Explaining Virginia’s Crisis (to Japanese People)

Basic facts:

The governor of the state of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is probably going to have to resign in a scandal involving a photo of him as a medical school student in 1984, either wearing blackface or dressed as a Klansman.

This would normally mean that the vice-governor, Justin Fairfax, would succeed him.  It was briefly speculated that the succession of an African-American might heal some of the pain caused by the revelations about his predecessor. But Fairfax may have to resign due to accusations of assault by two women in 2000 and 2004. The Virginia Senate looks set to impeach him, based on the allegations which he denies.

Fairfax is thus probably out; this would normally mean that the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, would succeed as governor.  But Herring has admitted to wearing brown makeup “at a party” in 1980 as a nineteen-year-old while trying to imitate a rapper. This makes him as unsuitable as Northam for many.

The Democrats have long since adopted a zero-tolerance level for people with these kinds of skeletons in their closets. This is to enhance the party’s appeal among voters most energized around—increasingly safe, uncontroversial, mainstreamed—identity politics, while diverting attention from the fundamental problems of capitalism and imperialism. (The party bosses are terrified by the election of “socialists” on their ticket, and scrambling to marginalize newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes.) Hence the immediate condemnation of Fairfax by all his colleagues.

But if the fourth in the line of succession is a Republican, the Democrats in Virginia might decide to forgive him, noting that his admission was volunteered and showed remorse and people can change over four decades.

Some Virginia Basics

How to explain all this to, say, puzzled foreigners? I am thinking of my Japanese friends in particular, most of them only vaguely familiar with U.S. history. (As you may have heard, the Japanese Ministry of Education has long downplayed the teaching of world history in the curriculum, so Japanese people’s understanding of U.S. history, especially before the U.S.Occupation of 1945-52, is largely based on Hollywood.)

I’d begin by noting to such friends that the Commonwealth of Virginia is a very important U.S. state for many reasons. It was the birthplace of English colonization in the New World. The very first English colony was founded in Virginia (at Roanoake) in 1585, the first permanent one (Jamestown) in 1606. Think of it this way: just as Japan was reuniting as a country under the first Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu (who by the way retained in his service the first Englishman in Japan) this English presence was being planted in Virginia. So for a U.S. state, Virginia is very old.

The first African slaves in British North America were brought here in 1616, right after the tobacco plant. Slave labor grew the tobacco, rice, cotton, hemp, and sugarcane that drove the colony’s economy—and allowed men you’ve heard of, like the first president of the U.S. (George Washington), and the third president (Thomas Jefferson) to live in luxury here, while as slave-owners thought philosophically about “freedom” and “democracy.” It’s ironic that just as slavery was formally outlawed in Japan (by Hideyoshi in 1590), it was introduced into the New World by Europeans.

Virginia’s association with the founding of the original colonial project, plus the association with these leaders of the American Revolution, are generally matters of pride in the state. (Full disclosure: I went to fifth through eighth grades in Arlington, Virginia public schools. I once recited a speech, at a school-wide assembly, by a famous Virginian patriot named Patrick Henry who’d proclaimed: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”). The legacy of slavery is not a source of pride, for all but a tiny handful; it is of course (along with racism in general) officially condemned very piously all the time.

But many Virginians are proud of Gen. Robert E. Lee, a native son who led the army of the Confederate forces who rebelled against the United States to insure the survival of the system of slavery. Five out of the ten bloodiest battles of the Civil War were fought in Virginia. Lee was a man of integrity who surrendered with dignity, some argue, and died a loyal citizen of the United States. He has thus been used as a symbol of unity. (You might compare his image to that of several generals who fought on the Tokugawa side in 1868 but after their defeat loyally served the Meiji state.)

But he is not a symbol of unity. You might recall that Charlottesville, Virginia was much in the news in August 2017 after the statue of Gen. Lee on horseback in the city’s Lee Park was scheduled for removal.  The city council had ordered this in response to widespread opposition to the image as a statement of white supremacy.  Neofascists held a torchlight rally in defense of the statue (and the “white race” etc.). They chanted “Jews will not replace us!” because they hate Jews as well as blacks and don’t see them as white (which puzzles Japanese).

The statue remains covered but not yet removed. Compare the treatment of Saigo Takamori’s statue in Tokyo; he was a rebel against the modern state but his image is a celebrated landmark. Why, you ask, is Lee so despised? I think it’s because while Saigo (merely) supported a reactionary militarist cause (the invasion of Korea) against the Meiji government, Lee supported the cause of slavery.

Korean-Japanese may feel disgust at Saigo’s career; he did, after all, want to invade their country in 1873. But ethnic Koreans in Japan number under one million, under one percent of the total population. The descendants of slaves comprise about 12% of the U.S. population. You see why it’s impossible to honor Lee in this country? To do so is a direct provocation to many millions, and politically highly unpopular although many among Trump’s base want to contest this issue as the Charlottesville march (and murder) shows.

I should mention that this Virginia and neighboring Maryland surround the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., named after George Washington. (Again: Washington was the leading general on the revolutionaries’ side in the Revolutionary War, the first U.S. president, and a Virginia slave owner.)

Blackface and the KKK (and Sexual Assault)

But back to the Virginia governor successor problem. The current governor Ralph Northam is a mainstream member of the Democratic Party, which as you may know is one of the two parties that constitute the official U.S. “two-party system.”  He has been praised for having a female-majority cabinet and having a very broad and diverse support base. But he is accused of being one of two persons shown in the yearbook photograph.

What is blackface? It is the practice, beginning around 1830, of white people applying blackening agents to their faces, whitening their lips, using wigs to characterize African appearance, and performing on the banjo, a musical instrument of African origin introduced somehow into the New World by slaves, imitating African-Americans’ performance style in a generally disparaging way. (When Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1854, the treaty signed between Japan and the U.S. was celebrated by a blackface performance by U.S. sailors that delighted the Japanese and is depicted in several contemporary paintings.)

Some specialists on the topic see blackface minstrelsy as much more than mere racist propaganda, emphasizing its complexity. But it has come to be considered a racist form of entertainment in this country, and the world has generally come to condemn it. (There was a blackface/whiteface program on British television into the 1970s, just as Japanese cartoonists were coming under criticism for their racist depictions of black people which are less common today.)

What are Klansmen? These are members of groups rooted in the Ku Klux Klan, a group formed in the south after the Civil War in 1865. This KKK was (and is in its different lingering offshoots; it had over 3 million members in the 1920s but in the mid-thousands now) one of the most heinous terrorist organizations in world history. ISIL in Syria crucified children. The KKK lynched them. (That means hanging them from a tree so they die of strangulation, and also provide good photos to share with friends.) Lynching was used to maintain a general climate of fear in the black community.

Between 1882 and 1968, the number of black people lynched was 539 in Mississippi, 492 in Georgia, 335 in Alabama. In Virginia it was 82. Not the worst but surely part of the collective white memory at Eastern Virginia Medical School where Northam studied.

But why, my Japanese friend asks, is this so much an issue? It is all ancient history, isn’t it? And Northam and Herring were young when they did this. And didn’t British Prince Harry get in trouble for dressing as a Nazi but was then forgiven?

My response: You might suppose that a medical student in Virginia—haunted by racial matters since 1616—would in 1984 at age 25 have had the historical understanding, sensitivity and good sense not to appear that way, in that yearbook, in whatever context. (I must note that the governor having initially apologized for the photo now states he is not in it either as blackface minstrel or Klansman. But he has significantly stated that he did around the same time try to imitate Michael Jackson at an event in his festive youth and applied shoe polish to his face at the time.) But he didn’t.

Herring, now the chief law enforcement officer in Virginia, has readily confessed his own participation in blackface or comparable parody, noting how it was common at the time (ca. 1980). He calls for forgiveness but his party might drive him from power too. This shows how the boundaries of permitted racist speech have tightened over time in this country. It shows how immediately a career can be damned by the eventual revelation of racist statements (or what can be represented as such) or behavior in the fairly recent past. This is probably a good thing, although some people do reform.

The Fairfax case meanwhile shows how accusations of sexual assault can doom a politician, whatever the evidence or plausibility of the charges if cable news anchors can report “mounting calls” for resignation producing an air of inevitability as conveyed by the news directors’ teleprompter talking points. What do we know? One of the accusers met Fairfax at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 and after some kissing accompanied him to a hotel room where she says he forced her to engage in oral sex that he says was consensual. (He notes he was unmarried at the time.)  The other accuser was a classmate at Duke University in 2000 when she alleges Fairfax, then a basketball player, raped her. He denies everything but it seems the system is done with him.

Thus the whole leadership of this great state of Virginia is likely to fall.

Identity Politics

For reasons having nothing to do with their policies or positions, three men have fallen from grace in this country. Because of accusations of racism in the form of the actions I’ve tried to explain, which have no near-equivalents in Japan. Or in the one case, sexual assault accusations the details of which might not strike you as conclusive proof of guilt but which produced virtually immediate condemnation throughout the U.S. mainstream media.

Strident calls for resignation multiply. But there is no guarantee that any of the three will comply; they may all insist on retaining their posts to defend their honor. (Yes I know, Japanese politicians might behave differently.) In any case, this will remain a top news story for some time.

In the meantime the U.S. news media neglects coverage of the Yellow Vest movement in France, the ongoing Brexit crisis, the Israeli political crisis, the explosive growth of high-speed railroads in China and the development of the Silk Road Belt and Route initiative, the European refugee crisis, the recent Sino-Japanese summit, ongoing horror in Yemen, Taliban advances in Afghanistan, Russian-hosted Afghan talks, dire reports on the pace of global warming, European efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions in doing business with Iran.

Attention is instead focused on U.S. bourgeois politics, the Mueller probe, “Russian meddling” and Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East. Just as many Virginians have not come to grips with their past, contemporary journalists rarely grasp the fact that they live in an imperialist country that routinely by its nature goes to war, for the sake of profit but never explained as such but always justified by lies.

This was the case with the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the second Gulf War, the Libyan bombing, yes, even the Afghan War justified as a “war of necessity” although the Taliban were not responsible for 9/11.

So rather than exposing the nature of the system while investigating the urgent questions about world affairs, mainstream journalism marginalizes foreign reportage. When it does cover an issue like alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, it invariably accepts the State Department assessment as true, having learned nothing from the campaign official lies leading into the second Iraq War. It ignores scientific studies questioning the assessment, for the obvious political reason of discrediting President Assad.

The press is not covering the recent establishment of a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate non-dollar trade with Iran, circumventing the secondary sanctions the U.S. has so arrogantly announced it will apply on its closest allies such as Britain, Germany and France if they dare to disobey U.S. orders and trade with the sovereign country of Iran. This will include what Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, called a “special payments entity” to shield non-American companies from U.S. sanctions. There is not only a trade war underway with China but a  war with Europe over Europe’s right to trade as will in this world.

There was a time when Great Britain became perceived in the American colonies as an oppressive force. The grievances were mainly economic. It wasn’t just a matter of “taxation without representation” but British control over the colonists’ imports and exports. All tea had to be bought from the British East India Company from 1773. When the law was issued, colonists in Boston destroyed 342 chests of imported tea on the dock in protest.

The effort of Europe to resist the U.S.’s transparent effort to inflict pain on the Iranian people in order to produce an uprising by reestablishing normal relations is a bit like that rebellion. It’s a statement of defiance, a far more important news story than the Virginia political crisis, in my humble opinion. But the crisis itself teaches much about the contemporary political atmosphere here, which is increasingly characterized by identity politics and a focus on racism, women’s oppression and gay rights as mobilizing poles. TV news coverage reflects such priorities, which it can do without ever challenging capitalism or ever using the term imperialism (indeed, this word is forbidden).

So my Japanese friends, enjoy watching the unfolding Virginia drama from far away, aware that while it means much, it also means little.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu