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Encouraging Honesty by Offering Forgiveness

Governor Ralph Northam (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of forgiveness. As humans who regularly do plenty of awful things, we’re all in need of a fair amount of it. And our elected leaders are certainly no exception.

Recently the top leadership of the Democratic party in the state of Virginia more or less imploded. In a cascading series of admissions and accusations, the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general were each wrapped up in issues of either racism or sexual assault. And of course, because if all three were to step down the next in line for the governorship is a Republican, the Virginia Dems have found themselves in quite the existential crisis.

Naturally this has set up a very direct opposition of motivations, with Republicans calling for the heads of the leadership, and the Democrats resisting, because, well, what else would possibly happen in this situation? It would be absurd for either side to pretend that they would behave differently were the roles reversed, though the mitigating factor here is that many among the Democrats are indeed calling for the resignation of at least some of these leaders, particularly Governor Ralph Northam.

I’m here to say that Northam should most definitely stay in office, and to explain why I feel that it has nothing to do with his party affiliation, and much more to do with his character and record as a governor.

When accusations of racism or sexual misconduct come about, there tend to be many examples of “what-aboutism” thrown around. While our guy may be bad, he’s nothing compared to the horrors of what your guy has done.

In this case, Gov. Northam made a very serious mistake when he was a young man. And he doubly screwed himself with his ridiculous response to the fiasco, in which he initially admitted to being in the racist photo in question, and then walked that back while simultaneously fessing up to actually having donned blackface at a different moment. During that surreal press conference, he seemed on the verge of actually doing the moonwalk in front of the assembled media.

Northam’s opponents certainly have a case for claiming that his judgment has been pretty terrible throughout this ordeal. I’m less convinced that he should step aside due to his insensitivity and ignorance regarding the issue of race.

It’s not simply an issue of the incidents in question having happened 35 years ago. One must also examine the current state of the man to truly evaluate whether we stand to gain, or lose, from his resignation. As has been pointed out, in observing his record as governor, Northam has been friendly to the interests of those whom his thoughtless behavior impugned.

The fact is, the majority of black voters in Virginia prefer that he stay on as governor, and at this point in time it would be wise to defer to them on this matter. It would be horribly unfair if an accusation of racism were to jettison a leader who has helped Virginia move forward on issues of race. As a legislator, Northam consistently voted down attempts at voter suppression, and voted to increase the minimum wage, moves that disproportionately benefit constituents of color.

As a white person, it really isn’t up to me to decide what sort of forgiveness may be extended to Gov. Northam. That’s for the people his actions have hurt to decide. But I do think it’s important to at least keep the possibility of redemption on the table. And to do so especially for those who have owned up to their past behavior and recognized it for what it was: completely unacceptable.

Early last year, actor and comedian Aziz Ansari was accused, by an anonymous woman, of sexual misconduct. The article was met with a variety of reactions, but it touched off a discussion about the gap in expectations between men and women when it came to sexual encounters.

In the wake of the reaction to this incident, I wrote an open letter to Ansari, describing my evolving understanding of the situation, and my wish that he would handle it differently. I highly doubt the letter ever got to him, but it still reflects my feelings. I believe he should have owned up to his failings, and declared, “I still have work to do.”

On the contrary, Ansari chose to issue a statement saying that the encounter “by all indications was completely consensual,” and accepting no blame at all. As I wrote, I understood the risk he would be taking were he to admit to his failings, and that it could impact his whole career, and that his lawyers probably told him to put his head down and power through. But this sort of approach helps to perpetuate the very injustices that Ansari, in his progressive comedy, ostensibly seeks to root out.

Like the comedian, politicians usually follow the path of denial, given that the only witnesses might be the victim making the accusation, or a college drinking buddy with a hazy memory. Their calculation is shrewd—they reason that they’re much likelier to survive the scandal based on lack of evidence than based on contrition. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If we accept that politicians, like the rest of us, are human beings, and are guaranteed to make mistakes, particularly in their youth, it opens up the space to offer them forgiveness based on the person they’ve become. And I would much rather be led by a flawed but honest person than by one who maintains their spotless veneer by painting over it with lies.

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8 thoughts on “Encouraging Honesty by Offering Forgiveness”

  1. Thank you Rany Lioz for your clear thinking on this issue. I really love what you have done with your essay, and the title of your piece is striking and powerful “Encouraging Honesty by Offering Forgiveness. I am also struck by these words “I would rather be led by a flawed but honest person than by one who maintains their spotless veneer by painting it over with lies. Great work!

  2. Northam has not changed his ways as evidenced by the Latino Victory Fund Ad smearing Ed Gillespie, Funny, not funny, when it is in fact Northam who has engaged in abhorrent and racist behavior.

    Randy, you insinuate that people like Judge Kavanaugh are guilty when there is no evidence of him engaging in any wrong doing. There is in fact plenty of evidence to counter the falsehoods spread by attention seeking and money grubbing women who lack integrity.

    If this is the kind of nonsense “Braver Angels” is promoting as being a way to reduce conflict and division it is an utter failure.

    1. I’m not familiar with the LVF ad, so I’m certainly not claiming to know the whole state of the man. I would be interested to see how Latinos feel about him as governor.

      And while I didn’t mention Justice Kavanaugh by name, he’s certainly on my mind, because I did think that the testimony about him from Dr. Blasey Ford was compelling and believable, while his own testimony was not. Unfortunately it was a he-said/she-said situation, and naturally this wouldn’t be enough to convict him in a court of law. But yes, I do believe he did those things, and I would have really liked to see evidence of a man who had changed significantly over time, but alas I saw nothing of the kind. That is why I would not suggest that he should be forgiven at this point.

  3. Mr. Lioz,

    I was struck by your statement that Mr. Ansari should admit to his failings. His claims is that the encounter was consensual. Where is his failing? Why should he seek forgiveness if he is innocent? Why are you so offended that you feel compelled to send him a letter of prejudgment?

    The fact that a 35 year old claim of “blackface” even makes the news is worthy of analysis. You call it a “very serious mistake”. I beg to differ. It was a mistake, but it was hardly serious. Serious would be committing a crime or hurting someone.

    You also castigate him for his honesty in recognizing that he wasn’t in the picture as alleged, but that he had been blackface earlier. You claim that he botched the whole affair in how he handled it. I don’t see it the same way. He was refreshingly honest.

    I would submit that much of the problem of modern day politics is that under the microscopic lenses of hypersensitivity, media attention, and electronic communication every speck of dust looks like a boulder.

    1. David, thanks for your comment about this piece. I definitely think it’s worth mentioning how much internal conflict I experienced during the Ansari news about whether I thought he was in the wrong. If you read the open letter, you may have gotten a sense of this. At first it didn’t seem to me that he’d done anything wrong, but in reading the writing of other women about their own experiences, I recognized the classic repeating pattern of pressure and retreat that I’m guessing a fairly high percentage of young (and older) men have engaged in. I’m not blameless in this regard. And reading about how women are forced to handle this, it opened my eyes to the other side of that experience, and the enormous chasm between the experiences of men and women when it comes to sex, and particularly “bad sex.” This is something that I think Aziz still needs to learn more about, just as I need to keep learning. “Innocent” is not a simple binary concept, and there’s certainly a reasonable discussion around the amount of responsibility that “Grace” bore in the situation. But I’m committed to bettering myself, and I just wish that Aziz would make the same commitment.

      Regarding Gov. Northam, my criticism of him wasn’t really about his faulty memory or his admission of earlier guilt. It was about whether he took the time to understand the situation before responding, and indeed his mistake of decades early was very serious if you believe the perspective of people of color, who I think possess the most relevant one. Yes, there’s certainly historical context to be considered, such that white people didn’t quite realize at the time how hurtful the act of blackface was, but that doesn’t mitigate the seriousness from the general perspective.

      I will agree with you that I appreciate his honesty, and while I’m not sure I see as much hypersensitivity as you do, I think we can both agree that he can be judged with the kindness owed to a man who is trying to be better every day.

      1. David Ludescher


        My opinion is that the Democratic and Republican party reactions to Gov. Northam combined with the media frenzy over the blackface incident 35 years ago firmly establishes that honesty for a modern day politician is usually the worst possible political course of action. I suspect that is why so few have the courage of Gov. Northam.

        I agree that the Democrats faced an existential crisis. The irony is that it was a crisis of their own making. They didn’t want to admit that being a blackface 35 years was a minor indiscretion because doing so would cause its own boiling media controversy. On the other hand, the Republicans were more than willing to watch Northam boil in the pot, and even feign that they cared about the blackface incident 35 years ago. To his credit, Northam did not bumble his way through the press releases and conferences. Instead he admitted to being a blackface.

        In the case of Ansari and Cavanaugh there seems to be a general opinion among the public – an opinion which you seem to share – that it is possible for a member of the public to weigh the evidence, determine credibility, and judge the accused based solely on what we hear in our favorite media source, read on Facebook, or hear from our friends. The fact is that even with all of the protections in our legal system – due process, right to an attorney, right to a jury trial, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and a neutral judge, dozens of innocent men and women have been convicted of crimes that they did not commit. When we rely on our own perceptions of truth, we end up believing that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iran or that the Russians and Facebook caused Donald Trump to be elected.

        I agree that innocence isn’t a binary concept. It is, or should be, a presumption that we maintain until we have heard the evidence from a reliable source that would suggest otherwise. I am not prepared to state that either Ford or Cavanaugh were telling the truth; what I am prepared to say is that both truthfully testified to what they remembered, and that the evidence of guilt was not enough to suggest that the presumption was overcome. What was regretful about the hearings is that much of the focus of the hearing centered around 35 year old allegations, which could neither be proven nor disproven when the focus should have been on Cavanaugh’s extensive legal career which should have established whether or not he was fit for the job.

        In my opinion, the Senate in general, and the Senate Democrats in particular owe Ford, Cavanaugh, and the American people an apology. For Ford and Cavanaugh, the Senate dragged both of them through the mud for no reason other than a spectacle. For the American people, it owes an apology for turning what should been solemn deliberations in the world’s premier democracy for one of the most important jobs in the land into a Saturday Night Live week long skit. Now, as soon as the Senate, and my own senator, Amy Klobuchar, honestly admits to its and her participation in this spectacle, the sooner I can give my forgiveness.

        1. I think it’s important to remember that the standard for conviction in a court of law does not apply in instances where we’re judging someone for a possible job. While evidence of compromised character is not nearly enough to send someone to jail (nor should it be), a hiring manager would be well within their rights to pass over a job candidate for displaying poor judgment or a lack of moral strength. The Senate is the Supreme Court’s hiring manager, and while many Democrats there highlighted lots of situations in which they felt Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence was disqualifying, they knew the only way they could possibly convince Republicans to vote against him was to highlight his character failings. And while I can’t think of any instances during the hearings when Senate Democrats failed to treat him with the respect that he’s earned professionally, I think pretty much every blue lost complete respect for Kavanaugh when he responded to Klobuchar’s question about drinking to the point of blacking out with, “Have you?”

          And again, I think it’s very difficult and fraught for you or I to call donning blackface a “minor indiscretion” without deferring to the viewpoint of the people in the black community who have suffered the indignity of minstrelsy since the 1830s. There are plenty of things that we white people thought weren’t that big a deal before we were confronted with the voices of people who had been silenced for most of history.

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