It wasn’t long ago that Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court hinged, as it must, on his qualifications as a judge. Then, necessarily, it became a question of his fitness as a man.
In the last few days, reporters have pored over Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook and calendar, searching for evidence of his attitudes toward women and of his whereabouts in the summer of 1982. The New Yorker published a story of his alleged lewd behavior at Yale toward a classmate named Deborah Ramirez — one The New York Times could not corroborate and the accuser only hazily remembered. There have been stories about Kavanaugh’s drinking habits, and whether he was aware that the secret society to which he belonged had initials that lent themselves to vulgar usage, and even whether he was being truthful in his Fox News interview as to when exactly he lost his virginity.
And then there is the latest allegation, from a woman named Julie Swetnick via attorney Michael Avenatti, that Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge used drugs and alcohol to inebriate women at parties so they could be gang-raped “by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.” Swetnick alleges she was raped at one such party, and now the left-wing CREDO Action network has a statement: “We believe Julie Swetnick.”
Question for the people at CREDO Action: Is there any damaging allegation against Kavanaugh, of any nature and from any source, which the left would not automatically believe?
It’s worth pausing to consider what this frenzied national inquest could mean for the future of our civic culture.
Christine Blasey Ford’s credibility rests heavily on the fact that she vividly described details of the alleged assault, named witnesses, and told several people about them long before Kavanaugh’s nomination. It’s because she has been able to supply this level of corroboration that her claims deserve to be taken with the utmost seriousness, both by the media and the Senate.
But this is not nearly as true for Ramirez, who “initially told friends she had memory gaps and was not certain that Kavanaugh was the person who exposed himself,” according to The Times, at least until she searched her memory for 35 years and six days. And Swetnick’s allegations — lurid and last minute — would have been treated with well-deserved skepticism by most newsrooms had they been made even a month ago.
In the post-Kavanaugh world, however, we have new editorial standards. The Gawker standards.
These are: Report first, verify later (if ever). Use the accumulation of unproven accusations as evidence of their plausibility, rather than as charges to be investigated separately or as variations of the same fundamental untruth. Apply a presumption of guilt standard to the people you oppose, and a presumption of innocence standard to the people you favor. Hear something you like about someone you don’t — what used to be known as gossip — and repackage it as “news.”
If journalists don’t understand why this is destructive to our profession, they have no business being in it.
Equally destructive is the effect the post-Kavanaugh standard could have on governance. Will every future Supreme Court or Cabinet nominee, Republican or Democratic, be expected to account, in minute and excruciating detail, for his behavior and reputation as a teenager? Is it now fair game to draw moral inferences about a nominee because he went to an elite prep school, or was a member of a rowdy fraternity, or said something mean and dumb in his yearbook, or drank somewhat more than he would like to admit?
In an age in which our digital footprints are all-but unerasable, such an accounting will become increasingly easy to furnish, and hence to demand. There are advantages to this kind of radical transparency. But it’s hard to imagine who — except for the odd souls who are either morally stainless or utterly shameless — would want to be subjected to the ordeal.
To some, all this will be worth it if Kavanaugh is exposed as a sexual predator and stone-faced liar. That’s why Thursday’s hearings are essential — and would have been helped by an FBI investigation and sworn testimony from Judge. We need to get, as best as we can under imperfect circumstances, the truth of what happened between Kavanaugh and Blasey, two credible witnesses with stories to tell.
But this is not what the Kavanaugh nomination seems to be about anymore. To half the country, it’s about the future of a Supreme Court nominee, pure and simple. To the other half, it’s about that — as well as a paradigm shift in the culture, belated reparation for unequal treatment, and a battle in the service of a moral revolution.
Much to the good. Then again, it’s worth remembering that revolutions borne by high ideals have a habit of eating their children. If the price of this revolution is the subordination of ordinary fairness to abstract justice, the elevation of rumor over fact, the further debasement of journalism, the devaluation of the rights of the accused, and the complete toxification of public service, it will be a price too high.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Bret Stephens © 2018 The New York Times