The case of Governor Ralph Northam
Contrary to popular belief, not all human beings are static. We begin as the products of our genetic heritage (pro or con) as affected by the nurturing (or not) environments of our homes and communities. Matters of religion, ethnic culture, lifestyle, economics, education, beliefs, professionalism, nutrition, values, ethics, and the like (or the lack there of) are influences that are further affected by the schools we attend, the peers we consider friends, the social groups to which we gravitate, essentially the combined ethos of each. Needless to say, it’s complex. When we are young, we are probably not capable of knowing that there are other ways, at least not on our own.
As we initially mature, we are likely to try to perfect what we’ve learned by trying to please those around us. We try to become“more” than those around us. Such dynamics might lead to various forms of burgeoning fanaticism, for example, “I can recite more phrases of the Tanakh, verses of the Bible, or ayah of the Quran than anyone else.” The fanatical mechanism is probably not obvious to the new adherent but achievement of taught perfection is. The same applies to our respective ethos regarding all others not members of our groups. This mechanism is apparent in almost every societal group on the planet. The younger and less experienced or exposed we are to the rest of the world, the more likely it is to be the case.
As we grow, learn, are exposed to and experience other cultures, we come to a point of accepting that which we have been taught or choose to consider what we have been taught’s flaws. Dependent on how open we are to that process, we might evolve or we might crystalize our initial beliefs. The racial or ethnic variations and respective reactions within and between groups becomes some of the hardest challenges of life and the world today. These have a tendency to be crystal not fluid.
But there is hope. Some persons reach a point at which they consider reason over held belief. I call it the age of reason. There is developmental science to suggest that we are not fully, mentally formed until sometime in our mid twenties. As a point of reference, a generous one I might add, let’s consider that mid-twenties point.
Ralph Northam is a product of Virginia, more specifically, a small town on the southern portion of the eastern peninsula. The Eastern Shore remains a somewhat rural, isolated, agricultural portion of the Commonwealth. He was the son of a lawyer and a nurse, both in public service. Education was evident in his upbringing. Athletics and a family ethos of striving, excelling, and public service were evident in his accomplishments and aspirations. He successfully entered VMI, a relatively prestigious state school. He went on to become a medical doctor and Army Officer. In 2008, he became a Virginia State Senator where he served for two terms, then went on to be the Lieutenant Governor in 2014. His election as Governor, in 2017, was truly a focal point even in national politics.
But there are some backstory considerations.
The following is offered only as an alternative reference point, a mechanism of possible elaboration and contrast. Raised in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, for six years I was the ward of my Grandmother Elizabeth. She/We lived in an all white community composed of first and second generation Greeks, Poles, Hungarians, Slovakians, Czechs, and Germans most of whom still spoke their native languages at home. There were three prominent Christian religions in the mix. While the men worked together in the steel mills or coal mines, there were overt tensions between Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Greek Orthodox as well as each ethnic group. In public places, the situation was much as depicted in Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.” Each had epithets for others. Sometimes they were spoken angrily and sometimes in friendlier fashions. Later, I returned to northeastern Ohio, to an all white town with no noticeable ethnic or religious divisions.
Race was a relative unknown to me. Religion stunted by social development when I tried to take a Greek Orthodox classmate to a sock hop in 1959 only to have her mother slam the door. Ethnicity was clarified when, as a 13 year old, I came home and angrily referred to my best friend by the epithets of the day only to be seriously scolded by my grandmother who exclaimed, “God didn’t give us a choice when we were born to Poles, Hungarians, Catholics, or German folks. If it didn’t matter to Him, why should it matter to you?” Suffice to say, I entered an age of reason on such matters earlier than most. Thanks Grams!
When I joined the Navy in 1964, I went to boot camp and an enlisted service school during which I was exposed to people from groups I had never met before. Tribalism, as I have come to call it, was evident in almost every combination of my new peers.
Most of my white peers from southern states, for example, were overtly the worst. They had equal disdain for practically everyone not them. Now African-Americans were avoided and openly called by ugly epithets. Other non-white persons were angrily called by their respective epithets. Even white people, like myself (Ohio and Pennsylvania), were referred to as damn yankees and reminded daily that “The South would rise again” as their rooms were festooned with the Stars and Bars and other now offensive memorabilia.
In boot camp, I made my first black and Filipino friends. In service school, I met my first Jewish friend, Marshall, and had my first black, real friend Fred. As friends are prone to do, we went places and did things together. Fred was referred to by the most common epithet while I was referred to as the same epithet with the suffix “lover.” The anger expressed by the speakers of such words never made much sense to me but I saw how the words affected Fred. Fortunately for us, we played on a football team, the defensive end and linebacker pair that shutdown almost every play that came in our direction.
Fred, Marshall, and I went to the United States Naval Academy the following year. We found a higher level of sophistication. All three of us graduated four years later. On reflection, by the time I was 19, I had learned of racial prejudice and had become keenly aware of it. By the time I was 23, I had learned that no matter where you came from or who you were, if you could demonstrate achievement of an entry criterion, you could be successful.
Then there were ideas. Two of the many ideas we were marinated in at the Naval Academy were “Non sibi, sed patriae” and the West Point concept of quibbling. At the Naval Academy, a quibbler was referred to as a “sea lawyer.” You didn’t want to be called a sea lawyer.
But I digress.
Any of us who have survived to the age of running for public office have our own histories and stories such as those above. Governor Northam is no different. A Virginia gem for most of his life, almost storied, very visible, a seemingly good person. The alleged occurrence that he may be and may not be guilty of, is and was horrid and unacceptable. In the past, only the offended cared. The offenders were likely the pre-age of reasoning, future fanatics who had yet to make a choice: evolve or crystalize. Some of us, by the blessing of the persons who and events that influenced us or, essentially the simple situations in which we found ourselves, were not likely to make such a mistake, if indeed he did. Today, Ralph Northam is a decent man, one I believe who has, if he ever had them, put away childish things. Unfortunately, that is not where the story ends. He’s in public life.
What do you do when you have been given lemons?
This is where Governor Northam’s actions have been brought into question. If there is a tragedy in the story, it has been about the last five days. To first say that it was “you” then, two days later, change the story with embellishments intended to ameliorate the circumstance that it was “not you” is quibbling, something a VMI grad was likely to have heard in his upbringing. In public office, especially with the example in the White House today, quibbling is an automatic disqualifier.
Then there is the example to be set. There is the situation of forcing your political peers and supporters into an situation of potential hypocrisy. The outcome of Governor Ralph Northam’s decision in this matter has immediate, national consequences in a climate that is already replete with lies, damn lies, and a lack of statics (I beg your forgiveness Sam Clemens). At this point, the court of public opinion is in and the verdict is complicated and potentially unjust, but the right answer is probably “Non sibi, sed patriae,” (Not for self but country). Thank you for having been our Governor.