After pooh-poohing the claims of Deborah Ramirez that then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh had exposed himself to her during college at Yale, The New York Times revealed that indeed there were corroborating witness accounts to support Ramirez’s accusation. Too little, too late. Now Kavanaugh enjoys his lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. His boosters during the confirmation fight pointed to the Times’s inability to find corroboration for Ramirez’s claims. Now it turns out, like the FBI, they didn’t look hard enough at the time.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Court perhaps represents the dying breath of a system of privilege that controlled the Court through most of its history. Currently, all Justices attended just two law schools: Harvard and Yale. So much for diversity of thought. Nevertheless, Kavanaugh’s privilege reeks with special toxicity.
Along with his fellow recently-appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh attended the elite, boys-only Georgetown Prep Jesuit high school. His mother was a judge, his father an executive at an industry lobbying organization in Washington. Despite his claims to the contrary, his grandfather’s prior attendance did play a role in Kavanaugh’s admission. In other words, Kavanaugh has led a charmed life.
The recent allegations by Ramirez display Kavanaugh’s absolute belief in his own privilege and his right to exercise it. At a party, he drunkenly thrust his penis into the face of the relatively naive Ramirez, getting her to unwillingly touch it when she pushed him away. Kavanaugh’s actions constitute sexual assault, plain and simple, in the same vein as his attempted rape of Christine Blasey Ford in high school, and, contrary to the claims of some conservative commentators, it has not been debunked.
Kavanaugh has defended himself from these highly credible charges by simply denying them. He has not argued that this was adolescent misbehavior and that he has evolved since. Investigative reporters Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin, who authored the book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh based upon nearly a year of research, argued that the evidence supported his accusers — not his blanket denials. But there is actually more to this story than the debate over whether Kavanaugh is guilty or not.
The Kavanaugh debacle actually turned into a windfall for Republicans. What at first appeared to be an embarrassing spectacle turned into a rallying cry for discouraged Republicans, bringing them to the polls, and likely saving the Senate for the GOP. As with Kavanaugh’s denials, the arguments by his Republican supporters completely lack nuance and ostracize his accusers rather than acknowledge what any rational observer can see: where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
So why was the Republican base so motivated by Kavanaugh’s hearings? In the past, someone with his elite background would be elevated to the Court without delay. He was the archetypical straight white male, member of the old boys’ club, and prep school and Ivy League graduate who has made up the bulk of our government leadership for at least the last one hundred years. So to see him nearly brought down by a woman was outrageous.
To people like Kavanaugh, everything is supposed to come easily to them because they have always been privileged. He may be smart, he may have had to work hard, but he never dealt with the kind of challenges faced by a Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, or Sandra Day O’Connor. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. People like him just get elevated. It’s the way of the world.
Or at least it used to be. #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the gay rights movements, among others, have come to question the privileges that our nation’s elite traditionally take for granted. Are women simply there as sexual playthings? Can Black Americans be ignored? Is it okay to joke about gay people? The practices that defined our world for so long are increasingly questioned.
And it’s not happening fast enough.
That view is not shared by the defenders of the old regime. Many White straight males and their allies are shocked to see society place limitations upon the behaviors that were standard practice in the old boys’ club. What’s especially shocking to them is how they are now being held to account for their past behavior. Back then, the behaviors were common practice. Now, not so much.
The fear over our changing world is evident everywhere in the conservative rhetoric. “You can’t say Merry Christmas anymore,” they claim. In the past, it was acceptable to ignore the fact that some people, out and about during the holidays, weren’t Christian. Acknowledging their existence is a step toward accepting that America is not a White, Christian nation dominated by heterosexual males.
The times, they are a-changing. The biggest frustration facing defenders of the one-time status quo is that no matter what they do, change continues forward. They can fight to keep LGBT people in the closet, but now they’re getting married, and a supermajority of Americans support their right to do so. Black people can no longer be repressed by the police without consequence. Videos from cell phones have led to outrage even among a majority of White people.
This sense that society is spinning out of control terrifies Conservatives. They can no longer count on their self-serving precepts which governed our culture. When they were so stridently defending Kavanaugh’s rights to be one of the boys as a teenager, they were defending the established strictures that are on their way out.
More and more, the source of this change appears to be America’s college campuses. While many Americans struggle to afford higher education at all, the one-third who do complete college in their twenties are shockingly liberal, open to people of all races, creeds, and sexual orientations. The more educated a person is in America today, the more likely they are to be liberal. The younger a person is, the more likely they are to be liberal. And contrary to what Winston Churchill once said, young liberals tend to become older liberals.
College was once solely the domain of the wealthy. Successful business-people from the cities would send their sons to college to sow their wild oats and gain some perspective before returning to join the family business. Daughters were largely sent there to find a husband. Anyone who did not fit this mold was non-existent.
Things changed after World War II. With the G.I. Bill, former servicemen who never would have otherwise gone to college earned higher degrees. As a result of their growth, these degrees became de rigueur for advancement in just about any profession. Higher education became more widespread, and as a result, its importance in the workplace increased. The growth of large organizations made it less common for children to simply join the family business. Increasing automation made unskilled workers expendable.
The “greatest generation,” realizing the newfound importance of higher education, wanted their sons and daughters to have the advantages that college could provide. These young people, including the women, wanted the kind of rigorous, valuable, education their parents had received. It wasn’t long before People of Color started appearing on college campuses, realizing the advantage higher education could bring them personally and professionally.
These demographic changes altered the nature of the college environment. As they became better educated, the minority students, female students, and LGBTQ students demanded equal treatment. They no longer wanted to be the chorus for the White, straight, male students.
Their demands did not go without resistance. The stories of Kavanaugh’s college career demonstrate the lengths the formerly privileged would go to to demean those unlike them. The campus protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not just against Vietnam. They were to ensure a place at the table for everyone in college.
Now, colleges look very different from how they looked before World War II. Now, the majority of students are women. Black women, as a group, are the highest educated demographic in America. The reach of higher education goes far beyond the privileged few.
In some respects, this demographic change is the canary in the coal mine for America’s future. We are no longer being dominated by the White, male, privileged patriarchy that Kavanaugh represents. America’s white majority is ending. Women are refusing to remain quietly seated at the back of the bus. And the LGBTQ will no longer remain hidden in the closet.
This is why Conservatives look at college campuses with such trepidation. It is not just that these centers of free thought educate young people out of the ignorance that is required for Conservatives to retain their dominance. But the culture of acceptance that has developed there as a result of these demographic changes is about to overtake the once normative White American culture.
This is why Conservatives love to demean college, why they have engaged in a concerted attack to undermine the legitimacy of American higher education. They make fun of the culture that has developed on college campuses because they are afraid of what will happen when that culture expands beyond the academe. They attack campus Liberals as “snowflakes” for their attitude of acceptance. They demean “safe zones” and “trigger warnings,” ideas that emerged on college campuses as a means of protecting the rights of the traditionally oppressed.
The problem Conservatives have is that the concerns expressed by so many of these college students are legitimate. Yes, university campuses should be centers of open discussion and debate. But there are certain kinds of talk that really should not be acceptable at all anymore. Justifications for racism, attacks targeting women and the LGBTQ, arguing based upon falsehoods, none of these should be acceptable anywhere in America anymore. Colleges should be places for open discussion, but we can demand certain standards. And taking into consideration the fact that someone might not be Christian when you say “happy holidays” is just being nice.
So given the fact that each year, more and more students leave college with their eyes open to the concerns of people different from themselves, the Conservatives have attacked with name-calling and playing up extreme examples. “Cancel culture,” they call it. “We are being censored,” they lament. But censoring comes from the government. In this case, it is society that is demanding something better.
The truth is that social norms have always governed the way we talk. When it was okay for White, straight males to openly joke about people’s sexuality or comment on a woman’s body, social norms deemed these forms of discussion acceptable. Now, however, our social norms are changing, aiming to reflect the concerns of people other than just the White, straight, male patriarchy. That change is what Conservatives are fighting against. We should not kid ourselves about the stakes.
So when Conservatives argue against “political correctness” or “cancel culture,” or for “freedom of speech” or “honest discussion” at college campuses, understand what they are actually arguing for. They are arguing for a return to the time when people could be marginalized based upon their race, gender, or sexual orientation. To the extent that we wither before those arguments, we are empowering them in their effort to silence those who have been the subject of oppression through most of America’s history.