Some random thoughts after yesterday’s Kavanaugh hearingsp

Kavanaugh
Getty Images from The Weekly Standard

Like a lot of people, I spent yesterday morning in front of my television watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. I spent yesterday afternoon watching and then listening to Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony (had to get some work done!). In the midst of both, I was tracking twitter to see how others were responding.

It will be a while before we can really make sense of the whiplash of yesterday’s emotions, so I’m sharing some tentative reactions.

  1. It was fascinating to see how Dr. Ford had used her academic training in a therapeutic manner. The moment she talked about how pain is captured in the hippocampus, I recognized how important her training had been for her. When she told of her struggles in early years at UNC, it allows us to think that her pursuit of psychology was a means of grace for her. As a psychologist, she was both answering questions and being very cognizant of what was happening to her system in the midst of the whole terrifying experience.
  2. Telling one’s story brings it to consciousness even after 36 years. When Dr. Ford said that “the raucous laughter” was the one thing that remained, you could see in her demeanor and expression that she was literally hearing that laughter. This works for Kavanaugh as well. Every time he told the story of focusing on school, sports, church, and friends you could see him reconstruct his 17 year old persona. Drinking was minimized, normalized, and put in passive language. Any suggestion of that behavior negatively impacting others was seen through that reconstructed persona.
  3. She was 15 years old. I don’t think we talked about this enough. News coverage talked of “the accuser” and of the hearings as some conflict between adult individuals, that’s not what happened in 1982. He was two years older and a football player. Being at the gathering (not party) would be thrilling. If they had been in Michigan rather than Maryland, even consensual sexual intercourse at a party would qualify as statutory rape. Maryland’s law sets the age of consent at 15. Regardless of the legal issues, the developmental issues are significant. Working with college students as I do, I know how 18 year olds are still a work in process. That two year gap between a sophomore and senior in high school is huge. Add in the fact that he’s a popular athlete from the country club and the line between consent and exploitation gets very fuzzy.
  4. Social Class Implications are Huge. One of the things the last two weeks shined a light on was the life of economically privileged young people. Life centered on elite private schools, the country club, and parties. According to Kavenaugh, the parties happened on weekends. Reporting on Mark Judge’s book suggests that drinking was fairly frequent even when they weren’t at “parties”. They know that they are headed to Yale or Harvard, so academic struggles are not as significant. They go to Beach Week (just to enjoy the water, we’re told). In his own reflections on yesterday’s hearings, Jacob Lupfer wrote in Religion News Service, “Politically,  white conservative Christians have been invaluable to the country club wing of the Republican Party, which put their zeal to work to end an era of social progress on civil rights, economic equality and fiscal health.” This is a great point, but the reality is that the country club crowd has looked at evangelicals as slightly more welcome than the Beverly Hillbillies especially in the early 1980s.
  5. Male Entitlement and Female Response. This is a consistent theme across the various accusations raised against Judge Kavanaugh. The men at the gatherings thought they could act however they wanted. The women were literally victims. This sense of entitlement is larger than just sexual behaviors or insensitive comments. It connects this incident to the Catholic priest scandals. It links to sexual abuse in the evangelical church. Two weeks ago at RNA, I heard a remarkable presentation on #MeToo in the religious world. Vonda Dyer, the subject of the first Willow Creek story in the Chicago Tribune, told her story. It sounded very much like Dr. Ford’s testimony yesterday. Also on this panel was a United Methodist Bishop, who still has to deal with harassment issues AS A BISHOP. Or consider the situation where Andy Savage as a youth minister pressures Jules Woodson for oral sex. The prior issue, before any sexual overture, is the idea that thee men have a right to do what they did. We’ve seen the same story from Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., and others. Of course, hearing Judge Kavanaugh’s indignant responses yesterday made clear that entitlement is the larger issue.
  6. Instrumentality as a Central Value.  This is one of the sharp take-aways from yesterday. Poor Dr. Ford was acting as a witness, trying to tell her story. Nearly everybody else was pursuing instrumental goals. They were attempting to use the hearing as a means of advancing a political agenda. Democrats wanted to make salient points to impact the electorate. Republicans wanted to make sure they got their Justice on the Supreme Court. The President wanted a win. This is why the contrast between Ford and Kavanaugh’s sessions was so jarring. Instrumentality is also tied up in the Marist poll finding that 48% of white evangelicals said they supported Kavanaugh even if Ford’s accusations were accurate. Having a justice on the Court who will address issues of religious freedom/protections, abortion, and same-sex marriage was worth it to accept bad behavior. For that matter, the support that Bill Hybels initially received and Andy Savage’s standing ovation both show instrumental values — whatever happened before is acceptable as long as we get success. This is why the PRRI data in fall 2016 found that only 30% of white evangelicals thought personal morality was a key factor in the presidential election.

It is impossible to gauge the impact of yesterday on our political establishment and general culture. Anecdotal evidence suggests that yesterday brought lots of stories to light for the first time (including the 76 year-old C-Span caller who shared her story for the first time). We saw the exercise of raw political power to achieve desired ends. It’s possible that we have now seen the fragmenting of the third branch of government, the one that is supposed to “call balls and strikes”.

It’s possible that we will look back on yesterday and find that it was just another crisis in our ongoing political sideshow. But I think it’s more likely that we will be talking about late September of 2018 for years to come.

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