Over the past week, Virginia’s Democratic Governor, Ralph Northam, has been engulfed in a firestorm. It follows the publication of a medical-school yearbook page of his that shows two individuals, one dressed in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. It is not clear from the photo whether Northam is one of these two individuals, or why he chose to include this image on his yearbook page.
Upon the revelation of the photograph, the Governor issued a lengthy apology for the content of the page, which was published 35 years ago. He said he was “deeply sorry,” and called the costume “clearly racist and offensive.” He promised the people of Virginia that he would make amends: “I accept responsibility for my past actions and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust.”
Virginia’s state Senate Minority Leader, Richard Saslaw (a Democrat), issued a statement noting that Northam has opppsed racism as a public official, and that his behaviour from decades ago simply had no relation to who he is now: “His whole life has been about exactly the opposite, and that’s what you need to examine, not something that occurred 30 years ago,” he said. “While it’s in very poor taste, I would think no one in the General Assembly would like their college conduct examined. I would hate to have to go back and examine my two years in the Army. Trust me. I was 18 years old and I was a handful, okay? His life since then has been anything but. It’s been a life of helping people, and many times for free.”
Perhaps just a few years ago, Northam’s apology and Saslaw’s defence would have been enough for the governor to be able to move on. We have all done things we’re not proud of in the past, and our most offensive and obnoxious moments do not encapsulate our lives. But given an American elite culture that is regressing to a secular version of old puritanical norms, whereby sinners are branded for life and there are political points to be scored for casting them into hellfire, it is not surprising that Northam was immediately deluged with calls to resign.
Presidential contenders such as Kamala Harris and Julian Castro called on Northam to step down. MoveOn.org—an organization based on the concept of forgiveness, which urges people to “move on” and not dwell on past misdemeanours —called for Northam to step down because “there are no excuses for such a racist display.” As every hour passes, more progressive activists and Democratic politicians are pushing to remove Northam from the governor’s office.
Yet there is a curious dissonance between the message activists are promoting—that an offensive gesture from 35 years ago should permanently end a man’s career in politics—and their campaign around America’s system of mass incarceration. When it comes to criminal-justice reform, progressives are preaching that the aim of the system should be rehabilitation, not punishment, and that criminal behaviour is forged by social influences, rather than the result of bad choices by flawed individuals. They preach a Christian message of hating the sin but loving the sinner.
I agree with that, and I consider myself in the same camp as Robert Sapolsky, a leading neurobiologist who has argued that our free will is limited if not nonexistent, and therefore we should not hate or loathe people who commit antisocial or immoral behaviour. Instead, we should try to understand the natural processes that lead to that behaviour.
But elite progressives apply this logic only on a selective basis. A year ago, for instance, the left-wing outlet I used to work for, The Intercept, published a lengthy sympathetic piece about a convicted murderer’s run for city council. The man in question knifed another man to death, and spent close to two decades behind bars. The author of that article wrote that “his experiences certainly make him an important candidate, able to connect with the thousands who have been isolated and defined by previous misdeeds of theirs or others—especially in the city’s minority communities, which as elsewhere are disproportionately impacted by the system.”
But when it comes to issues of racial offence, the publication’s editorial line—like that of much of the Left—holds expressions of bigotry to be a sort of permanent stain; as if those who committed them have revealed themselves to be demons in human form, incapable of reform. Northam must go.
One of the few liberal leaders who has not explicitly called on Northam to resign is the Reverend William Barber, a prominent pastor and left-wing activist in North Carolina. “Some are calling for the [governor] to resign [and] that’s their right,” he tweeted. “I don’t know what the [Governor] has done over the years in word, deed [and] policy to make amends for his past.” (He also tweeted that “the worst racism is policy & structural racism”).
That last line is important. As obnoxious, offensive and racist as it is to dress up in a Klan hood and don blackface, these are symbolic acts. When you offend someone, it is worth apologizing, as Northam did. But Northam did not promote or pursue policy decisions to harm the lives of African Americans. In fact, he has done the opposite. Under his tenure, Virginia finally expanded the Medicaid program as promised under the Affordable Care Act, opening up health care to 400,000 low-income Virginians. Around a third of those who benefit from Medicaid expansion are African Americans.
History is replete with politicians who at times held noxious or unseemly views but who later used their power in government to stand on the side of civil rights and peace. Former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, refused to support federal anti-lynching legislation; he later became the president who exerted the political capital necessary to sign into law the Civil Rights Act. Former West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd didn’t just play dress-up as a Klansman—he was an actual local Klan leader. But when Byrd died, the Democratic Party acknowledged the possibility of redemption when they marked his passing by saluting his years of service. These eulogies included the following from Barack Obama, who said, “He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors. His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history. He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator.”
Northam may very well buckle under the weight of the liberal intelligentsia, who have decreed that certain forms of emotional offence make someone irredeemable while at the same time demanding mercy for those who have committed felonies. On the other hand, he has had a long and distinguished career in government which may save him. But this new puritanical movement also threatens people with less power and prestige—ordinary folk who fired off an ill-thought tweet or Facebook status update. We know many lives have been absolutely ruined needlessly, especially among those who don’t have access to political power or crisis communications public relations staff.
I’ve spent a decade working in liberal and left-leaning non-profits and news outlets. During that time, I’ve seen the culture of these organizations grow increasingly judgmental and increasingly interested in the personal destruction of those with whom they disagree. More and more, elite liberalism is embracing modes of thought that I once associated with the political Right: joy in punishment and us-versus-them thinking.
Unlike many of the operators who form the elite echelons of liberal culture, I do not come from an elite background. I didn’t go to a college where a bias response team can be deployed to sanction a student who uttered an offensive phrase. I was born in a working and middle-class community full of people from ethnic minority groups.
Many of the people I knew growing up had no sense of political correctness, and would frequently behave in an offensive or obnoxious manner—because they were socialized to be that way. Someone who grows up with professors or lawyers as parents and attends an Ivy League school where they’ve been through a gamut of race- and gender-studies courses—a common background if you work at an elite liberal NGO in Washington or New York City—simply views the world very differently from the vast majority of Americans, who emerged from environments where sometimes making tasteless jokes is the norm.
Northam himself grew up on a family farm along the Eastern Shore, later shuffling through a series of working-class jobs, including as a deckhand on fishing boats. The cultural biases and norms typical of such an environment likely weighed heavily on him, and were probably reinforced at Virginia Military Institute, where he went to school. Northam went on to become a doctor, often going above and beyond normally expected efforts to get health-care access to those on society’s fringes. He has no known record of racial bias throughout his career as a doctor or politician.
None of this should be taken to suggest that we should not try to improve our culture and promote tolerance and respect. It just means that we shouldn’t try to destroy people who, at some point in their life, had neurons firing in the brain differently, and so didn’t share our exact worldview about what is offensive and what isn’t.
The Left claims to believe in compassion and rehabilitation—and purports to represent the broad working class of America. The more it demands the personal destruction of individuals who committed offensive but symbolic acts, the more hollow these representations appear.
Zaid Jilani, a journalist, is currently on fellowship, studying political and social polarization at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter @ZaidJilani.
Featured image: Ralph Northam meeting with volunteers in Blacksburg, VA, in 2017.