THERE was something more than the claim and counterclaim of “he said, she said” on display last week in the hearings into whether Brett Kavanaugh should be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, where he has the potential to make rulings on key social issues for the next three decades.
To the political partisans in Washington, with mid-term elections looming, this is simply a power struggle between the Republicans and the Democrats. To those more concerned with the politics of gender, it is about the balance of power between women and men in contemporary society. But the debate has a moral dimension, too.
The facts will probably never be clear about whether, as a teenager, Mr Kavanaugh did sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford at a drunken party in Maryland. Americans and many of the rest of us were riveted by the live TV coverage when the two testified at the US Senate. Yet who was believed seemed determined by viewers’ pre-existing opinions.
Republicans lent towards Judge Kavanaugh, and Democrats towards Dr Ford. Responses seemed governed chiefly by whether viewers agreed or disagreed with how Judge Kavanaugh would be likely to vote on hot-button issues such as abortion and immigration.
A variety of arguments were adduced: if the judge was innocent, why did he oppose an FBI investigation? If his accuser was not lying, why had she spoken out only now? Why was the only witness to the incident (his friend Mark Judge) refusing to appear to give evidence? But all were circumstantial.
His political foes insinuated guilt by association. They trawled through his record as a legal adviser to various Republican causes, and highlighted inconsistencies that, they claim, reveal a casual relationship with the truth, which is apposite for someone nominated by President Trump — a man who lies, on average, eight times a day, one analyst has recently calculated. But the Democrats’ record on senate nominations is as ruthlessly manipulative as their Republican opponents.
The debate on gender is more illuminating. As teenagers, Kavanaugh and Judge were immersed in a drinking culture that combined entitlement with disinhibition. It inculcated a “toxic masculinity” which leaves young men devoid of empathy, sensitivity, and compassion. The #MeToo movement has caused a tectonic shift on that — as was evident when a video went viral that showed two abuse survivors confronting a Republican senator in an elevator. “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me,” one said to him. He changed his vote soon after.
So large does the sexual-harassment issue loom that the leading Jesuit magazine America — which had previously endorsed Judge Kavanaugh, a Roman Catholic, for his anti-abortion views — has withdrawn its support, saying that his nomination has become “a bellwether of the way the country treats women when their reports of harassment, assault, and abuse threaten to derail the careers of powerful men”.
For me, what was decisive was something else. This was not a trial: it was a job interview. The indignation, anger, and contempt that Judge Kavanaugh displayed in that hearing was a far cry from the calm, measured temperament of a judge willing to weigh both sides and come to a fair conclusion. The Supreme Court will be better off with someone else.