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Running with the hare, hunting with the hounds

 

Jack LB GohnAs pretty much everyone knows by now, one photograph on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page is awful: a young white man in blackface next to another person in full Klan robe and hood. Although Northam has given fuzzy explanations for how that photo may have gotten there or whether he was either of the figures shown, it is hard to doubt that he had something to do with the picture’s being on that page, especially given his undergraduate campus nickname — “Coonman.” Predictably, the revelation of the yearbook photo has led to calls for Northam to step down.

Should he?

Lili Loofbourow of Slate has done a deep dive into the significance of the image.

“A yearbook page was a pre-Facebook way to present yourself as you wished to be seen,” she wrote. “Yearbooks are as aspirational as they are commemorative.”

The image was one of four on the yearbook page, each presenting a different face of Northam. Wrote Loofbourow: “There’s a straight-on suit-and-tie portrait: serious, sincere. There’s the cowboy hat photo, leg up, shirt partly unbuttoned. There’s [a photo with a Corvette] with an easygoing Northam leaning against it in the shade. The elements this particular yearbook subject wished to convey are pretty legible: He wished to be considered a serious man, but also a country boy, but also a fun car guy, but also … and here we falter, because it’s hard to guess at what exactly the racist picture meant to this well-rounded self-fashioner.”

Loofbourow concludes, however, with a canny guess about the intent. “The other photos on that page confirm him as serious, dreamy, outdoorsy. I suspect the final photo was there to round out the portrait of the physician as a young rascal. The response was supposed to be OMG I can’t believe he did that! This guy’s flouting the PC powers that be and having fun doing it. He’s taking a risk! We approve!

But, Loofbourow notes, there wasn’t much risk because the powers that be generally do their bit to support “the suburban white boys whose future everyone protects.” In this reading, Northam becomes just another Brett Kavanaugh, a practitioner of “toxic homosociality” with privileged peers.

The thing is, this doesn’t square with what else we have been told of the man. Two sentences from Northam’s campaign website are particularly telling. “Ralph grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and attended local public schools. When his school desegregated, many families sent their children elsewhere — but not the Northams. Ralph’s called his parents’ decision to continue to send him to integrated schools ‘one of the best decisions of my life.’” Nor does it square with what we know of his career: Northam served in the U.S. Army for eight years, rising from second lieutenant to major; had a distinguished career in military medicine; was chief neurological resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital; taught medicine and ethics; and volunteered for 18 years at a hospice for terminally ill children.

Northam’s career differs dramatically from the career of self-aggrandizement that Kavanaugh pursued, a career notable principally for its devotion to the interests of the wealthy and the reactionary.

At a minimum, the honor, idealism, empathy and racially integrationist ethos suggested by Northam’s history tell us that he runs with the hares at least as much as he hunts with the hounds. The notorious photo signaled to a coterie of racist classmates that he was one of them – but his life suggests that there was much more to Northam.

Were all our behavior and thoughts held up to a similar scrutiny, most of us would probably turn out to have spent some time with hares and some time with hounds in one hunt or another, at one time or another. Few of us are so internally consistent that our former behavior matched our ideals at the time, and even fewer of us can say our former behavior perfectly matches our present ideals. What matters more is how injurious the inconsistency is, and also how current, because most of us grow wiser and kinder as experience and exposure to the world shape our views.

More information about the Northam affair is probably forthcoming. But in light of what is known at this point, it seems premature to call for his head.

Jack L.B. Gohn is partner emeritus with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.


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