Voltaire, that incorrigible philosophe, the celebrated Enlightenment liberal and probable anti-Semite, may have been having fun when he reputedly told Mme. Emilie du Chatelet that “history is only a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.” Which leads me to the probably not wholly original observation, pertinent to our discussion here, that the present is the greater joke that our ancestors have played on us. In fact, it’s the perfect crime.
The joke often comes in the form of time bombs left behind by departed predecessors who can no longer answer for their misdeeds. That’s because until recently “history” took its time, playing out slowly over several generations to our present day. Lately, however, we have been blessed, if it’s a blessing, with a great cultural foreshortening. Today some makers of history live long and well enough into their own greatly altered futures to yoke themselves to the punchlines of their own jokes.
Here I have in mind our featured offenders for the first three months of 2019: Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa), Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va), and Maryland Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford County). I stick with these three, from a longer list of offensive talkers, because the rules direct that, except in rare circumstances, there be only one Offender of the Month.
I remind you that in mid-January Congressman King was stripped of committee assignments and rebuked by the U.S. House of Representatives for essentially supporting white supremacy. His exact line, quoted in a piece in The New York Times: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
On February 1, it transpired that Governor Northam had appeared in his Virginia medical school yearbook in 1984 next to a picture of a student in blackface and another person in the white hood and robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Whether he was one of those depicted remains obscure. Why such pictures are in a medical school yearbook is also puzzling, and many schools are now undertaking to find out why.
In late February, the Maryland House of Delegates censured Del. Lisanti because she labeled a particular majority-black Maryland House district a “n —– district,” as most newspapers delicately put it. (I am cheating slightly here; she made the statement in January, the story broke in February, and it continued to play out in March.)
Disparate calls for King, Northam, and Lisanti to resign resounded.
But there are differences in the nature of their malefaction. King and Lisanti sinned in the here and now. Northam in the back when.
I don’t know the entirety of Steve King’s bigoted oeuvre; I know only what I read in the papers. And for a time, as you might recall, the papers presented a dreary chronicle of racist calumny only barely disguised in code. King is a code talker, an art form made famous by King Henry II and his turbulent priest, and more lately by Michael Cohen and his former boss—and the line forms there. King is a repeat offender, going just over the edge of propriety and then walking it back and protesting piously that of course he hadn’t meant whatever it is he has been accused of—which could be cozying up to the Nazis, proclaiming the superiority of white skin and northern European ancestry above other hues and locations, and so on. But the important point is that he didn’t just say those things in 2003, when first elected (though he surely couldn’t expect to be excused even back then). He engaged in his shameful game time and again and right up to January of this year, when the waters of public disgust finally burst through the dam of pretense that his critics misinterpreted his meaning.
Mary Ann Lisanti may not have known slur words back when she was young—ho, ho—but she did claim with a straight face that the word is “not in my vocabulary” (in her apology she did not explain how she managed to articulate it) and that everyone says it. Her journey in the spotlight began when she was overheard in a casual tete-a-tete with another delegate in a cigar bar after a session of the House was over for the night; somehow her phrase was repeated to others, and Lisanti was immediately called on it.
In contrast, Ralph Northam didn’t actually do anything in February (other than to fumble the attempt to apologize and explain). His offensive action, if it was his, occurred 35 years ago. And he either was or was not actually in the photograph or did or did not have anything to do with it. The difference between Northam, on the one hand, and King and Lisanti, on the other, is that whatever their true beliefs, those two knuckleheads practiced their offensiveness in the here and now.
This time around, it appears that the penalties suffered are roughly commensurate with the offenses actually committed. Northam’s lay hidden in the past. No one pointed to any utterances or evidence of similar beliefs or motivations that accompanied him on the journey to now. King’s odious diatribes and disparagements have persisted over time. Lisanti’s venomous slur was contemporaneous. These distinctions ought to matter. In these cases, they appear to have done so.
Without some sort of social statute of limitations on offensive acts and expressions, no matter how informal or vague, we would all be at risk of shrapnel or worse from those long-buried time bombs.
A few weeks ago I was lunching with an old friend and, as is inescapable inside the Beltway in the Trump era, cluck-clucking over the latest outrages. Governor Northam’s name popped up. In our review of the many well-known (and not so well-known) names to hit the news, my friend told me a passing moment in Friend’s college days. (I use “Friend” throughout to avoid using “he,” “she”—or “they”—to keep my friend’s identity confidential.)
Friend grew up in a deep southern state and went to the state’s flagship university, one of the most prominent institutions of higher learning in the U.S. Friend was then (and remains) a non-histrionic progressive, devoted to a large range of socially and politically important causes, playing an activist role in race and other related issues even in college more than half a century ago. But Friend has a light side as well and was elected senior year to the coveted position of Homecoming King (or Queen—I continue my coyness). In other words, Friend was prominent, well-liked, and socially adept. Equally to the point, despite the racial difficulties of the day, Friend was not motivated by upbringing to adopt or display the badges of southern white supremacy. But—big “but” here—if you were to look at Friend’s senior yearbook picture, you would see—yep—a background of figures in blackface.
Friend was not in the picture and did not offer it for publication, but it somehow found its way into the yearbook. Heaven help Friend if the picture ever surfaces. Heaven help us all if a time capsule from our past, including those into which we didn’t personally make a deposit, are broken open for all to see, assuming we have not compounded the offensive deed with additional deposits along the way, in which case Heaven can stand aside.
The offenses of our Big Three were notorious for a week or two. I’ve delayed posting these thoughts, in part to prove a point. Had I posted when the action occurred, you would have still been feeling the warmth from the outrage that spread across much of the country. Now, a scant month or two later, you might find it hard to see any residual glow from the indignation that they prompted, or even remember much of what happened. The stories have disappeared from the local papers (I can’t speak for those in Des Moines, Annapolis, or Richmond). None of these public figures has resigned. None of them is likely to.
Of course, voters occasionally have long memories. Northam will be spared retribution, at least at the next election in 2021, because he cannot immediately succeed himself and so won’t be on the ballot. But Lisanti and King, who is likely to have a strong primary challenger, are both open to voter rebuke in 2020. As they should be.