I’m a white guy who went to a private Jesuit-run prep school and then to an Ivy League college. At the prep school, an “in” crowd, mostly the sons of the business and social elite, controlled the social pecking order, played on the sports teams, hosted exclusive parties, and bragged about their sexual conquests. And there were the nerds, like me, who had no part in any of that.
The “ins” knew that when they went too far, their parents would smooth it all over with a boys-will-be-boys defense. If you were, like me, in those classrooms on an academic scholarship and were the son of a less than elite family, you had no illusions that bad behavior would be dismissed. Of course we nerds weren’t perfect, but at least we had to live in a world of consequences for bad behavior, and we learned from that.
By and large, the “in” crowds at America’s elite prep schools go on to join the elite fraternities and clubs of the Ivy League and other high-end universities. They then head for top jobs in business and government, too many of them, from my lifetime of dealing with them, still absent any caring or even cognizance of what it means to be a decent human being. The world is theirs for the taking and their assumption is that only a fool would not walk through that open door.
I think now that many of them were failed by parents who raised them to have such massive blind spots, parents who were operating within a cultural system of patriarchy and privilege that has little if any interest in the common good.
Let me give you a picture of how that manifested in one young nerd life.
At my prep school, I decided against all odds to run for student body president against five jocks from the “in” crowd. Being the smart kid I was, I ran a clever campaign that included making a deal with one of them before the primary vote. I suggested to him that if either of us failed to make the runoff, that person would publicly throw his support to the other for the finals. The boy, a star fullback, was sure that he’d be the one with the votes and readily agreed. When I made the runoff (against the quarterback) and the fullback didn’t, I asked him to make good on his promise. That night I got a call from his father, a wealthy businessman, who sternly told me that his son would not be supporting me. His family and the quarterback’s were country club friends. There was no way the promise his son had made to me trumped that family bond.
I was 17, allowed myself to be bullied, and lost the election to the quarterback by three votes. But the real loser was the fullback who learned from his father that he need not stand by his word and that maintaining one’s privilege is more important than integrity.
But here’s the thing. I wasn’t just up against the fullback and his father. I was facing a whole culture of privilege and patriarchy that couldn’t conceive of anyone muscling in on their turf. After all, my father sold advertising, my mother was a schoolteacher, and we drove a Dodge.
Looking at Brett Kavanagh, I think we’re seeing way more than a young, privileged lout who couldn’t hold his liquor and who’d never been taught respect for women. These Senate hearings call attention to the entire system of white male patriarchy and privilege in this country that is blind not only to assaults on women, but to the toxic effects of vicious inequalities in this country, the failure to spend enough on public goods, and a political system made dysfunctional by unchecked infusions of money.
So as you watch the Senate committee deal with the Kavanaugh nomination, don’t get caught in thinking that this is a simple “he said she said” conundrum. It’s way more than that. It’s about whether or not this country will continue to elevate to the highest offices in the land the scions and beneficiaries of a badly broken system. Men who have always had their way with money, power — and women.
I used to call myself “just right of center” politically. No more. The Kavanaugh nomination has now publicly become the culture clash it always was and I know whose side I’m on. We can’t allow a white, patriarchal, self-serving elite to continue to have its way at the expense not just of women but of the common good. The November elections are the next chance to strike a blow, but it’s going to take more than one election to do that. It will take a steady, courageous national recommitment to common purpose.
Meanwhile, we need to do a whole lot more talking with our sons.