Gov. Northam and the Death of Irreverence

Ralph Northam, governor, at least for the moment, of the Commonwealth of Virginia, should stop apologizing. To clarify, he should at least stop apologizing for the photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook photo showing one person in blackface standing next to another in Ku Klux Klan regalia.

Northam’s endorsement of infanticide is another matter. That gesture demands not just an apology but also a full-throated confession, self-flagellation, resignation, and a life long begging of God’s forgiveness.

For the moment, though, let’s stick to the offending photo. For those who are young and snowflaky, let us put the photo in perspective. It was taken near the tail end of what we might nostalgically call the Age of Irreverence.

We might trace the beginning of that age to the release of Stanley Kubrick’s “spoof” on nuclear war Dr. Strangelove, a film released and much praised in 1964. Other highlights of the era include the Mel Brooks’s 1967 Nazi-spoof, the Producers, Tom Wolfe’s flaming 1970 satire, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Brooks’s 1974 classic Blazing Saddles, the emergence of the crypto-conservative National Lampoon in 1970 and its stepchild, Saturday Night Live in 1975. The era continued at least until the publication of Tom Wolfe’s scathing take on urban politics in 1987, Bonfire of the Vanities.

Brooks has admitted that he could not have made Blazing Saddles today. Characters freely use the “n-word,” tell rape jokes and punch horses. Audiences at the time realized Brooks was making case against racism. Young audiences today would be storming out of the theater even before Slim Pickens told his workers to stop jumping around like “a bunch of Kansas City f-----s!.” (As a resident of Kansas City, I resemble that remark.) The other cultural products of that age -- Pat, anyone? -- would face similar resistance.

During the Age of Irreverence, young people like Northam used the occasion of Halloween to tweak, to shock, to step out of oneself for an evening and be mischievous. I know this from experience. Married to a university professor, we traveled in circles at the time that were overwhelming liberal, racially diverse, and precociously gay, even trans. Halloween parties in this era, among this crowd, were highly competitive.

I recall one year my wife and I attended a Halloween party with our theater friends in which we would have been counted as underdogs in the “best costume” contest. Several of these people were professional costumers. A few arrived in extravagant drag, including one fellow who came as the rare 6’—9” (in heels) bride, in full bridal regalia to be sure.

That year my wife had an inspiration. She came as Jackie Kennedy on the day of the assassination. She found a perfect pink suit and pillbox hat and covered it with red dye and dyed sponge chunks. Offensive? Yes, that was the point.

Mixing metaphors, I came as the then new Polish Pope, John Paul II. No Polish joke was left unturned. I wore a bowling shirt over an actual bishop’s regalia, covered my bowling ball with glitter, and carried a cassette playing Polka music.

I should add, by the way, that I am Catholic, was and remain a huge fan of John Paul II, and headed up my block’s children’s crusade for JFK in 1960. Even today, I still get a little verklempt when I see images of John Kennedy.

Despite the competition, we thought we had a chance to win. Our hearts sank when we saw the opposition. A young gay friend of ours came as Uganda’s murderous despot Idi Amin, in blackface of course, wearing an outfit that appeared to have been robbed from Amin’s wardrobe. His friend came as a perfectly turned-out Adolf Hitler. He was goose-stepping all over the place, stealing votes from us with every “Sieg Heil.” We somehow won by a nose and are still congratulating ourselves.

I cannot say I am innocent of blackface myself. As a child, I dressed one Halloween as Aunt Jemima. No one took offense. I did not have to use shoe polish as Northam claimed. Five and Dimes sold blackface makeup.

In the mid-80’s, I made my second appearance in blackface.

A Nigerian friend had given me a full-length dashiki. My wife crocheted a near perfect set of dangling cornrows, and I applied the blackface bought at my neighborhood Five and Dime. With sunglasses and a tape playing, “Superstition,” I won best of show at every party I attended. Stevie Wonder was a hit!

I suspect I was the only Reagan voter at many of these parties. That said, I am confident that if a couple had come to one such party with one partner in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, that duo would have given me a run for my money. The partygoers would have appreciated the outrageous irony of it all.

Yes, of course, Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler, and the Ku Klux Klan are bad. That was the point. In 1967, Mel Brooks understood that the best way to defeat the evil that was Nazi Germany was with humor. In 2019, the left has no sense of humor. Comedians, such as they are, have become fawning court jesters in the corridors of power. Irreverent humor lives on in South Park, Colorado, but almost no place else.

The right makes a major strategic error by honoring the left’s rules. Progressives demand Northam’s resignation only to preserve “race” as a weapon to be used against the right. As much as Northam deserves a public burning for his racial hypocrisy, conservatives should not be the ones lighting the matches.

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