Imagine, just for a minute, a civilized culture in which it would be deemed societally unacceptable for an individual to be removed or disqualified from public office because of something in his or her high school or college yearbook.
As John Lennon might have said, It’s easy if you try.
Heck, on paper, a majority of Americans would probably even agree with such a standard. After all, I think most of us recall saying or doing at least one (and that’s a charitable number) incredibly dumb or insensitive thing in our student years — back before we left the cradle of academia and entered a real world of career pursuits and adult responsibilities. Is a snapshot of our youth really indicative of the person each of us went on to become?
The answer, in nearly ever case, would be no.
That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be held accountable for certain behavior they exhibited back in the day. The commission or even credible allegations of a serious crime, for example, would warrant long-lasting scrutiny and consideration. Aside from that, a person’s high school and college years have traditionally been recognized as a time in his or her life when there are few perceivable ramifications for immaturity and poor judgment among peers.
In other words, it’s the last real chance that people have to “screw up” without their mistake affecting their future.
But is this still the case? It sure doesn’t seem to be, and a lot of the explanation has to do with politics.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the old rules went away, but it seems to have happened somewhere between the 2008 and 2012 elections. While Barack Obama’s admission of illegal drug abuse (including cocaine) as a student in the 1980s barely registered a blip on the radar of his first presidential run (even with the vast majority of Republicans), Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, received no such grace.
An alleged bullying incident from 1965 (nearly 50 years earlier), involving Mitt Romney forcibly cutting a fellow prep-school student’s hair, turned into a major national news story. The New York Times even managed to introduce an anti-gay narrative into the mix, framing the story this way:
“The day after President Obama endorsed gay marriage, Mitt Romney found himself responding to allegations that as a teenager he harassed a prep school classmate who later came out as gay.”
Of course, Romney wouldn’t have known anything about his peers’ sexual orientation back then, considering the discreet nature of the topic of homosexuality. But recognizing such historical context wouldn’t have been helpful to the media’s preferred political narrative in 2012, so a modern context was funneled in.
This retrofitting of today’s cultural and societal sensitivities to the conduct and character of one’s youth has become quite a bit more common in recent years. Hence, the rise of political discussions involving yearbooks.
Brett Kavanaugh’s yearbook became a hot national topic during his Supreme Court nomination process last year, after he was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford at a high school party. The yearbook offered no insight into the alleged assault nor any connection to the accuser. In fact, nothing beyond Ford’s testimony did. But that didn’t stop Kavanaugh’s political opponents and critics from turning written entries into smoking guns.
As a man in his fifties with a pristine reputation, Kavanaugh was called on to answer for dopey inside-jokes from his high school days about drinking, flirting, and farting — under the premise that such references might just suggest an inclination to sexually assault someone.
I suspect most people found that to be an awfully uncomfortable precedent. Would any of us, as adults, be able to clear the bar of being held to the dumb things we said in high school? How about the legal but poor decisions we made?
Quick sidebar: For the record, the most shocking thing anyone would discover about me from my yearbooks is that I once had great hair. So in case you’re wondering, this isn’t a preemptive attempt to bail myself out of jam.
Anyway, let’s talk about the latest yearbook controversy.
Unless you’ve been out of the country for the past week, you know that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat) has been fighting for his political life ever since a 1984 medical-school yearbook emerged, showing a photo of Northam either clad in a KKK outfit or in blackface. It’s uncertain which of the two disguised individuals in the picture is him. And to make matters more complicated, Northam — after initially admitting to being in the photo (and apologizing for it) — decided a day later that it wasn’t him after all.
Why was he confused? Well, according to Northam, while speaking at a press conference, he had assumed that the photo being discussed in the media had been taken on a different occasion when he was disguised as a black person — specifically Michael Jackson. And he explained this shortly before his wife stopped him from moon-walking across the press stage
You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
And apparently, there was some blackface craze in the 1980s that a lot of us are just becoming privy to, being that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (another Democrat) just copped to doing the same thing. Even The View’s Joy Behar is now under fire for once dressing as what she described as “a beautiful African woman.”
A few questions should probably be asked in this situation:
Should all of these people have known better?
Though I think that blackface has long been a confusing topic for non-black Americans who grew up after the Civil Rights movement, Northam was 24 at the time. He assuredly knew that what he was doing was inappropriate, and an apology was certainly warranted.
Would these acts from several decades ago have been deemed grounds for resignation or termination just 10 years ago?
I don’t think so.
But those are the new rules for how public figures are to be judged on such matters — rules that arose from a modern progressive movement that places far more importance on indicting people over youthful indiscretions than recognizing and appreciating the power of individuals to grow and better themselves.
People on my side of the aisle are having a pretty hard time finding sympathy for Northam and Herring as they’re punished by their own side’s rules. After all, we recently witnessed a group of Kentucky high school students portrayed as racists (their lives were even threatened) for wearing MAGA hats and smirking on a field trip to D.C. Last year, we also watched MSNBC pull former Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly off the air (subsequently cancelling her show and parting ways with her), citing her mere questioning of the inappropriateness of dressing up as an admired African American for Halloween.
So yeah, there’s some satisfaction in watching the Left now devour its own in Virginia.
Still, I think it’s important to search for a little bit of compassion in times like these. Maybe not for Northam’s weaselly changing of stories or the heat he has taken for his extreme stance on abortion, but for the predicament he and Herring have found themselves in over the poor personal decisions from their past. The same goes for Kavanaugh, Romney, and anyone else who has been in a remotely similar situation. We never know, after all, when parts of our own distant past will be dredged up and deemed disqualifying by today’s standards.
And if that time comes, it would be nice to believe that our lives, as we know them, wouldn’t necessarily be over.