Kavanaugh and false equivalence

Loved this from Peter Beinart taking on the trope that American politics has hit “rock bottom” with Kavanaugh as if this is somehow a “boy, look at how both sides messed this up” sort of situation.  It is decidedly not:

David Brooks is in the third camp. The Kavanaugh hearings, he wrote on Friday, constituted an “American nadir.” You often hear such phrases from people who think the biggest problem with the Kavanaugh battle is that the participants weren’t more courteous and open-minded. Jeff Flake said that in debating Kavanaugh, the Senate “hit bottom.” Susan Collins called it “rock bottom.” Think about that for a second. For most of American history, Supreme Court nominees—like virtually all powerful men—could sexually assault women with complete impunity. Now, because allegations of such behavior sparked a raucous, intemperate political fight, America has hit “rock bottom,” a “nadir.” How much better things were in the good old days, when sexual-assault allegations didn’t polarize the confirmation process, because sexual-assault victims were politically invisible.

Implying, as Brooks, Flake, and Collins do, that America’s real problem is a lack of civility rather than a lack of justice requires assuming a moral equivalence between Brett Kavanaugh’s supporters and Christine Blasey Ford’s. [emphases mine]“What we saw in these hearings,” writes Brooks, “was the unvarnished tribalization of national life.” The term tribe implies atavistic, amoral group loyalty: Huns versus Franks, Yankees versus Red Sox, Hatfields versus McCoys. There are no larger principles at stake. “There was nothing particularly ideological about the narratives,” laid out by Kavanaugh and Ford, Brooks declares, “nothing that touched on capitalism, immigration or any of the other great disputes of national life.” …

But gender is indeed one of the “great disputes of national life.” The Kavanaugh fight pitted people who worry that #MeToo hasn’t changed America enough, that it’s still too easy for men to get away with sexual assault, against people who fear that #MeToo has changed America too much, that it’s become too easy for women to ruin men’s lives by charging them with sexual assault. That’s not a tribal struggle; it’s an ideological one. It involves competing visions of the relationship between women and men…

But for Brooks, depicting the supporters of Kavanaugh and Ford as tribes is useful because it doesn’t only suggest moral equivalence, it also implies an equivalence of power. The “tribalization” of American politics, Brooks argues, “leads to an epidemic of bigotry. Bigotry involves creating a stereotype about a disfavored group and then applying that stereotype to an individual you’ve never met. It was bigotry against Jews that got Alfred Dreyfus convicted in 1894. It was bigotry against young black males that got the Central Park Five convicted in 1990. It was bigotry against preppy lacrosse players that led to the bogus Duke lacrosse scandal.”

This is misleading. There is no equivalence between the “bigotry” faced by preppy lacrosse players and that faced by black males. There’s no equivalence, because preppy lacrosse players, in general, enjoy far more privilege and power and thus, the stereotypes people hold of them don’t generally land them in jail or dead. Similarly, there is no equivalence between the “bigotry” faced by men accused of sexual assault and the “bigotry” faced by women who suffer it. There’s no equivalence, because men wield far more power. If you don’t think that matters, try imagining Kavanaugh getting confirmed by a Senate composed of 79 women.

The knee-jerk desire to create a false equivalence, moral or otherwise, where it does not exist runs strong in Americans (and, probably, humans, honestly).  And especially those types who love to consider themselves wise, about-the-fray centrists.  The reality is that this false equivalence is almost always in service to one ideology or view of morality.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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