When I was a senior in college, a freshman boy walked off into a snowstorm one February night, and his body wasn’t found until after my graduation, in late May. All that was known for sure was that he had been drinking heavily, as many college freshmen do, and he had told his friends he was going out, possibly to walk to the McDonalds a mile from campus, although his intended destination wasn’t completely clear. He had left without a phone or even a jacket.
For weeks after the initial disappearance, search teams had flooded the campus, dogs sniffing, long sticks poking into every huge snowdrift. Eventually, search efforts tapered off, sadly and reluctantly. The pall of the student’s disappearance hung over everything during those long months, especially because it seemed increasingly clear that no foul play had been involved. He had gotten drunk (consumed at least 18 shots of liquor, according to the eventual police report) and done something stupid. The Vermont winter had done the rest.
Shortly before the student’s body was discovered and the case closed, Ron Liebowitz, the president of Middlebury College at the time, addressed the community at the Baccalaureate ceremony (the full text of his remarks can be found here). It was the day before our graduation, and we had spent all of Senior Week being applauded by our professors and the College administration for having done all the things, checked all the boxes, earned our spots in line to get our diplomas. No doubt everyone attending Baccalaureate expected to hear more of the same from the president. But when he had finished citing a handful of my classmates’ extraordinary accomplishments over the preceding four years, he said, somberly, that Middlebury had failed us in one major respect: it had not sufficiently addressed the problem of binge drinking and alcohol abuse on campus. He did not need to invoke the name of the boy who by that time we all but knew to be dead. Nor the certainty that we had from multiple people who were with him before his disappearance that he had been drinking to excess, nor the speculation that his drunken state was the reason he had walked off into the night with no jacket. It was a sobering speech, quite literally. “Obviously, [alcohol abuse] is not a problem particular to Middlebury,” President Liebowitz said. “But of course, simply because so many colleges and universities seem to exhibit paralysis on this topic does not mean we should accept irresponsible and self-destructive behavior.” The line that keeps coming back to me was this: “[a]t the heart of the problem is the prevailing attitude one hears so frequently from students ... that it’s OK, indeed normal, to drink heartily once, twice, or three times/week because one has worked so hard.”
For a Supreme Court nominee testifying under oath before Congress to be anything less than completely truthful in response to questioning can only imply, in my view, that he believes the behavior in question does not matter.
As I watched the congressional hearings yesterday and listened to Brett Kavanaugh’s evasive, defensive responses to questions about his drinking habits as a high school and college student, I have kept coming back to this. Binge drinking has been held up for years, decades, even, as a sacred right of college students (particular college boys, who are after all being boys) that should never be questioned. When asked about how much he drank, Kavanaugh railed, again and again, that he graduated first in his class, that he worked his butt off (I believe that was the phrase he used, and frankly I don’t care to revisit the video and check). And he refused to answer the question. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked him whether he had ever blacked out from drinking, he refused to answer her then, too, shooting back a sarcastic, “I don’t know, have you?” Ron Leibowitz, in 2008, noted that “almost a third of [Middlebury] first-years who took part in a survey on alcohol use said that within two weeks of completing the survey they had experienced a blackout” while drinking. Not ever, but within two weeks of taking the survey. No doubt, Brett Kavanaugh wants us to feel as casual about this as the survey suggests so many college freshmen were in 2008; blacking out while drinking, who hasn’t done that?
Liebowitz concluded his speech to us with a call to action:
For you, as young adults about to graduate into the so-called “real world,” the stubborn persistence of this culture highlights the importance for you, as individuals, to take some degree of moral responsibility for the behavior of fellow members of whatever community you choose to live in. This will require you to take seriously the importance of building communities in which standards of decency, self-respect, and respect towards others are upheld by those in it.
I left the Baccalaureate ceremony feeling the impact of the speech. It had been powerful, and I was frankly impressed that President Liebowitz had used that particular moment, in which everyone was expecting him to heap yet more praise on graduating seniors, to talk about something so serious that he would undoubtedly be labeled a killjoy. And he was. I anticipated the grumbling that his remarks elicited from my classmates, who didn’t want the joy and pride of their graduation sullied by having to think about such things. What I didn’t expect was the rumblings of righteous anger from some of the parents in attendance. I overheard phone conversations in which moms and dads lamented Liebowitz’s speech, saying (and I remember this clearly), “it’s college, of course they’re going to drink.” I also heard, although I cannot verify, that there were several alumni who, having either heard the speech in person or learned about it secondhand, had threatened to stop donating money to Middlebury in protest. It was as though Liebowitz, in making these remarks, was taking something away from us all, something that was our right to enjoy without having to reflect on the consequences.
Because this is what Kavanaugh is mad about, right? The very idea that anyone should question his right to drink until he lost consciousness, or imply that there may have been consequences to his behavior in high school that extended beyond the development of his own brain. At least one commentator live-tweeting the proceedings of yesterday’s hearings pointed out that Kavanaugh could very well have assaulted Christine Blasey Ford and have no memory of it. If that were true, and if he did indeed think he was telling the truth when he insisted so vehemently it didn’t happen, then his alcohol consumption has essentially protected him for years from having to take any responsibility or bear any burden of guilt for what he put Dr. Ford through. Her sobriety on that occasion, on the other hand, is among the forces that have firmly cemented the episode in her memory, where it has affected her ever since. And not unlike those parents of Middlebury ’08 graduates, the Republican senators who spoke during the second half of the day joined the chorus of stubborn persistence, refusing to take into account the serious harm that permissiveness around alcohol abuse has demonstrably caused in high school communities and on college campuses around the country, for decades.
I cannot entertain any theory in which Ford is mistaken; I believe her with no reservations, and it's worth noting that her credibility is the one thing that upon which there is anything resembling a bipartisan consensus – even the “grab them by the pussy” president (yeah, no, haven’t forgotten that one) has said publicly that he found her persuasive. She is “100%” sure of who her attacker was, and if we take her at her word, then the most generous possible interpretation of Kavanaugh’s testimony is that he honestly does not remember the incident. Whether he remembers it or not, he certainly believes that whatever he did as a high-school student should be of no consequence (except, of course, for all the accolades he collected – those he very much wants entered into the record). The man is a federal judge, being considered for appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States, and yet it has not been difficult to identify and pick apart the moments during his testimony in which he is being deliberately misleading, if not actually knowingly perjuring himself. For a Supreme Court nominee testifying under oath before Congress to be anything less than completely truthful in response to questioning can only imply, in my view, that he believes his high-school drinking and sexual aggression do not matter.
I would like to live in a world where where being a Yale-educated man isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, and where getting blackout drunk doesn’t absolve anyone of any behavior they commit under the influence. I am sad to say that I don’t think we’ve made as much progress as Ron Liebowitz hoped we could. “Students themselves need to be a large part of the solution, and some have already shown how effective their involvement can be,” he said. To say that Kavanaugh was too young at the time of the alleged assault for it to matter is to negate any lessons of personal responsibility that we hope to teach high-school and college students. They may be young, but they are learning to be people in the world, and they must know that they can and do have an impact on their friends, their classmates and their communities. Though some interpreted Liebowitz’s speech as shaming us or nagging us, I believe that what he wanted was to empower us. In its most distilled form, his message to the graduates was this: “Do not accept self-destructive behavior from your friends and peers.” Do not accept it from the people whose capacity for careful deliberation and legal reasoning will have a material impact on the future of the country, either.