Monday, September 23, 2019

The Education of Bret Kavanaugh (The Book)

What The New Republic's Matt Foster has called "the wound that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle left in the American body politic" remains deep and unlikely to be healed anytime soon. Certainly every 5-4 decision in which he casts the deciding vote to advance the Republican party's agenda will be a particular reminder of that long-term wound. Of course, that particular partisan outcome was to be expected no matter who was named, even someone with less personal baggage. Nor does one need to come to any conclusion concerning the allegations about youthful misbehavior in order to judge Kavanaugh to be unsuitable for the Supreme Court. His record of collaboration with Ken Starr, for example, could conceivably be cited against him, and his ill-tempered outburst during the Senate hearing was certainly sufficient in the opinion of some - including the late Justice John Paul Stevens, who had previously supported his nomination but who now declared Kavanaugh had "demonstrated a potential bias involving litigants before the court that he would not be able to perform his full responsibilities."

Putting aside the hopelessly controverted question of Justice Kavanaugh's fitness - or lack thereof - to sit on the Supreme Court, this book highlights two other aspects of this sad story that I think are at least equally worth wider attention.

The first is the problem of economic and social class privilege. (The authors themselves have a connection to Kavanaugh's privileged background. One of them was his Yale 87 classmate. The other grew up - albeit a decade later - in a similar social circle in the Washington area and was part of that same network of same-sex high schools.)

The authors do take us back to last year’s hearings, but more importantly they take us back – as the book’s title promises - back decades to the troubled world of high school. The story advances beyond high school, of course, but the privileged wealthy world it portrays never seems to advance much beyond the material vulgarity and narrowness of spirit that apparently defined high school in that preppy teen environment of country clubs and drunken parties. The “education” described was about how to star in the clubby, misogynistic playground where rich kids congregated.

The narrow-minded, soulless world we call high school, with its bully-friendly stratified social order and privileged athletic bubble, extends well beyond the boundaries of wealthy suburbs. But the life-long privilege which wealth promises adds a toxic ingredient to the high-school syndrome.

Add alcohol to that toxic stew and the concoction can become lethal. The license to indulge in drunken partying and otherwise obnoxious behavior, which seems to have been evident in certain social circles, is ultimately less likely to produce preppies in the nation’s service than in smug service to themselves and to their social class.

In this connection I think the book's telling of the Deborah Ramirez story speaks significantly. As the authors note, it highlights how different the experience of anyone from a less privileged background is at a place populated by privileged elites: "While Ramirez may have come into Yale with the determination to prove herself, her experiences there ... made her question whether she belonged." 

The second is the problem of our inquisitorial culture of ex post facto judgment of public figures based on their adolescent and/or young adult behavior. 

The authors take us through the allegations against Kavanaugh and the investigations that followed - or didn't follow. It is evident that the investigations were inadequate. That in turn highlights a serious problem about our politicized confirmation process - and ultimately about our politicized judiciary. Ideally, in a less polarized society such procedural defects could be corrected, in which case some good would come from this bad experience. But, even if the process had been better and the investigations had produced a less ambiguous conclusion, what then?

The authors themselves invite us to consider this dilemma. They conclude "that Ford and Ramirez were mistreated by Kavanaugh as a teenager, and that Kavanaugh over the next thirty-five years became a better person." As for his denials of his youthful misbehavior, they consider the possibility that he "was a blackout drinker who lost portions of his memory and simply wasn't aware of it."  They note "that our juvenile-justice system is built on the long-held belief that a young person's bad decisions shouldn't haunt them for years to come. that is why most juvenile records and many juvenile court proceedings are kept largely confidential." 

Of course, none of that settles the question of whether the adult Kavanaugh deserves a seat on the Supreme Court. Even if one came to the conclusion that Kavanugh did really seriously misbehave in high school and college, but that such misbehavior had ceased in adulthood, one might still have found very good reasons, as indicated above, to vote against his confirmation - but on other substantive grounds, not on the basis of alleged youthful misbehavior. The Senate's vote might likely have been very similar, but the experience would have been very different for all concerned.

I think this reality speaks not just to our problematic confirmation process but more generally to the increasingly judgmental and inquisitorial approach to people's past mistakes that increasingly characterizes our contemporary culture. The authors quote one of Kavanaugh's Prep classmates, who suspects Ford's account is true but said, "then perhaps Brett would have been able to render an apology to her that might have helped her heal in a real, genuine way. But as it stands in my mind, neither one was healed by the incident, because it was so politicized."

Whether that ever could or would have happened can be argued for ever. What is unarguable, however, is the real need in our society for some opportunity to experience some of the healing power of reconciliation - reconciliation between those who offend and those they have offended, as well as reconciliation within selves, between their past selves and those they have struggled to become.  

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