The Public History of the Secret History of the Central Park Birdwatcher Incident
AN ALERT READER of Indignity, more tuned in to controversy discourse than even I am, sent an email pointing out a post published this week by the reformed harassment artist Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church. The post appeared on the Substack of a controversy-chasing former New York Times columnist, which left me caught between conflicting goals for Indignity.
On the one hand, Indignity more or less exists to point out when things are false and wrong, and there was something quite false and wrong about the post; on the other hand, Indignity also exists as a place for me to put journalistic theories into practice, and one theory I have been working on (or aspiring to work on) is that since people like this former Times columnist depend on provoking people for attention, if we simply refuse to pay attention to their provocations, they will in some vital sense no longer exist. It seems worth trying, in general, and some of the results so far, even just on Twitter, have been truly (if silently) gratifying.
The ex-columnist isn't worth invoking by name. But Phelps-Roper is an interesting and somewhat disheartening subject on her own. She has written a fairly thought-provoking memoir about how she grew up as a publicity warrior for her family's religious cult and then broke away from it—a story of intellectual liberation that becomes, toward the end and then off the page, a study in how "free expression" itself can assume the shape of dogma. In search of a way out of one ideological cul de sac, Phelps-Roper has ended up spending a lot of time in another one, home to those people who keep sharing the same opinions about the same set of grievances and scare stories, to show how committed they are to being heterodox.
The upshot of this, as of this week, is a post in which Phelps-Roper tries to challenge the public's understanding of last year's Central Park birdwatcher incident, the one in which a phone video captured a white woman named Amy Cooper as she called the police on a Black man named Christian Cooper, who had told her to follow park rules and put her dog on a leash so as not to bother the birds.
For starters, there was the Facebook post that Christian shared when he uploaded the original video, which his sister posted on Twitter in the hours after the encounter. In the post, Christian recorded his contemporaneous account of what happened in the moments before the camera started rolling. “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” Christian recounted himself saying to Amy. He also shared that he’d pulled out “the dog treats I carry for just for [sic] such intransigence.”
I had read an embarrassing number of stories and social media takes about this brief conflict. Not a single one of them had mentioned this public Facebook post.
He threatened her, I thought, stunned. He says himself that he approached her — a woman alone in a wooded area. He tried to lure away her dog. How was this the first time I was reading these details? Had I just missed them in the other stories I’d read?
Had Phelps-Roper just missed that detail? Well: yes! She had. Repeatedly!
The New York Times, in its very first story about the incident on May 26, put the Facebook post and Christian Cooper's quote in the ninth and tenth paragraphs, as soon as it started narrating the events:
After Ms. Cooper refused to restrain the dog, Mr. Cooper said he planned to offer the dog treats to induce her to leash the animal so that the dog wouldn’t run for the treat, according to a Facebook post in which he documented his version of their exchange.
“Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” he told her, before he pulled out the treats and began filming, according to his post.
Two days later, the Times published a letter to the editor in which a reader quoted Christian Cooper again, to make the case that he had been too hostile toward Amy Cooper.
The New York Post published the text of Christian Cooper's Facebook post on May 26, one day after a news story that had described the bare events of the video. The New York Daily News likewise published it in a news story on May 26 and published an opinion piece the same day that used the "you're not going to like it" quote to argue that Christian Cooper was "not guilt-free." CNN included the quote in a news story on May 26, followed by a quote in which Amy Cooper called the words "absolutely terrifying," and it used both quotes again in a May 27 opinion piece. NPR used the quote in its coverage on May 26.
The quote was, in short, a standard fact widely included in the coverage of the incident. As was Amy Cooper's expressed belief that she was being threatened. Yet Phelps-Roper presents it all as shocking secret knowledge, to introduce the news that another member of the heterodox thinkers club has interviewed Amy Cooper for a podcast, in which he presents the fruits of an investigation over "the past several months," including his apparent discovery (guided by Amy Cooper's filings in a lawsuit against her ex-employer for firing her) that the birdwatcher who clearly described his habit of confronting the owners of off-leash dogs had a habit of confronting the owners of off-leash dogs.
Phelps-Roper's apparent sincerity makes it that much worse. She does a little fudging of her own—she accepts Amy Cooper's contention that she mentioned Christian Cooper's race twice on her 911 call to the police because she had a bad connection, overlooking that the video shows her declaring "I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life" before the call even goes through—but she really seems to believe that the true facts were concealed from the public, despite the ready availability of those facts.
This is the scam of the heterodoxy industry: to keep reviving failed arguments as if they're urgent new challenges. Amy Cooper has been saying all along that she felt threatened by Christian Cooper. It's what she told the cops in the first place, when she called them. The cops and the press and the public didn't silence or bury her version of things. They listened to her and decided she was in the wrong anyway.
VISUAL CONSCIOUSNESS DEP’T.
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SANDWICH RECIPE DEP’T.
WE PRESENT instructions for the assembly of sandwiches from Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes, Copyright 1916, now in the public domain for the delectation of all, written by Marion Harris Neil, M.C.A., former Cookery Editor, The Ladies’ Home Journal, author of How to Cook in Casserole Dishes, Candies and Bonbons and How to Make Them, Canning, Preserving and Pickling, and The Something-Different Dish.
ROSE PETAL SANDWICHES
Put a layer of rose leaves in the bottom of a jar or covered dish, put in one-half cupful of fresh, unsalted butter wrapped in wax paper, cover with a thick layer of rose leaves, cover closely, and leave in a cool place over night. The more fragrant the roses, the finer the flavoring imparted.
Cut the bread for these dainty sandwiches in thin strips or circles, spread each with the perfumed butter, and place several leaves from fresh roses between the slices, allowing the edges to show.
Rose-leaf conserve is delicious spread between slices of angel-cake.
Violets or clover blossoms may be used in place of the rose leaves.
If you decide to prepare and enjoy this sandwich, kindly send a picture to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are "rose leaves" synonymous with "rose petals"? Does that hold for every other flower?