Time for a conversation…..
Michael Moore said it best Friday night during his appearance on MSNBC’s The Last Word. Ali Velshi, sitting in for Lawrence O’Donnell had Moore for a late hour discussion on the upcoming SOTU address and the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders. As per the custom, the first question was about breaking news: the racist photo uncovered on Virginia Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook page. Ali Velshi: “Should he resign?” Michael Moore: “You mean he hasn’t resigned yet? Didn’t this come out a couple of hours ago? I was backstage getting ready – – he hasn’t resigned? Governor Northam (speaking directly to the camera), you need to resign before the end of this show. If you want to do it on air, call in. We will be happy to talk to you.” Moore then proceeded to give the Governor the phone number to NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center.
The Governor never called.
Thus began 48 hours of the “can he survive this” debate, the general consensus being that appearing in blackface or a KKK hood was an immediate disqualifier to serving in public office. As if that was ever a question. And, if it was – apologizing for appearing in blackface only to walk it back less than 24 hours later – is a definite disqualifier. The attempt to “use this opportunity to have a discussion about race,” is getting old. Very old. And I’m white. Imagine being an African-American in Virginia.
Context and response
During the Kavanaugh hearings – specifically the Christine Blasey-Ford allegations – I said repeatedly, “there will be more.” As Gen-X’ers age into high office, there will be more disclosures. More pictures, more sexual assault victims, more revelations of transgressions hidden from public view. President Trump’s election and the Harvey Weinstein accusations opened the floodgates for sexual assault, harassment, and outright, blatant racism, long buried but never forgotten.
When has enough time passed? How many good acts outweigh the horrible? We’ve all made mistakes. Human beings do stupid things before their frontal cerebral cortex is fully formed. Should something that happened in high school or college prevent serving the public in elected office? To me, the answer comes down to two things: context and response. Let’s start with context.
Charlottesville changed the context around race. Just saying the word, “Charlottesville” conjures up the image of white men in collared shirts marching around with tiki-torches, spewing anti-semitic and racist vitriol. Young college students were caught on camera and are now on thousands of Facebook pages, just waiting for future employers and graduate school admission counselors to find and use in making life-altering decisions. The future of Confederate statues, long used by southern whites to demonstrate racial superiority and to remind blacks of a violent and bloody history of suppression, has been decided.
Likewise, the way we view and talk about sexual assault and harassment will never be the same. Access Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein changed everything. Women everywhere have had enough. That’s the context for social, cultural, and political debate in America now.
Now let’s address response. Men in powerful positions have been apologizing for decades. Public relations consultants and focus groups are hired and paid a fortune to get their words just right. Was he empathetic enough? Did he show enough remorse? Did she read from index cards? Did she take accountability? What do the polls say? A response is everything.
Brett Kavanaugh was accused of a sexual assault alleged to have happened 30 years ago. Dr. Ford’s memory was vivid. Judge Kavanaugh denied having met her. Then he lashed out at Senate Democrats for daring to question his actions as a high school senior. His face beamed with satisfaction when Senator Graham had his own temper tantrum, accusing his Democratic colleagues of using the situation to score political points and delay a Supreme Court appointment until after the election. In the context of #metoo and with a response unbecoming of a Supreme Court Justice, Kavanaugh should never have been confirmed. In fact, an argument could have been made to relieve him of his circuit court duties.
Context and response.
Now Governor Northam. It was never okay to wear blackface or dress up in a white robe and hood. Terrorists wore white sheets and witches hats to terrorize thousands of African Americans throughout the south; lynching hundreds of men and women because they could. Whites used robes and hoods to intimidate black voters from the ballot box and to lord over them their supposed superiority. Blackface was used to portray African Americans as hapless and uneducated, much like characters from a minstrel show. It furthered the stereotype that blacks were stupid and inferior, a view held by many in the post-Reconstruction South.
If Northam’s initial response on Friday night was weak, his news conference the next day was embarrassing. Admitting that yes, he was in the photograph, only to recant a few hours later offends voters’ intelligence and reminds us all of slavery’s painful blight in our nation’s history. And it was arrogant. Arrogance and offensive stereotypes are a bad combination that yes, deems the governor unfit for office. That it is happening to the Governor of Virginia after Charlottesville just makes his resignation more urgent.
We can have a conversation without elevating the guilty to higher office
In the wake of public pressure, there is a tendency for commentators and political analysts to discuss the “need for a national conversation” on whatever offense currently being debated. Northam has used his situation as a defense and justification to remain in office so that he can contribute to a much needed national conversation on racial stereotypes (blackface) and the minimization of slavery’s legacy (robes and hoods).
Can we all agree that Northam’s presence in the Executive Mansion is not a requirement to “discuss” the KKK’s violent legacy? Perhaps less agreeable but still relevant, did we really need to elevate an alleged sexual assault offender (and drunk) to the highest court in the country to “discuss” sexual assault’s ongoing trauma and high school binge drinking? No. None of these things are prerequisites to a national conversation.
And what is a “national conversation” anyway? If Americans are too self-absorbed to understand that attempted rape will psychologically scar the victim for the rest of her life, then more talking won’t change anything. Moreover, I would hope that we have long since settled the debate over racism’s repercussions on this country and in black communities. We may not all agree that NFL players have the absolute right to kneel during the national anthem (they do), but I hope I receive no pushback on the appropriateness of a Grand Dragon Halloween costume.
Let’s save the “national conversations” for healthcare policy and the long term effects of vast income disparity. I think they would be more productive.
There will be many more of these “opportunities” to have conversations about any number of offensive and abhorrent actions. I plan to evaluate each of them by the context in which they become public and the accused’s response. Everyone makes mistakes but nobody is entitled to a seat on the bench or a rotation in a governor’s mansion. My suggestion? Check your yearbooks. Consult quality PR consultants. Address past vices head-on and before oppo research susses them out for all to judge. And for God’s sake, tell the truth.