On Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, America awoke to the terrible news that an icon of mid-20th century white masculinity held racist views. Despite being dead for nearly 40 years, John Wayne was canceled.
As Ryan Adams fans just learned, it’s never fun to discover disturbing personal information about an artist you admire. However, unlike the Adams story, the latest “revelations” about John Wayne didn’t come to light by conducting interviews and gathering new information. No, John Wayne was outed as a racist thanks to a few screen caps of an old Playboy magazine interview from 1971, meaning this scandalous information has been accessible and available for nearly 50 years (as always, Chuck D was ahead of everyone).
It’s the latest example of “old yearbook journalism,” the practice of pointing out information that’s been out in the open for years. Although old yearbook journalism looks similar to capital “J” Journalism in the discovery process, it should not be mistaken for the genuine article. Where the aim of serious journalism is to lay out the facts as thoroughly and neutrally as possible, old yearbook journalism exists in service of advocacy. Functionally, it’s less about truth and more about scoring points within and for your political tribe.
Back to Blackface
Old yearbook journalism takes its name from the recent scandal in Virginia in which a photo of a Klansman and a white person in blackface was included on the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Democratic governor Ralph Northam. After initially admitting to appearing in the photo, Northam walked backed his comments, claiming to have never posed for or approved the picture. However, he did admit to wearing blackface on a different occasion as part of a Michael Jackson Halloween costume.
Northam’s response was disastrous, no question. But setting aside the question of if he should resign (and according to the latest polls, most Virginians don’t think he should step down, including a majority of black voters), it’s worth considering the larger architecture of the story itself. Northam’s yearbook was part of the public record for nearly 35 years before the story broke. At any point in time, Northam’s political opponents could have published the pictures (the offensiveness of this racist caricature was hardly in question by 1984). We’ll never know if someone sat on the photo until the right moment, but the story was first “reported” by the right wing website Big League Politics. On conservative social media, it was framed as a “gotcha moment,” evidence that Democrats like Northam, who seem ever quick to decry Trump and his supporters as bigots, are the real racists.
Virtuous peacocking is now an important signifier on the left, so as soon as the story broke, basically every prominent Democrat in the country called for Northam to resign on the weekend the story broke. With Northam refusing to step down, those politicians are now in the awkward position of having to work with someone they’ve accused of an unpardonable sin. This rift has already been exploited by the Virginia GOP.
The Cost of Outrage
“Trigger the libs” may be cynical, cruel, and reductive, but in the era of old yearbook journalism, there’s no doubt it’s an effective political strategy. Discover that an outspoken left wing celebrity made inappropriate jokes on social media 10 years ago? The moral superiority of the tribe ensures the consequences will be swift and severe. Find a clip of a stand-up comic making offensive jokes about homosexuality? Well, we can’t have that, obviously. Wait, did someone actually defend the comedian on the grounds that people’s views evolve and grow over time? You’re canceled too.
To be fair, the left’s sense of righteousness comes from a sincere, good-hearted place. The president is, by all evidence, profoundly immoral, so speaking out against the discriminatory policies and hateful rhetoric spouted by Trump and his followers feels like an important moral crusade. The problem is, without grace and compassion—two qualities dearly missing from the majority of old yearbook journalism—a crusade is just a war.
John Wayne’s World
Which brings us back to John Wayne. What exactly is the point of bringing up the political opinions of a dead movie star? For those who turned #JohnWayne into a trending topic yesterday, it was likely to let everyone know how offended they were by his beliefs. This type of performative outrage is what fuels old yearbook journalism.
And old yearbook journalism is overwhelmingly going to hurt the left; after giving a pass to a man who openly boasted about sexual assault, there’s nothing partisan Republicans won’t let slide. The left, meanwhile, seems to be curating a growing list of things you can’t say or do, and enforcing them with a lifetime ban (or in John Wayne’s case, an after-lifetime ban).
To their credit, many vocal liberals are beginning to recognize the danger and absurdity of this behavior. Instead of parroting our offense into the echo chamber, let’s reflect, not react, when we invariably encounter the next case of old yearbook journalism.