As the #MeToo Movement has gathered steam over the last year or two, I’ve made a point of keeping my mouth shut.
It’s not because I have no opinions. (What, really?)
No, it’s because the treatment of women by men in our society is a subject that has all too often been hijacked by male voices. Recently, this has been changing. In the last couple of years, it has been female voices that have come to the fore, each one empowering others to speak up. That’s a good thing, so best for me, and other men, to shut up and let it unfold.
Into this scenario we now see injected the more topical, but still important, question of the stacking of the United States Supreme Court by conservative judges. The latest, and perhaps the most dangerous, is Brett Kavanaugh, scheduled to be the subject of a committee vote this week.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation is being put in jeopardy by an accusation that, thirty-six years ago, when he was 17, he attempted to rape a 15 year old girl at a drunken private school party. That young girl, now Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a Professor of Psychology at Palo Alto University, has reluctantly come forward to tell her story. At first trying to keep her anonymity, she drew the matter to the attention of two elected officials in a private letter. When the details came out, and it became a hot story, she gave up her secrecy and penned an op-ed in the New York Times. She has also said she will appear before Congress if asked.
While there has been some puffing by various people about the timing of this, two things give one some pause.
The more obvious is that Dr. Ford submitted to a formal polygraph test, and passed. Lie detectors may be less than 100% accurate, true enough, but the successful polygraph certainly increases the probability that she’s telling the truth (even if, depending on your own politics, her personal credibility wasn’t enough for you).
The less obvious confirmation of Dr. Ford’s account comes from Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s high school friend, and the other boy in the room when the incident occurred. While Mark Judge says he does not remember anything like the incident in question happening, he did write a 1997 book that describes in some detail the alcohol-fueled, hookup-focused culture of his – and Kavanaugh’s – high school years in a toney Georgetown private school.
As the heat on this story has ratcheted up, we also now have dueling supporter lists, letters from dozens of female character witnesses who knew Brett Kavanaugh when he was in high school, and either back his likely innocence, or back the likely truth of Dr. Ford’s story.
As with everything in Washington, this has devolved into the fine art of politics. The intrigue is perhaps heightened by the fact that the story involves an important Bethesda Roman Catholic prep school, Georgetown Prep. (Neil Gorsuch was a student there a couple of years before Kavanaugh. Remember him?) It also involves a Supreme Court candidate who spent his career wading through the Washington swamp, working for Ken Starr to impeach Bill Clinton, then working on the election campaign and in the White House of George W. Bush.
So let’s unpack this.
Any philosophy major (or scientist) will tell you that if you have a difficult question, on which you can’t tell if a hypothesis is correct, one way to work through it is to assume the hypothesis is true. Then, assess the implications.
In this case, it is not a leap to assume Dr. Ford’s account is true. Not only does the actual story appear to have pretty solid support, and a credible person recounting it. In addition, the story dovetails with what we all know goes on regularly when teenagers and alcohol join forces. Add to that the environment of an elite private boys school in the Eighties, and the instinctive reaction to Dr. Ford’s story is “of course”.
But assuming it’s true, what does that mean for Brett Kavanaugh? Leave aside your political leanings for a second, and even your intuitive sense that he is a man who made his career sucking up to people in power.
If seventeen-year-old Brett Kavanaugh did in fact try to have sex with a fifteen-year-old girl at a private party in 1982, but instead screwed it up and just embarrassed himself and scared the shit out of the girl, does that disqualify him from being a judge of the U.S. Supreme Court today?
There are those who say that there can’t be any forgiveness, because if we just keep letting these things go, they will never stop. Actions have consequences, as they say. If it took a long time for his predatory actions to catch up to him, better late than never. Now make him pay for what he did.
There are others who say that the stupidity of a drunken, horny seventeen-year-old boy is not news. Indeed, if he had never done anything this idiotic in his life, you might wonder whether he was a real person. If you look back at the people you know who came of age in that period, how many of them were truly innocent?
Further, Kavanaugh has had thirty-six years since then to demonstrate that he is not a sexual predator. All evidence suggests that he has no such leanings.
It is at least arguable that, on the assumption that Dr. Ford’s account is 100% accurate, Kavanaugh’s confirmation should not be affected. Old news. Whatever he did as a stupid teenager, it is his life as an adult that should guide any assessment of his appointment.
But here’s the thing. It isn’t really necessary to come to a conclusion on whether his drunken behaviour should affect his confirmation. What is more important – and clearly relevant to his fitness for office – is his actions today, and his character today.
Today, what we know is that, with a straight face, he told senators that the incident described by Dr. Ford did not occur. He didn’t say he couldn’t remember, or it happened differently. He didn’t tell it from his perspective. He didn’t explain. He just said it was not true.
Kavanaugh’s response to questions about this incident was almost certainly a lie.
Congress, and the public, may not care very much whether judges were once stupid teenagers. They should care a lot, though, about whether judges are honest. They should care a lot about whether, faced with uncomfortable truths, judges try to avoid those truths by lies. They should care a lot about whether a judge is able to be honest when being honest is difficult.
The focus of the discussion here should not be on #MeToo. Sure, that is important, and the consequences of past improprieties have a lot of subtle issues that have to be addressed. It is also important to society that we manage the evolution from a “female victimization” norm to a “female empowerment” norm in a way that achieves the better future, without simply choosing some new victims.
But the Kavanaugh case is not fundamentally about an attempted drunken rape in high school, many years ago. It is about whether a proposed appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court has the fundamental honesty, integrity, and strength of character to tell the truth.
Even when it’s hard.
People who are afraid to tell the truth don’t make good judges.
– Jay Shepherd, September 17, 2018