Two weekends ago, a boy from a Catholic high school in Kentucky blew up social media with the smirk heard round the world.
On the surface, it looked terrible. A white kid wearing a Make America Great Again ball cap and a patronizing sneer staring down a Native American drummer in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
The outrage was immediate and deafening, with race, that ball cap and that smirk used as a convenient frame to launch into the standard left-wing lectures about white male privilege, racial discrimination, rural prejudices and how U.S. President Donald Trump has provided social licence for this kind of confrontational nonsense under the umbrella of that hat and that ridiculous campaign slogan.
There are so many other avenues to make legitimate points about the ongoing damage of racism, bigotry and Trump but this wasn't one of them.
In the days after the incident, the simple and convenient tale started to unravel as different videos were posted online, showing the crowd around the boy and the Native American elder. Prominent voices in the liberal media found themselves briefly aligned with Fox News pundits complaining that the boy and his classmates - visiting Washington on a school trip - were being unfairly tarnished as country bumpkin racists.
Andrew Sullivan, certainly no defender of Trump or apologist for bigotry, writing in the New Yorker online, certainly a publication not read by Republicans or anyone who would be caught dead in a MAGA hat, exposed the fraud in his excellent essay The Abyss of Hate Versus Hate.
"What I saw was extraordinary bigotry, threats of violence, hideous misogyny, disgusting racism, foul homophobia, and anti-Catholicism - not by the demonized schoolboys, but by grown men with a bullhorn, a small group of self-styled Black Hebrew Israelites," Sullivan wrote. "They're a fringe sect - but an extremely aggressive one - known for inflammatory bigotry in public. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated them a hate group: 'strongly anti-white and anti-Semitic.' They scream abuse at gays, women, white people, Jews, interracial couples, in the crudest of language... They were the instigators of the entire affair."
As Sullivan points out, this group of men can be clearly seen and heard harassing the drumming elder and the rest of the people taking part in the Indigenous Peoples March, calling them "savages" and "uncle tomahawks."
The same men then went after the boys, calling them "crackers," "faggots" and "future school shooters."
The boys, waiting for their bus to pick them up for the next part of their tour of the capital, started chanting school cheers. Others tried to engage the men - "Why are you being mean? Why do you call us Klansmen?"
Somehow, out of all of this, a white boy in a bright red ball cap, saying nothing, is a redneck racist and the adult black men shouting epithets are simply protesting racial inequality.
Like teenagers in general and teenaged boys in particular, the boys in the video aren't perfectly behaved but they are angels next to the men around them. Perhaps to defuse the situation, perhaps to stand up for themselves, perhaps because so many had their phones out shooting video, perhaps because being disrespectful is what teenagers are expert at or perhaps all of those reasons combined, many of the boys are seen laughing in that uniquely annoying mocking tone that parents everywhere immediately recognize.
But the hat, the hat, look at that hat, insisted those who didn't want facts and details to get in the way of their convenient narrative.
The hat is provocative, no question, but it's also been given a ridiculous amount of power and significance by the very same critics who despise it. It is not "the new white hood," it is not a "white supremacy signalling device," akin to the Confederate flag, as some would like to call it. Not only is it wrong to exaggerate the MAGA hat's symbolism, such a comparison with white hoods and the Confederate flag trivializes those racist symbols and their central role in a deadly, painful and ongoing chapter of American history.
Worst of all, focusing solely on that bright red ball cap dehumanizes the boy wearing it, reducing him to nothing more than a poster child in a race war.
If hatred and false narratives about children are now legitimate weapons in the war against racism and bigotry, then the difference between right and wrong has been sacrificed in a winner-takes-all battle where everyone loses.
-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout