Monday, October 1, 2018

What Could Have Been

Last week's confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh was such a mess, but so perfect for lampooning that I think SNL might deserve an Emmy, an entire year in advance of next year's ceremonies. In fact, if Matt Damon does not get nominated, then that might be an even bigger travesty than the event he so perfectly reenacted.

I still have no comment on whether this nomination should succeed because the damage wrought by it is already done. People are polarized and traumatized and galvanized on both sides (good people, every one). We already know that if he is not confirmed, all hell will break loose on one side and similarly if he is confirmed. There is no way out of this.

Unless somebody tells the truth. And I don't mean the version of the truth that fits into some neat partisan angle that allows one side to stand in judgment or triumph over the other. I mean the truth that allows us to confront this moment of reckoning and that offers instruction for how we move forward.

Here is what we know: something traumatic happened to Christine Blasey Ford. Traumatic enough for her to be so anxious that she would insist on having a second exterior door built onto her house on the other side of the country. She identified the person to her husband and to a therapist and later to her congressional representative. At some point while she was weighing whether to make her allegations public, her name was leaked to the press. She testified in front of the entire world, submitted to cross examination from a professional prosecutor brought in for the sole purpose of discrediting her story, and now she has become the face of a movement she probably never intended to join.

The man she accuses of this assault says that he never could commit such an act. And that is the $250,000 question (plus benefits and a lifetime appointment)--not that did he attack her (because there is no way of knowing that), but could he have attacked her? It doesn't matter what he wrote in his yearbook, recorded on his personal calendar, or what was offered in witness statements. I don't hold any grudges that he grew up privileged, attended elite schools, or that he worked as a partisan for the better part of his career before becoming a federal judge. None of that tells me whether he is more or less likely to be guilty. None of that makes me question whether to believe him.

However, what tells me to believe her is a lot of what I already know and have previously said. This incident was alleged to have taken place during the early 80s, when our understanding of misogyny and sexism were very different. When some of the biggest films of that era were Animal House (1978), Porky's (1981), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and Revenge of the Nerds (1984). When one of the most popular daytime soap opera storylines involved a couple who got married despite the fact that he had raped her (spun as a seduction). When the first woman was named to the Supreme Court but before we started to send women into space. When women were more likely to be appointed to a congressional seat to succeed a dead husband or father instead of being elected in their own right. When Yale had barely graduated a generation of women. When we got into trouble for calling a 900-number at a friend's sleepover. When our understanding and language of sexual assault had not yet been articulated.

Mind you, none of this tells me that he is lying. It just suggests that in context with the times, it might be conceivable that he would not consider a drunken grope of a girl he barely knew to be a traumatic sexual assault.

When Kavanaugh and Co. were in high school, I was still in elementary school. Every Spring the boys at my school announced "Freak Week," an annual ritual that involved the mass attempt to catch a girl alone to hit her on the butt. To my eight year old mind, that was not sexual assault but it was humiliating. If I were to track down a few of those boys, I am willing to bet that none of them would admit to participating. Not only because it was stupid and childish, but because who would want to admit thirty-some years later that they were involved what we now know was an organized game of sexual assault? Think about that.

I don't know what was taught at Holton Arms about sexual assault, but I can tell you that very little was addressed on that topic at my all-girls' Catholic high school. Our sex education content was offered in religion class where we were taught that nice girls didn't have sex until marriage (which we were free to pursue immediately after graduation). The boys at our brother school were good, because they were suburban and Catholic, but the public school boys...

(I also need to point out that we were all in Catholic school in the era before it was unimaginable that priests were capable of abusing children, but let's not linger there.)

Despite the fact that Kavanaugh says that he was a good, suburban Catholic school boy, there are a lot of creepy behaviors he could have engaged in as a teenager. He admitted to unsupervised underage drinking, but I am not suggesting that he was too drunk to remember what happened. I am saying that drunken horseplay was not called sexual assault in the 1980s. Mothers were only just beginning to crusade against drunk driving, fathers did not stay at home to care for their children, and I'm pretty sure that all of us were latchkey kids. That's not an excuse, but our culture and our values were different back then.

Call me naive, but what if Brett Kavanaugh had just said that he did not remember what happened? Where could we be right now?

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