Dr. Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, aetat. 59, is under enormous pressure to resign his position after a conservative website revealed the fact that his page in his medical school yearbook from 1984 carries a photograph of two men, one in blackface and the other in the robes of the KKK, standing side by side. The governor’s first and apparently unconsidered response was to admit that he is indeed one of the men. His second, coming 24 hours later, was to deny that he is either of them. Since he admits to having appeared wearing a facial coat of dark shoe polish on another occasion, the presumption must be that he considers blackface a lesser crime than a night-rider’s robes. Perhaps he is right, since Michael Jackson spent most of his life undergoing treatment to turn his naturally black face unnaturally white. Though Jackson has been dead a full decade now, his recordings have never been boycotted for this racist offense—in his case, an act of racial treason. Indeed, they continue to sell very well, and his memory is still cherished by his fans even as his work remains honored.
“The past is another country,” L.P. Hartley said; “they do things differently there.” Hartley, born in 1895, died in 1972. His life thus spanned part of an age where “the past” lasted a good deal more than a decade or two, and social mores and moral systems along with it. In this respect, the 1970’s in the West, even after the revolutionary 60’s, had far more in common with the 1890’s than 2019 has with 1984, just as 2019 has with the year after which George Orwell’s novel was named. In the 1980’s no one, not even Megyn Kelly, supposed blackface to be a sin against the Holy Ghost, humanity, or even the black race. In those days people still had a sense of humor and proportion, though both qualities were shortly to be tested severely. Condemning people of a certain age today for having performed such stunts 35 years ago is like ostracizing American octogenarian or nonagenarians for having patronized Le Moulin Rouge in the 1920’s. By contrast, buying or performing an abortion in Richmond, Virginia, in 2019 is no less criminal an act than choosing or performing one in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. This is why President Trump was right to condemn Dr. Northam’s near-endorsement of infanticide only days before the infamous yearbook was retrieved from the mists of history, but wrong to criticize him for his seeming appearance as either minstrel or Grand Wizard. Instead, he should have left that sort of thing to the left, which is expert at it and can be counted upon never to allow an opportunity to indulge its expertise go unmissed.