Kavanaugh sparks questions of both guilt and forgiveness

by | Sep 30, 2018 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

Do you remember “Animal House?” At the end of that movie, about a wild fraternity in the 1960s, the frat brothers are frozen, one by one, above a sentence that shows where each ends up. The last character, everybody’s favorite, is John Belushi’s perpetually drunk and unkempt troublemaker, John “Bluto Blutarsky,” who rides off in a convertible with a pretty sorority girl, above the final words of the film:

“Senator and Mrs. John Blutarsky.”

It got a huge laugh when I saw the movie in 1978, a time when getting seriously drunk in college was cool, and a frat slob becoming a senator was believable, and a young man named Brett Kavanaugh was 13 years old and entering his adolescence in Maryland.

I thought about that movie, and those years, and what passed for acceptable behavior back then, as I watched last Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a hearing filled with real senators, some of whom grew up during the Animal House 1960s, and who may have done who knows what during that hazy, crazy decade.

But they weren’t on the hot seat. They were doing the grilling. And no one was laughing. Getting drunk was actually a contentious part of the Kavanaugh questioning, how much he drank, did he drink until he couldn’t remember? At one point he actually defended himself with the unlikely sentence, “I like beer.”

And of course, the reason for those questions, the great debate of the week, was whether Kavanaugh sexually groped, grinded against, and tried to silence Ford in a locked bedroom at a teen party in 1982, an assault, as she detailed in her testimony — or if such an event never happened, as Kavanaugh insisted in his.

There is another part of “Animal House” that I recall, when the frat is called in front of a school hearing for its bad behavior at a wild, alcohol-soaked party. Eric “Otter” Stratton, the handsome playboy type, stands up and proudly declares, “The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules or took a few liberties with our female party guests.”

He winks. “We did.”

Might have been funny then.

No one is winking now.

Two opinions ripping us apart

“This country is being ripped apart,” said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, in calling for the FBI investigation into the Ford-Kavanaugh claims. In saying that, he summed up the feelings of many uncomfortable Americans, who watched that hearing with red-faced outrage.

But I disagree with Flake on his use of the present tense. Being ripped apart? We are already apart. Kavanaugh’s nomination began with “apart.” There were senators insisting they wouldn’t vote for him less than an hour after he was nominated. His predicted supporters and detractors — like the country — were all but split directly “apart” down party lines. And once the nuclear word “abortion” was thrown into the arguments, “apart” was a permanent state of affairs.

So it should surprise no one that, in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh/Ford hearing, the new ripped apart looks much like the old ripped apart.

Consider two op-ed pieces written after that event, one in the New York Times, one in the Wall Street Journal, two major, respected newspapers that are often, editorially, as apart as you can get.

In the New York Times, a columnist named Roger Cohen wrote that Kavanaugh had no place on the Supreme Court. He labeled him “an angry brat veering from fury to sniveling sobs.” He said Kavanaugh was a “product of white male privilege.”

He later wrote: “Kavanaugh’s bleating about due process and presumption of innocence — his rage at a supposed ‘national disgrace’ — misses the point. He failed the job interview. Who would want this spoiled man pieced together on a foundation of repressed anger and circumscribed privilege…occupying a place for life on the highest court in the land?”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal columnist, Kimberly Strassel, saw it this way:

“A ‘no’ vote (on Kavanaugh) now equals public approval of every underhanded tactic deployed by the left in recent weeks. It’s a green light to send coat hangers and rape threats to Sen. Susan Collins and her staff. It is a sanction to the mob that drove Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife out of a restaurant. … It’s authorization for a now thoroughly unprofessional press corps to continue crafting stories that rest on anonymous accusers and that twist innuendo into gang rapes. …

“To vote against Judge Kavanaugh now is to overthrow due process….Under due process, the accuser has the burden of proof. Ms. Ford has not met the evidentiary standard even of a civil proceeding, the preponderance of evidence …

“This goes beyond the question of one man and a Supreme Court seat. It goes to basic principles.”

Now remember, these two respected columnists presumably watched the same hearing, yet wrote such vastly different conclusions.

Something tells me they didn’t begin to form their opinions Friday morning.

So the ripping apart is not exactly new.

Can allegations as a teen be forgiven?

Let’s agree on this: Sexual assault is a serious charge. It shouldn’t have been OK back then. It isn’t OK now. It has been endured in silence for far too long by women the world over. And their suffering, which should have ended a long time ago, deserves to end now.

But having said that, I don’t know if Kavanaugh did it or not. I don’t know if Ford is remembering it exactly as it happened or is getting it wrong. I don’t know and, be honest, you don’t know. Emphasize the word “know.” We only have our feelings or, as in the case of Ana Maria Archila, the woman who confronted Flake in an elevator and yelled passionately about her own assault, our personal experiences that shape our views.

So since I can add little to this already over-stoked debate, I’d like to throw out some slightly different questions:

At what age is someone forgiven?

At what stage is someone redeemed?

At what point is the distance between youth and adulthood viewed as vast enough not to conflate the acts of one with the character of the other? Is it college? High school? Grade school?

Here’s a hypothetical: Suppose Kavanaugh, when initially accused by Ford, did not vehemently deny it, but instead said something like this:

“I vaguely remember that night. I believe I was inebriated and sexually aggressive in a stupid, drunken, teenaged manner that I should not have been — and certainly never have been once I reached adulthood. As a man, I am deeply saddened to learn that my foolish, immature actions have affected Dr. Ford so significantly, something I never knew until this week. I am truly sorry. I have lived my adult life in an upright fashion, thanks partly to learning from earlier mistakes I made. And I vow going forward, to continue to be a watchdog for any form of human violation or assault, sexual or otherwise.”

If he’d said this, would his critics still be vilifying him — and demanding he go away?

If you answered no, then I’d pose the question, “Why not? He still did it. Isn’t admitting you did something more damning than people merely suspecting you did it?”

If you answered yes, he should still be vilified, then I’d also ask, “Why? Don’t we forgive people’s youthful offenses all the time? Don’t we celebrate drug dealers who have embraced a clean life? Don’t we say “amen” to preachers who once were incarcerated? Don’t we elect leaders who have admitted infidelities, and have been accused of lewd and lascivious behavior, sometimes by more than one person? (Or are we ignoring the current President?)

Remember, while the words make us squirm, the definition of “sexual assault” can be broadly defined. It is hardly just rape or even penetration. In some cases sexual assault can be contact with a breast or a buttock.

All these acts, if unwelcome, are wrong. But are they all the same? And are they unforgivable now and forever?

I don’t know the answer. I am not here to judge. It seems apparent — and I say “seems” because at any moment, something else could break — that if Kavanaugh did behave a certain way in high school, or even, as a woman claimed, in college, he hasn’t behaved that way once he entered the adult work world. There, he has been investigated many times. And given the current climate, and his politically charged nomination, if he even came close to a sexual harassment act in his three decades of professional life — an inappropriate comment, a touch, an unwanted kiss — let alone any kind of assault, wouldn’t we have heard about it by now?

There have been no  accusations against him since he stopped being a student. If this is truly an accurate reflection of the man, then again, the question of when do young sins stop shading the older person is one perhaps we should examine. Is age 17 the cutoff? Age 15? Puberty?

None of this should minimize or ignore the pain that Ford and Archila clearly still feel. Or the pain of anyone who has endured the trauma of unwanted sexual advances and assaults. That pain is real. It’s haunting. And it’s not for us — or any elected officials — to measure.

But if any positive soul-searching can come out of this difficult week, perhaps it lies not just in where we come down on guilt, but also where we come down on time and forgiveness, if not in Kavanaugh’s specific case, then in general.

I’m not sure myself. I’m struggling with it. All I know is this is not 1978, or 1982, this is not a movie, and things we once laughed or winked at in “Animal House” feel very real and very serious now.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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