‘While it is true I was abusive to my ex-girlfriend,’ writes Aaron Coleman, the improbable candidate for a seat in the Kansas State House, ‘I do not agree with the characterization being made about our experience in the hot tub the day after Christmas.’ This is such a morbidly evocative sentence. Abusive. Hot tub. Day after Christmas. It is a novel in 30 words.Coleman, who is 19, first came to prominence when he was found, in the aftermath of an underdog triumph in a Kansas primary, to have committed acts of bullying and ‘revenge porn’ five years previous. ‘He got one of my nudes and blackmailed me with it,’ said a victim:‘And told me if I didn’t send him more he would [send] it to all of my friends and family…and when I didn’t send him more, he sent it to everyone I knew. I don’t know how he got the picture. All I know is he’s an awful person and he should not be allowed to run for anything.’Coleman admitted to the appalling behavior, but referenced his own childhood suffering in mitigation, insisting that he had improved himself in the meantime. He dropped out of the race but then abruptly changed his mind — claiming that he would not give in to ‘sustained attacks’ from ‘party bosses’ and ‘affluent white-collar professionals’. Coleman had been defended by some, like Glenn Greenwald, who admired his fierce and uncompromising leftism and sympathized with the impoverishment from which it had emerged. Perhaps this was another excess of ‘cancel culture’ and wealthy, pampered pundits were assailing a kid who had grown up with none of their privileges for misbehavior that he had long since transcended.Sadly not. All of the signs were there that Coleman’s defenders had backed the wrong horse. He had made the news in July for telling a Republican he would ‘laugh and giggle when you get COVID and die’, which is not indicative of a mature, reflective young man, but of the kind of malicious troll who absolutely would attempt to blackmail women into sending him nudes. Soon, with all the unpredictability of night following day, the Intercept published an article alleging that Coleman had choked and slapped his then girlfriend in December 2019, before telling her repeatedly over text to shoot herself. All that Coleman has disputed is the choking.Somehow, Coleman still believes that his career has legs. In a statement addressing ‘relationship problems’, he dwells on the need for ‘childhood education funding’ to teach ‘what healthy interpersonal relationships look like’. How complex is ‘do not hit someone and tell them to kill themselves’? Is that esoteric knowledge? In what sounds like an incisive parody of the progressive fondness for obscuring personal responsibility behind structural issues, Coleman insists that ‘Medicaid for All’ — shouldn’t that be Medicare? — might have stayed his hand if he could have accessed free counseling. Buddy, you don’t get to pivot from your own admission of domestic violence to some kind of political address.Coleman is still at it. He is calling himself a ‘reformed perpetrator of abuse’, as if his character did a 180 in the last few months. I know St Paul was converted on the road to Damascus. But I find it hard to believe that 2020, of all years, has brought Coleman from violence to virtue.I see what his defenders wanted him to be. They wanted something to throw against the high walls of elitism and intolerance. It’s easy to sympathize with that desire: our culture can be unforgiving and a person’s respectable manner can give them a lifelong place in media and politics, despite their serial incompetence and corruption. A poor kid who had improved himself and could take on Democrat snobbery, well, that would be a fine story to tell. But events should be evaluated on their own terms. Coleman’s defenders picked up his story to throw at condescending liberals, only to find out that it was in fact a boomerang — a point in favor, not against, the ‘cancel culture’ we dislike.
Without a doubt, Coleman is a troubled man, who has had awful experiences. Hopefully he somehow gets the help he needs and does the work he needs to do. He can do it without being a state representative. In cases where people seek what might be called societal forgiveness, we should consider, among other things, the severity of the offense (i.e., offensive jokes or actual assault?) and the significance of the role they aspire to have (i.e. comedian or athlete, or politician or priest?). Coleman did a very bad thing, very recently, and seeks to have a role where his personality is relevant to thousands of lives — among them the people he affected, who are also troubled, who have also had awful experiences, at his hands.We should hope that anyone can be reformed. That does not mean their victims, or anyone else, should be compelled to face danger from their not being reformed. This should not be cause for bitterness. If you have done serious harm, then living a good life should be satisfactory enough. A compulsion to do so publicly, in a position of authority, suggests a more egotistical than apologetic motive.What matters is less changing than being widely appreciated to have changed. Perhaps I’m being unfair — but, Aaron, how can you change the world before you have changed yourself?`