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  • Paul D. Wilke

The Circus Comes to Town


I've avoided paying much attention to the confirmation hearings over the last few weeks. That was intentional. For one, it seemed like a done deal since Republicans control the Senate. Why bother? However, it's all anyone can talk about. Around every corner where I work are televisions all tuned to non-stop coverage of the hearings. All day. Every day. Surely there's nothing else going on in the world than this? Anyway, I finally broke down this week and tuned in for a bit to see what was going on. First off, let me say I regret doing so because I now feel compelled to add my worthless two cents to the volatile mix. But, here goes.

If there's any lesson to be gained from watching the conflicting testimony by Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, it's the predictable way people sort themselves into tribes and then fight to the metaphorical death defending the group's narrative. In this reality, the pursuit of truth is secondary to appearances and how those square with our beliefs. Watching pundits discuss the hearings on cable news is to enter one of two parallel realities.


"He just looks guilty." But how? What does that even mean?


"She seems to be lying." Really? But how do you know that?


"I believe her, but not him." Why? Where is your proof to back that up?


And so on, round and round we go. Words like "seems," "appears," and "feels like" all fill in the gaps where facts are lacking.

For example, the more conservative you are, or male, then the more likely you are to give Brett Kavanaugh the benefit of the doubt. You probably think that this is merely a cheap liberal ploy to tar a good man's name. You are also probably questioning the suspicious timing of the allegations. Why all this now and based on what evidence? In this context, Kavanaugh's righteous indignation, fighting back tears as he gave his opening statement, is believable, authentic, and relatable.


David French at the National Review concluded that Kavanaugh "...fought with passion, evidence, and compassion. And absent any new, substantiated revelations, he united the conservative movement." How else but with barely controlled anger would an innocent man who has dedicated his life to public service respond to baseless allegations? Of course, he would be outraged at having a spotless professional career soiled by eleventh-hour allegations that go all the way back to high school in the early 80s.

That's one side's narrative, more or less.

On the other hand, the more progressive you are, then the more likely you are to give Ford the benefit of the doubt. The line of reasoning in this reality goes something like this: Here we have another example of tone-deaf privileged white men helping other tone-deaf privileged white men get ahead in the world while never being held accountable for past sins. 'You know how rich frat boys are!"


To liberals, I included, Ford also comes across as believable, authentic, and relatable. Frank Bruni from The New York Times gushed that "It was impossible not to like her. It’s difficult not to believe her." According to an article from The New Yorker, Kavanaugh's anger was just a "grotesque display of patriarchal resentment." Christine Cauterucci at Slate noted that Kavanaugh "...looked like nothing more than a child who’d been called in front of a school disciplinary board for misbehavior, the perfect picture of a privileged, physically imposing teen."

That's the other side's narrative, more or less.

So, what's the truth? Actually, I don't know. And you don't know either. Nor do the media pundits. None of us do. Asserting otherwise with any confidence is a leap of faith based on the assumption that our assumptions are grounded on something more substantial than tenuous circumstantial evidence. With all of this uncertainty, it seems that a provisional agnosticism is appropriate for those of us who weren't at that party 36-years ago. And that's all of us. Yet everyone has, it seems, strong feelings one way or the other that they know what happened. But how? Is it a hunch? Or just an opinion based on what you've seen, heard, or read? That's not good enough. When you set aside the emotionally-driven reactions that push us into our respective tribes, there's a lack of real evidence to back either side's story. One or the other is not telling the truth, it seems. Or, maybe, both honestly believe what they're saying, but time and the fickle human imagination have warped memories to the point that they are unrecognizable to actual events in the past.

You see, there is no objectively real past in our subjective memories, and that becomes more the case the further back in time we go. We're masters at fooling ourselves. We subconsciously string a narrative together in our minds and then call it the story of our lives. The further back you go, the more those memories get fine-tuned to conform to the narrative of the Present Self. Identity is foundational to who we think we are, but that identity is not the mathematical sum total of our personal experience, but an interpretation of those experiences. Certain narratives that fortify the values of the Present Self get amplified, while those that generate dissonance either get muted or deleted.

Maybe Kavanaugh subconsciously edited out his memories over the years to negate the ethical contradictions between the hard-partying, seventeen-year-old that he was, and the pious, conservative justice and family man that he is today. That makes his righteous indignation ring true as authentic, even if what he remembers is not what actually happened. Maybe Ford did something similar, building an identity around the kernel of some half-remembered event from over three decades ago. Maybe that event was significant to her only, and no one else remembers because it wasn't part of their story.


Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. This is all just wild speculation.


Again, I don't know. You don't know. None of us know. And unless some convincing piece of evidence comes out in the very near future to decisively confirm one story over the other, we're just going to have to live with not knowing what actually happened (or didn't). And yet, I get it. That human urge to fill in the blanks with beliefs is often overwhelming. People hate uncertainty and nuance doesn't thrive in our low-attention, sound bite culture.

I feel my own bias working on me to pick sides, in this case, that would be Ford's version over Kavanaugh's. Her coming forward despite the inevitable ridicule and threats embodies today's more assertive feminism, one that doesn't quietly put up with the sleazy predator behavior of powerful men, but instead fights back. That's a good thing. But to somehow equate Brett Kavanaugh with Harvey Weinstein, and with so little corroborating evidence, feels intellectually sloppy. I'll admit, my heart says Kavanaugh probably did what Ford says he did, but my brain says "prove it!" And I can't, and if I can't, then I'm better off withholding judgment. In the end, picking a side in this mess is to passively comply with one of the two agenda-driven narratives that are driving the discussion.

Let's be honest, though, this is about more than what supposedly happened at a party 36-years ago. That's just catnip to get the American public spun up. No, it's about preventing or preserving the nomination of another conservative supreme court justice. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

That's where we're at right now. Everything is political, truth is dictated by ideology, and only winning matters. While Republicans can bellyache about the unfairness of it all, they would do well to look in the mirror. Democrats have learned by losing - and so much losing - that many of them now believe playing dirty while simultaneously acting self-righteous is the only way to win. Republicans are the masters of this kind of greasy gravitas. The party of Swift Boaters and Birthers and screwing over Merrick Garland is now getting a taste of its own medicine and not liking it much.


Not that any lessons will be learned other than "wait 'till next time!" I admit feeling some schadenfreude at this turn of events, at seeing conservatives harumphing in righteous indignation at the Democrats' tactics. However, when the roles are reversed in a few years - and they will be - the two sides will switch jerseys, and we'll replay this whole circus all over again, and only the narratives that tweak our biases will change, nothing more.

Make no mistake about it, folks, this is a race to the bottom.

Democrats, for their part, accomplished...what exactly? Did this change the outcome of the nomination process? That remains to be seen, but judging from Kavanaugh's defiant response, and Republicans' approval of that defiance, the answer appears to be 'no.' What's an FBI investigation going to turn up that changes anyone's mind? We'll see, but he's already undergone several background checks and come up clean. If confirmed, progressives will face yet another hostile conservative on the Supreme Court and one with a deep-seated grudge against the side that dragged his good reputation through the mud. With Roe v. Wade possibly at stake, progressives should wonder if winning such a Pyrrhic victory was worth losing the war.

My advice? Just tune it out. That's my plan after his brief and regrettable foray back into cable news. Live in the real world, rather than staring at a screen that drags us from one superlative-laden crisis to another. That never stops. Life is much more than this confirmation hearing or the President's Tweets, so I'm not going to waste any more heartache on something that is beyond my control.

Let me close by reiterating the message from my last post: Come November, get out and vote. If you like the circus, the bitter confirmation hearings, the non-stop investigations, the Tweets, the partisan acrimony, then by all means, vote them all back in. That's what we usually do anyway. But if you don't like the status quo, and you're embarrassed at the current state of our great Union, then vote and make it count. Otherwise, the show must go on.


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