Sex seems to bring out the worst in us, even when it doesn’t happen.
I refer, of course, to the Brett Kavanaugh episode. I don’t want to argue about the sex accusations themselves, partly because I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people — and partly because I’m sure you’ve reached your own view, and if we differ, why should we go over it all again?
Merely to be honest, however, I need to say that I never believed any of the accusers. Christine Blasey Ford was the only one I might have believed, but she made untrue statements about so many things — her paralyzing fear of flying, the time and reason for installing an extra door on her house, her lack of memory of crucial episodes that happened only weeks before, let alone three decades before — that there was, for me, every reason not to believe her. I was not impressed by the supposedly corroborating evidence, which consisted only of assertions made by Ford herself (in psychological counseling sessions!) about 30 years after the alleged event. Are we now corroborating our statements by making them more than once?
I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people.
But so much for that. What I want to talk about is the verbal and rhetorical horrors of the affair. I’ll start with the “protestors” who on September 24 assailed Senator Cruz in a Washington restaurant and drove him forth with loud cries, citing his support for the Kavanaugh nomination as a reason for restricting his culinary choices. Cruz has no problems of self-esteem, so I’m sure he’ll survive; I’m not so sure about the survival of some vital distinctions in our language. There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob. CNN anchor persons now fly into a tizzy if someone uses the word mob, but the word remains useful. A mob does more than bother you or protest against you; a mob wants to have its own way with you.
Protestors can be witty and humorous; mobs never are — although a member of the anti-Cruz mob did say something funny, one of the few funny sayings among the millions spilled over the Brett Kavanaugh dam. Referring to Cruz’s opponent in the current senatorial election, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, the young protestor said, “Beto is way hotter than you are.” No one will argue that this isn’t true. Some may argue that it isn’t all that funny, either, but I’ll take funniness where I can find it, especially when it cuts through the shroud of deep moral seriousness with which contestants on both sides of the Kavanaugh affair tried to suffocate us.
The rest of the keep-Cruz-from-eating discourse was not amusing. Its central feature was the high-decibel chant, “We believe survivors!” For weeks that slogan served as the argument of choice for Kavanaugh’s antagonists. Their method was backed by historical precedent, a precedent that illustrates the way in which even good causes can be hurt by bad rhetoric.
There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob.
Let me put it to you this way. In early life I often participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. Occasionally I organized them. To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there. I still think that the war was wrong — but I no longer think that angrily screaming a few catchphrases is a decent way of carrying on debate. If you believe it is, your tendency will be to make your slogans substitute for thought. Soon, freed from thought, the slogans will stop appealing to anyone except people who view them as the moral equivalent of war, and enjoy waging war. I’m pretty sure that slogans and demos didn’t end the actual war in Vietnam; they enraged more people than they inspired.
Since then, however, Americans of all persuasions have acted as if progress is to be made by shouting inane phrases, suspiciously resembling high school football chants, and imagining oneself as a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegate marching on the Winter Palace. They have so much fun dramatizing themselves that they stop caring about the effect. Does anyone hear people screaming “We believe survivors!” and say, “Hmmm. Maybe I was wrong. Now I see that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination should be rejected.” Only an insane person would meditate thus, and when I watched adult persons being dragged from Senate chambers shouting the single word “Shame!” until the word dissolved into an animal howl, I wondered why anyone not seriously unbalanced would want to argue in this way.
The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died. It drowned out any attempts at serious discussion of Kavanaugh’s qualifications for high office — discussions from which his adversaries might have emerged victorious. Yet these officially distressed people all seemed remarkably smug, as smug as teachers who’ve caught some students cheating and can now indulge the pleasure of bawling them out. After all, the cry of “Shame!” implies that those on the receiving end understand the rules and know that they violated them; all the culprits need is to be publicly disgraced. But despite its high moral purpose, the protestors’ rhetoric was literally repulsive — repellant, repugnant, noxious to anyone exposed to it for significant periods of time.
To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there.
Its logic was repulsive too. The howl of “We believe survivors!” was not only an attempt at winning by intimidation; it was also an attempt at winning by definition. The question for debate was whether someone (e.g., Christine Blasey Ford) was in fact a survivor of something, and if so, what that something was; the demand for belief was just an impudent way of eliding the debate. So was the adjuration to believe the victims, as in Michael Avenatti’s denunciation of the press for not caving in to accusations made by his client. “I am disgusted by the fact that the press is attacking a sexual assault victim,” Avenatti said. He could have saved himself from disgust by simply showing that his client was indeed a victim.
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) took the same tack as the “We believe survivors!” sloganeers, although with her even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes. “We are now in a place,” she intoned, “where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified. It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” No, it’s not about that. Everyone agrees that if someone is a victim, she should be believed. The question is, Were these people victims or not? Did they survive anything that endangered their survival? Murkowski assumes that if you define them as victims and survivors, and shout loudly enough — or orate heavily enough — about it, then you have won the argument. But what if I shout in reply, “I don’t believe a LIAR!” Where are we then? Who will decide between these two sets of powerful arguments?
I’m going to say this as solemnly as I can: a world in which people just are what they say they are, and you are required to believe them, because that’s what they are, is a world incompatible with liberty. It’s a world in which anyone can be accused of anything, and lose everything, because he or she is guilty by definition. If protection from this violation of liberty isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, it’s because the authors never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to use such logic in constitutional discourse, or smug enough to insist on it.
The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died.
Less repulsive, I suppose, than argument by definition, but similar in logical status, is argument by emotion — your emotion or somebody else’s. Kavanaugh was believed or not believed because he showed certain emotions. Ford was pronounced credible because her hearers felt that her emotions were appropriate to the occasion. Others, admittedly, found her credible because, as they said, “She had nothing to gain by making these charges.” Excuse me — is there no gain in attracting a national spotlight, advancing the political causes you espouse, or even expressing your turbulent emotions in a public context? Both true and false witnesses can have these motives, and to deny that people have them suggests a disqualifying ignorance of human nature. This may be a good place to cite Ayn Rand’s idea that emotions are not tools of cognition. And they aren’t.
Here’s evidence. There is in this world a person named Anna Ayers. Until recently she was a prominent member of the student “senate” at Ohio University. She is no longer a member of that august body, because she was arrested for sounding a “false alarm” — accusing an unnamed fellow senator of writing abusive and threatening messages to her because of her sexual orientation. The cops say that she wrote the messages herself, and I assume she did, because, despite her plea of not guilty, no defense has been forthcoming. Making her accusations in a speech before the senate, Ayers ranted, declaimed, choked up, and shared her deepest feelings:
“Senate will never be the same for me,” Ayers said in front of her Student Senate peers. “The friendships will continue to grow, and our successes will always evoke pride, but the memory of my time in senate and at OU will be marred by this experience. We will all have a memory of a time when this body failed one of its own.”
Ayers went on to call the threat sender cowardly, weak, and worthless. . . .
“You may find me revolting and worthy of a threat on my life, but in reality, it is your beliefs that are repulsive,” Ayers said during her speech in the senate. “You need to get this through your head, you f***ing a**hole: I am proud to be who I am, and nothing you could say or do will ever change that.”
Emotionally credible? Certainly. But emotional credibility (surprise!) had nothing to do with truth, despite the assumptions of Ayers’ student council colleagues, who instead of reacting with disgust to the evidently false accusations that Ayers leveled at themselves still believe in believing anyone who accuses anyone. Maddie Sloat, Student Senate President, said:
It’s important for you to know that I do not, for one second, regret any of the actions we took in the past week to support Anna on the information [query: what information?] that we had at the time. . . . Know that if you report something to (Vice President) Hannah (Burke), (Treasurer) Lydia (Ramlo) or anyone else on our leadership, we will listen. We will believe you. We care about you.
“You” being . . . everyone in Salem with a tale to tell?
Note that we are still in the to-our-contemporaries-terrifically-confusing realm of sex and sexuality. In a nation that gives — and rightly gives — unprecedented freedom to sexual expression, freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented. In a nation oozing sexuality from every pore, a nation in which sexual aggression is a staple of popular entertainment and in which stars of stage and screen struggle daily to free their bodies of all skin cover, one of the nation’s leading lawyers can refer to Judge Kavanaugh, as having been “accused of the most heinous crime imaginable.”
With Murkowski even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes.
The author of that statement is the irrepressible Alan Dershowitz, sharing his feelings on Tucker Carson’s show. Dershowitz was actually defending Kavanaugh against accusations he did not find credible, but he followed fashion when it came to the crime itself. In America one can never mention sex without superlatives. Either it is the most sacred, most necessary, and most liberating of all human enterprises, or it is the most heinous crime imaginable.
Why is such language used? One reason is simply a desire to win at any conceptual price. It sounds so feeble, doesn’t it, to say, “I disagree with you about Judge Kavanaugh. I don’t think he has the right qualifications, and I’m inclined to believe Christine Ford. Her testimony isn’t conclusive, but it may be true, and I don’t think that a person under a cloud of serious suspicion should be elevated to the Supreme Court.” It feels stronger to say, “Anyone who doesn’t believe Christine Ford is against the rights of all survivors of heinous assaults.” Then, if you still haven’t convinced everybody, you can seek people out and scream “Shame!” in their faces, thereby winning the argument.
Another reason is fear. Even Dershowitz, who is no little snowflake, apparently fears that if you say something like, “Kavanaugh is accused of forcing himself on a young woman and trying to take off her clothes,” people will accuse you of trivializing sexual assault. So you’re afraid, and you call whatever it was that he’s suspected of doing “the most heinous crime imaginable.” Now no one will attack you, and you will win the argument! Maybe, but at what a price?
And that’s what you can ask about all of the above: at what a price?
Freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented.
Turning now to the lighter side of the news . . .
Here’s a headline from the Boston Herald, September 30: “Howie Carr: Treat Brett Kavanaugh as good as illegal alien criminals.” Hmmm . . . How good are they treated? Real good? The error is not in Carr’s article; he knows grammar — although it doesn’t take much knowledge to avoid the good-well mistake. Now, what part of an article is most important to get right? The headline, that’s what.
In case you think that sex scandals are confined to America, here’s something from an article (October 1) about problems in Sweden: “The scandal started with 18 women publicly accusing well-known photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual misconduct last November.” I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.
Speaking of mass activities, consider a video aired on Fox News on October 6. It showed demonstrators being prepped for their performance at the office of Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The group is learning, by recitation, how they’re going to protest. The (male) group leader chants, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office”; the group repeats, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office!” Etc. Finally one woman interrupts: “But she’s on our side.” All repeat: “She’s on our side!”
I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.
One more item to close it off. It isn’t directly related to the rhetoric of sex, but it’s about Hillary Clinton, so you know it’s gonna be good. I feel sad to make this confession, but Mrs. Clinton is my joy and comfort. Not even Donald Trump can provide such a steady stream of comedy, if only because he himself has a sense of humor. It’s not my sense of humor, but he’s got it, and as the old expression goes, you can’t kid a kidder.
Clinton has no such sense. She has no sense of any kind. When she blamed her husband’s sex scandals on “a vast, rightwing conspiracy,” when she angrily demanded what difference it made about why our embassy in Benghazi was looted and our ambassador murdered, when she, campaigning for the presidency, labeled a large portion of the voting population “deplorables,” her remarks were carefully prepared and conscientiously rehearsed. She wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say. The more carefully, thoughtfully, and self-righteously she speaks, the funnier you know she’ll be.
Looking for a conclusion to this month’s column, I knew that Clinton would have something for me, and of course she did. It’s the interview (October 9) in which she maintained that it’s impossible to be civil to the opposing party, because "you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about." Again, it’s the argument from emotion: what you care about. But her assertion of a subjective standard didn’t keep her from adopting the objective tone of an ethics professor, revealing the results of her research.
Clinton wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say.
Programmatic incivility isn’t especially good politics, but never mind; you can always promise to be civil later on. The logic here is exceptionally challenging, but let’s keep with her. She followed her defense of incivility by saying, “That’s why [why?] I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”
Here we have a whole new approach to rhetoric. I will rail at you, condemn you, call you names, accuse you of crimes, do my best to intimidate you. This is perfectly ethical; indeed, it is an ethical requirement. But if it succeeds, I will consider it ethical to treat you civilly — again, or for the first time.
To think this is remarkable. To announce it is bizarre.