The troubling testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh at last week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, whose eventual consequences loom large as the republic, has millions of American men and women thinking back to their own teen and college years, recalling behavior that defined who we were then and, perhaps, who we’ve become.
I’m sixteen years older than Kavanaugh, the better part of a generation, and as it happens, next weekend I plan to attend a reunion of my high school class, which graduated in 1967 in a middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh. I expect to see dear friends, men and women who’ve kept in touch over the years in part because we’ve come to understand that as teenagers we shared a charmed interval of life in a world that has largely ceased to exist. It was a world run by parents who had lived through the Second World War and absorbed its stark lessons in good and evil, a world where gender roles were not only clearly defined, but mediated by ethical and aesthetic values that both restrained and protected us.
This is more than the usual generational nostalgia. Between the year we graduated from our public high school and the time in the early Eighties when Brett Kavanaugh was about to leave his Maryland prep school for Yale, a sea change had occurred in American culture. Amid that tumult, standards of behavior between men and women had undergone as rapid and drastic an evolution as at any time since. Sexuality became overtly commodified, institutional authority became the object of greater suspicion than respect, and women began to reject both the one-dimensional roles assigned to them and the protected, idealized status that those roles conferred.
But for teenage boys in the late Sixties, the social and political tumult that we were beginning to read about in magazines had far less influence on us than what we learned in our homes and high-schools about how males were to behave toward the opposite sex.
I was a congenitally shy boy, small for my age and skinny, and for that reason alone proscribed from the socially facile caste of guys like Brett Kavanaugh who played football and basketball and bestrode our little world like colossi. Dating was out of the question, partly because I was -literally- beneath the notice of most girls and would never have had the nerve to ask anyway, but mostly because my frugal father would never have lent me the family car.
My first girlfriends were actual friends – a pair of pretty, smart cheerleaders, members of that loftier caste of human, who either took pity on me or were warily impressed by my oversized vocabulary (the primary currency of the unathletic). They may have even thought my slight stature was, in some nascent way, cute. They basically adopted me, and I was proud to be seen with them at school, where I would follow them around like a mascot. They went on to sterling careers as adults, and are among the lifelong friends I hope to see next weekend.
We had parties where we boys and girls danced and sometimes necked, but the necking was elaborately consensual, often requiring advance third-party diplomacy, and I can remember (ah, memory!) no drinking at all, since these parties tended to be held in the basements of our parents’ homes, with our parents upstairs.
And this is where my and my classmates’ teenage narrative departs most sharply from Kavanaugh’s, which included private boarding school and therefore money, regular drinking, and much less adult supervision. Being shipped off to school also means separation from a young person’s primary model for acceptable gender interaction – his parents.
Mine were not overly concerned with the social education of their two sons; they simply taught by example. They and my friends’ parents were consistently decorous with one another in the repressed, covertly romantic manner of their generation. My father was a shy man of chaotic upbringing who had to overcome his shyness in order to function in the working world, and he’d learned that in that world, manners mattered. In watching him I was given to know that a woman – any woman – commanded respect, and this extended to –or rather, began with – her physical dignity. A father who rises to his feet every time a woman approaches or leaves the table is communicating to his son a very powerful and nuanced message about women and how a man is to relate to them.
When it came to underage drinking, I and my closest friends were innocents. My own parents were hardly teetotalers – my father promptly made himself a double martini upon arriving home most nights – but they somehow communicated a sense of restraint around alcohol that serves and haunts me today, and that put drinking at all in high school, let alone to excess, beyond the pale.
And there is this quaint fact: there was no profanity in our home. Not that it was forbidden; it simply wasn’t uttered by my parents nor, therefore, by their sons. The language of young men practicing for sex by talking about it in the most scabrous terms was something I heard at school but knew was to be avoided not just because they were dirty words; they were belligerent words, edged with hard consonants and dark intentions.
At college I eschewed the alcohol-fueled fraternity system that still dominated social life at the time, ostensibly because I considered it beneath my intellectual dignity, but really because I couldn’t imagine mustering the requisite rowdiness. Instead, I shared pizza and Led Zeppelin with other “independents” in our cinderblock dorm rooms on weekends, and continued my unbroken record of not dating.
A highlight of male students’ first year on our co-ed campus was a lecture from the Dean of Men (there were such in those innocent days) about the respect we were to show to our female counterparts, featuring highly colorful descriptions of the anatomical consequences that he would personally visit upon any of us who failed to internalize the message. It was only later that we’d learn from some of those women, who became feminists and our girlfriends and wives (more or less in that order), that what we had thought were gestures of affection and respect were actually subtle subversions inflicted by an oppressive patriarchy (but they married us anyway).
As a young man I craved and felt most comfortable in the company of women, and solemnly accepted any form of sex bestowed on me. But it was always bestowed, not demanded, not even cajoled. This was before birth control pills became widely available, before Roe v. Wade, and sex still carried a certain moral hazard. The women I was with were usually much more sexually careless than I was, but I have to take care of both of us was the sensible if patronizing mantra that most young men of my generation had been implicitly taught to bring to any sexual encounter.
All this is to say that it was a different era. Is there a moral judgment to be drawn here? Yes, but also a question of style, of aesthetics embedded in gestures small and large. No matter how far back I can remember, the very idea of sexual aggression toward a woman was not just morally repellent – it was unthinkable. This was less a result of my ethics than it was of my constitution. I might think I would be forgiven for it by the world we’d grown up in, but that didn’t make it any less impossible.
Most of us believe that beneath all politics and ideology lie the bedrock realities of personality and character: who you were taught or allowed to be, and what kind of person you’ve become as the inevitable result. Temperament and character matter; they’re the result of a powerful confluence of genes and upbringing, and once formed, we tend to believe, they are largely immutable.
So when, as grown men, we hear these stories that our current Supreme Court nominee swears never happened, or the clip where he utters the snickering slogan, “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep,” many of us hear the echoes of a world of male privilege that we knew of but never inhabited, imagine a kind of man we never were at any age, and never could have been.
We think this not with personal pride, for we really had very little to do with it. It was how we were made by the world we grew up in. Do men change? Can they be forgiven? One hopes so. But the lessons of power and privilege –like those other, civilizing lessons of our youth – are hard to unlearn.
The decision in Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court when I was a student in law school at Columbia University. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of our professors, and we were all convinced, we young idealists, that a new day of gender equality had finally dawned, and that we would see it through to its fruition. As I watched the Kavanaugh hearings last week, that day seemed very long ago, and I thought of Yeats’ famous line from a time between world wars, warning us that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.