What will come of the allegation by Christine Blasey Ford, a clinical psychologist and professor at Palo Alto University, that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when he was seventeen and she was fifteen? As of today, it is not clear that Ford will testify before the Senate Judiciary committee at all. Perhaps mindful that her account of the alleged crime will be lost in partisan attacks, Ford is asking for an investigation by the FBI before she appears. As I write this, staffers are in California interviewing Ford, but the hearing will reopen on Monday, September 24 with or without her. Kavanaugh will appear, and if his accuser does not, then so be it. They will hear Kavanaugh’s version of the story, and move forward with a vote as planned.
I want to note at the top of this story that Kavanaugh has asserted his innocence. He has explicitly told Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that he has never met Ford and that, despite his documented reputation as a serious high school party boy, he was not at this party. Ford’s story and her account of why she only came forward now seem completely plausible to me, and Kavanaugh’s memory of not being at a specific party, over thirty years later, implausible. I can almost hear Senator Kamala Harris, in full prosecutorial mode, now: “Judge Kavanaugh,” she says, pausing to look down at a paper for dramatic effect, as if the answer to the question is right there. “You have claimed that you weren’t at `that party,’” she says looking up. “Are you referring to the party where a fifteen-year-old girl was sexually assaulted?”
The elephant in the room, of course, is not Kavanaugh’s “character,” as Republicans on the committee and President Trump would have it, or whether he is a nice guy with a nice family, but whether he has committed a crime. There is no statute of limitations in the State of Maryland for felony sexual assault. This, and the possibility that Kavanaugh has lied, either about the incident itself or about having attended “that party,” would disqualify him not just from the highest court, but any court. And if he were to be questioned by the FBI, and lie to them – well, you don’t have to be a lawyer to know that the felonies then start to pile up faster than you can say “Paul Manafort just bought a Brooklyn brownstone.”
While Ford can present affidavits from those to whom she disclosed the alleged assault prior to September 2018, Kavanaugh has one witness, a high school bro who also has reasons to forget things. Kavanaugh’s witness is his high school friend Mark Judge, who is said by Ford to have inadvertently allowed her to escape by trying to participate. Judge has refused to testify, or perhaps been refused: the memoir he wrote about being a black out drunk in high school, which contains a thinly disguised Kavanaugh character, could lead a reasonable person to believe that neither of them remember much about the parties they did attend in those years, much less the ones they didn’t.
This strikes me as a huge gamble. Back in 1991, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was able to provide a list of almost a dozen respectable people who were willing to perjure themselves testify that Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment were baseless.
Kavanaugh can’t find one? Not even a bro?
What are conservatives to do?
One strategy is what we have come to expect from Republicans in the Age of Trump: whataboutism. What about Bill Clinton? What about Teddy Kennedy? What about King David, the second King of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah who, as Sean Hannity has pointed out in defense of Donald Trump’s serial infidelities, “had 500 concubines for crying out loud.”
Whataboutism is particularly effective because its roots as a delaying tactic used by small children all over the world to justify every want and need means that everyone understands its illogical appeal. For example:
Child: It isn’t FAIR.
Parent: Life isn’t fair.
End of story. Punto finito. Or –
Teenager: Jack’s mom lets him stay out all night on weekends.
Parent: If Jack’s mom let him jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would that be a good idea too?
Whataboutism’s chief appeal for politicians, however, is that it confuses people about what ought to be under discussion in the first place.
The second line of Republican defense In the Kavanaugh case is to divert attention to a cosmic issue, for example, that sexual assault allegations are mostly a feminist plot to destroy masculinity in all its forms. Conservative women like Christina Hoff Sommers have been shilling this for years, and Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos is implementing it as administration policy. In this scenario, Kavanaugh is not just a powerful man accused of a serious crime, but a defender of the patriarchy, a member of an oppressed class of men beleaguered by angry women, and a stand-in for all the otherwise innocent men – frat boys, athletes, guy-guys — that feminists love to hate.
As a card-carrying feminist I would like to be clear about the nature of this hatred: it isn’t men that feminists hate, it’s men who hurt women. And many Republican strategists know that; they also know that conservative women, who have more than likely experienced sexual violence themselves, hate men who hurt women too. Conservative men probably also hate men who hurt women, once they have been convinced that a woman has actually been hurt, so this puts the Republican majority – and Trump — in a real bind as we approach a general election. Not only is the difficulty that Republicans have staying zipped up is once again in the news, but Republicans have once again been caught pretending it doesn’t really matter as much as protecting unborn women from being aborted.
This leads us to the third and final Republican diversion: the assertion that it is neither Kavanaugh or Ford, but Democrats — desperate to grasp at any straw to derail a nomination that will deliver the court to conservatives — who are at fault here. As Jonah Goldberg of The National Review has written, it is not the accusation itself but Senator Dianne Feinstein sitting on Ford’s letter that is “inexcusable.” Implicitly noting that Kavanaugh might indeed have done it, Goldberg insists that such an event can never be adjudicated or interpreted after the fact:
For starters, she’ll never get justice. This will never see a court of law. There’s no way to prove it happened, not least because she cannot provide a time or place where the event allegedly occurred. The most Ford might get is vengeance by thwarting Kavanaugh’s dream of getting on the Supreme Court and destroying his reputation.
But what if her claim is only subjectively true? What if she believed that Kavanaugh intended her terrible harm, but he had no such intent, simply thinking he was being funny, flirtatious, manly, or some other dumb idea drunk 17-year-old jocks sometimes have?
While Republicans sputter and spin, Dianne Feinstein, who respected Ford’s request that the incident not be publicized until Ford herself was ready to disclose it, played this hand as a feminist as much as a politician. As Laura Briggs, chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst said to me, “Dianne Feinstein belongs to that generation that thinks that making a rape accusation is more damaging to someone’s life than being on the receiving end of one,” Briggs notes. “She didn’t think it would hurt Kavanaugh, just Ford. And she may yet be proven right.”
I do not doubt that Brett Kavanaugh undoubtedly has accomplishments that have rightly brought him to the brink of membership in one of the most elite clubs there is. Given how much drinking he seems to have done as a young person, Kavanaugh also must be extraordinarily intelligent to have succeeded academically under those conditions. But what stands out right now is not his value as a jurist, but his value to other men: the men in the majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Donald Trump, and the Koch brothers, to name a few of them.
This is the meta-narrative of male sexual violence, one that allows sexual predators to succeed despite the fact that their behavior is revolting to many of the people who support them. Even men of color, normally at a severe disadvantage when it comes to accusations of serious crime, can have proven value to other men when it comes to violence against women. Hence, for example, the fact that prior to Nicole Brown Simpson’s death in 1994, policemen who were gaga over O.J. repeatedly visited the house to interrupt episodes of violence, and did nothing to help her.
It boils down to this: high-value men are always innocent because other men cannot abide the idea that they are guilty. Women who make accusations against high-value men are, on the other hand, always nuts, even when all other evidence in their lives points to sanity and good judgement. Recall for yourselves the memory of Anita Hill, a conventional and dignified conservative woman, reporting the disgusting things said to her by Clarence Thomas in the most dispassionate terms, only to be characterized by then-right wing hit man David Brock as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
But what is at stake for women, across party lines, in Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations is the fact that America “then” and America “now” seem to be more or less the same place when it comes to sexual assault, and the men in charge seem content for it to remain that way. The evidence of a sex crime is frequently not clear: very rarely do sex crimes happen in public. Very rarely are sex crimes observed, except by other men who are themselves implicated in the crime. Very rarely do women feel that they have anyone to report an assault to without risking attacks on their own reputations as high-status men close ranks to protect each other.
Most importantly, very rarely is a woman high-status enough herself to challenge the credibility of a powerful man. As Kate Zernike wrote in today’s New York Times, if Kavanaugh and Ford were in that room together, his beer-soaked body pressing hers into the mattress, his hands scrabbling at her clothes, it would have been
36 years ago. The culture: What 15-year-old girl would tell her parents she had been at a party where kids had been drinking, much less that a boy had attacked her?
It was 36 years ago. The country: Ronald Reagan was president. The Supreme Court had only one female associate justice, its first, Sandra Day O’Connor. It was nine years before the Clarence Thomas hearings, where the spectacle of an all-male Senate panel casting doubt upon Anita Hill would provoke the outrage that drove a record number of women to run for — and win — congressional office.
A very different United States is now deep into a debate over how long-ago allegations involving teenagers and alcohol should be regarded and treated in the confirmation process of the accused, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, in his nomination to the Supreme Court.
But do we live in “a very different United States”? What 15-year-old girl today would tell her parents that she had been drinking at a party when an older boy – popular, an athlete, a school star – held her down, smothered her, and tried to rape her?
Who would believe that girl today? Do you?
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.