Steve Heronemus

A Clockwork O’Kavanaugh

We have been witness in the past three weeks to a national drama over the importance we place on personal character and what might charitably be called youthful indiscretion as Senate politicians consider consenting to the president’s nominee for Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Three women made credible allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh and other young men in his circle of friends amid the alcohol-fueled milieu of high school and college. Reactions to the allegations range from the political left calling for additional, independent, investigation of the claims to indignant comments of “boys will be boys” and “but that was more than 30 years ago” from the right. The president, who is the personification of objectification of women, even said that “this is a dangerous time for boys” in that women who aim to destroy a man’s life could simply manufacture fictitious sexual assault allegations. What is lost among this debate is a critical look at allowable social conduct and what we do to effect change that reduces the very real danger experienced by women in their teens and 20s.
I have to say at the outset that I believe the women. I believe them because what they allege is squarely in line with my experience of growing up at roughly the same time period (I am 5 years older than Brett Kavanaugh). I drank, and routinely drank a lot, beginning in junior high. I don’t remember everything that happened that I did while drunk, but I do know I did not always treat women, including my future wife, with the respect they deserved. Even the most salacious allegations by Ms. Swetnick of gang rape are totally believable as I and some fraternity brothers forcibly removed an incapacitated woman “pulling train” – being gang-raped by men taking turns – from the bar of the rival fraternity across the street.  I have been wondering if I would have joined a rescue effort had I not known the woman or if it was taking place in my own fraternity house.
A major theme in Anthony Burgess’s brilliant 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange is the abdication for defining social culture by adults, allowing the violent base instincts of some boys to take over. In the book, groups of teenage boys routinely get intoxicated and pass their time ditching school, raping women (and girls as young as 10) and seeking the rush of the old Ultra-V(iolence). A key element of the book is the thug’s use of an argot Burgess calls Nadsat to segregate their communication and hide their intent from adults (Nadsat is a genius literary device that also keeps the characters from being pinned to a cultural place or era). Adults in the bar are too afraid of the “droogs” to have them kicked out. The main protagonist’s parents are likewise either too afraid of or too accommodating to their son to be much involved with him or be a check on his behavior.
Stanley Kubrick, in his masterful film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, furthers the narrative of societal violence against women by creating sculptures of naked women for the bar taps and tables. He graphically portrays women as serving pieces, which is all too consistent with messages I learned growing up as a white boy in a socially and religiously conservative environment.
Allegations that paint the wealthy, white, interscholastic athlete Brett Kavanaugh as entitled and boorish at a minimum to actually criminal look plausible to me. Whether that picture is of the actual Judge Kavanaugh or a cipher for out-of-control entitled young men remains to be seen and will hopefully gain clarity through investigation.
My experience is that our culture was closer to A Clockwork Orange than not. Young men who drank to excess and disrespected women were, and perhaps are, much the rule rather than the exception. Kavanaugh’s own writings, some signed “Bart O’Kavanaugh”, and those of his cohort make use of common youth argots such as “devil’s triangle”, “boofing”, and “FFFFF” as means to segregate and cloak their behavior. Social structures around athletics and fraternities were highly abusive of alcohol, illegal drugs and women.
Also, where were the adults around “O’Kavanaugh” and the other droogs (I don’t believe Bart has the temperament to have been the leader)? As a youth, I was able to hide or obfuscate my behavior from my parents, and lying about subjects big and small became a reflex that took decades to undo. Instead of kicking my 15-year old tail out, many tavern owners served me and my friends with just the admonishment of “Don’t cause trouble. I know your father.” that carried all the weight of alcohol industry’s “Drink Responsibly” advertisement tagline, expertly placed under a lovely bikini-clad bottom. Legal-aged patrons were occasionally bemused but never appalled enough to say anything. One barkeep routinely asked us what music he should play to get our classmates, particularly girls, in the door on Friday nights. 15- and 16-year olds.
The 20th-century rise of youth-driven culture has upended historical norms. As we live longer and create more disposable income we have replaced aspiring to the wisdom of age for the search for youth. We want to look young and act young, and in doing so we allow the young to set trends and standards of behavior. Devolving from Beatniks through hippies, yuppies and whatever we might call the social slime that is the Kardashians, we haved ceded the definition of our aspirations to immature, sociopathic idiots.
Today, as a parent of four adult men and women, I believe my wife and I caught or prevented a higher percentage of misdeeds than did my parents. We knew of, and avoided, those houses where parents had the attitude of preferring to allow kids to party in their home, assuming they would otherwise do it somewhere else. We had the temerity to not allow our children to get their driver’s license, or be a passenger in a car, until they or the driver were 18 years old. We checked with other parents to verify our children’s location and we checked our kids’ rooms, phone records and computer use. We tried to model our beliefs that greatness lies in service  and no one deserves more or less respect than anyone else, and we embarrassed our kids to no end by butting into other people’s business when they were out of line.
Our children were and are not perfect and my wife and I made mistakes of both omission and commission, but we and many other parents in our community tried to prove Anthony Burgess wrong. It is time for adults to grow up and take back the power, and confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court sends exactly the wrong message to the nation’s children.