Ethics Quiz And Comment Of The Day: The Governor’s Yearbook Photo [Corrected]

You know you’re having a bad week as a politician when one scandal knocks a another scandal you’re involved in off the front page. Welcome to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s world right now, and where he’ll end up in it, nobody knows.

In case you missed it, Northam and abortion-loving Democrats were in the midst of trying to justify his comments earlier in the week accepting the concept of legal infanticide when a medical school yearbook photo turned up on social media, showing the governor-to-be either in black face or wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. Yes, this was another Hader Gotcha: conservatives were looking for dirt under very old rugs.  Northam confirmed that it was indeed him in one of the two costumes (but not which!) and issued the now familiar “this is not who I am now” apology:

“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” Northam said in his statement. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment. I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”

It was immediately clear that this would not suffice. Northam is a Democrat, after all, and that is the party of race-baiting. Republicans weren’t likely to let Northam talk his way out of this either, not after he won his close 2017 gubernatorial election against Republican Ed Gillespie with the assistance of a jaw-dropping TV ad ad linking Gillespie to  the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville and showing the GOP candidate trying to run down minority kids in his car.  Although the ad was not a product of his campaign, Northam refused to condemn it, and his campaign reported it as an “in-kind contribution.” The campaign also sent out a mailer tying Guillespie to white nationalists.

What Republicans say about the yearbook photo doesn’t matter, however. Northam’s own party turned on him, with his Democratic predecessor Terry McAulliffe, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and the Democrats in Virginia’s state legislature all calling on him to resign.

After all, casually endorsing infanticide is easy to defend to the hard-core Democratic base, but wearing a tasteless costume 38 years ago while a student is unforgivable.


The instant issue might be moot in a few hours, as the betting is that Northam will resign, but  your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day’s  question will remain:

Should Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook photo require him to resign as Virginia Governor?

In a comment yesterday, Chris Marschner gave his answer to the quiz before it was asked. Here is his succinct Comment of the Day:

I would like to say we should be setting an example on evaluating stupid things done in college rather than seeking retribution for Kavanaugh.

The photo of Northam in med school should not be an indictment of current character. I don’t want to hear apologies of any sort other than “it was stupid and I should have known better”. We should be evaluating people on the totality of behavior since the “bad” behavior. Atonement cannot be made if coerced. It can only happen when it is voluntary.

If Northam should step down it should not be for some sophomoric photo in a college yearbook, it should be for admitting he is willing to sacrifice an innocent life in order to get the liberal female vote.

Chris was prescient: many conservatives are relishing this as perfect “hoist with their own petard” moment for Democrats who resorted to using Brett Kavanugh’s high school year book inscriptions to impugn his character as an adult judge, and who argued that an unsubstantiated account of an unsuccessful sexual assault at a high school party constituted evidence that the judge was a sexual predator.  The two episodes are not analogous, however. Northam’s questionable conduct is proven and admitted; Kavanaugh’s was neither. Northam’s conduct occurred when he was an adult, at 25; Kavanaugh was a minor when the alleged misconduct recurred. Sexual assault is a crime, though what was recalled and alleged by Dr. Blasey Ford would virtually never result in an arrest or charges. Wearing Klan costumes or blackface was and is entirely legal.

There are many reasons to enjoy Governor Northam’s current problem, as well as his party’s.  Northam ran a hateful and divisive campaign (“Donald Trump is a narcissistic maniac, and I will do all I can to keep his hate out of Virginia.”), and watching him resign in disgrace would be highly satisfying. The Democratic Party’s double and triple pretzelized standards are too ridiculous to even try to make sense out of. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in which a representative of the NAACP testified in support of a new federal mandate that would allow all felons vote, as well as to run for office, such as Governor of Virginia. Murderers, child rapists, bank robbers, drug dealers, all would be welcomed by the NAACP—just not candidates who wore tasteless costumes at Halloween parties decades ago.* Somehow, given their party’s previously declared standards, both of Virginia’s Democratic U.S. Senators have not called for Northam to resign, though Democrats forced GOP Senate leader Trent Lott to leave the Senate for telling the ancient and senile Senator Strom Thurmond on his 100th birthday that the U.S. would have been a better place if his third party run for the Presidency had succeeded. Is there any chance that Senators Warner and Kaine wouldn’t be screaming for Northam to resign if he were a Republican? Of course not.

This is all static and bias, however. The question remains whether we should judge current day officials by their conduct or words from decades ago.

*I will use the term “tasteless” rather than “racist” to describe a Klan costume until someone explains to me why that costume should be interpreted any differently than other costumes evoking historical, literary or mythological villains. Blackface is obviously a taboo now, but breaking taboos is not the same as being racist.


82 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz And Comment Of The Day: The Governor’s Yearbook Photo [Corrected]

  1. Jack – in your fifth paragraph you say:
    “Gillespie’s own party turned on him” – I think that would make more sense if it had Northam rather than Gillespie…

    Also, I thought that I saw both Sen. Warner and Kaine right after the photo came out say on Twitter that the governor should step down.

  2. The idea that you can, through social pressure, be ‘forced to resign’ (or forced to do anything) is interesting in and of itself.

    Wearing such a costume or dressing up as a black person in an effort to mock that person is *offensive on its face*. But these are not the crimes of consequence. By no stretch.

    Let me take a more apropos example: the selection of Elliot Abrams to be Special Envoy to Venezuela. Not even so much because he has a conviction for serious offenses (that was pardoned, so I guess one must assume it never happened?), but consider this blurb which comes from The Intercept:

    ON DECEMBER 11, 1981 in El Salvador, a Salvadoran military unit created and trained by the U.S. Army began slaughtering everyone they could find in a remote village called El Mozote. Before murdering the women and girls, the soldiers raped them repeatedly, including some as young as 10 years old, and joked that their favorites were the 12-year-olds. One witness described a soldier tossing a 3-year-old child into the air and impaling him with his bayonet. The final death toll was over 800 people.

    The next day, December 12, was the first day on the job for Elliott Abrams as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration. Abrams snapped into action, helping to lead a cover-up of the massacre. News reports of what had happened, Abrams told the Senate, were “not credible,” and the whole thing was being “significantly misused” as propaganda by anti-government guerillas.

    This past Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Abrams as America’s special envoy for Venezuela. According to Pompeo, Abrams “will have responsibility for all things related to our efforts to restore democracy” in the oil-rich nation.

    Once one understand that the effort of the US had NOTHING to do with freedom, decency, democracy, good will nor anything but destruction of the former, one should be in a position as a moral & ethical being to make a pronouncement. What one sees should become the basis of actionable knowledge. And I don’t mean among lefty crazies with their assortments of *agendas*. I mean among *normal people* who have two eyes in their head.

    Further evidence, in my view, that perception itself is infected, that there is some kind of *installation*, like electromagnetic interference, that inhibits people from making connections between knowledge of facts and moral assessment.

    The intense levels of atrocity to which the US mightily contributed can, I guess, be disputed or denied by those inclined to that, but my research has resulted in *solid knowledge* that a) these kinds of things were allowed and also encouraged (because terror does often win out), and b) that these are more than mere criminal offenses. They are crimes of scale, and thus deserve the term ‘atrocity’.

    Now, American have special permissions — as we all know — to commit atrocities when pursuing higher aims (those aims for which they were born and which, being born, they cannot but pursue), but any clear-headed person with a will to *see things as they actually are* can do the small research needed to discover and plainly see the US involvement in profoundly destructive and profoundly anti-democratic activities, such for example in El Salvador and Guatemala, two clear examples.

    What amazes me is how crimes of this magnitude are, somehow, magically wiped out of perception. They happened, and often the ones involved even acknowledge them and provide rationalizations, but the crime never has consequences.

    But then some other deed, minor by comparison, is pumped up to be something despicable when it is likely a question of very poor taste and little else.

    What is the issue here? Is it incapacity to think straight? To analyze and compare events? Is it some kind of training we receive where we discount issues of magnitude but embellish what is of little consequence? Is it some sort of perceptual miasma where an order of values becomes confused, foggy and obscured? Is it something in the water? Or perhaps in soda pop?

    I am not, not necessarily, saying that I might not side with Power and Finance and Neo-Imperial Force as it works to achieve its aims, and destroys what stands in the way of those aims (to ‘recover’ Venezuela and to be sure that independent power of a populist nature do not arise in the region).

    Because that is the only way that such activities could be supported by a rational person. You’d have to measure *terror in the moment* against what, in the end, will be avoided and what, in the end, will be achieved. Or in Venezuela: the outrightly illegal *recognition* of a man who had not been elected as *president* and the open encouragement of a coup (and I am not a supporter of Chavez or Maduro!) But an irrational person, under the influence of irrational perception (believing lies) will see the US effort as *doing good*.

    It is amazing really!

    The implication is what is important here: If the truth cannot be seen, and if the truth cannot be described, this means that intellectually, in one’s intellect, in one’s perceptual structure, one is incapacitated. If one is incapacitated there, one is likely incapacitated everywhere.

    Oh, and GOOD LORD, that was really wrong to put on the KKK costume! And don’t get me going on blackface . . .

    • Question: Is the purpose of all this drama* in our present — in fact! — an effort to conceal other activities carried out by corrupt elites?

      What are those activities?

      (I apologize for the word *elite* with its paranoid connotation, but I know of no other).

      *Sexual picadillos, slurs, reprehensible tweets, costumes and blackface et cetera et cetera . . .

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