The Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings have unexpectedly turned into the usual hopeless D.C. media circus—but with an ominous undercurrent.
First, let’s look at the broad outlines of where we are at the moment, though by the time you read this there will undoubtedly some crazy new twist. Up to last weekend, the process of approving Kavanaugh for a seat on the Supreme Court had been pleasantly boring, in keeping with President Trump’s decision to choose, once again, a much more conventional conservative than many of us had expected.
Then, at the last minute, as the hearings were wrapping up and a vote was being scheduled, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced that she had a letter from an anonymous woman accusing Kavanaugh of “sexual misconduct”—there’s that phrase again—at a drunken party when both were high-school students back in 1982. The accuser eventually stepped forward and indicated that she would be willing to repeat her accusation publicly, but when the Senate Judiciary Committee invited her to testify, she backed down. The latest news is that she is offering to testify on the condition that Kavanaugh testify first—before knowing the exact charges and evidence against him. The only places this is ever done are in a Franz Kafka novel or in a campus sexual assault hearing. This is more proof that we all live on campus now.
The reaction has largely been shaped, as usual, by raw partisanship. On the right, many are reflexively defending Kavanaugh with a tenacity born of desperation. The appointment of Supreme Court justices is one of the few tangible benefits Trump supporters can point to from his administration, so if he’s no longer able to get them confirmed, a big rationale for his presidency disappears. On the left, Feinstein is clearly using the accusation in an attempt to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation until after the mid-term election, at which point she will try to delay it indefinitely by claiming that a lame duck Senate shouldn’t vote on it. Think of this as payback for Merrick Garland. At the very least, Democrats will use the controversy to whip up the enthusiasm of their core voters in the few weeks remaining before the election.
For the left, though, there is also a deeper significance to the accusation, one that is not merely partisan but also ideological.
The main thing we know right now about the accusation against Kavanaugh is that it is somewhat vague. The accuser doesn’t remember the exact day or month of the event, which makes the charge impossible to answer or refute. That vagueness is what I find interesting, because it fits with a broader theme in the arguments coming from the left: They don’t need to wait for more evidence, because they know that people like Brett Kavanaugh are the bad guys.
Here’s Jamelle Bouie at Slate:
Kavanaugh is the perfect vessel for a view that puts the most privileged and powerful beyond the reach of public account. … To look beyond individual pundits and politicians is to see a world where responsibility and culpability is structured by race, class, gender, and your overall proximity to disadvantage. … He is both the product of a political movement devoted to the protection of existing hierarchies of race, gender, and wealth, and a representative of the power structure that sits at the top of those hierarchies.
Get that? If we look “beyond individuals,” Kavanaugh is a “vessel” and a “representative” of larger, collective social forces. His punishment, as a symbolic setback for white men, will make up, somehow, for the collective victimhood of women and black men.
For an example of the persecuted black man, Bouie cites Michael Brown, the supposed victim whose death set off the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, a few years back. Yet that example gives the game away, because a thorough investigation by the Obama Justice Department revealed that the narrative of Brown’s wrongful shooting was not supported by the facts.
It was in response to this debacle that I offered the following advice to reporters and commentators: “Remember that individuals are not symbols and that every shooting has its own irreducibly concrete facts and context. If you remember that, you can report the facts freely one way or the other without worrying about whether you are promoting or undermining some larger ideological narrative.” I am not surprised that nobody has followed that advice, on either side.
So we also get Chauncey DeVega at Salon declaring, “If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh will be the White Male Privilege Affluenza Justice.” Because individuals are just symbols.
Or consider another wrinkle in this ever-changing story. A high school classmate of Kavanaugh’s accuser took to social media to corroborate her story, declaring flatly, “The incident DID happen, many of us heard about it in school.” In an interview with NPR, however, she conceded, “That it happened or not, I have no idea. I can’t say that it did or didn’t.” So why did she claim the opposite?
Miranda added that despite not knowing specifics of what went on at the party three decades ago, she remembers that there was a ‘buzz’ that went around possibly on a weekend about the party where an alleged incident involving students from her school and Kavanaugh’s took place. It is something, she said, that was not surprising to hear given the culture of drinking and partying.
So because something like this was probably done by someone like Kavanaugh, then it must have been him.
I have no doubt that this kind of alleged sexual assault actually did happen to girls at drunken parties with entitled rich kids back in the 80s (and not just with the rich kids, and not just in the 80s). Maybe Kavanaugh was that kind of guy. But the general possibility of such a crime is not evidence in a specific case. It never is.
Brett Kavanaugh is not an archetype of the Generic White Male. Justice is not social but individual, and he deserves to be judged, not as a “representative” or a “vessel” of some collective, but as an individual.