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There is no "Shameful Final Chapter"
A story in the Los Angeles Times today:
A federal judge has sentenced Mark Ridley-Thomas, once a towering figure in Los Angeles politics, to 42 months in prison, marking a shameful final chapter in his long career as a local power broker and advocate for civil rights and racial equity.
Unless you’re an Angeleno, and perhaps even if you are, you don’t know anything about Mark Ridley-Thomas. He’s been a fixture in this town for decades, serving in the state legislature, on the city council, and on the county board of supervisors. He was caught up in an influence-peddling scandal. He has, to use a cliché I return to often, fallen from grace.
But this is not a “shameful final chapter.” The final chapter isn’t written until we shuffle off the mortal coil, and even then, historians and descendants will rewrite and revise the accounting again and again. That’s an obvious point to make, but an important one, especially in our cruel and cancelling age.
At the heart of cancel culture are a series of lies. The first lie is that we are defined by our worst moments. To the cancellers, if someone behaves badly, then that bad behavior is their “truest self.” Any good they may have done was merely, in the overused parlance of the moment, “grooming” designed to ingratiate the offender into decent society. To the cancellers, we are the sum of what we do when we lose control. What we do at other times is mere distraction.
The second lie says that claims of complexity are a cover-up. To the canceller, humans are not shades of gray. They are either good or bad; predators or victims; bigots or saints; empaths or narcissists. Cancellers insist that what the world needs now is the fierce moral clarity to declare things to be “either/or” and not “both/and.” Those who argue that humans are complicated? They are defending the indefensible and must be called to account.
The third lie of cancel culture declares that consequences must be permanent if they are to be meaningful. I was not cancelled when I lost my teaching job for sleeping with my students. Cancel culture is what makes it impossible for me to teach again. Cancel culture is what makes me a ghostwriter who sometimes uses a pseudonym even in the acknowledgements section of a book he’s co-authored. The idea that someone can be given temporary consequences and then restored? The cancellers declare that allows “monsters to keep monstering,” as it were. The cancellers fret that too many have weaseled their way back to power too quickly. To the cancellers, only permanent exile counts as a meaningful repercussion. All comebacks, no matter how delayed or tortuous, are unmerited.
The cancellers want to make sure there are no sequels to the movie. They cut a five-act play down to four. The book is closed, and the cancellers point to “The End” they’ve scribbled on the last page.
Mr. Ridley-Thomas, I hope that your sentence in federal prison passes easily. I hope you make friends wherever you are, and that you are able to offer comfort and companionship to other men who have made their own unfortunate yet-not-character-defining choices. I hope that you don’t give into the temptation to imagine yourself a martyr; I hope you accept responsibility for the decisions that led you to this fate. But also, sir, I hope you remember that this is not a “shameful final chapter.” Your book isn’t finished. There is time for you, as there is for all of us, to surprise and confound those who think our darkest decisions draw the outlines of our legacies.
Complicate the narrative, Mark. You aren’t done yet. Your final chapter isn’t written, sir, whatever the hometown paper declares. Astound them, Mr. Ridley-Thomas; make them blush at their censorious certainty.
The motto of the Order of the Garter, used in the coat of the arms of the United Kingdom, reads honi soit qui mal y pense: “Shame on whomever thinks ill of it.” You may have done a shameful thing, but those who confuse your errors with your identity, your legacy, and your soul? The greater shame is theirs. Live well enough now to let them know it.