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Old Boys Being Boys

by on October 03, 2018 5:00 AM

One thing became clear to me while watching the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing last week: These old “lions” of the U.S. Senate have got to go.

Consider the senior members of the Judiciary Committee:

  • Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) – 43 years in the Senate

  • Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) – 41

  • Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) – 37

  • Dianne Feinstein (D-California) – 26

  • Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) – 21 (plus 14 years in the House)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, whose job it will be to call for the vote on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, has been in the Senate for 33 years.

I don’t mean to be ageist about this – I’m no spring chicken myself – but at a certain point you have to wonder how in touch with changing cultural currents these folks can be when they’ve spent such large chunks of their adult lives breathing the rarefied air of the Capitol Building. I could be wrong about this, but I have a hard time picturing any of these people doing everyday stuff like buying light bulbs at the hardware store or taking the trash out to the curb.

More to the point, I could see where these guys – yes, I’m excluding Sen. Feinstein here – might still adhere to the “boys will be boys” way of looking at the kind of teenage sexual assaults of which Brett Kavanaugh stands accused. Which would place their fitness for leadership positions in 21st century America very much in doubt.

The standard argument against term limits is that experienced lobbyists would lead inexperienced legislators around by the nose. As if experienced lobbyists aren’t already leading our legislators around by the nose whether they’re experienced or not.

Lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court aren’t looking like such a hot idea either, if the point was for the justices to be above the political fray.

Unfortunately, imposing term limits at the federal level would entail changing the Constitution, which is about as easy as getting Donald Trump to admit that he isn’t a self-made man. But while we’re tinkering, how about we scrap the Electoral College, make it easier rather than harder to vote, and change the way we draw the boundaries of congressional districts, all to better reflect the will of the people?

Maybe we’ll be able to take on these reforms after the 2020 election. In the meantime: Kavanaugh. Grassley, Hatch, 15-year man Lindsey Graham and their younger colleagues knew they had better cluck sympathetically at what Christine Blasey Ford said had been done to her, but you could tell that they didn’t see what the caddish behavior of a high school boy had to do with his fitness for a seat on the SCOTUS 36 years later.

I think it’s time to permanently retire the saying “boys will be boys.” Two things are wrong with it. One is that it assumes boys can’t control themselves. Most can, and do.

The other is that it is grounded in a common category error: mistaking cultural behavior for natural behavior. That is, we know that raging hormones can turn teenage boys into sex maniacs. We therefore assume that they can’t help forcing themselves on teenage girls.

What this assumption overlooks is all the messages teenage boys receive that encourage them to “score,” to “get some.” The peer pressure is so intense that “men lie about it,” as bluesman Willie Dixon wrote, claiming to have gotten a “spoonful,” even when they haven’t.

The cultural script turns most guys into clumsy practitioners of the art of persuasion. Most of them wilt in the face of resistance – unless alcohol and drugs give them the confidence or meanness they would otherwise lack.

Girls struggle with competing cultural scripts. One tells them to get her kicks; a second, to give the guy what he wants lest he jilt her for a more compliant someone else; a third, to guard their reputations and to hold out for marriage, or at least love.

And of course it’s all way more complicated than what I’ve just described. This much is clear, though. Sex doesn’t have to be a battle to overcome resistance. It’s a matter of changing the cultural scripts – of teaching respect rather than conquest – or perhaps more to the point in the case of a guy like Kavanaugh, entitlement.

Whatever last Thursday’s hearing may or may not have revealed about Kavanaugh as a sexual predator, it exposed him as a hothead and a brat. Was he stressed out and angry about having to defend himself? Yes and yes. Welcome to the big leagues, pal.

The longer he went on, baiting his Democratic interlocutors, boasting about his academic and athletic prowess, and boosting his regular guy cred by professing his fondness for beer (methinks he likes beer a little too much), the less suited he seemed for the job he is auditioning for, sexual assault or no sexual assault.

For a judge, he showed horrible judgment. For leaders, the lions of the Senate showed it’s time to let others have a turn.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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