I have been rereading big chunks of Jane Austen recently and a lot of what she observes is applicable to the present state of sexual politics, whether in Norristown, PA, where Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in jail for sexual transgressions, or in Washington D. C., where Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court is being held up by a consideration of what might have been sexual transgressions he committed as a youth. Jane Austen is familiar with the things that can transpire between men and women. In “Pride and Prejudice”, both Kitty, Elizabeth Bennett’s sister, and Darcy’s sister have been seduced by Mr. Wickham, and the best solution is to get Wickham to marry Kitty in exchange for paying off his gambling debts, and get the couple shipped off to a remote army base. But that does not mean that Jane Austen thinks that girls are adverse to being courted by men. Girls like boys; they are flattered by their attentions and compliments and can feel themselves to be in love with them on the basis of courtships that we would consider today very limited. And young women know their minds well enough to decide what will be a satisfactory match. Charlotte Lucas will settle for Mr. Collins, despite his deficiencies of character, and Jane Bennett will find a love match with Mr, Bingley that sets her up very nicely, while Elizabeth Bennett will come to love Darcy, the two of them having prickly personalities no one else in the neighborhood could put up with.
All this is applicable to the present circumstances and shows just how bizarre are the two cases of the week. Bill Cosby was famous, rich, and charming; he was everybody’s idea of how to be a husband and father; he wore great sweaters. Why did he have to drug women to get someone to have sex with? One suspects that his relations with women must have always been troubled if he had to make use of such methods. The same is true of Judge Kavanaugh. He was always successful: an athlete and a scholar bound for a great career. Why did he have to be so shabby in the way he approached young women? One explanation might be that he was a devout Catholic and so his sexuality had become warped just as much as were the personalities of so many priests, or else, perhaps, he was a member of the drunken frat boy culture. Either of these explanations is just an exercise in stereotypical thinking, which means that an attribute that is applicable to a subset of a group is applied to any and all members of the group. It is necessary to investigate the particulars of the case.
So we had the two witnesses, Ford and Kavanaugh, and both of them were credible, that term taken to mean that if you already believed them, their demeanor and other features of their presentation were reasonable and consistent. Ford came off as an anxious person, but cooperative and careful in what she had to say, even though some commentators suggest that her poise could be treated as a vice rather than a virtue. Kavanaugh, for his part, came across as someone who was angered by these unjust accusations and could find no reason for them other than a political hatchet job. If you are disinclined to believe them, then you can think Ford mistaken or that Kavanaugh was just blustering to hide his guilt and so displaying a non judicial temperament, even though the hearing was about him and not a case before him. People who believed Ford thought that Kavanaugh’s bluster was something only a man could get away with, and so we are back in the war of the sexes, which is very much at the heart of so many issues in America today, men and women each claiming the other has an unfair advantage, and we retreat to our own bastions, not really able to communicate over the moat that separates us, as perhaps has ever been the case. That larger conflict will be fought on the battlefield of the midterm elections and so I hope that the Feminist backed side prevails because, in the game of binary politics, I so much prefer the Democrats to the Republicans on any variety of issues, and so I can put aside the fact that I think, all in all, Ford makes a better case, especially in her side’s insistence on testimony from Mark Judge, which is not a matter of credibility but evidence, and so I decide on political grounds which side I want to prevail.
As for the Kavanaugh nomination, I want him defeated on grounds far more solid than that of these sexual allegations. I wished that the Democratic Senators had been far more vigorous on questioning him on fundamental issues of American law: what are the rights of workers to unionize and of corporations to set the terms of employment? Is it more sound to found a right to abortion on privacy rights or Fourteenth Amendment rights? To what degree can Congress control the actions of Presidents? Such questions, I would think, might illuminate, as the expression now goes, just how far out of the mainstream Judge Kavanaugh is and are a far more reliable basis on which to disclose whether he deserves to be on the Supreme Court than an alleged sex incident from many years ago. But I still allow myself the vanity that I could talk a Conservative out of their basic principles if I had the opportunity to do so even though, in the instances where I have tried, that leads either to good humored derision or to anger and offense. The truth is that people don’t change their principles but can come to agree, across an ideological divide, about a particular issue.
And that brings us to that remarkable scene of democracy in action which occurred yesterday and heartened everybody. Senator Jeff Flake is cornered in an elevator by two sexual survivors because we do not prohibit peaceful protesters from roaming the halls of Congress. The two women are anguished when they ask Flake if their outcry to have the victims of sexual violence will be answered and the sculpted to be a senator face of Flake is crestfallen. He doesn’t want to be put in the position-- who would?-- of denying these women their due. And so he goes to the committee room and motions his friend and political adversary Senator Chris Coons of Delaware to hunker down with him. The real work of the Senate is no longer conducted in committee or on the floor, if it ever was, but in the cloakrooms and hallways where claques of Senators talk through an issue. Flake comes back to the committee and suggests that the nomination be delayed for an FBI investigation to be conducted (which is what the Democrats wanted) but for no more than a week (which is what the Republicans wanted so that they could move the nomination forward if Kavanaugh were cleared of the accusations against him). Then there was a moment of comic relief when Grassley called the committee meeting to an end “under the two hour rule”, much to the surprise of Democrats who had never heard of this rule or didn’t know how it applied. That kept the Democrats from turning the Flake proposal into a motion. But it didn’t matter because within hours enough Senators had said that they wanted this to convince Mitch McConnell that he wouldn’t have the votes if the Flake proposal was not followed. All this occurred within real time and within the view of people who have enough time on their hands to watch the televised Senate hearings.
What Flake was responding to was the fact that we are on the verge of a deep, deep division in this country that is not between regions or classes or ethnic groups. It is a conflict between the genders and that is something no one can want. It would be worse than brother against brother; it would be husband and wife against one another. Courtship is difficult enough, though manageable for most people, and has been an issue since Adam and Eve, even when not overlain with either physical abuse or social exploitation. We are in a period when what is apparent to many as the underground power of sexual exploitation is being brought to the surface and challenged, but that should not make us think that that is the only way sexual relations are conducted.
Step away for a moment from the anger and noise of the current discourse on sexuality and consult, instead, some tests that give a very different picture of the relation between men and women. I am thinking of Theocritus, who is a fourth century B. C. Greek poet credited with having invented the bucolic poem: full of shepherds and goat herds who engage with one another in making music, poetry and pottery and who sing largely of love. In the poet’s view, this consists of longings put off even to the point of death, feelings that are engrossing even if painful, feelings that do not at all engage with the idea of violence or exploitation but rather with the surrender of one’s self to the self of another, the disease of love full of poignancy and melancholy rather than filling us with anger, however frightening it might be to contemplate the depths of feeling to which love can move us, sometimes even to welcome death. This is the sensation of love that has been with us ever since even if there are aberrant individuals, such as in Shakespeare, who pervert these emotions. Let us not allow the present moment dissuade us from the feelings that have been true in our hearts for millennia and so would make us all, men and women, more coarse than we are. We are all bleating goats; that is our nature, not to be denied nor to become justification for bad behavior.