Lately we have had many examples of extreme reactions to the past and present deeds of people in the public sphere. In some instances those reactions are far out of proportion to what was actually done. In others they are cases of judging people of the past by standards of the present. The overblown responses in the first instance are done to score political points and put the poor “guilty one” over a barrel i to extract recompense. In the second instance, those exaggerated responses are done to signal the virtue of those making the judgments, with little actual positive effect on anyone.
We Virginians have many current examples of the former. Gov. Northam’s alleged appearance in blackface in his medical school annual has elicited grossly magnified negative responses. In turn he has groveled inordinately, thus making the original offense seem as large as his outraged opponents aver. Though appearing in blackface was in bad taste and juvenile, who besides Northam has actually been harmed by dredging up his foolishness? Did that act of the early 80s put an indelible racist cast on the poor guy? Could he not have grown up? Has his recent record as a public actor revealed a racist agenda? . We need a little perspective here
A similar call for a more tolerant perspective should be extended to Attorney General Herring, but not to Lt. Gov. Fairfax. The reasons are obvious. The misdeeds of Northam and Herring are minor and far in the past while the alleged offenses of Fairfax are both serious and recent. Let the judicial process proceed.
The Roanoke chief of police has been subject to disproportionate outrage for small offenses, if indeed they were offenses at all. Warning young women to be careful at hard-drinking parties was not exactly the worst sexist remark ever made. Assuming that some rap music has violent connotations was not exactly an example of virulent racism. People who got their dander up for those small offenses had little common sense perspective.
Our country has had many examples of disproportionate outrage. One of the most egregious recent examples of inflating minor offenses was that surrounding Kate Smith, whose recording of “God Bless America” was used at innumerable athletic events, but especially by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers actually put up a statue in her honor. Some virtue-signaling troll found that she sang a racist-tinged song in the 30s! Off went her recorded renditions of the song and down came her statue. Not only was this a case of inflated outrage but also of judging people of the past with standards of the present. Let’s put things into perspective.
Similarly, the recent fashion of removing statues of Confederate soldiers are a useless case of virtue-signaling with little practical effect besides angering a lot of those who cherish their Southern heritage. The deeds of those figures were far in a very ambiguous past. Most statues persist in oblivion, only to be brought to light by righteous activists. True, Lee, Jackson, Davis, and others made dreadfully wrong commitments that had enormous negative effects. As tragic figures they made flawed decisions that brought them down. But all tried to live productive lives after their defeat. They had great positive virtues and exercised them after the war. Heck, Grant was far kinder and more tolerant to Lee than our current virtue signalers. Let’s be a little forgiving.
If we judged harshly all public figures who lived with racist assumptions in the 19th and early 20th centuries (be fearful, Woodrow Wilson!) we would have to blot out nearly all the public actors in our past. David Bittle, founding president of Roanoke College, would not pass muster. Julius Dreher, its third president, would. Though he fought for the Confederacy, he later campaigned for education for black children. Even so, I suppose he made patronizing remarks about black people that would get him denounced by the righteous of the present day. But let’s put things into perspective.
It looks like we may get a real challenge about honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently released FBI documents indicate his sexual escapades were far more offensive than most of us knew. But should we rename those thousands of streets named after him? I don’t think so. He had great virtues and he performed great deeds. But, he, like many great public figures, was a flawed man. Let’s have a sense of proportion. Let a bit of common sense prevail.