In 1961 John Profumo, Minister of War in the British government and a married man, conducted a brief, tawdry affair with teenage party girl Christine Keeler. Among Miss Keeler’s other lovers was Yevgeni Ivanov, a Soviet military attaché and intelligence agent. When this potential threat to national security was raised in the House of Commons, Mr. Profumo did a foolish thing – he told a lie and denied that he had engaged in any “impropriety” with the lovely Christine.
Now, the British don’t mind politicians lying, nor do they care much about how the gentry cavorts with lower-class young men or women, but they do take “misleading the House” very seriously. Telling lies to a reporter or your constituents is all part of a politician’s life, but deliberately fibbing inside the sacred precincts of Parliament is just not done, old chap. So, John Profumo was forced to resign in disgrace. He disappeared from public life.
Profumo was a wealthy man who could have happily lived off his private income, but instead, in his darkest moment, he took up charity work in inner-city London. Never seeking any publicity, he dedicated his life to raising money for Toynbee Hall and its labours on behalf of the city’s poor. In 1975 British society recognized Profumo’s redemption – he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was received by both the Queen and the Prime Minister. He died in 2005, a well-respected citizen.
Profumo’s story is inspiring but it could never happen in contemporary North America. The likelihood of a cabinet minister resigning over a question of honour is very small; try and recall the last time it happened. The mendacity of politicians is now taken for granted and if their lips are moving, one may be certain that mistruths are being uttered.
But the main reason why the example of John Profumo will not be imitated is that these days society does not forgive. There is no sense that an apology for a past misdeed is anything else but a sign of weakness and a signal to intensify the attack. There is no sense that a person’s life is always a mixture of light and darkness; nowadays it is the blot on the character that defines it forever.
Let us take the case of a baseball pitcher, Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers who was recently voted on to the All-Star team. In his youth, Hader had used some bad words on social media about homosexuals and African Americans. He was publicly castigated when someone unearthed the old posts, was forced to take sensitivity classes, and has since apologized for what he called “inexcusable” and immature” remarks.
Naturally, his repentance has called forth further condemnation from the ranks of the morally superior and professionally offended. Michael Powell of the New York Times sports department – the place where you and I always go for lessons in proper behavior – is determined that Hader’s crimes not be forgotten. In a recent article, reprinted in the Globe and Mail, Powell claims that he is not unforgiving of youthful stupidity but then goes on to denounce the fellow anyway. He then accelerates into a denunciation of baseball fans in Milwaukee who had the effrontery to applaud the player on his first home-town start since the All-Star Game.
The only reason that Powell could think of for cheering a star pitcher was – and you knew this was coming – racism. Hader was white. The baseball crowd was largely white. And for Powell, baseball itself is too white. See how easily the argument flowed, from a cheap denunciation of a teenager’s bad behavior to a blanket accusation of racism against America’s national pastime. If you wonder why readership of American newspaper sports pages is at an all-time low or why ESPN is hemorrhaging millions of subscribers, you need to look no farther than the moral preening of Michael Powell and his colleagues.
The abandonment of forgiveness as a social value is evident here in Canada, as we have seen in the campaigns against national heroes who centuries ago performed an act that today’s Social Justice Warriors would find repugnant – John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, Lord Cornwallis, Marguerite d’Youville, etc., are now put in the corner of shame, never to re-emerge.
The desire to wallow in the misdeeds of bygone years may well reach its apex in Austin, Texas. There the city council set up a commission to identify those prominent men and women of the past who now needed to have their statues taken down or names removed from schools, parks, or hospitals because of behavior that was unremarkable centuries ago but which is now seen as an unspeakable crime. Any connections with the Confederacy were viewed as especially heinous.
Oops. As any first-year history student could have told that Council of the Virtuous, Stephen F. Austin, the man known as the “Father of Texas”, the first secretary of State of the Republic of Texas, the man after whom the city was named, was a proponent of slavery. It is fair to say that without his leadership Texas might still be a part of Mexico, but will that fact be enough to bring a measure of forgiveness and save his name? Let’s watch to find out.