Stephens: Realism and repentance in Virginia

Stephens: Realism and repentance in Virginia

February 12th, 2019 by Bret Stephens / New York Times News Service in Opinion Free Press Commentary

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks about how he was raised during an interview in the Governor's Mansion last Saturday in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Photo by Katherine Frey

It's probably for the best that Ralph Northam seems determined not to resign as governor of Virginia. He may have done something ugly and dumb many years ago, when he was a young man and prevailing notions of socially permissible behavior were uglier and dumber than they are today. In the face of a political and reputational disaster he has stumbled badly in explaining himself. If he weathers the scandal, it will mainly be because all his potential successors have grave compromises of their own.

In the 35 years between those two points he has, by all appearances, lived an upstanding life without a hint of racial bias.

Each of us might want to perform an internal audit before we join the cast-the-first-stone coalition.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Photo by Photo by

Ever told — or laughed at — a bigoted joke? I have, and I cringe today at what I once found funny. Ever used one of the more common ethnic or sexist slurs — "gypped," for instance, or "bitch" — or dropped the F-word as it commonly refers to gay people? I've been guilty of this, too, to my shame. Have ugly generalizations or snap judgments based on ethnic stereotypes perambulated through your mind, even if they didn't fall out of your mouth? Guilty again.

I admit to all of this not as a form of moral — or immoral — exhibitionism, but because I think it's true of the overwhelming majority of people irrespective of their race or gender. (If you don't agree, audit yourself twice.) Few of us are proud of these lapses. Many of us are trying to be considerably more mindful about them. But most of us don't rip ourselves to pieces over them, either.

That's because we believe that our worst moments and dumbest utterances shouldn't define us. That our youthful behavior is more of a reflection of what is around us than a representation of what's inside. That we deserve to be judged by the decency of our intentions and the totality of our deeds. That we are entitled to a presumption of innocence, a measure of forgiveness, a sense for our times, and multiple opportunities for redemption.

We also believe in some version of what in Europe is called the right to be forgotten, based on a 2014 legal ruling against Google that your past sins, if they are no longer relevant to your present, shouldn't haunt you forever — at least not digitally. That right doesn't exist in the United States, and it wouldn't apply anyway to a public figure such as Northam.

But how about a corollary to the right: A reasonable expectation of receding relevance, at least for noncriminal acts?

Should Jesse Jackson's entire life come down to the anti-Semitic words "Hymietown," uttered by him in 1984? Should Prince Harry forever be remembered as the royal who dressed as a Nazi? What about Joy Reid's virulently homophobic blog posts, or Joe Biden's racially condescending description of Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean"?

Maybe at some point the sheer abundance of embarrassing material will render us insensible to what's truly unforgivable in the past behavior of public figures. Or maybe we'll just stumble along, calling for someone's head merely because we happened upon his frozen image at his worst and immediately forgot the rest of his life. For those not thus caught, it won't be because they are innocent, but because they are lucky.

As I said, this is taking us to a dark place. It is hard enough for ordinary, decent people, aware of their shortcomings and capable of shame, to contemplate a career in politics; why would they ever do so if the statute of limitations on past indiscretions never expires? And if they won't run, aren't they just ceding the field to those with no shame?

Ralph Northam needs to clear up just who's in that photo, so Virginians won't think he's lying. And he has an opportunity to speak powerfully about the legacy of a casual racism that tainted his generation of Virginians, and about the need for repentance and redemption. The best way for him to do so is as governor.

The New York Times

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