Kenton rescued Daniel Boone from being tomahawked at the Siege of Boonesborough, ran a series of Shawnee gauntlets at Chillicothe, and took a lead role in the long war against the legendary Tecumseh. Little wonder, then, that a northern Kentucky county along the Ohio River he so diligently explored should today bear Kenton’s name.
It is likewise fitting that Kenton County is where we find Covington Catholic High, an institution associated with a very different sort of protagonist, one whose fame has now been spread far and wide throughout the postmodern wilderness. Last January a short YouTube clip depicting Nicholas Sandmann wearing a “Make America Great Again” ball cap while smiling at Indian activist Nathan Phillips went viral. The narrative accompanying the clip was that Sandmann and his Covington Catholic classmates had as an encore to the March for Life which they had been attending accosted and harassed Phillips. Phillips did his best to stir the pot, characterizing the students as racist “beasts” who had also threatened a group of black men nearby. Celebrities, journalists, and untold other social justice jihadists swallowed Phillips’s story without question, and directed at Sandmann—and his family, friends, and school—a barrage of vulgar insults, along with threats of violence.
But additional videos told a very different tale. The African-Americans whom Phillips had supposedly sought to protect from the Covington lynch mob were in fact affiliated with a bizarre black power cult, and had treated the Covington students to obscene harassment. Meanwhile, Phillips and his fellow Indian activists were revealed to be ethnonationalists of the more obnoxious sort, with one especially unfriendly Indian telling the Catholic boys to “go back to Europe.” As if the fates sought to rub salt in the wound, the oft-repeated claim that Phillips was a Vietnam veteran also proved false. Many of those who had attacked the boys admitted to being in the wrong, although some still felt obliged to insinuate that anybody who wears MAGA gear in public has it coming.
Rather than complain about biased leftist institutions like Hollywood, CNN, and National Review, it would be more positive to emphasize the good example the Covington students have provided for youth throughout Flyover Country. Indeed, while the discomfort to the Covington students is regrettable, from a certain standpoint the left itself has done America a favor here by putting a spotlight upon Sandmann and his friends. Unlike Alt-Right activists, the Covington students were unmistakably motivated by Christian faith, and so never indulged in freakish poses which would alienate decent, ordinary people; unlike conservative establishmentarians they refused to cower and submissively slink off into a corner, even when confronted directly by the sacred power of a “person of color.” It is earnestly to be hoped that the other young men throughout America who find themselves alienated from the liberal status quo are taking notes.
As for Archbishop Kurtz and Robert George and the various public figures who made fools of themselves by rushing to condemn the students, if they really want to learn something, the first thing to admit is that morally serious people think in terms of justice and charity—not “battling racism,” a pharisaical cause which has for some time now helped rationalize both unconstitutional tyranny and the most ugly viciousness. In fact, to what could the weaponized weasel-word racism refer if not to the assumption that some racial and ethnic groups deserve no consideration whatsoever, even as others are entirely above criticism? From there, it should be obvious that few expressions could be more stupidly racist than “Native American,” excluding as it does people whose ancestors have for generations poured their blood, tears, and sweat into America. Equally obvious is the fact that the most spitefully racist people alive are precisely those who cry the loudest about “white supremacy”—i.e., the preservation and fostering of European civilization in countries that Europeans founded.
“There is no effective struggle against racism,” man of the left Pierre-André Taguieff concedes,
once one creates a false image of it, for then antiracism becomes a mirror image of the racist myth. To treat in a racist way those whom one is accusing of racist conduct is part and parcel of current antiracism, and one of its shortcomings. Above all, to fictionalize “the Other,” even if he be racist, is to miss who “the Other” really is, never coming to know him.
Just as it would be foolish and unjust to say that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, it is likewise foolish and unjust to tolerate—much less embrace—the petty Marxist fable of a great-souled aboriginal proletariat resisting evil white oppressors. To be sure, the Indian was often “grave and calm and loved ceremony and ritual,” as well as “deeply religious” and “respectful of many time-sanctioned customs and taboos,” as Kentucky historian Harry Caudill observed, even as in many places the white settler “was, more often than not, loudmouthed, profane, vulgar and short-tempered.” Yet even if he deemed the settler to be in some respects “less civilized than his red foe,” Caudill also recognized that “it is unlikely that history will ever again record the appearance of a man who, as a type, will possess the hardihood, the sturdy self-reliance and the fierce independence of the American frontiersman.” Nor was Caudill so deluded as to assume that every last Indian was a quaint and magnanimous medicine man straight from central casting, ready to share his secrets of therapeutic herbs and sustainable living. Some were like those described in Caudill’s disturbing chronicle Dark Hills to Westward: The Saga of Jenny Wiley—hate-filled savages, who foreshadowed the abortion movement by scalping a newborn baby before its mother’s eyes.
Others were cannibals, like the Ojibways, who hope to gain the white man’s strength by eating the hero of Kentucky novelist Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s The Great Meadow. They fail, and the undaunted Berk Jarvis’s escape from them offers a pattern we would do well to study. “You will not put me in your kettle, you brown son-of-the-devil,” Jarvis tells the Ojibways. “I belong,” he adds defiantly, “to the Long Knives. Iffen you never heard it said what kind they are, you better go find out.” His refusal to be intimidated is based not upon bravado, but experience. “The Shawnees couldn’t put me in their pot, and the Shawnees are better men.” When Berk’s resolve is juxtaposed with the lines of another, more learned character, who reflects upon the passage through the Cumberland Gap by quoting Virgil—arma virumque cano—there can be little doubt that Roberts saw in the frontier an analogy to the terrible sacrifice and trouble which went into the founding of Rome.
As heroes go, Sandmann cannot be set beside Simon Kenton or Berk Jarvis, much less Aeneas. Laudable though it is, keeping cool and smiling while some feeble-minded lunatic bangs a drum under one’s nose is hardly to be compared with dodging arrows and tomahawks, outwitting a mob of man-eaters, or shepherding a people through the ruin of a destroyed culture. No, America hasn’t been made great again overnight. But it must be said that the Covington students point us in the right direction.
Jerry D. Salyer writes from Louisville, Kentucky.