A letter in the most recent AARP Magazine got me thinking.
The previous issue of the magazine had a piece titled “Leading Ladies,” featuring several older actresses – Sharon Stone, Jane Fonda, and Alfre Woodard – who have done well despite Hollywood’s long-standing ageism.
The letter-writer, describing himself as a Vietnam-era veteran, felt insulted by the inclusion of Jane Fonda, whom he remembers bitterly “as the traitor ‘Hanoi Jane.'” He was referring to something that happened during the Vietnam War, involving a photograph taken of Jane Fonda when she traveled to North Vietnam.
That was 44 years ago. And Ms. Fonda – who will be 80 next year – has apologized profusely many times, for example saying: “I will go to my grave regretting the photograph of me in an anti-aircraft gun, which looks like I was trying to shoot at American planes. It hurt so many soldiers… It was the most horrible thing I could possibly have done. It was just thoughtless.”
The main religious tradition of our civilization teaches the importance of repentance, on the part of the sinner, and of forgiveness, on the part of those sinned against. But for this letter-writer – whose bitter hostility toward Jane Fonda reflects the feelings of a whole subculture in America – that teaching is apparently outweighed by another ethic.
Here’s what that ethic appears to be: Once someone has been labeled an enemy by one’s group, one should extend them neither understanding nor forgiveness. Holding such enemies in perpetual hostility fulfills an important duty, expressing loyalty to one’s group.
This ethic, which I have observed in action repeatedly over the years, is relevant to our present political situation. It provides an answer to the question: if the view of Hillary Clinton held by many on the right is grossly distorted, could anything correct it?
Though I have not been a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, the more I’ve learned about her lately, the clearer it has become how different she is from the person that people on the right think she is.
Over the years, Hillary’s political opponents have sold their own followers a truly demonized picture of her. There have been completely bogus scandals (the supposed murder of Vince Foster, the alleged sins around Benghazi) and comparatively minor misdeeds (the private email server) blown up into huge crimes (“Lock her up!”). Big headlines are followed by investigations leading to less reported substantial exoneration. But no matter the facts brought forward, she has been tarred as the enemy and no facts ever change the demonic view.
Not in that subculture, where holding fast forever to what “our side” has presented as the enemy is a virtue, and where careful examination of the evidence would be a sign of wavering loyalty.
Watching the Democratic National Convention, I learned a lot I hadn’t known about what Hillary Clinton has done, and what she truly cares about. I saw that, whatever her flaws and limitations, her whole life demonstrates that her main motivation in the political sphere has been a real concern for the well-being of families, and especially children.
Long before she sought the power of office, she was laboring behind the scenes to help average people to live in security and dignity, and to have opportunities to advance. As she said, when it comes to “public service,” she has been a lot more devoted to the “service” than she has been comfortable with the “public.”
Seeing this portrait get fleshed out – not by innuendo but by the record of all she did up well into her fifties, before she ever ran for office – I had some thought that perhaps, in an op/ed like this one, I might be able to persuade people to take another look, and re-evaluate the demonized image they may now hold.
But as I think about the way the letter-writer to the AARP magazine is still nursing his anger at the nearly 80-year-old Jane Fonda — regardless of the passage of years or her heartfelt expressions of regrets for her misjudgments — I realized that for many people, it would be a dereliction of duty to accept that Hillary Clinton is not who they think she is.
Holding onto the demonized version of this woman is, for many, not about whether their perceptions are aligned with reality. It’s a matter of showing loyalty to their group by hating those whom their side has labeled as the enemy.