This morning, a story came out on the Washington Post about Mitt Romney as an 18 year old, attacking a fellow prep school student and forcibly cutting his hair because, as a former friend reported, “He can’t look like that! It’s just wrong!” When I saw fellow liberal Twitter friends tweeting the story with barely contained glee, I hesitated. It read, initially, to me like another Aqua Buddha story, or possibly another “Bush Pulled Over For DUI!” Politically, it was too well-timed – North Carolina and Maine voted to ban same-sex marriage this week, and Obama came out in an interview on ABC News as a supporter of same-sex marriage, becoming the first sitting president to do so. It read like the Washington Post was striking while the iron was hot on the narrative that that GOP is viciously homophobic and commits hate crimes for fun.
As I was processing all this, I tweeted the following: “On this #MittRomney debacle, I have a couple comments: 1. If anyone held me to ridiculous insults/things I did at 18...whoo boy. … 2. Which is it, blogosphere, is he notoriously homophobic anti-gay, or is he secretly a supporter of LGBT who flip-flopped for politics? There are two competing narratives surrounding Romney, and to me, this entire thing rings of Aqua Buddha again. And I'm not excusing what Romney did - that action was far more horrific than anything I did at 18 - but do we believe people can change?”
That was a mistake.
In expressing my hesitancy to jump on Romney for something he’d done as a young adult, I ended up sounding just like those who ask the abused to forgive their abuser, and just like people at Relevant Magazine who told me that I need to believe in grace for Hugo Schwyzer and let him have a platform.
I’m sorry for that.
And I recognize that this means people may not wish to listen to me further, but, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to explain a little bit of what I meant.
There’s a popular narrative in the liberal blogosphere that Romney is a flip-flop. That is essentially without question – he used to be pro-choice, and now he supports personhood measures that would ban birth control. His state – under his governorship – was the template for the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010, and now he pledges to repeal it. He was against the bailout of the auto industry – even writing an op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” - and came out this week saying that he always supported the bailouts.
And, according to statements he made in the 1990s, he was a supporter of same-sex marriage rights … back before it had popular support. Now, as we all know, he’s opposed. The flip-flop narrative one is extremely troublesome – it gives, at best, an inconsistent picture of what Romney believes, and at worst, paints him as yet another sleazy politician who will say what he needs to in order to get votes.
But then, with this new story, we seem to be taking a different tack: “SEE! He’s a homophobic bigot and we knew it all along!” This undermines the flip-flop narrative, which just makes us look as inconsistent as the person we’re criticizing. That was my main point with what I tweeted, and it was expressed incredibly poorly. I partook in an abuse culture that is heavily problematic and something I want nothing to do with – for that, I apologize.
On the “people can change” aspect of my tweets: I absolutely regret my sentiment there. I tweeted that before I’d had the chance to read Romney’s apologetic-sounding non-apology, which is quoted below (via Mother Jones):
“Back in high school I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by that I apologize,” he told reporters. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.”
He also told Brian Kilmeade of Fox News (via The Washington Post):
“I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school and some might have gone too far and for that, I apologize,” Romney told radio host Brian Kilmeade this morning. As far the specific allegation regarding cutting the boy’s hair, Romney said: “I don’t remember that incident.”
This is the problem with this whole thing.
Everyone does shitty, stupid stuff when they’re 18. This is an attack more vicious than most. I don’t deny that this was a horrific, terrible thing – to attack someone for not conforming to gender norms is vicious, wrong, and terrible. I want there to be no mistake that I believe this sort of attack to be wrong. To refer to it as "hijinks" reveals a failure to understand the horror of the incident.
But – and this is a hesitant, quietly said, calmly intoned “but” – I don’t believe what is essentially at issue is what he did. I did shitty stuff at 18 that I have (I hope) since atoned for. The problem with this attack is that Romney shows no willingness to atone for it, and, even today, no recognition that it is wrong - again, he called it "hijinks."
But in covering the story, the narrative has been, “Did you hear what Romney did 40 years ago????” rather than, “Did you hear that Romney has not shown any signs of repentance of this thing he did?”
The horror here is in both parts of the story: that Romney committed such a horrific attack (an attack that would be considered assault if it happened in 2012) and that he has not shown repentance of that act.
I believe that people can change. I like to think that, having repented and made attempts at making amends, I will not be continued to be dragged over the coals for stupid things I did and said when I was 18 – and there were a lot of those (hell, I've done stupid stuff NOW). But had I not repented of those things, had I not shown remorse, had I not attempted to make or made amends, you would be well within your rights to call me on it now. And if I did not respond with anything but the utmost contrition, you would be correct to hold that against me.
(Let me apologize once again for what I said this morning. It rang very close to the attitudes that perpetuate abusive culture, and re-victimize victims. I regret that I became a part of that.)
In criticizing the Republican presidential nominee, we should be careful to concentrate on the fact that Romney is unrepentant of his actions, that he refuses to recognize that what he did was wrong, and that much of his base has no problem with what he did in the first place. This is a complex issue, but rather than simply using this incident to paint Romney as a “gay basher” – which opens the debate up to objections that we’re simply digging up dirt on his past and gets the debate embroiled in what is or is not "fair game" – we need to point out that Romney has not admitted wrongdoing, and that is what sets this apart from average teenage antics. That is a nuance the conversation is lacking.
After all, isn't it rather important to have a Presidential candidate who can express remorse rather than one who obfuscates and claims not to remember viciously attacking another human being?