The Political Myth of the Good Man 


A woman who attended high school with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has accused him of attempted rape. The woman, who has not come forward publicly, wrote a letter to Democratic officials, the details of which were published by the New Yorker on Friday. (Kavanaugh denied the allegation.)

Almost immediately after the New Yorker published the allegation, Republicans released a letter signed by 65 women who knew Kavanaugh in high school (the Supreme Court nominee went to an all-boys school). The women wrote that he “behaved honorably” and “always treated women with decency and respect,” a tactic undoubtedly meant to discredit the anonymous accuser.

It also plays into a common argument that conservatives and centrist liberals have used for Kavanaugh: that the dude is nice—specifically that he is nice to women. (A version of this same defense was used by Republican senators to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general, despite a previous Congress finding him too racist for a judgeship.) Yale Law professor Amy Chua, whose daughter clerked for Kavanaugh, touted him as a mentor for women. His former women law clerks wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee attesting his character and their “uniformly positive experiences.” Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of Brooking Institution’s Lawfare blog, recently tweeted: “There are a lot of good reasons for liberals to oppose Kavanaugh. He’s a genuine conservative who will do a lot of the things liberals are afraid of. One of the reasons to oppose him is not that he’s some kind of terrible person. He’s a thoroughly decent and honorable person.”

I get it: Brett Kavanaugh is the kind of man who is a good neighbor. He will never play music too loud, he’s the sort of boss who will patiently answer your questions; he’s a doting dad who coaches his daughter’s basketball team. Unlike Trump, Kavanaugh has the ability to say “Please” and “Thank you;” he will smile as he holds the door open for you, he can probably refrain from bragging about grabbing women by the pussy. He is not vulgar; he is boring and nice and maybe even charming.

Being friendly is not the same as being honorable; the political and personal aren’t as easily separated as pundits who relish the fictional narrative of decency would have us believe. Kavanaugh has offered opaque answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee and at times misled its members; he has questioned whether Roe v. Wade is “settled” law and, if any of these 14 cases end up at the bench, he’ll be able to stand in the way of millions of people having basic control of their bodies; as a judge, he tried to block a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant from accessing an abortion; he supports “race-neutral” hiring and the NAACP has called his self-professed commitment to diversity “a myth.” In the nomination proceedings, he has claimed to know nothing about alleged sexual misconduct by U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, his mentor and close friend who, last year, retired after 15 women accused him of sexual harassment.

I don’t know Brett Kavanaugh personally. Maybe he did treat those 65 women with “respect.” But his kindness to a select few does not make him a “good person,” as the letter insists. That the personal is political is one of feminism’s major stakes; to insist that the two be separated— to insist that good men can have bad politics or vice versa—seems to posit that policy is neutral; that it simply exists in the realm of the theoretical. But Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation will affect me, and millions of others, very personally. Women, anticipating abortion rights roll-backs, have been rushing to get IUDs inserted—a painful process that isn’t right for everyone, and costs hundreds of dollars without insurance. His rulings could force women to carry unwanted pregnancies, a decision that will change the course of their lives and the lives of their families. The same dangers exist in his record on workers, on immigrant rights, on the impunity of massive corporations.

But then we already know that the good man narrative is a lie. We know that sexual harassment doesn’t disqualify a man from serving on the Supreme Court, and it seems unlikely that an attempted rape allegation will have an effect on Kavanaugh’s nomination. After all, he’s “always treated women with decency and respect”—or at least that’s what we’ve been told.

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