Kavanaugh And The New Politics Of Personal Identity

The controversy over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has starkly revealed many deep fissures and divisions in our current national life. In reading much of the commentary I have been struck over the past few days with what strikes me as the merging of older and newer strands of progressive political thought: the old argument that “the personal is political,” popularized by second wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, and the newer, current emphasis on identity politics that is at the core of contemporary progressivism.

This merger has resulted in what otherwise might be a surprising amount of liberal denunciations of Kavanaugh based as much or more on who he is, or was, as on evidence of his behavior. I am not referring here to his more traditional ideological or political critics. Some of those, such as Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono (whom I now think of as Crazy Mazie), go so far as to admit that they withhold granting a presumption of innocence to accused conservatives. As Crazy Mazie said in a CNN interview,

“I put his denial in the context of everything I know about him in terms of how he approaches his cases.”

“His credibility is already very questionable in my mind and the minds of a lot of my fellow Judiciary Committee members, the Democrats,” she explained.

Much of the criticism of Kavanaugh, however, is aimed more at his identity than his ideology. Consider the following, for example, from a recent Politico symposium:

Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law.:
I believe that Kavanaugh’s show of anger and hurt was real. Anger and hurt are what I would expect to see if he is innocent. The problem is, it is also what I would expect to see if he did assault Ford but either forgot the incident in a beer-infused summer, or remembers it but believed, all his life, that transgressions of this type would “stay at Georgetown Prep.” This is as it was for generations of powerful men who partied hard, transgressed and got away with it.
Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law:
It was as if Kavanaugh was trying to use his position, privilege and entitlement to bully the senators— and the country — into believing him.
Kay Hymowitz, writing in City Journal, has noticed the same phenomenon:
It was striking how people moved by the tears of women seemed convinced that if you prick a prep school quarterback, he should not bleed. “He’s crying because he’s been found out,” writer Emma Kennedy tweeted. The actor John Cusack accused Kavanaugh of crying “cause a life time of snarky country club Ass kissing GOP water carrying groveling to power—is going down the drain—fast.” “Pure aggrieved entitlement,” Cusack concluded, repeating a meme that proliferated on social media.
Coming from a different perspective, Andrew Sullivan has commented on the same thing:
… all those op-eds and essays that decided to judge one moment in one man’s teens as somehow deeply revealing about … white privilege, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, toxic homosociality, bro culture, alcoholism, patriarchy … you name it, Kavanaugh was suddenly its foul epitome. He was an instant symbol of all the groups of people the left now hates, by virtue of their race or gender or orientation. And maybe he is. But did any of that necessarily make him guilty of anything, except by association?
And so has conservative Never-Trumper Jonah Goldberg:
I knew kids at various schools like Kavanaugh’s. They could be, to borrow a term from social science, dicks. I’m not saying he was. But even if he was, that doesn’t mean he was a rapist. Though, to listen to various liberals, you’d think stereotypes about sex, race, and class are always true so long as you’re talking about white preppy Christians.

And speaking of social science, take Shamus Khan, chair of the Sociology Department at Columbia (Please! You take him! Somewhere!). Writing in the Washington Post, Shamus asks: “How could a man brought up in some of our nation’s most storied institutions — Georgetown Prep, Yale College, Yale Law School — dissemble with such ease?” His answer: “The answer lies in the privilege such institutions instill in their members, a privilege that suggests the rules that govern American society are for the common man, not the exceptional one.”

According to Khan, men like Kavanaugh “have both the sense and the experience that the rules don’t really apply to them and that they can act without much concern for the consequences. Elite schools like Georgetown Prep and Yale have long cultivated this sensibility in conscious and unconscious ways.”

Perhaps we should blacklist all graduates of elite institutions.

Martha Nussbaum, a distinguished professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, is no better. Also writing in the Washington Post (is this just a coincidence?), she reduces Kavanaugh to the personification of “a wave of fear-driven male rage” that is “sweeping across our nation.” The cause of this anger, according to Nussbaum, is status anxiety that produces anger and envy.

Three emotions, all infused by fear, play a role in today’s misogyny. The most obvious is anger — at women making demands, speaking up, in general standing in the way of unearned male privilege. Women were once good mothers and good wives, props and supports for male ambition, the idea goes –but here they are asserting themselves in the workplace. Here they are daring to speak about their histories of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men. It’s okay for women to charge strangers with rape, especially if the rapist is of inferior social status. But to dare to accuse the powerful is to assail a bastion of privilege to which men still cling.
Nussbaum seems to shake her head in wonder that “We are even told that good parents should tremble for the future of their sons when women can make claims against them” and dismisses as irrational the notions #MeToo has been weaponized and that “masculinity itself [is] under attack.” If I were more interested in what Nussbaum thinks, I would wonder what she thinks of the mob of Georgetown students who protested Kavanaugh’s nomination wearing tee shirts proclaiming “Men Are Trash.”
Much of the intensely negative response to Kavanaugh, in short, reveals what happens when “the personal is political” becomes merged with identity politics. The result is not pretty.

Say What?