Photo Credit: BBC via Wikimedia
George Orwell

 

The Virginia governor scandal ignores the past and threatens the future

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Have you ever made a mistake?  Have you ever let slip a crass remark or, in an unguarded moment, told an off-color joke?  Have you ever suffered a momentary lapse of judgment and done something you later came to regret?

If so, congratulations!  You are eligible for membership in the human race.  However, given our current culture of social hypersensitivity, you are also unfit for public office.

Just ask Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the latest target of the Ministry of Truth which, in its relentless mission to discredit and malign, will not be deterred from digging up skeletons from even the dustiest of closets.

Granted, Governor Northam has done little to help his own cause, apologizing for a black-face photo he later claimed was not of him, then bumbling his way through a second apology for impersonating Michael Jackson.  He could easily have cleaned up the whole sloppy scandal by showing more grace under fire.

Because here’s the point:  the incident in question happened 35 years ago.  Back then, few people black or white, would have had any objection to a white man impersonating a black celebrity.  (Indeed, wasn’t it a mere 15 years ago that Johnny Depp first appeared in black face as Captain Jack Sparrow?)

Moreover, no matter how tacky and tasteless the future-governor’s behavior may or may not have been, we all did stupid things in our younger years.  If the law mandates a statute of limitations for violent felonies, we should certainly observe a similar expiration date for acts of stupidity.

CONTEXT IS ALL

Do you remember when the 20-year-old Prince Harry showed up at a costume party dressed as a Nazi officer?  If you don’t, all the better. The young prince apologized, learned from his mistake, and got on with his life. 14 years later, no one is demanding that Harry recuse himself from representing the royal family. Nor should they.

Do you remember when Harry Truman’s private diaries were discovered?  His anti-Semitic comments set off a brief firestorm, which died out just as quickly.  Any student of history knows that Mr. Truman’s best friend and business partner, Eddie Jacobson, was a Jew, and that Truman showed tremendous political courage by recognizing the state of Israel.  Even if Harry Truman was not immune from the prejudices of his time and culture, he never allowed those prejudices to influence his actions. That adds to, rather than detracts from, his greatness as a leader.

More recently, activists have demanded removing all references to Woodrow Wilson from Princeton University.  Why? Because he was a segregationist. Now there are a lot of good reasons to be critical of Woodrow Wilson. He was an elitist, a eugenicist, and an incompetent utopian.  But favoring segregation was not one of his faults.

A century ago, “separate but equal” was an incredibly progressive philosophy, decades ahead of its time.  To blame Wilson for lacking the racial sensitivity of a later generation is like condemning Civil War field surgeons for not treating infections with antibiotics that had not yet been discovered.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING

The most subtle irony of the Northam affair is the date the damning photo was taken: 1984, a year known best as the title of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel.  More and more, the eerie warnings of the Orwell’s masterpiece reveal themselves as prophecy: Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.

History taken out of context is not history – it is propaganda.  Destroying monuments to imperfect heroes does not protect us from repeating their errors.  It indulges a most insidious kind of arrogance by suggesting that we have the moral clarity to pass judgment on times we haven’t bothered to study and do not adequately understand.  By rewriting our past, we imperil our future.

Even worse, this kind of militant political correctness eviscerates the lofty concept of repentance.  If we are unable to learn from our mistakes and take responsibility for our false steps so that we can march confidently toward a better future, then we are denying the most noble aspect of our humanity:  the capacity to grow and improve ourselves.

King Solomon says, A righteous man falls seven times yet rises again, while the wicked stumble in adversity.

The path of virtue is littered with obstacles, and it is only by erring and trying again that virtue is ever achieved.  If we insist on holding our leaders to unreasonable standards of perfection, we will place our fate in the hands of two-dimensional caricatures who lack both the wisdom and the experience to lead.

But if we recognize and honor the moral courage of admitting our mistakes and striving to do better, we will find true heroes who inspire us to join them in the quest for greatness.

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC. He is an ethics speaker, strategic storyteller, TEDx presenter, and author. He is also a recovered hitchhiker and circumnavigator, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher. Visit him at http://ethicalimperatives.com.