Nathan Phillips Teaches Us Bravery In The Face Of Hate

This week we all saw the sorry spectacle of a group of MAGAt teen bullies surrounding a Native American elder as he was doing a ritual chant at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington DC. The kids, decked out their red hats of hate, were surrounding and harassing the man, and the video is a shocking and disturbing look at the worst that is happening to our society today.

It’s worth noting that the story remains in flux, and as I am writing this there is a longer video that shows a group of Black Israelites may have actually riled everybody up in advance. As a New Yorker I am very familiar with how Black Israelites – a religion whose more public, fringe members tend to be anti-Semitic black supremacists – will yell offensive stuff at people as they walk by; this doesn’t let the MAGAts off the hook by any means, but I do think it’s worth noting that the situation was complex and fluid and the result of the collision of a number of forms of hate, in the middle of which Nathan Phillips found himself trying to de-escalate things.

But I’m less interested in talking about what happened before the start of the video we’ve all seen on our feeds non-stop these past few days and more interested in how we reacted to it. This, I think, is where the really instructive stuff happens. After all, we cannot control how other people behave, as much as we wish we could (we’ve all had that thought, “If I ruled the world for just a day things would be much better!”). We can only control how we react to things – or rather how we respond to them. In turn how we respond has a ripple effect that plays out across our social networks, through our families, through the people we encounter every day.

So what does our reaction to this video tell us? From what I figure, there were two legitimate reactions to the video, and neither of them was “These are just kids” or “Didn’t you ever do anything stupid growing up?”*. The two legitimate reactions were:

to get really super mad/upset/sickened/horrified by these kids

Or

to notice the dignity and strength of Nathan Phillps.

Which reaction did you have? I had reaction #1 and then I realized how that made me feel: tight, wound up, upset. I was grinding my teeth and I felt hopeless. The look on that kid’s face brought me back to childhood bullying, to the day that a bunch of older kids held down me and a friend and poured Nair down our pants, looking to humiliate us by removing whatever pubescent peach-fuzz we had down there. The cold cruelty in his eyes – I had seen that time and again. I know that, later in life, when I was at my lowest as an alcoholic and asshole, other people had seen that cold cruelty in my eyes.

But I didn’t like that reaction. I didn’t like how I felt, and I realized that my immediate fantasies of hurting these kids in some way – getting them expelled! Ruining their lives! Sending them into Inglewood with that sign Bruce Willis wore in Die Hard With A Vengeance! – were not positive for me. They were negative fixations, and they were making me feel like shit. Setting aside all other ethical concerns about having revenge fantasies against someone who did not personally wrong me, these feelings were just too heavy, too unpleasant.

There was a thought, for a moment, of blasting out these feelings. Telling people on social media how mad and upset I was; this would, I thought, be a good double whammy. First of all, I would get this anger and hate off my chest and second of all I could accumulate some really good likes. I could have that endorphin rush from the notification that someone put the ‘heart’ or ‘tears’ emoji on my Facebook post.

But then I looked at that impulse more closely. First of all, I didn’t need to do the performative anger thing. I didn’t need the feedback to validate myself as a decent person. But more than that, I understood that my hate and anger wouldn’t be lessened by sharing it – like the flame on a candle, I would retain the hate and anger, but I would light new hate and anger in the hearts of others. My flame would not be dimmed, but the hate would be spread.

Lately I’ve come to believe that hate has one goal: to spread. Just as our DNA has created us to be better spreaders of itself – we are engineered to spread our DNA and propagate our species. “Be fruitful and multiply” is actually our biological destiny – so hate is made to be spread. Hate doesn’t have an ideology; it is just at home in the heart of the MAGAt kids as it is in the hearts of the people seething at the MAGAt kids. Hate only wants there to be more hate, and when we approach hate groups or hateful people with hate in our own hearts, we have already lost the battle to the real enemy, which is hate itself.

But when we can avoid the hate – or more accurately let it go, because that shit will arise all on its own – that’s when we begin winning. And that’s where reaction #2 comes in, and that’s what I began purposefully focusing on.

Every time something bad happens there are two ways we can look at it – as a story of sadness and crushing defeat or as a story of the continuing and inextinguishable spark of human decency. Both perspectives are, when looking at reality through an unbiased lens, reasonable. Yeah, shit is bad. But also: there is still good, and that good keeps chugging along. Even in the depths of the Holocaust there are stories of decency and heroism, of people doing the right thing in the face of impossible odds.

I am trying to focus on those stories. Because I’ll tell you, focusing on those stories makes me feel good. They make me feel hope. And what’s more, they make me feel like I can be of use in the world, that life isn’t just a crushing series of terrible events but rather that the crushing series of terrible events give us opportunities to rise up and above and shine a light for others.

Nathan Phillips took that opportunity. When he saw the tension between the MAGAts and the Black Israelites – the MAGAts were taunting the Black Israelites, who spat at the MAGAts – he decided to do something.

“I was there and I was witnessing all of this,” Phillips told the Detroit Free Press. “As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you’re faced with that choice of right or wrong.”

His choice? Get between the groups. “I put myself in between that, between a rock and hard place,” he told the paper.

This is what I want to focus on. I want to focus on this Omaha Nation elder, spending his whole life in an oppressive society for which he fought in the Vietnam War, putting his body between two extremist groups about to get violent. This old man, who has seen enough suffering and violence to last a hundred lifetimes, nonetheless inserted himself into a situation where he had a high probability of being hurt. And he did it in a spiritual, non-violent way that was dignified and heroic.

So my first impulse is to get mad and focus on those kids. But I understand now – finally – that I can let that impulse go and focus my attention instead on this act of bravery. I hope that one day my first reaction will be to focus on the bravery, but right now I’m happy to be mindful enough to be able to turn my attention where it needs to be. All the hours I have spent sitting on the meditation cushion, redirecting my mind to my breath, enables me to redirect my mind now to Nathan Phillips.

I’ll tell you, even writing this I felt those same emotions. My body felt clenched and tight as I wrote about the MAGAts; doing research to try and get my facts right meant I kept looking at that kid’s face and I kept getting tense. It’s telling that the kid’s face is what we see again and again on social media, and not Nathan Phillips’. But when I started writing about Phillips I felt my heart center relax – literally the muscles in my chest untightened and I felt a spacious, warm openness where there had only moments before been a cold, black tightness.

This isn’t magic. It’s not woo woo. It’s about how you focus yourself, and how different foci impact us differently. It’s a subtle feedback loop – when we don’t feel good we focus on the bad things, and that makes us not feel good so we focus on the bad things… But if we have the mental strength training to gently break that loop, to put our attention on something positive, everything can change for us. When I am feeling really shitty about being at one of my minimum wage jobs, I take my mind and place it on the gratitude I feel for having an apartment. This redefines the whole situation; what was once a source of irritation and unhappiness becomes something that is positive, because it allows me to live a life closer to the one I want.

So it is with these news stories. When we focus on the hate we feel bad, and what’s worse we are at risk of becoming hate vectors ourselves. But when we focus on the positive – look for the helpers, Mister Rogers told us – we feel better AND we then become more positive for other people.

Focusing on the positive here, focusing on Phillips’ bravery and non-violence, honors him way more than focusing on how much we hate the MAGAts. What’s more, focusing on the positive gives us the strength and hope to spread his bravery and non-violence to others. We have a choice here – give in to the hate or stand firm with the love. Nathan Phillips is showing us the way. Do we have the strength and courage to follow him?

I’m trying.

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*Another quick note: in the 1970s punk scene it was very hip to wear swastikas. Many artists who are icons today, like Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious, wore swastikas quite openly. This was within living memory of the Holocaust, and definitely within living memory of the Germans bombing the shit out of London. The intention was not to be anti-semitic, but rather a juvenile attempt to be shocking. I wonder how many young people in MAGA hats today are essentially following the same childish impulse. It’s worth noting, of course, that skinhead racists DID find a home in the punk scene, and I’m sure the normalization of the swastika as an empty shock tactic made it easier for them. Wearing a MAGA hat as a way of pissing off your dad – ie being a 21st century Michael P Keaton – doesn’t preclude you from ending up with real racist, misogynistic and homophobic tendencies. If you read KILL ALL NORMIES by Angela Nagle you’ll see how online 4chan shock tactics morphed into real hate ideology which then spawned Trump. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” said Kurt Vonnegut.