The latest internet outrage du jour is the photo of a bunch of boys from Baraboo High School posing for a photo before prom while possibly giving the Nazi salute.
From some accounts, the students were asked by the photographer Pete Gust to give the salute in the photo and most students complied. Gust claims he told the students to wave goodbye, but supposedly understands why the photo was interpreted the way it was. At least one of the students publicly disagrees with Gust’s statement.
We’re going to use a lot of “supposedly” here because none of us were there, and none of us are mind readers. However, that hasn’t stopped the speculation on the supposed origins of the photo and the sudden supposed appearance of anti-Semitism in Baraboo.
One of the favorite targets of suspicion is the President of the United States. Esquire is the model of this. “The gap between trollism and Trumpism online is increasingly hard to distinguish, particularly among the kind of young people who joined the movement through 4chan or Reddit,” Jack Holmes wrote for the website. “But when the president speaks, the kids are listening.”
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), who represents the area in Madison, was even more direct.
“There is no place for hatred, intolerance and racism in our society. Unfortunately, based on what these students see coming from the White House, some of them may believe what they have done is acceptable,” Erpenbach said. “It is absolutely not. Leaders, from the President on down, need to condemn racism in all its forms and work toward a world where we learn from the mistakes of history.”
However, the ready answer that Baraboo is a den of Trump-loving, Alt-Right Anti-Semites just isn’t true. The city of Baraboo voted 55 percent to 45 percent for Hillary Clinton and gave nearly 60 percent of the vote to former Sen. Russ Feingold in 2016. The city repeated that performance in 2018 by voting for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), Governor-elect Tony Evers (D-Madison), Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul (D-Madison), and so on.
Unless Erpenbach has been hiding his true politics from his fellow Democrats, he’s a pretty fair example of Madison-style liberalism, yet Baraboo is a bastion of support, too, for the state senator.
However, if Erpenbach is right that political leadership is responsible for the supposed behavior of the Boys from Baraboo in the photo, perhaps he should look at the supporters within the Democratic Party for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) targeting Israel, or the amount of contributions his party receives from J-Street lobbyists who promote a foreign policy hostile to Israel’s security interests. We’re looking forward to hearing the results of his phone calls to Baldwin and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI02), who represents Baraboo in Congress, on that subject.
As for the photographer, Pete Gust, who was supposedly the responsible adult taking the photo, he was a regional director for the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state teachers union, hardly supporters of the Alt-Right and Trump. (By the way, how did Gust get the contract to be the photographer for the event?)
If Gust is correct that the photo was supposedly the children waving goodbye, it’s a shame that he wasn’t faster in getting that side of the story out. The children, and they are children, are already suffering the repercussions of Gust’s photo.
However, if Gust was trying to take the photo he described and some students hijacked the photo instead with the Nazi salute, he still had the obligation as the responsible adult to a) not take the photo, b) tell the students to knock it off, and c) not publish the damn photo online. And if Gust really did encourage the students to make the salute, then he’s the one responsible and will likely be the target of lawsuits, especially from the parents of students who have lost scholarships and other opportunities as a result of the photo.
There is also a lack of responsibility on the part of the media, too, which went with the story – spreading the Boys from Baraboo worldwide – before contacting Gust for what actually happened. Whether Gust’s story should be believed, the media had a responsibility to actually ask him first what happened before running with the too-good-to-check story that fits the editorial narrative of “Trump’s America.” (Of course, they could have also did the research to find out that Baraboo is actually Clinton’s America, too, but that would have made the story less interesting to the media.)
As for the children themselves, they’re learning a harsh lesson that is probably unintended by their persecutors – internet hysteria works to destroy people. Many of these children will probably be haunted by this photo for the rest of their lives even though the responsible adult on site was the one who let them down.
This is not the first time these kids were let down by the responsible adults. If the students indeed were raising their arms in a Nazi salute, then clearly the school district did a poor job of educating them about the horrors of the Holocaust.
But this is hardly surprising in a high school that scored a 59 on student achievement on the most recent Department of Public Instruction report card, or “meets few expectations.” That roughly compares to a grade of D. The school district has asked the police to investigate the photo incident. Instead of looking for a Gregory Peck-like figure trying to create little Hitler clones, the detective work should start in the history classrooms of Baraboo to see what little Johnny is reading, if he can read at all.