With the circus surrounding the sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, questions have arisen about his high school tenure. Set them aside for the moment. As part of the controversy, people have started digging into the high school yearbook of Georgetown Preparatory School, Class of 1983.
They have done the same with his accuser, Professor Christine Blasey Ford. Apparently the early 1980s yearbooks of the all-female Holton-Arms School make for interesting reading.
What have people found? Some pretty questionable passages that are relics of their time. Kavanaugh’s biography seems to indicate he did a lot of drinking at his all-male high school. The yearbook generally includes some lines which would be out-of-bounds today, making light of things like domestic violence. Meanwhile, Ford’s yearbook talks about the girls trying to “dazzle” the boys with their good looks.
In 1983, the top Billboard songs were “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, and “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. In other words, the zeitgeist of the time talked about possessive lovers and groupies. It is that cultural background against which those yearbooks were written. However, like arguments over the statues of historic figures, people seem to forget the context in which things occur, instead measuring them against the mores of today.
That is a mistake. Everyone should ask themselves: Did I ever say or write something in high school that would make me cringe today? Hazarding a guess, I think most of us would say “yes.” To steal a line from former President George W. Bush, “when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”
None of this is meant to argue the accusations levied against Kavanaugh are mere youthful hijinx. They are not. In 20th century America, assault cannot be dismissed as simply “part of the culture” of the time. If the events happened, there needs to be a serious conversation about repercussions.
Yet, at this point, no one knows whether Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh are true. She is adamant the incident happened, while he unequivocally denies it. Claims that Ford “passed a lie detector” are accurate, but there is a reason many courts in the United States reject polygraph evidence as unreliable and misleading.
Therein lies the real question. Regardless of whether we set the Senate up as a super-jury, as suggested by Sen. Susan Collins, with lawyers for the “plaintiff” and “defense” battling it out, or enlist the FBI to explore the allegations, the most likely result is that we end up with a “he said, she said” scenario. I’d be willing to wager people — the prospective witnesses — aged 50 and older don’t remember the specifics of every party they attended in high school.
With no other means available to prove the “case,” either for or against, advocates are pulling words from a yearbook page into the fray today and to critique them with a current lens. Leaving the context of those yearbook statements behind, while attempting to utilize the content as circumstantial evidence, is a mistake. The only thing they prove is that the 1980s were a different time.
So where will that leave us with the Kavanaugh nomination? No one knows. Should an uncorroborated accusation be enough to bump someone from public office? Sen. Al Franken was forced to resign after claims were made against him. However, there was photographic evidence, which seemed to confirm the stories of his accusers.
In Maine, Democratic State Rep. Dillon Bates had heinous charges levied against him. He strongly denied he committed the crime, and House GOP members called for an investigation by the bipartisan Maine House Ethics Committee. However, Democratic leadership — after the allegations became public — pushed him out the door without resorting to a public hearing.
The moment we are living in is wonderful insofar as it empowers individuals to fight back against bad actors, with knowledge they are not alone. But unfounded accusations can be dangerous. In 2007, current North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper coined it the “tragic rush to accuse” when he was the Democratic Attorney General overseeing the Duke Lacrosse case. Three young men were publicly humiliated, charged with rape. Yet none of it was true.
So, as a society, we need to decide on what we believe the “burden of proof” to be in the court of public opinion. Because relying on an accusation alone is not a good place to be, and making decisions based on high school yearbooks isn’t any better.