By Layo Laniyan
Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.
-Zadie Smith, White Teeth.
Earlier this week, I found myself watching Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in ceremony. I watched as the congregation in the East Room sat silently in anticipation, as silence turned to applause when the current justices on the Supreme Court filed into their seats and as that applause quickly turned into a tribal roar when Kavanaugh strode in behind Donald Trump, an embattled hero making his homecoming. The whole production felt like a victory lap, a triumphant bout of revelry commemorating the end of a prolonged battle. Yet, as I looked for the faces in the masses, I saw something lying latent, something subtle yet profoundly tangible: the ceremony felt like a sigh of relief. And looking upon the throngs of administrative officials, lawmakers, staffers and pundits, all basking in a self-congratulatory revelry, I felt an intense detachment. I couldn’t lay claim to the world filling the East Room. I caught a glimpse into a world of immense privilege and power, one tremendously powerful yet detached – the world from which Kavanaugh hailed.
Brett Kavanaugh comes from a privileged, sheltered background. He grew up in Bethesda, an affluent Maryland suburb, and attended Georgetown Prep, a prestigious all-boys Catholic school nearby (Neil Gorsuch, another Trump appointee, claims the same school as his alma mater). After high school, he attended Yale University; after college, he moved on to Yale Law School. As the recent confirmation hearings have brought to light, he belonged to very similar circles in both high school and college. In a 2015 speech, he joked, “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.” He drank heavily at parties and, according to several friends who knew him, often turned belligerent. In college, he joined Delta Kappa Epsilon, one of the oldest fraternities in the nation. DKE has built up a reputation for its aggressive, boorish antics: a photo from Kavanaugh’s time, recently unearthed by the Yale Daily News, shows two pledges marching across campus hoisting a flag fashioned from women’s underwear. The Yale chapter recently served a five-year ban, stemming from an infamous incident in which a group of pledges flooded the freshman quadrangle chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” John Holloway, the then-dean of the college, said that he hoped the ruling would “flush institutional memory and culture out.” Kavanaugh also belonged to an all-male secret society, known formally as Truth and Courage, dubbed “Tit and Clit” informally. To the average observer, this world may seem as absurd as it is dismaying. But the world from which Kavanaugh hails operates by a different set of rules, enjoys immunity from oversight, and wields its imperviousness with pride.
That world, in the age of the #MeToo movement and its subsequent cultural reckoning, is under attack, and the men protecting Kavanaugh are coming to its defense. While the confirmation process is a supposedly political proceeding, the undertones and implications are anything but. Rather, the war playing out in front of us on national television has distinct cultural undertows, between a world facing a reckoning and the world seeking it.
Brett Kavanaugh is simultaneously a participator in, a product of and a beneficiary of this privileged world. A latent tribalism in his protection of that world rose to the surface during his confirmation hearing. He conducted himself with degree of disrespect, contempt and combativeness that, in any other case, would more than prove his unfitness for such a respected position. He pushed back against questioning, sat back in his chair in fits of haughty anger, burst into angry tirades against perceived smear jobs. Most GOP Senators, rather than questioning Kavanaugh, used their time to defend him and bemoan the injustice of the whole saga. Trump himself commented on the case several times, deriding Dr. Blasey Ford, Democrats and the “unfair treatment” of Kavanaugh. Yet Senator Lindsey Graham’s defense on the last day of hearings offered us the most visceral, prolonged tirade against the perceived injustice of it all. He fumed, his voice breaking with indignation, as he ripped into his Democratic colleagues, calling the investigation “the most unethical sham since [he’s] been in politics.” His face contorted; his eyes welled; his voice alternated between an unsteady timbre and a full-throated fury. In his mind, none of this should have been happening – the entire process was orchestrated by power-hungry Democrats, seeking to ruin a good man’s name. This coveted position was Kavanaugh’s right, and this hearing flew in the face of a natural order. Kavanaugh did not deserve what was happening to him, not in a just world.
He was one of their own—they saw a part of themselves in him, not by virtue of shared past, but rather by virtue of a shared privilege and power, a shared belonging to a world segregated. And in this crusade, Graham and his colleagues saw a war on their world, not a call for accountability and transparency. They never expected to have to defend their power, and, until recently, that rang true. That world of sheltered prep schools, untouchable fraternities and secret societies had lay behind a veil. Yet #MeToo brought about a new scrutiny into their world, where the privileged protect their own. It catalyzed a new instability, and they now find themselves caught in an unanticipated dogfight. They responded with an anger undercut by disbelief – their world, and the walls around it, were crumbling down.
On one level, this saga was part of a political struggle, a battle to decide the ideological swing of the Supreme Court for years to come. The stakes were high; several future court decisions (surrounding Roe v. Wade, presidential immunity and governmental regulation, to name a few) potentially lay in the balance. Yet the cultural undercurrents cannot be ignored – this hearing was a battle in a larger war between worlds. The world of Kavanaugh, of privilege and power and insularity and exclusivity, has been under attack on a nationwide scale, and we are currently in the midst of its responsive backlash. We’re seeing tribalism play out on a larger scale, between those who wield power and those who don’t. It penetrates all corners of our lives – academia, politics, Hollywood, our own relationships. And at its root, that reaction, our own propensity to revert back to tribal affiliations, is a human tendency. Because in times of duress, the lines between the self and the collective blur—we strive to afford our kin the same humanity we afford ourselves.
And therein lies the undertow of the events of the past month. In striving to grant humanity to their own, the world of the privileged denies it to the accuser. The real tragedy thus manifests in the people rendered collateral damage. It lies in the women left to pick up the ruins, in the scholars denied, in the livelihoods destroyed, in the names tarnished. Because in that world of affluent suburbs and prestigious prep schools and even more prestigious colleges and fraternities and secret societies and locker rooms and famed law schools, women fall to the wayside—objectified, scrutinized, harassed, demeaned, doubted. Too often, their suffering is the price we pay to maintain this order of things. Because in cases of sexual assaults, we seldom hear about collateral damage in terms of the victims. We quantify what’s at stake in the potential, the genius, the future of men. We weigh the odds, calculate the chances, and, in the end, always, always, always opt to protect our insular circles. And in those other, like worlds—of exclusivity and boards of trustees and color barriers and tenured positions and glass ceilings and C-Suites and cultural competencies and happy hours—the same rings true.
It would be easy for us as a community to lament the tragedy, the absurdity, the injustice of it all, but our hands are dirtied as well. That exclusive world, with all its insulations and tribalisms, exists within our campus as well. The world Kavanaugh lives in is not so different from our own, and, while we may differ in our relationship to it, we are all complicit in its persistence. And there lies our failing. To acknowledge our own role in protecting and producing the Kavanaughs of the world is to acknowledge that we will readily commodify the suffering of women rather than reckon with the own privileged, insular worlds that we create. Because while these worlds are exclusive, they are, by no means, separate. These worlds coexist and interfere with the rest of society. They are a facet of our reality, particularly in the lives of women and people of color, and that fact is precisely why sexual assault is so prevalent. To acknowledge that spectre of privilege and power (and the damage it brings about) is to acknowledge our own complicity in its formation and protection. Tribalism is a human tendency: it is not essentially human, and in that distinction lies our capacity for change. Until we’re willing to reckon with our place in creating worlds like that of Kavanaugh, until we’re willing to afford the same humanity we give the privileged to the rest of the world, the masses detached will continue to lie at that sacrificial altar, as we reckon with the monsters that we’ve built.
Contact Layo Laniyan at olaniyan ‘at’ stanford.edu.