The claims against Justice Kavanaugh struggle to meet a formal ‘accusation’. An accusation makes truth claims and serves as an obligation to assess those claims. But if the intention is not to serve due process but to dismantle it then no such claim is being made. What has been claimed about Justice Kavanaugh does not rise above the level of slur, says Sean Walsh.
When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible he was not simply trying to draw an appropriate analogy between the witch trials in the late 17th century and the (admittedly unjust) prosecution of communists real and imagined some 300 years later. He was identifying and drawing to our attention a permanent and indelible feature of human psychology: we love to accuse, and in particular, we love to attach our approval to the accusations of others against others. The delicious feeling that comes with membership of the sisterhood of perpetual recrimination is only the latest expression of this human tendency. MeToo? Yes, you too. Welcome aboard. In a great victory for the forces of emancipation, the trichoteuse have become the operators of M Guillotine’s instrument of justice.
Brett Kavanaugh found himself occupying Ground Zero in a firestorm of confected outrage. His response was angry, the sort of anger that one would wish to see him display if the charges were false. Forget this nonsense about his demeanour disqualifying him from a seat on the Supreme Court. He was speaking as a human being, not as a jurist, and any attempt at impartiality would have been misplaced: he was not acting as a judge in his own case. His anger was the sort of anger of which Aristotle would have approved: to the right degree, directed at the right people and for the right duration of time. If the charges are false.
Are they? I don’t know and neither do you. Sexual abuse is about as serious as it gets, from which it follows that when an accusation is made the protocols of due process should -if anything- be intensified, and not suspended. Dianne Feinstein and her coterie of lackeys engineered the public mood in such a way as to effect such a suspension. Pleasingly, the attempt lies in tatters, to the extent that one might be forgiven for believing that Banksy had a hand in the whole thing. (Can we pause here for a moment to consider the following proposition: that if every accusation of sexual assault and impropriety against the Senate’s Democrat caucus were the size of a rock…we’d have a galaxy. I return you to the main argument.)
In fact “accusation” might not even be the right word here. An accusation makes truth claims and serves as an obligation to assess those claims. But if the intention is not to serve due process but to dismantle it then no such claim is being made. What has been claimed about Justice Kavanaugh does not raise above the level of slur.
Several commentators have suggested that both Justice Kavanaugh and Dr Ford could be telling the truth. And right there lies part of the problem: the assumption that truth can be relativized to what I feel is the case. But truth thus defined is not truth: there is a fact of the matter as to whether or not she was assaulted by him. There is no truth for her that can live in epistemic harmony with a truth for him. Part of the Enlightenment legacy is this view that truth, when detached from a notion of transcendence, can be recuperated in secular terms. The secular attempts invariably fail, normally by assuming what they attempt to replace: secular theories of truth are thirsty for the transcendent. Without it they collapse into relativism and nonsense.
The idea that there is a transcendent quality to truth continues to impose itself, in other words. We have no right to decide for ourselves what is true and what isn’t. Even God can’t do that (which is no constraint on God, God is Truth and it is no constraint on a thing that it can’t be what it isn’t). And it is on this basis that we should insist that the logical gap that exists between accusation and guilt should be bridged by proof (procedures for determining what is true) and not by some ill-defined and underdetermined sense of who is “credible”. It does not matter, as some Democrats claim, that the Senate charade was not a court of law. The procedures abused by Feinstein et al were ones with a real moral obligation. A man was being destroyed. He deserved, at the very least, that his accusers observed a due regard for the obligations imposed by truth. The McCarthy hearings were not procedurally identical to a court of law either. Were they therefore just? Did Arthur Miller miss the point?
And what of memory? Dr Ford made much hay with her claim that memories were “encoded and stored” within the hippocampus. She described a picture in which they reside there intact to be accessed at some future time by the brain’s processing systems -pristine and unaltered. This picture is eminently contestable. Some philosophers -Mary Warnock for one- describe memory as involving an ineliminable component of imaginative reconstruction. On this view the mind’s plasticity subtly alters and embellishes an incident each time we remember it.
Dr Ford’s assumption is that mental activity is reducible to some collusion between brain chemistry and function. This is not a project which carries the unqualified admiration of the philosophical community. Usually such reductive strategies require a modification of the experiences they purport to explain.
I enjoy running. I am a member of a running club. If I compare in memory the run we did last Tuesday with the run we did the week before then this is a property of that comparison: I remember the latter as having a temporal relation to the former; I remember them as sequenced in time, one before the other. It is extremely difficult to explain this feature of experienced memory in terms of the physical composition of the brain and the processes that composition instantiates. The only way of doing so, it seems, is by first re-describing that experienced memory in a way that makes the reduction possible.
It is this feature of experienced memory that explains, in part, how we can hear a piece of music as a piece of music, and not simply as a sequence of notes. Or how we can think of ourselves as not merely a history of ordered experiences but as being a person who has those experiences. John Locke proposed that memory was the ordering principle behind personal identity: I am the same person now as I was 36 years ago because I find myself as I am now in the memories of what happened to me then.
None of this is to suggest that Dr Ford’s memory of an event some 36 years ago is significantly corrupted. But we should bear in mind that on some plausible accounts of the act of remembering all our memories undergo subtle alterations in content. And claiming that “brain science” can guarantee that our memories are accurate is to go against what that science actually says.
And as for the idea that all women should be believed when they make an accusation of sexual assault, well, not even the Democrats in the Senate really believe that. Just ask Juanita Broaddrick.
I note as a PS that the Guardian journalist Nasrene Malik, in an orgy of self-regard, lays claim to Martin Luther King, and in particular King’s claim regarding the long arc of justice. Hmm, not a necessarily happy point of comparison. King’s “arc of justice” was always sufficiently bent by the black hole of desire in the direction of many motel rooms of which his wife had less than rudimentary familiarity. And many of those he slept with were not entirely…er…available for consent.
King was a serial philanderer and abuser of those to whom he stood in a real relationship of power. But an icon of the left. And therefore unavailable for proper scrutiny.
One day…Guardian journalists will think before they write. Maybe Ms Malik will take some advice from this white and middle-aged male. As Will Rogers once said: “Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut.”