I watched the Kavanaugh hearing last week with a bunch of old white guys. Of course, it was strictly research, but I was also hoping they might get enough of it at some point to lift themselves painfully up off the couch so we could go fishing, as promised.
But, no. They sat glued tight to that tube for hours on end. I would say the group covered the waterfront politically, from quite liberal to quite conservative. One big difference between me and everybody else was that they were all fathers of smart wonderful daughters. But we were united in being old white guys.
Since then, a narrative has emerged to the effect that old white guys are under attack from the liberal left. Why only white, I don’t know. How do they know old black guys aren’t under attack, too?
The president has tossed his own opinion into the ring, suggesting that young men are under attack, too, by unscrupulous young women willing to fabricate accusations of sexual assault for unknown motives.
Setting aside the question of whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh committed a crime against Christine Blasey Ford long ago — because the bar for calling someone a criminal is high and we want to be fair — let's focus here instead on whether Kavanaugh was ever a lout, which is an old word for what we now call an "asshole" or a "bro." That bar is much lower, and the evidence that Kavanaugh qualified is more solid. Way more solid.
I can’t quote anything or even paraphrase what I heard from the fishing group, or I won’t get invited back. I feel that I must remain faithful to my own priorities, according to which fishing should always come before journalism. But I think I can say this much without getting into too much trouble:
Generally speaking and based on most old white guys I count as friends, those who fish and those who do not, none of them would disqualify Kavanaugh for loutish but non-criminal behavior in his teens. They might even give him a pass for his early twenties. A lot of old white men I know have decided, based upon those hearings, not to put themselves up for the Supreme Court.
But most of the old men I know also recognize how profoundly and broadly the culture has moved since we were young. Most of them — white, black, Hispanic or other but especially those who are fathers of daughters — recognize the change as being absolutely for the good. Most of them have a fairly clear picture how an old man must deal morally with the sins of his own youthful years.
The first step is recognition. You have to look yourself in the mirror (ouch!), look back on your own behavior as a young man — things that did not cross the line into criminality — and recognize your own behaviors that were nevertheless oppressive, belittling, damaging and just plain wrong.
The next step is to spit it out. Acknowledge it. Admit it. Covering it up because you find it embarrassing is a cheat. (For example, claiming the word "boof" refers to flatulence or "devil's triangle" is a drinking game.) You’re supposed to feel embarrassed. Don’t knock embarrassment. Embarrassment may be a more powerful tool for social and moral change than prison. Take your embarrassment like a man. Well, like an old man, anyway.
And then the last step is atonement. Do something to help change the way the young men in your own life behave. Raise your sons up not to behave the way you did. Help shape a new sense of what young men think is cool. Cool may be even more powerful than embarrassment.
In other words, the way Kavanaugh behaved as a kid is not in and of itself a deal-breaker for the old men I know, but the way he deals with it now may be. How he deals with it now is important for what it says about him as an individual. And because he’s a candidate for the Supreme Court, it’s even more important for what it tells us about where he stands in moral culture.
There is a level we never seem quite to get to in all of this talk about young people and sex. I’m talking about the beliefs of their parents and the way those beliefs may color the behavior of young people. This is an area that old people should know well.
In one part of the old culture, some parents — not mine — taught their boys that girls never really meant no when they said no. According to this set of beliefs, celebrated in song and Hollywood, a cool young guy, a “real man,” powers over a girl’s withheld consent, forces her to have sex with him, and then afterward, as in the old (bad) movies, she’s grateful, of course, because it was so good. By this set of beliefs, even if Kavanaugh did what his accusers say he did, he was cool.
Parents who still have that view of the world and have daughters may even become their own daughters’ worst pimps when the girls are sent off to college. They tell their daughters not to get pregnant out of wedlock, of course, because that’s a mess and a disgrace. But they may also signal to them that they should give the boys in the richest fraternity what they want, because that’s the only way to snag one of them as a husband.
There is a name in that culture for girls who won’t play by those rules, who rebel and assert their own dignity and willpower. I know that name because I have heard it whispered spitefully at garden parties and even church socials. They are called lesbians. And if some of them really are lesbians and they are able to inspire courage in the ones who are not, then God bless the lesbians.
The other culture, the countervailing one, is where I believe all of my fishing buddies are, and, as I say, they cover the waterfront politically, so I don’t believe it’s a left-right thing. In that other culture, fathers and mothers together teach their daughters to take their places in the world on an equal footing with men, to compete hard against them and if some male ever tries to physically force sex on a girl, call 911 and put the bastard in the slammer.
So, yes, the president is absolutely right, parents who are still conveying the macho power-over-her culture to their boys are putting those young men in grave danger. Those boys will never be able to tell for sure when they may have their hands on one of those dangerous 911 girls.
Then, talk about a disgrace! Wow. What could be more disgraceful for a young man hoping for a stellar legal career or med school or an MBA than a felony rape conviction? He’d almost be better off getting himself pregnant.
When you think about it, the chance of a girl calling 911 is so perilous, you’d almost think it would be worth the parents’ while to stop encouraging their sons to force sex on girls. Just not doing it — ever — would provide boys a lot more protection than Donald Trump can offer.
There’s another important piece of the cultural divide that we never seem to get to, and that’s the way girls feel about sexual intercourse. One of the more insinuating suggestions from the defenders of Kavanaugh has been that his accusers can’t have been all that pure or they wouldn’t have been at those naughty parties in the first place.
But what does pure mean in this context? That they don’t want sex? If that’s what pure means, then, no, I don’t think they probably were. I think it’s been clear at least since Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique and way before as a matter of fact that women want the hell out of sex. Young women want lots of sex. They want sex as much as young men do.
The idea that only males want sex, that women must be physically overwhelmed and forced to have sex comes from a very dark and twisty place in the national culture and morality. Yet that idea may still influence some affluent fraternity/sorority behavior.
Some boys are still being taught they have to risk alcohol poisoning to have sex when all they really need to do is ask nicely (or be halfway patient, sit around for five minutes and wait to be asked). Instead of mixing Everclear and Kool-Aid, they could get the same thing done even better with a couple of whole milk cappuccinos.
What must change here — the long-range answer — is entirely in the question of what young men think is cool and what they find truly embarrassing. What’s the cool way to get into bed with someone? What’s the embarrassing, felonious way?
If a boy knows a certain girl who may actually want to have sexual intercourse with him but probably will not want to be treated like a nothing, why would he pour a date-rape drug down her throat, wait for her to pass out and then jump on top of her? Shouldn’t boys who behave that way be the height of uncool?
All of this brings me back to old guys and the Kavanaugh question. In terms of counts against him, youthful non-criminal but loutish behavior is probably off the table. Too much there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I in that one.
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Probably also the judicial temperament thing is a nonstarter. As far as his shouting and getting red in the face and squinching up his nose and stuff, most of us get like that every morning when we can’t find our toothbrushes.
What is deeply unsettling, however, is the picture he paints of himself as a young man and his attitude toward it now. Holier-than-thou, virgin, perfect son, choir boy. Give us a BREAK! He won’t even own up honestly to the drinking — always a very bad sign.
That tells us he lacks a certain moral depth and self-awareness. Worse, it tells us he is deep in that other culture, that value system that teaches a young man to diminish and assault women, to behave like a lout, to lie about it later and then, maybe even worse than all of the above strictly from a man’s point of view, fails even to teach him the right way to get laid.
Talk about a war on men. OK, I’m exhausted. Can we go fishing now? What were we talking about anyway?