Is it still hypocrisy if your contradictions are separated from one another by decades of your own life? If a moment of ‘yes’ and another moment of ‘no’ have enough time between them, does that mean your off the hook for the difference between them? Could life changing decisions be sufficient to ensue the past doesn’t count against the present? Might someone be excused for having it both ways if they do so in very different chapters of their own biography? Alternatively, supposing time and transformation could be enough to excuse great inconsistencies, might other matters prove sufficient to counteract them? Is it at least possible that time makes the difference in some instances and not others?
It’s common enough to hold moral contradictions against people; it’s also common enough to excuse them when the contradictions can be explained as a clear change of heart. But what if that change is a little too pat? What if it follows a course that’s just a little too obvious?
I am of course thinking about Brett Kavanaugh.
Watching Brett Kavanaugh struggle to explain his conduct in high school to an audience tasked with judging his fitness for office, I couldn’t help thinking about this very question. If his appointment is confirmed, Kavanaugh will take his place among the many conservative Catholics to hold a position on the Supreme Court of the United States. He will take his place in a judicial voting block that has consistently re-enforced the authority of the state over moral and spiritual matters and the role of Christianity in defining that authority. We can expect him to minimize gay rights and to hammer the final nail in the coffin for women’s reproductive rights as we know them today. If Kavanaugh takes a seat on that court, this will happen regardless of any transformations coming to Congress, even regardless of any possible changes in the White House. This man is poised to impose the moral order of a conservative Christian world view on us all, all of which makes it more than a little ironic to see Kavanaugh sitting there trying to explain the sins of his youth, the very sins he was once proud to proclaim.
I really do wonder what the teenage Kavanaugh would make of the old man now denying all the sexual conquests he was so proud to put in his yearbook?
To say that Kavanaugh partied a lot is to completely miss the point. His high school yearbook alone gives us plenty of evidence that Kavanaugh didn’t just drink and have sex, but that he approached these activities in terms of a toxic masculinity all-too pervasive in some circles. Kavanaugh may have told the world that he refrained some sex until well after high school, but in his yearbook, he wanted the world to know that he’d gotten laid. The story he told in that yearbook didn’t merely recount a sexual encounter, it did so in a manner degrading to the young woman in question. This isn’t merely the excess of a boy enjoying his own life; it’s the cruelty of a young man for whom at least a part of that joy seems to have come from his ability to hurt others, to dominate them.
The problem is plain enough. This is a man who will assert moral authority over our own lives. Make no mistake, that is what he has been put foreword to do! He will assert this authority amidst a number of important questions about his own personal morality.
At least one important defense of Kavanaugh’s character has been the notion that this occurred so long ago that it just isn’t relevant now. Is it really fair, his defenders ask, to impose consequences on the career of a man for things he did so many years ago? There is of course a trace of irony here in that Kavanaugh will almost certainly use the power of the Supreme Court to impose consequences well into the distant future on women for things they’ve done (or in some cases, things done to them) early in life. That’s a problem for Kavanaugh and those who support him. One of many.
The question I mean to raise here is this; is really a clean break here?
If Kavanaugh really had made a clean break with his predatory past, (and let’s be clear, the conduct contained in the yearbook alone is sufficiently predatory in itself to raise questions about his character), …if Kavanaugh really had made such a clean break with his past, then I for one would expect a more honest account for it in the present. When Kavanaugh pretends that his reference to Renate Alumnus was a gesture of respect (a gesture that neither he nor his buddies bothered to convey directly to her), he is lying. When Kavanaugh pretended the notion that this was a reference to sexual conquest is all in the minds of left-wing critics, he dismisses her own reaction to those very words. When he suggested this was all in the imagination of sick critics on the left, he implicated her own reaction to his words. He blamed her too for getting the actual point of his yearbook entry. In effect, Kavanaugh’s testimony in the hearing last Thursday carries foreword the very cruelty that put those words in his yearbook to begin with. When Kavanaugh feigns disgust at the imagination of senators questioning him about the meaning of this and other comments in his yearbook, Kavanaugh shows us that he isn’t at all prepared to own up to the man he once was. Which is one very good reason to question the notion that he is now someone very different.
A different man wouldn’t be afraid to own up to the actions of a childish former self, but a man still caught up in that very childish mindset might.
Of course we can see already ties to the Kavanaugh we see today in the one that wrote all those things in his yearbook. That wasn’t just a young man looking to have fun; that was a rich kid and a star athlete who attended Georgetown Prep, and who would later attend Yale as a legacy student. This kid had a Hell of a head-start in the world and he knew it. You can’t tell me the kid then sowing his oats and bragging about it in his yearbook didn’t have some sense of the future that lay before him, some sense of the role that his faith would play in that future and the potential power that lay within his grasp. Kavanaugh was going places, and his role in the Catholic Church would play a strong role in getting him to those places.
If Kavanaugh really did go to church back in 1982, as he assured us all during the hearing he did, he doesn’t seem to have made much of an effort to live the life envisioned in that church. Still, he had the good sense not to burn his bridges. That faith would serve him well one day, even if he wasn’t all that worried about it while working his way through those 100 kegs he also bragged about.
I can’t say how much of this Kavanaugh consciously thought out, but it’s an awfully common story-line. It’s taken for granted at some ages that some people will not live the life of the faith they profess, and that others won’t expect them to. It’s taken for granted that some people needn’t show common decency to others, let alone great piety, but that doesn’t stop them from endorsing either virtue when doing so won’t obligate them in any real manner. The day sometimes comes when such folks put away their excesses and take up a more conventional role in society, perhaps even a powerful one. In Kavanaugh’s case, this has meant (and will continue to mean) that he will enforce the terms of his own faith on others. It would be easy enough to say that he simply changed; decent enough to say that we should give him the benefit of the doubt as to the matter. And yet, the story remains just a little too pat. A little too convenient.
…and the inconsistently just a little too meaningful.
It would be one thing if the difference between the teenage version of Kavanaugh and the middle-aged man of today held no common thread between them. But is it really that hard to see in a boy who regards a sexual encounter as cause to humiliate the woman he had it with and one who would tell women everywhere that they must simply live with the consequences of their own sexual activity? Is it really that hard to see the connection between a young man for whom an accident of his birth played a key role in his education and one who would insist we should end affirmative action out of concerns over its fairness? Is it really too hard to see in a young man who brags up his party-life the same sense of entitlement shown in an older man who would lie to Congress about his role in the Bush administration or refuse to answer the questions of the opposition party at his most recent hearing? Is it so hard to see the sense of untouchable self-worth in both actions?
Kavanaugh may not be the party boy of his of yearbook, but his sense of his own power doesn’t seem to have much changed. He is still an elitist, and he is still happy to impose his will on others. If conventional (Catholic) morality now guides his actions more than it did back in his high school days, that morality is also now far more critical to the power he would wield over others. What Kavanaugh might once have taken through his own physical strength, he now takes by right of high office and pretense of moral purpose.
In the end, this isn’t even a story about hypocrisy; it is a story about a life blessed with privilege, and a man fully prepared to abuse it.
Both pictures were taken from the Wikopeadia page on Kavanaugh, 10/1/18: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Kavanaugh