When I was in college, I was invited by some female classmates to join them in posing nude for some Polaroids. Horrified but not wanting to appear uncool, I instead posed a question: “You want to be an architect, a lawyer, a doctor, a biochemist?,” I asked. “Yes, of course," they said. This was the 1970s when sexual liberation and experimentation was in the air along with lofty ambitions for women and the women’s movement. But I saw that those ambitions and that liberation were on collision course and told my classmates that those photos would one day come back to bite them in their bare butts.
That’s because, in the words of the drug-haunted Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”
I thought of Mary Tyrone’s prescient words and my experience when I read about how Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s morally blind past has influenced his calamitous present. The governor’s medical school yearbook page includes a picture of two young men in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam, a Democrat, apologized for this without saying who he was in the photograph and then, a day later, denied he was in the photo while admitting that he did don blackface in another instance to imitate Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.
The governor — a pediatric neurologist who has advocated loosening restrictions on late-term abortions, which was apparently the impetus for critics to look into his past — has refused to acquiesce to the bipartisan clamor to step down. Should he do so, he would be succeeded by Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, who happens to be African-American. Here the plot thickens: Fairfax has been accused of sexual misconduct in an instance that has not been corroborated and that he has labeled “a smear campaign.”
Northam should step down. You can argue that there are Republicans who have done worse and not paid any price, that Northam has a progressive agenda that would help people of color, that a man is more than the sum of his youthful misdeeds.
That may all be true but it doesn’t matter. What matters in life is what you do, not what others get away with, and that you understand that there is no true redemption without sacrifice. In Joseph Conrad’s novel “Lord Jim,” a young British seaman abandons a sinking ship filled with Muslim pilgrims. Disgraced, he winds up at a remote trading outpost in Southeast Asia where he succeeds until another man’s betrayal forces him to take responsibility for the death of a friend. In so doing, Jim himself is killed. But in a sense his death is but the conclusion of a chain of events he sets in motion when he abandons those pilgrims.
Northam has come full circle with his past. He has lost the trust of the people, and when you lose the public trust, you lose the ability to lead. Redemption will take time. It’s not impossible. But it’s not as simple as “I’m sorry.” It requires going deep inside yourself and thinking profoundly about the intellectual and moral obtuseness of ridiculing people of another race. It requires humility. Perhaps he should go back to being a doctor and work among people of color, who are more likely than whites to get substandard care.
As for young people, I would hope that they would come to understand that there are some youthful mistakes that will later destroy your credibility and require a lifetime of atonement from which you may never recover. It may not be fair, but then, life rarely is.