As for shaping the Brett Kavanaugh hash into a nutritious helping of moral meaning, I can suggest better ways of wasting your time — for instance, counting blades of grass in the backyard.
As a partisan in this wretched affair, you’ll get no intellectual satisfaction from shouting at partisans of the opposite persuasion: a “Shaddupyoumiserablejerk!” kind of outcome, each syllable a fully armed missile, encountering a blaze of return fire. You’re talking to the back of each other’s heads: “Did!” “Didn’t!” “Will!” “Won’t!” “Should’ve!” “Shouldn’t’ve!” Nothing can be expected from such an exchange save remorse and stupefaction.
If nonetheless we feel it’s necessary to talk about what we’ve gone through as a people in these past few weeks, how about a topic as simple, straightforward and overdue as the re-moralization of society?
The what?! And why now, for heaven’s sake, when we’re having so much fun wringing each other’s necks?
I see now that I shouldn’t have said “simple.” Nothing about the establishment and maintenance of what we used to call cultural behavioral standards is simple in the least. On the other hand, we have to start somewhere if we’re to comprehend, however dimly, the origins of the great national blowup over Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A whole lot more is wrong around here than simple disagreement over the personal merits or demerits of Brett Kavanaugh. What’s wrong is the virtual disappearance in recent times of the standards that used to govern human relationships — our treatment of each other, in other words. Being human, we’ve never done everything right; but we have a lot of the time.
Hard as rightness and wrongness may be to define, we used to tackle the task with energy and brains. It wasn’t a case of your version of right versus someone else’s version. Smart people had figured out that bad actions had bad premises and bad consequences. These understandings of human possibility and limitation were embedded in us, amid all the mistakes and misjudgments found in every purely human assessment. This thing — the moral code of civilization — worked pretty well. It obliged taking note of others’ rights and needs as well as one’s own. It spoke through what we often call conscience. It said, “This you ought to do.” It said, in graver tones, “Let it alone, friend. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t ever.”
No more complicated and dangerous a relationship exists than that between men and women, owing to their mutual desires and passions — owing also to the possibility for shipwreck where desires and passions clash rather than fuse.
Consider the rules that, duly enforced, might have prevented the Kavanaugh uproar. The smart people referenced above understood and still understand sexual temptation and its power for injury. The rules for behavior pointed the wise and watchful in the direction of restraint, rather than toward the bad stuff characteristic of a culture ruled by the rage for liberation and self-expression.
A culture like ours? You’ve got that right. Ours is a culture of sexual debacles such as still haunt Christine Blasey Ford. It’s a culture of self-aggrandizing accusers striving to one-up the lady’s anguished narrative. With a Supreme Court nominee caught in the middle, destined to be remembered as an accused rapist because we either believe or disbelieve his account of a teenage party that grown people, in a less self-indulgent era than our own, would have shut down instantly.
Whatever was the fate of the moral fence posts we began removing in the ’60s, the job today is figuring out how to get that fencing back in place, without further delay.
The grandeur of American liberty isn’t the issue. Liberty means freedom, under the protection of law and moral reasoning, to do what we know is right. We know what’s right because it brings, in place of Twitter bulletins and wall-to-wall television coverage, what a well-known religious source frequently called the Bible refers to as “the peace that passes understanding.”
William Murchison is writing a book on American moral restoration in the 21st century.
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