Over Christmas, I digitised slides from my twenties. In many an unidentified photograph, I didn’t recognise the scene. Where was I? Who are these total strangers? What were we finding so funny?
Thus it’s credible that on being confronted with his personal page from a 1984 medical school yearbook, Democratic Virginian governor Ralph Northam wavered: presumably that’s him in the photograph; no, on second thoughts, it couldn’t be. The photo quality is poor, and the two jaunty figures holding cans of beer are disguised — one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes.
I’m more familiar with Virginia than many of the Americans nationwide clamouring for Northam to resign. My father’s from Norfolk, where throughout the 1980s my family was still visiting my elderly grandfather. Sure, the state then suffered residual racism (like every other state), as it still must. But my grandfather didn’t live in an antebellum mansion where the slaves were flayed for secreting a bar of soap.
So at first glance, given the date — not 1864, but 1984 — that yearbook pic’s goofy caricature of bigotry appears tongue-in-cheek. It looks like a joke — if also a joke that, in a climate of supercharged racial sensitivity, today’s Virginian med students would be far less likely to make. The context of the joke has been lost. Given my patchy memory of my own twenties, Northam plausibly has no idea what that picture is doing on his yearbook page or what story lies behind it. This is sheer speculation, but the target of the jest could have been not black Virginians but white Virginians and their notorious throwback racism. But to entertain that conjecture, you’d have to give Northam the benefit of the doubt.
We can’t give anyone the benefit of the doubt, not any more. Nor can we cut anyone a little slack (see: Brett Kavanaugh) because what he did wrong was ages ago, when he was young, callow and foolish. The generations who’ve grown up with the internet are bound to discover, to their dismay, that their every gaffe lives for ever, and can always be dredged up to demolish their prospects in perpetuity. Without clemency, we’re all doomed.
Ironically, considering that the new pitilessness derives largely from the left, that damning yearbook photo was initially circulated by a right-wing website gunning for Northam because he’s pro-choice. Meanwhile, thanks to #MeToo’s new rubric of ‘guilty until proven guilty’, Virginia’s lieutenant governor (who’s black — which is, er, awkward) is also being pressured to resign after two allegations of historic sexual assault, charges whose gravity is being widely conflated in the American press with tactless makeup. Hilariously, if you find this sort of thing funny, add one more confession of youthful blackface, and the political crisis now imperilling Virginia’s top three Democratic executives could conceivably flip the executive mansion to a Republican. Progressive purists have unleashed ruthless forces that are biting their own in the bum.
For aside from embracing an Old Testament mercilessness that equates forgiveness with moral dereliction, the left now promotes unapologetic presentism. Contemporary sensibilities are applied to behaviour in an earlier era, when it was regarded rather differently. Granted, by 1984 blackface had already become uncool. But the practice has since escalated from not-a-good-idea to the Worst Crime in the Universe Ever, and it is in those hyperbolic terms that the yearbook photo is being denounced.
Absolutely: even in the minstrel days of ‘harmless’ family fun, blacking up was an ugly parodic piss-take. Northam has now admitted to once darkening his complexion to do an impression of Michael Jackson for a dance contest; his attorney general once did the same when dressing up for a college party as the rapper Kurtis Blow — misjudgments of the same time period for which both have apologised. Yet these lapses don’t convey the derision of 19th-century burlesque. Fine, still in poor taste, but the purpose of dressing up as revered black musical icons skirts closer to homage than mockery.
The other remorseless lesson this scandal teaches is that the sum of your mature good works doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you ever get caught having done one wrong thing, even 35 years ago. With no other racist stain on his record, Northam is a liberal Trump nemesis who attends a majority-black church. Having won the governorship in a closely watched Trump-barometer election in 2017, he’s already expanded Medicaid, benefiting many poorer blacks. Little wonder that a majority of black Virginians — 58 per cent vs 37 per cent — want Northam to stay in office, while the state as a whole is evenly split. So it’s other white people who are unsparing, who don’t believe in the possibility of redemption and would purge the taint of sinners from their ranks.
The concurrent Liam Neeson debacle is depressing in a similar vein. Straining to establish a personal connection to the theme of vengeance in his new film, he confessed to having experienced several days of murderous intent towards any arbitrary black male after a friend was raped by a guy who happened to be black. With the painful earnestness only Hollywood can marshal — the not entirely convincing story seemed over-egged for promotional effect — he made no bones about those feelings being wicked and horrifying.
Blooie. Giant scandalised headlines, huffy broadcasts. His premiere is pulled. Pundits speculate ghoulishly that his career is over. I’m reminded of the sort of cretin who takes deliberate self-deprecation like, ‘Oh, I’m such an idiot!’ at face value: ‘She’s an idiot! She said so herself!’ Neeson voluntarily dons an outsize hair shirt over having once felt blind racist ill will — and gets his head chopped off for ever having felt blind racist ill will. That’ll teach him to stick to puffery when promoting the next film, should he be so fortunate as to act in one again.
I have to be pushed pretty far to resort to Bible verses. But given last week’s prevalence of indignant posturing over specks in the eyes of the prominent, the logs in the eyes of their accusers could fuel my wood-stove for months.