“I love two things: Teaching and beer.”
Those seven words were the opening line to my personal bio in the student directory when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the late 1980s, living as a resident advisor in an undergraduate dormitory. (The directory was called a “face book” long before another former Harvard student created a certain social media juggernaut.) What was I thinking?
There were several reasons for me to “go bro,” as it were, even though I am not a frat-boy type. (In fact, I deliberately limited my undergraduate college choices to schools that did not have fraternities, private clubs, or secret societies.) One was simply to get people’s attention—and it worked, because nearly everyone (student and staff alike) who later met me said, “Oh, you’re the guy who made the joke about liking beer. Good one!”
The other primary reason to shoot for the lowest common denominator was that I was a graduate student living among undergraduates as the “economics tutor,” which required me to be approachable for help with issues in my field. Economics is a nerdy field even among high-achieving undergraduates at elite colleges, and “I love beer” was a way to signal that I was not going to be intellectually intimidating. The message was: Come talk to me. It’s OK. I’m cool.
But I was not lying about loving to drink beer. Even before craft beers took over the US market, I was the kind of person who sought out higher-quality brews and truly enjoyed them. This, however, meant that I sometimes indulged far too much, which often meant that I woke up the next morning trying to remember missing pieces of the night before. It was always unnerving, but never enough so to make me decide to stop.
In my most recent Verdict column, “What Kavanaugh Could Have Said, But Didn’t: ‘I Honestly Don’t Know What Happened, and I’m Willing to Accept the Senate’s Judgment,’” I offered an imagined letter that Brett Kavanaugh could have written that would have put his drinking in perspective. Needless to say, the two weeks since that column was published have demonstrated that Kavanaugh decided to go in a very different direction.
Here, I want to use my (not at all uncommon) personal experiences with drinking as well as the publicly available knowledge about the effects of alcohol consumption to explore Kavanaugh’s public statements, showing that his defiant stance is simply implausible. I will then discuss something with which I have no personal experience—Kavanaugh’s privileged upbringing—to show that the real problem here is the toxic combination of drinking culture and young men who think their actions have no consequences.
The Beer Thing
In my recent column, I suggested that Kavanaugh could have simply fessed up to his excessive drinking in high school and college (and perhaps after that), acknowledging that alcohol impairs memory and that he could not say with 100 percent certainty what he might or might not have done on many of the nights that he drank to excess.
In that column, I did not directly reference my personal familiarity with such situations, both because there was no need at that point to insert myself into the story and because it seemed obvious to the point of triviality that drinking to excess can cause memory lapses. This is not limited to being “blackout drunk,” of course, but also involves situations in which one thinks, for example, “What exactly happened after I left dinner last night?”
This reality is so obvious and so universal that it is the basis of all kinds of popular entertainment, from movies to sitcom episodes in which the protagonist is teased about things that he or she did the night before but cannot remember.
Popular songs about alcohol-induced memory loss are everywhere. Just off the top of my head, I can think of three such songs. The group Lit released a hit song in 1999, “My Own Worst Enemy,” that includes these lyrics:
Can we forget about the things I said when I was drunk?
I didn’t mean to call you that.
I can’t remember what was said or what you threw at me.
Please tell me, please tell me why
The car is in the front yard, and I’m sleeping with my clothes on.
I came in through the window last night, and you’re gone, gone.
Or how about “The Girl I Can’t Forget,” by Fountains of Wayne?
And I wondered what I did or said
That I might soon regret.
It was the night I can’t remember
With the girl I can’t forget.
Well, I was reeling, watching the ceiling spin
The next evening when my friends walked in.
And when I asked them if they knew where I’d been,
They didn’t speak at first, they only grinned.
Third (but no means the only other example), there is Elvis Costello’s “The Big Light,” which includes these now-cringeworthy lines:
Well the hangover this morning had a personality,
And I cast my shattered mind over selected memories.
I didn’t even touch the light switch so I knew I’d never see
The haggard face that would be staring back at me.
I had a little feeling to have a big time
And I woke up to alarm bells like a big church chime
I had to face the where am I, and who is she? What did I do?
But worst of all, I had to face the big light.
The science, of course, backs up what everyone knows about the effects of alcohol. It is not only alcoholics who can lose memories to drink. As I wrote in my recent column, excessive drinking is not necessarily even problem drinking, much less alcoholism. It is excessive in the sense that it takes a person to a different place cognitively.
Kavanaugh Himself Admits the Key Facts
Before last week’s fateful Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, it came out that Kavanaugh had joked in a speech to a Federalist Society group about his excessive drinking. Again, I completely understood what he was doing. “I had a few beers, maybe more than a few” jokes go over well, especially when a middle-aged man of some prominence is trying to bond with younger people. To this day, my students react most positively in class when I make self-effacing comments about drinking. Kavanaugh was doing that, too.
But that undermines his denials in his recent testimony. Even though he claims to have never lost any memories to alcohol, he has already admitted/bragged that he used to drink to excess. Indeed, even in his testimony, he sneeringly responded to questions by conceding that he sometimes drank a lot and asking, in essence: What of it?!
What does the possibility of memory loss mean for people like Kavanaugh and me, who live with the reality that we honestly cannot account for everything that we have done or said at various points in our lives? For Kavanaugh, Elvis Costello’s questions, “Who is she? What did I do?” are now all too pressing. Saying that he knows with certainty that he barely knew who “she” was and that he did not do anything to her was not only implausible but foolish. His defenders complain that he is being forced to prove a negative, but his real problem is that he cannot honestly know whether the negative is true.
Would it have been a risky move to admit as much, as I recommended that he do in my recent column? Perhaps. After all, it should be easy to imagine a US senator saying, “As between Christine Blasey Ford, who persuasively tells me that this crime happened and that Brett Kavanaugh committed it, and Kavanaugh’s honest but dishearteningly incomplete statement that he has no memory of it, I can’t put a possible sexual assailant on the Supreme Court.”
Will Boys Be Boys?
On the other hand, Kavanaugh did himself no favors by pretending that he was a beer-swilling bro who drank to excess but maintained completely accurate recall throughout his life. Denying reality, loudly and aggressively, led him down a path to telling increasingly ridiculous stories about his “weak stomach” and other whoppers that now have people questioning the veracity of all of his statements.
As Nathan J. Robinson put it in a particularly devastating column on Current Affairs: “If you ask someone ‘Were you a drinker?’ and they reply ‘I went to church and helped children,’ you are not dealing with a forthright person.” Coming clean certainly would have spared Kavanaugh’s reputation for believability.
Moreover, there is every reason to suspect that he could be confirmed to the Supreme Court even in the face of reasonable suspicions that he had assaulted a 15-year-old girl when he was a 17-year-old boy. I find it horrifying that people are willing to give him a complete pass on this, but plenty of Kavanaugh defenders say that it matters what kind of person he is now, not what he was back then.
And it is not just Kavanaugh’s defenders who say so. The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Ruth Marcus, is no conservative, yet she recently wrote this:
To be clear: A Supreme Court nominee should be judged on his legal acumen and judicial temperament, as displayed in the conduct of his adult life and the content of his professional career. So it is understandable that Kavanaugh and his supporters have scoffed at the recent focus on the judge’s adolescent behavior, and behavior as an adolescent.
I should say that Marcus does not expressly say that she agrees with the notion that “boys will be boys” or that a provable offense as an adolescent would not be disqualifying, but she certainly is not clear about it. She adds: “The drinking itself is immaterial. No one should care if young Kavanaugh was a stumbling or even belligerent drunk so long as there is no evidence that adult Kavanaugh suffers from a drinking problem.”
Really? No one should care if Kavanaugh was a belligerent drunk? Apparently, however, Marcus is not alone. “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah said on Tuesday: “[Kavanaugh] raging as a young man doesn’t disqualify him from serving on the Supreme Court.”
I guess it depends on the definition of “raging” (Noah was referring to the now-confirmed bar brawl in New Haven that Kavanaugh instigated, not the attempted rape of Blasey), but I find it amazing that even some liberals are willing to say that what is in the distant past is simply irrelevant.
Again, if Kavanaugh had said something at all modest and real, he could have reduced the weight that we might put on those past actions. He might have said: “I simply cannot express how horrifying it would be to find out that I had done something like that. I always thought that drinking was fun and that no one ever got hurt, and I still want that to be true. If it isn’t, then I’m truly sorry. I am not that person.”
Instead, Kavanaugh became angry and defiant. He decided that he could not allow for even the possibility that he had done something wrong or that anything he did should cause him not to achieve his dream of serving on the Supreme Court.
The Life of Entitled Meritocrats and the Denial of Personal Responsibility
Earlier in this column, I personally empathized with Kavanaugh from the standpoint of wanting to use drinking as a marker of social acceptability and fallible humanness. What I cannot empathize with is the sense of entitlement that Kavanaugh carries and the rage that he showed upon being confronted with the possibility of not getting his way.
The Ivy League and other elite colleges view themselves as meritocracies, and in many senses that is true. Even so, there is a difference between the kind of student that I represent and the kind of student that Kavanaugh represents.
I grew up in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest hearing about how great Harvard was and being told that getting good grades could get me there. I decided not to go there for college, but when grad school became a possibility, I jumped. I was proud, and my family was proud. I am not saying that I had no advantages (being from a stable family that valued higher education having given me a serious head start), but it was not a given that I would attend elite institutions of higher education.
Kavanaugh, by contrast, is a meritocrat in the sense that he had every opportunity given to him to go to a top college, and it would have been a surprise of the first order if he had not gone to Yale or a similarly elite school. He lied about not being a legacy admittee to Yale, but even without that, his elite background at a DC prep school and all of the advantages of a wealthy family made him an obvious Ivy League inevitability.
The Post ran an interesting column last week by a professor who went to an elite prep school similar to Kavanaugh’s, arguing that Kavanaugh’s upbringing primed him to try to lie his way out of his current difficulty. The idea is that being a high-merit-by-birth person in a meritocracy allows people like Kavanaugh to truly believe that they are better than everyone else.
Kavanaugh inadvertently demonstrated this last week when he responded to difficult questions by invoking his academic virtues. “I went to Yale.” “I worked my butt off” (as if he did not have a million advantages that allowed that hard work to open doors that a poorer kid’s much harder work could never pry open, even by a crack). His unstated but clear presumption was that he is superior, and all of these questions about things that he might have done that were not so superior are an insult to his superiority.
As I noted earlier, I too face the possibility that someday, someone will confront me with something very bad that I did while I was drinking. But here is the difference between the two different types of meritocrats. People who are not born to believe that they will rule the world would respond to such news with, “Oh no, please tell me that’s not true. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to make up for it? What should I do?”
Most importantly, such a person does not think, “I should still get that promotion, even though I might have done something unthinkable that I hope isn’t true.” Kavanaugh is the other type of meritocrat, and his public statements boil down to: “I did what I did to get where I want to go, and I cannot fathom the possibility that I might have to accept the consequences of my actions.”
The contorted expressions on Kavanaugh’s face during his testimony revealed this mindset. In some ways, the most meaningful moment was not when he was being caught in a lie but when Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Kavanaugh to say whether or not the FBI should investigate the various allegations that have arisen.
Kavanaugh tried and failed to evade the question by saying that he would do whatever the committee wanted (knowing, of course, that the Republican majority on the committee would protect him). When Durbin finally nailed him down and asked for Kavanaugh to take a position, his face (in a matter of a few seconds) went through a range of emotions from anger to fear to simple incredulity that he had been nailed.
At that point, his entire body slumped back in his chair. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen to Brett Kavanaugh! Rules and limits are supposed to be for little people.
And that is the social reality that the Kavanaugh mess has inadvertently revealed. It is no surprise that drinking alcohol can cause problems large and small or that people will respond to being challenged in different and often defensive ways. Sadly, however, it is also no surprise that entitled people become stunned and vindictive when the world stops deferring to them. The issue now is whether such a person should sit on the United States Supreme Court.