“This is a circus.” That’s how Slate’s Lili Loofbourow describes the proceedings surrounding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. In this Slate Plus members-only podcast, Chau Tu talks to Loofbourow about the accusations Kavanaugh is facing and why it’s not quite time to forgive the men of #MeToo.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: It’s already been a crazy week. Let’s start with Brett Kavanaugh. We’re set to hear testimony from Christine Blasey Ford this Thursday about her allegations against Kavanaugh. What do you expect is going to come out of this hearing?
Lili Loofbourow: I honestly have no idea. I think that this is going to be a very strange referendum on the Clarence Thomas hearings and on how Anita Hill was treated, and it’s also going to be a measure of how far we’ve come since then, what the impact of the #MeToo movement has been, and also how much politics have changed because there was some bipartisan consensus back then on how Anita Hill should be treated.
That does not seem to be as much the case anymore. In practical terms, I really have no idea what to expect beyond the fact that I think it will be a circus in the extent to which certain parties seem to be acting in bad faith in not wanting, for example, to subpoena witnesses. Even though some of those witnesses, for example, Mark Judge, the guy who allegedly was in the room during the assault that Ford describes, would really help Brett Kavanaugh’s case.
It just doesn’t seem like this is a proceeding that, at least for Sen. Chuck Grassley, is especially geared towards finding the truth as much as it is a kind of pro forma exercise and pretending to take these allegations seriously before advancing to a vote. That said, I do think that we thought much the same about the confirmation hearings. That this was just going to be Kabuki and political theater that would result in a smooth confirmation. That turned out not to be the case. I have been continually surprised by how these things have developed and don’t feel like any prediction is well-warranted.
Were you surprised by the interview that Kavanaugh did on Fox News this week, or any of the new accusations that have come out recently?
Yes. My gut sense is that that interview on Fox News—which is a pretty unprecedented thing for a nominee to the Supreme Court to do—didn’t help him, especially since his main talking points were that he’s always “treated women with dignity and respect,” that he spent high school “being a good friend,” and that letter from the 65 women who knew him and were attesting to his good character. All those were immediately undercut by the New York Times story that published later that night, which turns out that one of the women who’d signed a letter in his support—her name is Renate—was repeatedly slimed by Kavanaugh and his friends in their yearbook. There’s evidence all over the place. She no longer seems to think much of his treatment of women, and it seems like some of his character witnesses, as they discovered more, are slipping away. Two of the people who supported him in a statement to the New Yorker withdrew that support after the story ran. Those are interesting developments.
That said, I’ve been, I suppose, unsurprised by the fact that the GOP is doubling down, and even though back then, I think maybe last week, many people were saying, well, it’s just one woman, there aren’t more allegations. Now that there are more allegations, many of the Republicans who had previously indicated a willingness to reconsider seem to be doubling down now in support of Kavanaugh. It seems like things are polarizing rather than progressing towards anything like a fear of investigation or inquiry.
Right, yeah. Last week we were still talking about the “evil twin” theory, right?
Yeah, we were.
Now that seems like a totally different story really.
Yeah. I can’t believe that happened. Today, right before the extra allegation from Deborah Ramirez came out, there were basically four stories that the Republicans had kind of generated to try to refute for its allegations. The most reasonable one, I think, is there’s no proof and we can’t know what happened. But the others are, you know, it didn’t happen and she’s a liar; and then it happened, but attempted rape really isn’t that big a deal, which was a shockingly common take—this is just teenagers, this is what boys do, is that really disqualifying? That’s what Kevin Cramer just said today—“even if it’s all true, is that really disqualifying for a Supreme Court justice?”
Finally there’s the evil twin theory, which was that it happened but her attacker was someone else, and that theory is based on no one’s testimony. It’s literally invented out of thin air and advanced by people who were objecting with some justice to false allegations. To turn around and accuse your random guy who happens to slightly resemble Kavanaugh is a truly extraordinary thing to do. I think the most interesting part of that story was the foremost exponent of that theory was Ed Whelan. He’s a good friend of Kavanaugh, and it’s hard for me to believe that someone who you’re very close with and who did a lot to advance your nomination to the Supreme Court wouldn’t discuss with you his plan to exonerate you by blaming someone else. If that happened, if Kavanaugh knew and greenlit this plan to frame someone else for something he was accused of, to me that’s beyond disqualifying.
Right, because there had been signs that that end was already looking at Ford before her name was announced. Right?
Right. Yeah, within 90 minutes of the Washington Post asking the White House for comment when they were going to run with the story later that night, Ed Whelan was already looking her up on LinkedIn. He’s clearly very connected and talking to all sorts of people and this is not a man acting alone. We know that he was working with a public relations firm that specialized in other things like the swift boating of John Kerry, which ruined his presidential ambitions. For all the talk of Ramirez and Ford running some kind of conspiracy, it seems like the evidence of conspiracy really lives elsewhere.
So what do you think will happen? Do you think that Kavanaugh will still be confirmed? It seems like Republicans are still backing him, right?
They are definitely doubling down. I mean, I really don’t know. This is a circus. Mitch McConnell is giving speeches so intense that are meant to reassure Republicans, but they scan to me as slightly desperate. We know that Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have done as much as they openly can to sidestep the allegations. The New Yorker reported that they were fully aware of the Deborah Ramirez allegations even as they tried to ram through his confirmation before her allegations could come out.
They’ve refused an FBI investigation. If you care about the truth, that’s weird. I don’t really think that they do. In fact, many have said as much. A number of senators have done their best to discourage Ford from testifying by announcing that her testimony won’t matter to them. Lindsey Graham said that he’s not going to ruin this guy’s life based on an accusation. Mike Davis tweeted, “Unfazed and determined. We will confirm Judge Kavanaugh.” McConnell himself said, “Kavanaugh is going to be on the Supreme Court.” They’re signaling as hard as they can that this hearing is meaningless and entirely for show, even as they’re also pretending to care deeply about the logistics and all of this while maintaining that Ford, and I’m actually quoting Lindsey Graham here will be, “respectfully treated.” Imagine telling someone that you have no intention of listening to them and calling that respectful.
There is no question that they want to confirm him at any and all cost. I don’t know if it will work, and the reason that the hearing has gotten as far as it has is because of pressure from senators like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins who have insisted on the hearing. The question is how much further they’ll push and how much more will come out in public before the hearings actually begin on Thursday.
What are the next steps after that? Will there just be a vote after that then?
Well, I mean, yeah, this week they said that they plan to vote Friday.
OK, I guess we’ll see what happens. So all of this is also coming at a time when some other men who have been kind of disgraced by the #MeToo movement, including John Hockenberry, Jian Ghomeshi, and Louis C.K., are making attempts at comebacks. You’ve also been covering this, and you wrote about how you were almost persuaded that these performers had suffered enough. Can you talk a little bit more about what you meant by that?
Sure. Well, I mean, you know, I’m a human being and I’m a product of my culture and I’ve always been trained to like guys a lot and to want to give them every possible chance. And my God, I loved Louis C.K. I was a huge fan of his, and this came as a crushing disappointment to me when I found out that the rumors that he had long denied turned out to be true. It was a huge betrayal, and I’ve had a very hard time letting go of a pretty intense fandom, but I have to be upfront about that.
Nine or 10 months after being disgraced, a bunch of these men are trying to re-enter public life, and they’re doing so in a variety of ways. John Hockenberry and Jian Ghomeshi both wrote long essays that were meant to offer some kind of interesting perspective on what it was like to be on the receiving end of #MeToo, and to explain their side and perhaps seek redemption, but the problem with those essays is that they’re just grand exercises in self-pity.
There’s been a lot of talk about redemption right now, and I do think it’s actually an important question to figure out what we do after we find out that someone has done pretty awful things or destroyed women’s careers because it was convenient for him and he felt like he had a right to harass people because he was horny that day and it didn’t much matter what happened to them afterwards. The thing about redemption is there are steps before that, and contrition is one, atonement is one, and those are not things that are happening.
These people are not really apologizing to their victims. They’re not showing that they understand the extent of the harm they caused, they’re not making efforts at restitution. To reemerge suddenly and say, “Poor me, I can see how I’ve suffered, isn’t that enough?” is not redemption, it’s not even penance. You’re just suffering the consequences of your action. It’s up to you to then take the next step and try to re-enter a society that needs you to show that you understand. Louis C.K., who’s perhaps the most confessional comic out there and constantly talked about difficult things in his comedy—I’m stunned frankly, that his attempt to return to comedy was to get up on a stage and say literally nothing about it.
Anyway, all of that is to say that I think we’re very trained to empathize with these men because we like their work and we admire them and we respect them. They have been in public life for a long time and that means that they have affection and they have a long history and a deep well of affection on which to draw, but we also tend to extend that sympathy to men in ways that we almost never do to women.
This is what philosopher Kate Manne calls “himpathy”: radical overvaluation of men’s suffering and men’s feelings without really thinking too hard about what the women suffered. We just kind of take as read that they suffered and think no more about it—after all we don’t know who they were. They aren’t famous, they never got to be. That asymmetry, I think, has promoted a lot of these things to continue, and it has to be stopped. Tempted as I am to want to welcome some of these men back with open arms, I think we have to find a way that acknowledges the pain on the other side for real, not pro forma, not in an essay that sweeps aside and tries to minimize what was done, but in its true substantive way they can afford the victim something like restorative justice.
Yeah, along the same lines, you also covered Les Moonves’ resignation from CBS after he was accused of sexual misconduct, and you wrote about how surprised you were that he actually stepped down, right?
So surprised, I was really surprised. It’s a huge surprise when the system works. Les Moonves was huge. He was hugely powerful. Look, our culture doesn’t even think men should be punished for rape when it’s proven in court. I stumbled on two examples just in the last week. Last week, a Texas doctor was convicted of raping a woman who had come in with trouble breathing. She’d been sedated and kept overnight, and when he pressed the nurse’s button to call for help, it was disconnected. He was convicted, but he got no jail time. Last Wednesday, a guy in Anchorage who offered a woman a ride strangled her until she was unconscious and masturbated on her, was convicted of kidnapping, assault. He got no jail time. In fact, the district attorney said that he felt that guy had suffered enough because he lost his job working for the federal government.
He called that a life sentence. It’s weird how much we exaggerate the suffering of men when they experienced the slightest consequence. When you have politicians insisting that a man not getting a massive promotion to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, insisting that that is “ruining his life”? It becomes very hard to expect any consequence at all. The bigger the guy, the harder it is to believe that anything will happen to them. We have this mentality that some men are just too big to jail. Les Moonves was one of them.
What do you think has been the biggest takeaway from your reporting on #MeToo?
I think for me, the biggest takeaway from listening to many different people talk about their experiences—men and women, I have to say—I’ve been reading the Pennsylvania report, and it’s just shocking reading, but also I think very important reading for anybody who wants to really understand what the victims’ experiences were like and how they behave. I think that for a long time we had this strange fantasy about what rape victims are and how they act after being raped and the ideal rape victim, or—I’m saying victim and I should say survivor, but back then we really considered them victims.
They had to be perfect, they had to be flawless, and the victim had to be someone who was not dressed provocatively, who has no sexual desire of her own, who immediately the second after the rape happened did everything right. She reported to the police, she did a rape kit, and immediately afterwards also did everything correctly when it came to him—in other words, never contacted him again, perfectly understood what had happened to her, classified it the way that she would forever understand it, and those things turn out not to be true. It turns out the trauma is a lot more complicated and sexual trauma particularly so.
It turns out that a lot of people who have been victimized try to make it OK. I think that that’s the story that emerges over and over again—is sometimes people will consensually have sex with people who raped them because that will somehow erase what was done, make it seem like a situation that’s in their control. People will contact people who have raped them later, perhaps in a friendly tone. There are all kinds of strange ways that people cope with trauma, and because we had this narrative of the ideal victim, we had no textual body to sift through that could really educate us on how people respond to stuff like this.
This giant, I think, unmasking, where people feel free finally to come forward with their warts-and-all accounts of how these things happened, has been extraordinarily moving and touching, but also I think from a psychological education, as a psychological education, very valuable. I think we’re coming to understand a lot more about how we can solve or at least address some of these problems because we’re getting a much better and more complete understanding of how people work.
Yeah. So obviously it’s just really tough covering all these types of issues. Do you have any tricks or methods to sort of deal with this all, maybe escape?
I’ve been watching old British dramas a lot. The stakes are so low and so petty that it’s very comforting. I listen to Frasier at night for the same reason. There are no stakes and nothing matters. I don’t know honestly, I wouldn’t say that I do. Covering it is tough, and luckily that’s not my only beat.
There are other things that I write about and that’s useful, but it’s a lot harder to live it, and to be aware of so many people who are carrying around so much pain and whose belief in themselves has been so devastated by the kind of collateral damage to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct does, has been illuminating for me and very sad. I hate that people think that they were hired because of how they looked and not because they were talented or brilliant. I think that that stunts you and plays on your every insecurity. It just breaks my heart that there are so many people whose careers might have stalled out because of that.