As the debate crescendos over Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school, different versions of an old idea have surfaced: Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence is less important than his conduct since.
That view was crystallized this week by syndicated columnist Dennis Prager, who not only said of Ford, “I don’t believe her,” but also added: “I am not interested in whether Mrs. Ford, an anti-Trump activist, is telling the truth. Because even if true, what happened to her was clearly wrong, but it tells us nothing about Brett Kavanaugh since the age of 17.”
I don’t claim to know what, if anything, happened between Ford and Kavanaugh. But as a survivor of sexual assault, I can say that if her story is true, none of Kavanaugh’s subsequent good deeds wipe the slate clean.
I write about my abuse more easily than I talk about it, but the news cycle doesn’t relent. When I read Prager’s article, I was struck by how unjust some of the conversation around Ford’s accusations has been. Of course, Kavanaugh has a right to defend himself. As my husband, David French, argued this week, taking these accusations seriously has to involve Ford coming forward to tell her story on the record. But pundits’ comfortable political opinions and their Supreme Court idolatry is poisonous when it results in waving away the gravity of assault.
Without judging the veracity of Ford’s memories or accusations, most reasonable people would agree that a male attacking a female is serious. Not Prager. His article can be summed up in five words: If it happened, so what?
He justifies his position by using the concept of a “moral bank account.” He writes: “Our good deeds are deposits, and our bad deeds are withdrawals. … If our good actions outweigh our bad actions, we are morally in the black; if our bad actions greatly outweigh our good actions, we are morally in the red.”
Among the many problems with this assertion, including that he presents his readers with no legal or scriptural source for it, is that it gives carte blanche to the powerful. Victims who’ve been abused by clergy, the wealthy or the philanthropic are frequently assured that their predators are overall “good people.” But how much money does a person need to donate to a women’s shelter to make up for striking a woman in the face? How much for a rape? Who determines the value of innocence? Who determines the price to be paid?
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, in an appearance on MSNBC this week, said: “Let’s say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should that be disqualifying? That’s the question at the end of the day, isn’t it?” The response from some is no. They’re concerned that whatever individuals may have done as teenagers isn’t “predictive” of what they might do now or that we’re setting a worrisome “precedent” by evaluating adults through the lens of what they may have done in their youth.
But that’s the wrong way to look at this because it implies that age or the passage of time somehow mitigates a violent crime. To dismiss morality in these cases and replace it with a transactional accounting whereby good deeds expunge bad ones would be, as the National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis notes, “deeply perverse.”
These arguments aren’t new, but they’ve always been flawed. In 2003, Boston Globe Magazine writer Charles P. Pierce wrote a profile of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). The article addressed Mary Jo Kopechne, who was the passenger in Kennedy’s car in 1969 and was killed after he veered off the road into the waters off Chappaquiddick Island. After explaining how her death had haunted Kennedy’s political aspirations, Pierce ended with two sentences that show the utter inadequacy and impotence of Prager’s “moral bank account” concept: “If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.”
Prager, a Republican, almost certainly wouldn’t accept Pierce’s absolution of Kennedy. Nor would he overlook Bill Clinton’s words and deeds surrounding his affair with Monica Lewinsky because the economy was robust during Clinton’s time in office.
One reason I’m not a Democrat is because they’ve been telling women for years that Kennedy’s and Clinton’s support for women, generally, outweighs their interactions with them individually. One reason I’m no longer a Republican is that, more and more, they tell me character doesn’t matter and that people are disposable when power, policies and Supreme Court seats are on the line.
We’re in the process of choosing who sits on our nation’s highest court, to judge us and our laws. If, as a nation, we want to do more than pay lip service to the problem of sexual assault, we can’t discount truth or minimize the seriousness of assault. The allegations must be aired, their credibility assessed and their consequences weighed. And we must factor them into how we judge anyone who aspires to hold a position of public trust.
Sexual assault victims cry out for justice. In its earthly absence, we at least want to be treated with dignity. Sadly, for Prager, even that price is too much to pay.
Correction: The profile of Sen. Kennedy referenced in this article was published in 2003. An earlier version of this article said it was written at the time of his death, which was in 2009.