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Stalinist show trials, American style

Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who denied being in a picture that showed a man in blackface and another in a KKK hood. The picture appeared on his medical school yearbook page. | AP photo

Of all the headlines about the scandals concerning the alleged past sins of one after another high official in Virginia, one struck me most poignantly. It was this, from the front page of The Washington Times:

“Democrats to vet candidates closely for secrets in past.”

OPINION

Maybe I have spent too much time as a foreign correspondent in other lands trying to understand the importance of past events in those societies, if only to save us the pain of repeating them. But the first thing that came to my “corrupted” mind when I read that were images of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s.

If you don’t remember them, you should. The Russian Communists, especially under the demented Joseph Stalin, culled the ranks of even the most mild dissenters by putting those “devils” up on trial; worse, they were forced to confess to past sins they had not even remotely committed, through a mixture of terror and psychological destruction of the personality.

Thus, the state destroyed not only their bodies, but their souls.

Now, obviously, the drubbing in the media recently against Gov. Ralph Northam for allegedly dressing in blackface at a party in the early 1980s, against Attorney General Mark R. Herring for the same malfeasance, and against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax for alleged sexual assaults in 2002 and 2004, falls far short of that Mongol-Marxist cruelty of Moscow. But one can find elements of that cynical mentality “right here in River City.”

Think of the Democratic Gov. Northam, who by all accounts has been an excellent state governor (in a nation hungering for good governance, by the way). He and his family attend a mixed-race church. His children attend public schools. He has a good record all around on civil rights.

But after the American-style media “show trial” we are witnessing today, his obituary is destined to read only: “Ralph Northam, who died today in Richmond, is remembered for dressing in blackface in his school yearbook.”

Is this fair? Is this what has happened to us at the nexus of nasty political correctness, conservative rage and the dwindling number of journalists who will stand up for the intelligent middle ground? Do we perhaps enjoy seeing good men and women squirm because we are jealous and have not realized our own goals?

Or is this perhaps a symptom of a once-great, now self-dissolving power?

Northam, after three days of muffed opportunities, did apologize, but no apology is ever going to be enough because the aim of the producers of these all-American show trials is to run on Broadway forever.

The aim is not Christian penitence or, God forbid, redemption. The intention is: (1) the slow-motion destruction of the accused individual, and (2) accrued power to the accuser (in Northam’s case, a little-known conservative journal).

There are larger issues to ponder here, as well.

First, it saddens me that too many of my journalistic colleagues, especially in cable news, are the ones not only reporting these stories, but repeating them daily, and even hourly, so that one can only judge the intent is not to inform, but to amuse, to mesmerize or to maim — like the old Soviet media.

Stories like Northam’s — and many more — should be two-day stories, with occasional follow-ups. In serious newspapering, they would never dominate the headlines as they have.

Second, we must ask whether there is a kind of “permanent victimization” taking place in our society when both nakedly ambitious or angry individuals and groups feel they can gain public notoriety — a cheap road to fame and celebrity — by smearing Americans they don’t like politically or personally and then keeping the charges going forever.

Has victimization become a profession?

The respected classicist and historian Victor Davis Hanson, of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is one who thinks so. What is fueling the return of American bias “is the new idea that citizens can disparage or discriminate against other groups if they claim victim status and do so for purportedly noble purposes,” he wrote recently in The Washington Times.

Racism is reprehensible and always has been. Dressing in blackface is disgusting. But we cannot keep going back, judging others’ acts then by values that we embrace now without the most dangerous moral disruptions to our society. It disfigures our public discussion; it destroys the reputations of otherwise decent men and women; and it is quite simply inherently unjust.

Let us learn from one of my favorite stories about the great and, remember, very controversial, Mahatma Gandhi:

Asked by an angry critic why he said one thing the week before and a different thing this week, the unflappable Gandhi answered simply, “Maybe I learned something since last week.”

Amen.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.