Rethinking our outrage

Rethinking our outrage
By Jarrett Bellini | @JarrettBellini | February 4, 2019

Ralph Northam should resign. 

But not for revelations about what he did 35 years ago. He should step down for how he responded. Which is to say: Rather poorly. 

After we all learned about a racist photo from his past - the one that somehow got approved for his personal page in a medical school yearbook despite showing someone dressed as a Klansman standing next to another guy in blackface, the governor of Virginia basically responded, "It was me. Just kidding. No it wasn't. Who wants to see me moonwalk?"

This is an actual elected leader in charge of an actual US state. (A Commonwealth if you want to be a dick about it.) And this makes him objectively important. But under stress and scrutiny, clearly not capable of critical response.

All he had to say was, "Yes. That was me in the photo. I was young. I thought I was being funny. It didn't come from a place of hatred, but from a moment of youthful ignorance. It's not representative of who I was, and certainly not representative of who I am."


He really didn't even need to say he was sorry. Because, shy of egregious felonies, it's insane for a grown man to overly apologize for stupid shit he did when he was a kid.

Now, let's just be perfectly clear about something. Blackface and KKK outfits represent racism and are wildly offensive. They're not funny. They're not cute. And they're not appropriate. Full stop.

But we, as the audience of such things when they emerge, do need to take a breath and not be outraged by every skeleton in the closet. Because sometimes good people do bad things. 

I know I have.

When I was in college, I made a (loosely qualifying) comedy video for campus TV. And, in doing so, I attempted a holocaust joke. A really bad one.

The other night, when discussing the Ralph Northam news with friends, I was reminded of this old joke and explained it to them. Their response was, "Jesus, dude."

So, yeah. It was bad. Arguably even worse because of who I am.

A Jew. 

At the time, I thought this gave me permission to go places others could not. As a 19 or 20-year-old douchebag, I somehow considered it art. Because, as Andy Warhol said, "Art is what you can get away with."

And, by virtue of having had a Bar Mitzvah, I thought I could "get away" with it. That I was being edgy. 

But I'm a 40-year-old man now. And I can say, unequivocally, there was nothing artful or edgy about it. It was dumb. It was ugly. And I wish I could go back in time and not make that joke.

Though I was and continue to be the self-loathing type, I certainly wasn't anti-Semitic. Not then. Not now. But if, today, you didn't know me and saw that old video you'd have every damn reason in the world to think I was. 

And should I be holding a position of power (as opposed to my current position of half-dressed, hungover, and slumped on the couch) you would also have every damn reason in the world to seek my resignation.

Hell, I probably shouldn't even bring it up at all. 

But I think it's important to acknowledge something like this in the context of Ralph Northam. 

Because, in his situation, none of us were there. We can only make assumptions. So, let's do that, first by assuming he is, in fact, present in the photograph. 

OK. Pretty bad. He's either in blackface or dressed as a Klansman. And neither will earn you a merit badge.

But I can totally envision a situation in which he and a friend thought, "Hey, know what would be funny? If you went as a Klansman and I went as a black guy. And we just hung out at the party drinking together as friends. You know? Two total opposites. That'd be funny, right? People might laugh."

Of course, it's clearly not funny. But, in this scenario, it's also not born from a place of hatred or bigotry. At least not that we know of. That's where context comes in.

Was there a pattern of this kind of behavior? To my knowledge, nobody has come out and said, "Oh, yeah. Ralph was a racist piece of shit. This was totally the norm for him."

Patterns matter. Context matters. Age matters.

Just ask the Catholic school MAGA kids.

Remember when we were all so outraged by them? Remember when we collectively orgasmed on Twitter, one-upping each other with fresh hot takes? It seemed like everyone had something to say.

I did.

Though, to be fair, I wasn't so much outraged as I was frothing at the mouth to make a bad pun. But even that probably wasn't appropriate without having all the facts.

I'm sure the Covington kids aren't terrible people. They're just kids. They were confronted with a crazy situation in a crazy environment and they acted in questionable ways. The "smug" one that we all talked about ... yeah, OK, he sort of came off as a jerk. Bad optics. But we don't know this guy. Maybe he was caught up in the moment, only trying to get a rise out of his friends. 

But whatever. It was dumb. The outrage was dumb. We're all dumb. And, MAGA hat or not, there was no reason to ruin this kid's life because of a singular moment in his youth where, really, he was only guilty of kinda looking like an asshole. 

Of course, one must then ask: When do kids stop being kids? When is it OK to hold people accountable?

It's a fair question, but the answer falls into an unsatisfying gray area. Because there is no answer. We all mature at different times and under different life circumstances. 

All I'm saying is, within reason, we need to allow young people to make ugly mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. Because the modern world is one giant lens. And I promise you it only gets worse from here. 

We're all walking around with smart phones. Everything we do is being photographed and recorded. Which means as kids of this era come into adulthood and, for some, into public life, there's going to be lots of weird stuff that emerges. 

Some of it will be funny. Some will be ugly. But, despite how cathartic it might be to tear a person down, we could all do well to just shake our heads, look the other way, and remember what it was once like to have a still-developing prefrontal cortex.

"I was young," some of you might argue. "I never wore blackface."

Fantastic. But that doesn't make you a hero. It just means somebody else did something stupid that you did not. 

Good. People. Do. Bad. Things. 

Fortunately, as a society, we're becoming more evolved. It's generally understood now that acting in anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic ways - even as a joke - is inappropriate. But it still happens. And will continue to happen. Pretty much until forever.

We're just going to have to use our best judgement when others have not.

And we're also going to have to be prepared to fully dismiss a slew of straight up embarrassing photos. Because there's already lots of them out there. And more are on the way.

So, to that, I'll share one last personal tidbit of shame.

I was in a fraternity in college. It was fun. I made some really good lifelong friends and had some incredibly memorable experiences. That said, I'm not sure I would do it all over again if I could go back in time.

But, nevertheless, there I was. A Delta Chi at American University where we would often throw off-campus house parties. And sometimes at those parties there would be an appearance by Sock Man.

Sock Man was when one of us would emerge from the top of the stairs wearing a strategically-placed tube sock. 

"Sock Man! Sock Man! Sock Man!"

It was always a big hit. As it should be.

Well, sometimes I was Sock Man. And if I ever run for political office, I fully expect to see a photo of this honor on the front page of Huffington Post and Drudge. And then everyone can be temporarily outraged. 

So, for if and when that day comes, I'll just go ahead and make it easy for you. Here's that photo (slightly altered for the sake of your lunch).

Mind you, besides the sock, I have no idea what I'm wearing. Things must've gotten weird. Lordy.

But there it is. You've seen me as Sock Man and I've told you about my regrettable joke. And, today, I can own up to both of these with a simple shrug. 

Because neither define my character. Not even a little bit.

Governor Ralph Northam's insane response may, however, define his.

Now, who wants to see me moonwalk?


Unknown said...

Hey Jarrett,

No “Fixes” for this one! Well done and well said...for sure.

And it makes me Very proud to think I had a tiny part in your writing development. The 5 paragraph box essay would definitely not have worked for this subject.

Keep on keepin on,

Terry Kearney, the Old English teacher

Jarrett Bellini said...

You would be AMAZED at how often I think about those 5 paragraph essays. For sure!

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