Brett Kavanaugh’s hellish Supreme Court fraternity pledge week offered many lessons, but the most powerful, if least noted, was about the raising of boys in America – all boys, not just the groomed Georgetown elite from which the judge emerged. Too many boys are raised in packs, whether they’re called fraternities, sports teams, or gangs, all of which offer brotherhood in return for loyalty, obedience, and a dedicated contempt for the Other – anyone, that is, who isn’t a member, above all women. Kavanaugh was raised (and raised up) by just such packs.
Frats, teams, and gangs have their differences, often involving social class and skill sets, but there’s one great similarity: the sense, often nurtured and reinforced by booze, battle, and group sex, that you are part of a special brotherhood. The promise of that brotherhood is to defend boys against a supposedly hostile environment by isolating them from the rest of their world and indoctrinating them with a set of tribal values that must be upheld beyond reason.
For most boys, as was true for young Brett, it starts with making the sports team (or not), being discarded – “cut” – (or not), as a pyramid of talent narrows to travel teams, all-stars, and elite leagues in middle school, high school, college, and finally the pros. The prime lesson is always the same: winning is everything and doing so in a dominating way by crushing the opposition is the best of all. In the process, finding an edge by working the refs, purposely injuring opponents, taking drugs, or protecting bad boys become standard tactics in the quest for victory. As Kavanaugh reminded us often enough, being captain of his Georgetown Prep high school basketball team and a member of the football team made him the proudest of proud jocks.
Naturally, fraternities prize such products of Jock Culture, boys growing to manhood who are already popular, trained to take orders, and used to hanging out with their own while excluding others. Frats, in turn, offer the same rewards as teams do, especially a set of brothers who will have your back, no matter what kind of a “puker” you are – as long as you’re loyal. At Yale, Kavanaugh pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon (or Deke), then well known as a hard-drinking frat for jocks, whose many famous members once included Presidents Gerald Ford and that father-and-son team, George H.W. and George W. Bush. Kavanaugh’s Deke connections may even have brought him to the attention of the younger Bush as he headed into his presidency and landed Brett his various jobs in that administration. Perhaps it also helped recommend him to one of the country’s most notorious and dangerous gangs of conservatives, the Federalist Society.
For the past four decades, much like gangs in minority neighborhoods drafting tough and vulnerable teenagers, the conservative Federalists have been recruiting ambitious students and lawyers with the potential to become judges. Their success reached a peak with Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation, a victory with a Trumpian touch. The judge’s diatribe about the Clintons and the rest of the left-wing conspiracy to take him out should have evoked the president’s pitch on the viciousness of MS-13, a gang of mostly young Central Americans that originated in Los Angeles and has spread into immigrant communities across the country.
Boys will be you know what
Team, frat, or gang, the macho sensibility of the pack will never die as long as it’s applauded or at least tolerated in the culture at large as a boys-will-be-boys phenomenon – as long as it’s a given that we need such boys raised up strong and straight, prepared to fight our wars, man (never woman) our teams, and of course run our country. If you are a boy and an outsider, you are likely to play along to avoid trouble. Growing up bookish in Queens, The Donald’s borough, so many years ago, I found myself feigning more interest than I had in New York’s major league baseball teams and didn’t protest too much when other boys misinterpreted a platonic relationship with a girl as something steamier. It kept my image on the male track, reasonably protected from the bullies who went after boys like me.
I was in a college fraternity, saw plenty of alcoholic aggression and sexual misbehavior, but never quite connected that to the code of the pack. Yes, there were drunk guys, horny guys, screwed-up guys, maybe even a few truly bad guys, but I didn’t grasp that it was all meant to be a brotherhood against the rest of the world (especially women). My teaching moment came at 24, a lesson (appropriately enough) directly from the locker room.
It was 1962. I was then a rookie baseball reporter for the New York Times, covering the Yankees on the road. The older sportswriters were, at best, warily sociable. Would I, they wondered, disrupt their easy lives with some kind of unexpected reporting? The ballplayers were subtly hostile, especially stars like Mickey Mantle. Would I violate the covenant of the trade: that what happens on the road stays on the road? I felt like an interloper, outside the little bubble they were all traveling in. I was disconnected, lonely, and anxious that such social relations would affect my job, that mine would turn out to be a brief career in sports writing.
Then, one hot morning before a night game in Los Angeles, I met, chatted up, and took a swim in the hotel pool with a young female guest. I suggested lunch. As it was getting too hot for a poolside meal and we were hardly dressed for a restaurant, we left together for my room to order from room service, as some sportswriters and a few ballplayers hanging out at poolside nodded approvingly. No alcohol was ordered and nothing happened. We had lunch and that was that, but several Yankees saw her leave my room and smirked.
And lo and behold, I was in. The press box and the locker room were welcoming that evening. A winking word or two, a nod and a smile confirmed my acceptance. It took me a little while to figure it all out. Suddenly, I was one of them or at least nobody to worry about anymore because I had just marked myself as another frat brother following his dick. It was as easy and stupid as that. I was one of the guys.
Bystanders and accomplices
I didn’t stay on the baseball beat long enough to see if my new brotherhood would pay off in scoops, but the lesson learned could make access easier when it came to reporting on other sports, the cops, city politics, more or less anything else I covered. The rule was simple enough: walk like a bad boy and don’t police bad-boy behavior or even point it out. That’s no way of making friends. Most in the brotherhood were then and probably still are simply bystanders, as I was at the time. Some, of course, are accomplices, while the bad boys all too often are the stars whom all the other boys in the pack both resent and admire as heroes.
I’ve been thinking about this for years, but Brett Kavanaugh, that quintessential frat-boy jock-bully, brought it all up in my throat again like so much bile. His belligerent, bleating, entitled, prevaricating, smart-ass Jock Culture posturing reminded me of the boys I had been trying to dodge all my life and, in the end, couldn’t help writing about. Now, to imagine the quintessential version of such a figure sitting in judgment on the rest of our lives for the rest of his life is chilling.
And here’s the sick joke of it all: by Jock Culture’s twisted standards, the judge was a loser. He struck out. He spent parties “holding up the walls” because he was too soused to play. The drunken braggart was disrespectful to women because he never got the girl, even the one everyone else supposedly got – and what did it matter that they didn’t either? Decades later, when it was finally in his interest, he admitted the truth: that he was a virgin all those years. And in that lies a deeper truth: having sex back then was never as important as the guys thinking you did.
And now for that infamous 1985 bar fight, that quintessential test of manhood. As it happened, he didn’t clean out the joint with his fists, he threw ice cubes. He was an instigator, endangering his pals, including Chris Dudley, the 6′-11″ Yale basketball player who took the fall and was evidently arrested. There is no evidence that Dudley suffered more than a brief detention, which tends to be standard treatment for a college jock near campus, even for far worse transgressions. Usually, some old white guys clean up afterward. In any case, Dudley went on to spend 16 years in the National Basketball Association and run unsuccessfully for governor of Oregon.
Once cornered by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, Brett Kavanaugh turned in a performance that any frat boy would describe with the worst of pack put-downs: “acting like a little girl.” Whatever happened to the steady and stoic John Wayne-style “don’t complain, don’t explain” guy? Not for him, the classic football player’s mantra, “Suck it up, be a man.”
John Wayne, the Duke, that on-screen ultimate cowboy, was a movie fixture of my time and Donald Trump’s, too. I often get the feeling that the president is trying to channel Wayne with that rolling waddle of his and his pseudo-tough declarative sentences. Even as the Senate struggled with the confirmation of an accused sexual predator, he was out there mocking Al Franken, the former Democratic senator driven to resign by far less devastating (but still insufferable) charges, accusing him of weakness. “He was wacky,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign rally in Minnesota. “Boy, did he fold up like a wet rag, huh? Man. Man. He was gone so fast, O.K.?” Then, he added, “Oh, he did something. ‘Oh, oh, oh, I resign, I quit.’ I don’t want to mention Al Franken’s name, so I won’t mention [it].”
In that nightmarish display of the power of the pack in Congress recently, if there was some semblance of a Republican manly man, it seemed to be, however briefly, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who was willing to be open to two women he did not know when they confronted him in an elevator in the Capitol and so made a rare Republican compromise with the Other. He even demurred when the gang leader himself, Trump, mocked Dr. Ford’s pain. In the end, of course, Flake folded like a wet rag in the face of ultimate pack power and voted to confirm Kavanaugh, whose ascension will help normalize the kind of thuggish behavior that has long kept so many boys in thrall.
Loud and aggressive, fueled and excused by alcohol – what a commercial for the mellowness of pot is Brother Brett! – the frat-jock gang tries to push everyone else to the margins, drown out all discourse but theirs, and move the goal posts or, if necessary, simply tear them down. And they are so often cheered on by the bystanders, vicariously enjoying the violence, like the audience in a sports arena. It makes me think of extreme sports fandom, a form of tribalism that has given a pass to dozens of sexually predatory athletes over the years. Most recently and sadly typical of our never-ending moment, Ohio State suspended its winning coach, Urban Meyer, for just three games for his mishandling of repeated sexual assault claims by the wife of an assistant coach and friend.
And talk about mishandling: call them a frat or a gang, but the aging white male Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee moved Kavanaugh through his initiation with remarkable determination and then helped Trump cow the rest of the tribe into voting him onto the bench. The only shock in all of this was its blatancy. Otherwise it should have seemed beyond familiar to us all. In winning yet again, the big boys made their male tribalism transparent beyond question. It’s beyond question that they believe bipartisanship, cooperation, common decency, and peace are antithetical to the brotherhood of the pack.
In fact, just one question remains: Will this finally mobilize a resistance movement or will it just further confirm the dominance of the pack?
The only appropriate four-letter word in all of this, of course, is VOTE, but even kicking the bullies out won’t be enough for the long game. The manipulation of male tribalism occurs on many levels, but since we know where it starts for boys, isn’t it time to begin reforming the world of sports teams, get rid of those fraternities, and alleviate the conditions that breed gangs? It’s that or roll over forever for Brett and the pack.