Writing here at Ricochet last week, @KateBraestrup expressed her opinion that “even without the sixfold imprimatur of the FBI, it would be virtually impossible to make a circle of wagons tight enough to conceal the kind of lurid behavior that Kavanaugh has been accused of.” She continued: “It’s not that it doesn’t exist; rather, when it exists, people know about it. Louche, lascivious or predatory men (alcoholic or otherwise) over time become well-known for being so.” While I’m relieved Kavanaugh has been confirmed, and I dreaded the precedent that would have been set if he had not have been, I can’t agree that men’s wagon circles are virtually never this tight. I know because I’m part of more than one man’s wagon circle, as was my mother, and her mother before her. Three generations of conservative American women, all three with little inclination to laugh off predatory behavior as just “boys being boys” — and all three with just as little inclination to name and shame men for having stories like those alleged about Kavanaugh in their past.
Men become notorious for sexual predation by persisting in it for long periods of time, especially if they become shameless about it. One reason we caution youth to postpone sex is because immature sexual misadventures are often exploitative. As Mark Regnerus has documented in his books Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying and Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, boys usually find it considerably easier than girls do to self-servingly and callously rationalize their “conquests,” even when they’ve had the moral formation to know better. Thank God that boys who should know better and don’t often mature into men who know better and do! Thank God that not everyone who has committed a sexual wrong in his past persists in that sort of misbehavior.
The most immediate reason to disclose someone’s predatory reputation is to warn others of an ongoing threat. Given this, when someone poses no ongoing threat, why not let bygones be bygones? This doesn’t mean rationalizing past wrongs as never having been wrong to begin with. Nor does it mean appealing to the preposterous notion of a “moral bank account” (if such bank accounts really existed, we could with a clear conscience “financially plan” monstrous depravity by saving up enough “moral credit”). Instead, it means acknowledging that justice isn’t served by long delay, the same moral logic which imposes a statute of limitations on reporting many crimes. Wrongs too great to lapse into bygones are wrongs great enough to warn others about promptly, while lesser wrongs may be forgotten about over time.
I was once pinned down and groped. Not at a party, but while lending someone a book. While I’m confident the boy who did it didn’t mean to bully me, I’d be wronging myself if I tried to rationalize his conduct toward me as anything other than wrong. Wrong, but how wrong? Wrongful enough to press charges? I decided no. Instead, I filed an informational report with campus police, saying I’d testify if he made such a habit of such behavior that others complained. Since I was never called upon to testify, to the best of my knowledge, this fellow didn’t make a habit of it. He had done wrong, but not enough wrong to be labeled a predator. Not enough wrong to have his promising prospects wrecked over it. I’ll never forget this boy’s first name, a name which I’ve found awkward ever since. But I don’t remember his last name anymore. Nor would I wish to. That someone had wronged me was no huge secret, but who that someone was I kept between myself and the kindly officer who assured me my groper’s name would never be publicized based on my report alone. Having formed a one-woman wagon circle around this fellow, I’m fairly confident this circle will remain tight indefinitely. The other, larger wagon circles I’m part of, I’m less sure about. I suppose someone could eventually break ranks. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Unlike my mother and grandmother, none of the men (or women) whose secrets I’ve kept were politicians — or judges — or at least not while I knew them. Maybe some are now. Youth can be cruel, and as soon as youth becomes sexually aware, sexual bullying can and sometimes will happen. I doubt it’s unusual for bullying, not romance, to be the first sexually-charged experience many youngsters have (perhaps the only experience some youngsters have for quite some time if they’re otherwise innocent). The tightest wagon circles I’m part of date back to my and my attackers’ youth. They’re tight because it’s just them and me, and because everyone involved realizes everyone was immature when it happened. Which makes none of what happened right just hopefully not indicative of my attackers’ eventual maturity.
Still, I’m part of some wider wagon circles around more mature men. As a wagon circle widens, the members of that circle are less likely to know the whole story, which is its own reason for not breaking the circle: Is it fair to break the circle by naming names when you’re not certain whether you know the whole story or whether it’s really your story to tell? I haven’t acted as if it is and neither has my mother or grandmother. Regarding wagon circles around political men, I know little more than that both Ma and Grandma knew of some politicians’ and legal eagles’ scandals and that neither woman was inclined to say too much or judge too harshly. If my dear ancestresses told me any more, they’d risk breaking the circle, after all.
While I’m profoundly relieved at Kavanaugh’s confirmation, I doubt I’ll ever believe Kavanaugh’s protestations of injured innocence quite as much as good conservative women are apparently expected to.
Oh, I think Kavanaugh’s more likely than not innocent of the worst sexual misbehavior attributed to him, and I believe he should get the benefit of the doubt in any case, especially as time’s passage has blurred the traces of what really happened. A conservative man of my acquaintance estimated there’s a 10% chance the incident Ford described with Kavanaugh happened exactly as she said it did, and a 5% chance Ford’s story was wholly invented. That is, he estimated there was about an 85% chance that some incident had happened to Ford in her teens, perhaps an incident involving Kavanaugh, but that calling it attempted rape wasn’t justified, and it wasn’t something which should be held against Kavanaugh so many years after the fact. His estimations, particularly the 10% figure, seem roughly in the ballpark to me.
Note that his estimates make it twice as likely that Kavanaugh really did what Ford said than that Ford invented her story from nothing. Twice as likely may seem outrageously unfair to Kavanaugh until you remember that twice 5% is still only 10%, and a 10% chance that a man may have done something long ago in his youth does not tell us who he is now.
10% is an uncomfortable number, a magnitude that’s difficult to moralize either way, and people crave morals for their stories. If Kavanaugh were a teenager now, and he did have a 10% chance of doing what Ford accused him of, that chance would be uncomfortably high — especially for a well-reared, religiously observant teen who got into Yale and really should have known better. Nobody should be comfortable with a world where teens ostensibly receiving good moral formation have a one-in-ten shot of becoming the kind of sexual bully Ford described. And nobody should be comfortable with a world where a man can be ruined by a 10% chance he may have done wrong long ago.
I’ve been part of too many wagon circles, witnessed too much youthful bullying and partying in elite environments, to believe it’s nearly impossible for youngsters with the right credentials to successfully leave a sordid past behind them, even in the days of #MeToo. Human nature just doesn’t change that much from generation to generation, and one of conservatives’ humdrum duties is to keep pointing out the persistent homely truths — that, whether it’s fair or not, one reason people desire success is because it does insulate them from the downsides of their vices, women really are more susceptible than men to the risks of intoxication and sexual compromise, and so on. I see no reason for conservatives to defend excuses like “they threw themselves at him” or “they let you do it” (one suspects for varying definitions of “throw” and “let”) from the skepticism such excuses have always deserved. Still, despite today’s #BelieveAllVictims rhetoric, the flesh-and-blood people I know, even the leftists, aren’t so simplistic as to confuse skepticism of innocence with certainty of guilt.
I’ve written before that the benefit of the doubt is more than charitable mental hygiene. It’s also a powerful social statement. Who gets it, and how much, matters. Where there’s skepticism of innocence, but not certainty of guilt, there’s also doubt — hence benefit of the doubt. Kavanaugh gets the benefit of my doubt by a margin that’s not even close.
Still, I sense a social expectation that, if I really wanted to show solidarity with my own side, especially as a conservative woman, I’d widen that margin even further. The ballpark likelihoods my friend and I discussed are necessarily crude estimates surrounded by fairly wide confidence intervals. Given their width, why not settle on figures which would be more morally flattering to our side? Why not estimate that there’s, say, a less than 5% chance that Kavanaugh really did what Ford said, and, say, at least a 50% chance that Ford’s story is wholly fictional? Wouldn’t that be more comfortable?
Yes, it would be more comfortable, but it doesn’t jibe with all I know about the world. Moreover, it’s not necessary. Or rather, it’s not morally necessary. I concede the practicalities of political theater, where the benefit of the doubt each side gives the other is already so small, make it difficult to avoid exaggerating confidence in your own side’s rectitude to compensate for the benefit of the doubt your side should have gotten and didn’t. That I found Kavanaugh’s protestations of injured innocence over his youthful hijinks just a little too good to be true doesn’t undermine my belief that Kavanaugh would have been crucified had he admitted something which no grown man should be crucified for admitting: that he grew up and grew out of a youth involved in a party culture which is notorious for being less innocent than he portrayed it as. There’s not much reason to believe the man Kavanaugh is today is significantly less decent than advertised, even if his youth were less decent than political calculation could admit.
I was visiting family during Kavanaugh’s hearing, and one remark my mother made during the visit struck us younger members as particularly revealing: First, she said, Kavanaugh was innocent; but second, if he were guilty, so, too, she supposed, were countless other public servants, perhaps since time immemorial, and how could government exist at all if they were all disqualified from serving? Had her mother — my grandmother — still been alive, Grandma would probably have wondered the same thing. The family sat there, all of us knowing that each of us was part of wagon circles protecting others’ pasts, and all of us knowing my mother was part of some wagon circles leaving her hypothetical about public servants somewhat less than hypothetical.
To us youngsters, it was pretty clear that Mom’s estimation that men who go into public service are in general so likely to have indulged in such misbehavior that we couldn’t have government without them was an estimation increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood that Kavanaugh had once been a drunken sexual bully. Not increasing the likelihood to the point where Kavanaugh didn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt — even my more lefty relatives believed that how the accusations had been brought against Kavanaugh suggested a political hit job. But the claim that public servants can’t get away with it because they’re subject to so much scrutiny is rather at odds with the apparent fact that, over the years, so many public servants have.
Not all wagon circles will be broken, and that’s OK. Not all wagon circles deserve to be broken, either. A conservative sense of fair play does not try to right every single wrong, not because it rejoices in letting injustice stand, but because it recognizes that the pursuit of justice is subject to diminishing returns, especially as time passes. Civilization isn’t compatible with endless vendetta.
As the resurgence of scandal in the Catholic church illustrates, justice should smash right through some wagon circles, and those who demur over breaking those circles do the innocent no favors. It’s cruelly naive to keep others’ dirty secrets without asking whether those secrets are evidence either of an ongoing threat or of one of those few wrongs so great that the passage of time shouldn’t efface them. It’s also cruelly naive to blithely assume others will receive a fair hearing if whatever dirty secrets they do have are exposed, willy-nilly.
Wagon circles can be evidence of unjust power structures, but they aren’t always. Sometimes they result from trying to do others justice in a world of incomplete and contradictory information, a world where we know that people’s motives — not only strangers’ but our own — aren’t always pristine, and where information degrades over time. These circles do create an in-group on defense against an out-group, and in-group-out-group dynamics aren’t always healthy or pretty. There will always be powerful men undeservedly protected by their wagon circles, but there will also be others, powerful or not, who don’t deserve to have the circle of protection others have willingly extended smashed up in the name of a “justice” that smacks suspiciously of revenge.