Kavanaugh: America’s Dreyfus Affair
Yesterday, the NYT’s Bret Stephens wrote, before the Ford and Kavanaugh testimony, a column about how the normal standards of inquiry have been destroyed in this event. He writes, “Is there any damaging allegation against Kavanaugh, of any nature and from any source, which the left would not automatically believe?” More:
To some, all this will be worth it if Kavanaugh is exposed as a sexual predator and stone-faced liar. That’s why today’s hearings are essential — and would have been helped by an F.B.I. investigation and sworn testimony from Mr. Judge. We need to get, as best as we can under imperfect circumstances, the truth of what happened between Kavanaugh and Blasey, two credible witnesses with stories to tell.
But this is not what the Kavanaugh nomination seems to be about anymore. To half the country, it’s about the future of a Supreme Court nominee, pure and simple. To the other half, it’s about that — as well as a paradigm shift in the culture, belated reparation for unequal treatment, and a battle in the service of a moral revolution.
Much to the good. Then again, it’s worth remembering that revolutions borne by high ideals have a habit of eating their children. If the price of this revolution is the subordination of ordinary fairness to abstract justice, the elevation of rumor over fact, the further debasement of journalism, the devaluation of the rights of the accused, and the complete toxification of public service, it will be a price too high.
And then yesterday happened.
If nothing else shakes loose from that, then they could proceed to confirmation — and maybe nothing will. But speaking as the last person in the American political-journalistic apparatus (or so it feels) who’s still agnostic about Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, I am more convinced than ever that somebody knows something that could prevent this from metastasizing into our era’s Dreyfus Affair — a source of unresolved hatreds for years and decades yet to come.
I’m afraid that moment has passed. The Kavanaugh debacle really has become America’s Dreyfus Affair — a phenomenon the meaning of which is far greater than the actual facts and participants in the case. It’s a condensed symbol of two conflicting worldviews. The reader of this blog Raskolnik wrote about the meaning of “condensed symbols” here once:
Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.
Another reader of this blog, a Catholic conservative who is resolutely not a Republican, messaged me last night:
The Democratic Party has announced today that every straight Christian white man will be guilty until proven innocent wherever they hold power. This used to just be SJWs on campus. Now it’s their whole party.
Feeling extremely radicalized. I won’t let them do this to the country my son is growing up in.
I share that view. It’s not that I believe Kavanaugh is innocent. I think it is possible that he is guilty of what Ford accuses him of. But I believe he is not guilty, in the sense that there is not nearly enough evidence to judge him guilty of the accusation. Ford has nothing to support her accusation but her accusation. Kavanaugh strongly denies it, as you know, and he has offered evidence (e.g., his summer calendar) that he could not have been where he was supposed to have been. And, none of the people Ford has said could corroborate the event say they were there.
If we allow Kavanaugh’s nomination to go down on the basis of unsupported accusations, then we set a terrible precedent. We give a veto to anyone who makes an accusation against a nominee, however groundless. What strikes me is that liberals assume his guilt because he belongs to a class, and has an identity, that they despise: upper-class white male conservative. If you read commentary from liberals on social media and elsewhere, it is shocking how openly they dismiss Kavanaugh’s defense because he is white and male and “privileged” — never mind that Ford comes from and lives in the same social class. Liberals would quite rightly reject the idea that a witness deserves to be disbelieved because she is poor, black, and female. By many liberals, Kavanaugh’s race, sex, and class are held to be evidence of his guilt. This should not be all that surprising to people who have been following campus political discourse, but it seems that now liberals — elite ones, anyway, in media and politics — have turned the public square into the Oberlin campus.
What was so galvanizing to many of us yesterday, hearing Kavanaugh’s opening statement, and seeing Sen. Lindsey Graham’s passionate defense of Kavanaugh, was that this is not a man who is willing to passively accept the fate that liberals have decreed for deplorable people like him. He may yet go down, but he will not have gone down without a fight. I thought last night that maybe, just maybe, this will be a turning point, a point in which not just conservatives, but all people — even old-fashioned liberals — will stand up to this ideological madness, this bullying. One of my friends wrote this on Twitter yesterday:
That resonates deeply with me.
Reason is the only thing we have that enables us to rein in the passions, and gives us a tool with which to discern truth amid the tumult of passion. It is not perfect! Sometimes the guilty will get away with it. But what else do we have? As most of you know, my experience in getting caught up in the march to war with Iraq taught me a lot about mob passions. I allowed myself to be swept away by nationalism and pro-war sentiment, and I dismissed rational arguments against it as a tool of the fools and cowards who didn’t understand that American had to defend itself.
Again, reasoned deliberation will not always bring about a just result. But again, what is the alternative? Ever seen the movie 12 Angry Men? That is a terrific illustration of the danger of giving in to our passions, and deciding that those from a class we despise must be guilty, because everybody knows how rich white males (or inner-city black men, or gays, or Evangelicals, and so forth) are. Alasdair MacIntyre called it over 30 years ago: in an emotivist culture, we come to believe that truth is what we feel. There is no way to resolve conflicts in such a culture, so politics becomes only about power.
Neither political party, and no faction, is innocent of this. Donald Trump’s refusal to accept facts that obviate his preferred narrative is deeply destructive, because it ratifies emotivism. But Trump’s attitude is a crude, populist version of what many left-wing elites believe, and do not apologize for believing! I’ve written before about a time in a workplace in which I was accused of racism by a minority colleague. The accusation was completely preposterous, and my initial instinct was to defend myself against this smear. But I quickly understood that within the culture of that company, there was no way a white male conservative would prevail over an allegation of racism made by a minority. So I stood down. I felt pretty certain that had this gone to Human Resources, the company would have found a way to fire me, and I would not only have lost my job, but would have had to leave the company under an accusation of racism.
I was furious. But I made the decision not to defend myself, and instead to withdraw the thing I had written that set off this person. And I resolved never, ever to have anything to do with this person more than I absolutely had to do, because I knew that he had the power to destroy me professionally by the power of his accusation — this, given that people like him, within that corporate culture, were privileged. The day may come when I have to lose my job to stand up for myself, and lose a job over it. But that wasn’t the time.
So, when I saw yesterday people on social media damning Kavanaugh for being angry and emotional in his hearing, I was really angry. The man has been called a gang rapist, among other things, and yet he is supposed to have been unemotional about this? Defending himself is a sign of his guilt? This is communist show trial stuff.
That’s why defending Kavanaugh is not strictly about defending Kavanaugh. It’s about fighting the mob, and defending some sort of rational process by which we discern truth and falsity, guilt and innocence. It’s about standing up to the mob — on Capitol Hill, on campuses, in newsrooms, and in elite institutions — that determine guilt based on identity. As the reader above said, this is about self-protection — not in a selfish sense, but in the (old-fashioned liberal) sense of protecting the processes that are our best chance of establishing fairness. I have sons, and I have a daughter. If any of them are ever sexually assaulted, or are accused of sexual assault, I want them to be treated fairly. I do not want my children to be privileged or un-privileged, based on the color of their skin, their sex, their social class, their religion, or anything else.
There was a time when this was the goal that most Americans aspired to, even as we recognized that perfect justice was not possible in this world. If we lose that, then what do we have? A reader of this blog who grew up under communism e-mailed yesterday, after listening to Ford talk:
I heard such ’testimonies’ so many times when I was a kid: People ‘testifying’ against some poor schmuck in trembling voice describing their ‘subversive activities against the republic’ then moving to their house. And the rest? Condemning the schmuck because, you know … ‘within every elaborate lie, there is a kernel of truth.’
Whatever happens with Kavanaugh’s nomination, our country is going into a very dark time. I see no way out of it. I hope I’m wrong. I’ve written The Benedict Option as a spur to Christian reflection and action within this new reality. We have seen in this Kavanaugh thing the willingness of the cultural left to destroy the reputations and careers of human beings for the sake of achieving their ideological goals. One does not have to become a Republican, or affirm the goodness of the Republican Party, to recognize how horrifying this situation is, and the urgent need to defend oneself and one’s loved ones from this neo-McCarthyism of the left.
That self-defense requires political action. But if you think politics are sufficient to meet the challenge, you’re fooling yourself. The years ahead are going to be very, very hard. We have to be resilient, and to develop ways of forming resilient communities. What was done to Brett Kavanaugh will be done to many of us, not because we are actually guilty of anything, but because we are the Enemy. Earlier this year, on the advice of a Slovak reader, I watched “Paper Heads,” a documentary about the coming of communism to Czechoslovakia. At the time I wrote:
Last night I watched “Paper Heads,” a 1995 documentary about Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. It mixed propaganda films from the regime with testimony from people who had been tortured in communist prisons, or whose relatives had been abused in some way by the state. It was a crude but very powerful film. All that talk about brotherhood and shared prosperity and justice concealed cruelty, injustice, and murder of those who stood between the Party and Paradise.
The most chilling part of the film, at least to me, were the clips of the 1950s show trials. The rhetoric from the judges and prosecutors, and the narration by the state media announcer, denounced the accused as traitors, parasites, enemies of the people, and so forth. And these poor people, dignified but clearly in terror, confessed to their “crimes” and received the death penalty. Only in this way could the worker’s paradise be built, or so it was claimed by the communists in the film.
That’s what it means to hold the commanding heights of the culture war: you have the power to annihilate someone’s career with the power of accusation. You think those workers and their families are going to be more sympathetic to the cause of racial justice now, given what was done to them?
[David] Brooks concludes:
The only thing I’d say to my progressive friends is, be careful how you win your victories. It is one thing to win by persuasion and another thing to win by elite cultural intimidation. Illiberalism breeds illiberalism. Using elite power, whether economic or cultural, to silence less educated foes usually produces a backlash.
Conservatives have zero cultural power, but they have immense political power. Even today, voters trust Republicans on the gun issue more than Democrats. If you exile 40 percent of the country from respectable society they will mount a political backlash that will make Donald Trump look like Adlai Stevenson.
He’s right about that. See, this is what the media don’t get. They accuse Trump of fomenting white tribalism, and they’re not entirely wrong to say so. But here’s the thing: events like the firing of the cafeteria workers do all of Trump’s work for him. They signal to ordinary working people that the elites (college presidents, for example) will happily throw them to the wolves to appease progressives.
This is where we are now. The leftist elites in this country have made themselves into the contemporary equivalent of the Anti-Dreyfusards. They don’t care about evidence; they are certain that today’s Dreyfuses are guilty not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are — in Dreyfus’s case, because he was a Jew. Today’s Dreyfuses? White, male, conservative, Christian, heterosexual, “cisgender,” etc.
Anecdotally, I’m hearing from a number of conservative friends who can’t stand Donald Trump, but they don’t fear him. The Kavanaugh hearings were a turning point for them. They actually fear the Left — and they’re right to. A woman said to me last night, “What do I tell my sons? They’re terrified.” I understand this — and I’m hearing this from a lot of people, including women.
Finally: I don’t want to live in a world where the truth is determined by the identity of those speaking. I don’t want to live in a world where guilt or innocence is settled based on the identity of contending parties.
But this is the world the cultural left has given us. As David Brooks said in his column this spring, conservatives have no cultural power, but we do have political power. We have no choice but to use it — not to defend “conservatives,” per se, but to defend a process of fairness from people who want to destroy it.
Again, though: do not think that politics is sufficient to defend ourselves. We have to build a culture of resistance within ourselves and our families. We have to prepare to suffer, including things like loss of jobs and loss of status, for the sake of the truth. And we have to prepare to take care of our own who suffer for the truth. It’s coming. You can see it. There is no going back from this, not anytime soon. I don’t think we should seek to affirm this awful state of affairs, but we cannot afford to be blind about what’s happening. And we should take courage from what Lindsey Graham (of all people!) said yesterday, and start standing up and speaking out against these ideological bullies.
What else is there but surrender to lies and intimidation?
Let’s first begin with obvious points, points I’ve made time and time again. Emotion isn’t evidence. But emotion has power. When you combine emotion with evidence, there is greater power still. And, make no mistake, when Brett Kavanaugh spoke with great emotion not just about the sexual-assault allegations against him but also the broader character attacks made against him by Democrats, he voiced the emotion of honorable conservatives across the nation.
Progressives like to discount this reality, and they can rightfully point to Donald Trump as a bully in his own right, but it is a simple fact that time and again good conservative men and women have been subjected to horrific smears for the sin of disagreement, for in good faith believing in different policies, or in good faith holding different religious beliefs. They (we) have been called bigots, racists, and — yes — evil. Even our noblest politicians have been subject to the most hateful of smears.
This was the moment when a member of the “establishment,” the person who is supposed to sit quietly, respond mildly, and understand the pain of their opponents without voicing their own anguish, to absorb anger without showing anger, finally said “enough.” And he did so with great passion in his own defense, and no rancor against Christine Blasey Ford.
It was all the more powerful because it came from a person of known restraint. And his passion was magnified by another person known for his desire to reach across the aisle — the “RINO” most loathed by the populist Right — Lindsey Graham. This, incidentally, is why you default to restraint. This is why you don’t live a life of rage but instead strive for proportionality — because when you do express your anger, people listen.