Bret Stephens, writing his Saturday column in the New York Times, didn’t know whether Ralph Northam, the current governor of Virginia, once posed for a photograph in blackface, or posed standing beside someone in blackface while wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe, or didn’t pose at all. No one but maybe Ralph Northam knows. Northam’s own account of his relationship to the photograph in his medical-school yearbook has changed as the scandal has dragged on, but one constant feature has been his refusal to be clear about it: first he apologized for being in the photograph without saying which of the two figures he was, and then he de-apologized and denied being in the picture at all, without explaining how or why it was on his yearbook page.
Stephens was sure that whatever Northam did, it was something anyone could have done.
Nevertheless, Stephens was sure that whatever Northam did, it was something anyone could have done. It was time to forgive and forget, even if nobody could be sure, factually, what it was that needed to be forgiven, or how exactly to forget something the public hadn’t fully learned yet. The principles transcended any specifics, or even the lack of specifics:
Ever told—or laughed at—a bigoted joke? I have, and I cringe today at what I once found funny. Ever used one of the more common ethnic or sexist slurs—“gypped,” for instance, or “bitch”—or dropped the f-word as it commonly refers to gay people? I’ve been guilty of this too, to my shame. Have ugly generalizations or snap judgments based on ethnic stereotypes perambulated through your mind, even if they didn’t fall out of your mouth? Guilty again.
I admit to all of this not as a form of moral—or immoral—exhibitionism, but because I think it’s true of the overwhelming majority of people irrespective of their race or gender. (If you don’t agree, audit yourself twice.) Few of us are proud of these lapses. Many of us are trying to be considerably more mindful about them. But most of us don’t rip ourselves to pieces over them, either.
That’s because we believe that our worst moments and dumbest utterances shouldn’t define us. That our youthful behavior is more of a reflection of what is around us than a representation of what’s inside. That we deserve to be judged by the decency of our intentions and the totality of our deeds. That we are entitled to a presumption of innocence, a measure of forgiveness, a sense for our times, and multiple opportunities for redemption.
It’s always a little vexing when Bret Stephens, hired at the Times to be a conservative provocation to the readers, starts trying to wrap himself in first-person plurals with the readers instead. Maybe in this case, though, “we” and “us” were simply referring to the several contradictory personas Stephens was switching back and forth among, sometimes within a single sentence. We should be judged not by our deeds, but by our intentions, but also by our deeds. We are to be forgiven, though we also don’t need to be forgiven, because we are presumed innocent.
Does Bret Stephens contain multitudes?
Does Bret Stephens contain multitudes? Not really. The technical term for this is “chaff”—in the aerial warfare sense, a scattering of shiny things to confuse the radar. If you make the problem seem overwhelming and undefinable enough, then there is no problem. It’s what Ralph Northam is doing by disavowing his own yearbook page. It’s what Brett Kavanaugh did, to Bret Stephens’ approval, when he started yelling about being persecuted and lying about his own teenage conduct and insisting his teenage conduct was normal.
Forgiveness and redemption, as generally understood, come after an admission of guilt. Stephens was using them to obfuscate the existence of guilt at all. It was the magic spell of white innocence: maybe he told a racist joke, maybe he just listened to a racist joke, the details don’t matter. The details are nobody’s business.
“Most of us don’t rip ourselves to pieces over them,” Stephens wrote. And if Stephens or Northam won’t rip themselves to pieces, how could anyone else ever justify ripping them to pieces? They are entitled—entitled!—to judge themselves, and acquit themselves, and keep doing whatever it is they’ve been doing all along.