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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

A point-by-point rebuttal to Kavanaugh's WSJ op-ed

Stephen H. Provost

Breaking down key excerpts in Brett Kavanaugh's Wall Street Journal op-ed, headlined "I Am an Independent, Impartial Judge," with my point-by-point response:

"I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been."

More than on your wedding day, more than at the birth of your children. This is troubling, especially since you go on to say how important your family supposedly is to you.

"I might have been too emotional at times."

Saying you "might have been" is a hedge. It means you realize others think you were, and you don't agree with them, but because you want to save face, you're going to pretend they might have a point. Instead of taking responsibility for your actions, you’re seeking to minimize them, in the same way you sought to minimize your excessive drinking and bad behavior in high school and college. No wonder you were grounded so often on that calendar of yours.

"I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said.:"

Minimizing, again. “Sharp?” Try rude and belligerent. "A few things?" Many, things, some of which were distortions, others of which were simply false.

"I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad."

This has nothing to do with your ability to be an impartial judge, . In fact, impartiality demands that you set aside personal biases. This is not evidence of your ability to do so, but the exact opposite. If this is the kind of logic you use making legal arguments, I'm amazed that you were even considered for the bench, much less the highest court in the land.

"I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters."

No, you didn't. You testified with yourself foremost in your mind. This is clear from the testimony itself. You're using your family as human shields in a war against, how did you put it? Democrats who hate Trump and are seeking revenge for the 2016 election? You certainly didn’t have the sexual assault victim who says you were the perpetrator foremost in your mind - either then or now.

“Going forward, you can count on me to be … hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good.”

Let’s take this one at a time. Hardworking? Except when you’re getting drunk at frat parties that make “Animal House” look tame by comparison. Even-keeled? After Thursday’s hearing, you really expect me to believe that? Open-minded? When you respond to an allegation of sexual assault by calling it a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” on behalf of the Clintons and blaming your opponents instead of expressing even a shred of empathy for survivors? Independent? In light of your history working in a political capacity for Republican politicians (whatever happened to separation of powers?) Dedicated to the Constitution: The same document prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. News flash: Sexual assault is an attempt to subject another person to exactly that. The public good? More like your own ambition, ego and reputation.

“As a judge, I have always treated colleagues and litigants with the utmost respect.”

As a judge? The implicit admission here is that, in other facets of your life, you don’t accord such respect to others. Again, this is supported by your behavior in high school, college and at Thursday’s hearing. Always? Not on Thursday. Or don’t you consider senators to be your colleagues in upholding the Constitution you claim to hold so dear?

"I have been known for my courtesy on and off the bench. I have not changed."

Your angry, defensive and sometimes belligerent behavior during Thursday's hearing suggests otherwise. Or maybe you HAVEN'T changed. Maybe you were a discourteous jerk all along. Your behavior in high school and college would seem to confirm precisely that.

Oh, and one last thing. This op-ed piece? The Fox interview? The words “protest too much” come to mind. On top of that, any good lawyer will tell you it’s a bad idea to act as your own defense attorney. But then, you’re not a very good lawyer, are you, Mr. Kavanaugh? You’re just an insecure overachiever who has risen to the top on the coattails of political hacks who want to use you for their own purposes. Being used by others shouldn’t make you feel good, Mr. Kavanaugh, but if you’ve done it yourself, you probably don’t have any room to complain.

My paradox: being responsible ... and hating it

Stephen H. Provost

Most people see me as responsible. Dependable. I excelled in school. I’ve always met my deadlines, and in the years before I got laid off, I consistently got great performance reviews at work.

But here’s the thing you might not realize: Just because someone is responsible, it doesn’t mean they like responsibility. Actually, it might be just the opposite, as it is with me, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s not.

I’ve never been ambitious. I’ve never gone out of my way to seek more responsibility. I’ve done just the opposite: I meet (and usually beat) deadlines because I wanted to get that crap out of the way, so I could get to the good stuff.

That’s not to say I did a half-assed job. My fear of failure ensured that wouldn’t happen. I just figured out how to do the best possible job in the least amount of time. I worked out a system, fine-tuned it and became successful.

This probably explains why I never got into upper management. I saw all the bullshit that goes on there, and I couldn’t figure out a system to beat that, so I settled for middle management, which suited me just fine.

My own boss

What suited me better, though, was being my own boss. This has happened a couple of times, when I ran the sports department in Tulare and when I worked as managing editor in Cambria. Each time, supervisors thought I was doing a good job and took a hands-off approach. It was only when the corporate ownership or climate changed, and new chefs were brought in to reheat the stew, that I stopped enjoying it.

That meant more oversight, more micromanaging, less freedom. Here’s what it comes down to: When people watch me work, they invariably try to make me adopt their system. Remember junior high? Remember that teacher who deducted points even if you got the right answer, because you didn’t “show your work”? It’s like that.

If I’m allowed to work in peace, folks are usually pleased with the result. But if those folks insist on looking over my shoulder, I won’t meet their standards. Either I will refuse to follow their system, which pisses them off, or I’ll try to do so and won’t be as good at it as they are – even if I practice for a long time, because it’s not my system. It might come naturally to them, but not to me.

Some might think I’m being stubborn and inflexible, but I disagree. I observe the world around me, listen to others’ ideas and improve my system by incorporating what fits. But I’m not about to scrap my entire way of doing things and start from scratch. Nope. Sorry.

I’m my own boss now, and I might seem ambitious. I’ve released had six books released in the past 12 months, and I’m nearly done with No. 7. But that’s not because I’m being responsible or ambitious or any of that. It’s because I enjoy what I’m doing. I like to write, so I do that. I’m not doing it to “get it over with.” It’s the place I was trying to get to all these years.

The layoff

So why did last spring’s layoff hit me so hard? There’s a simple answer to that, and it goes back to how I approach responsibility.

I’ve always saved the best for last. When I was eating Thanksgiving dinner, I’d eat the turkey first, because I liked it the least, then work my way through the mashed potatoes, then the yams, and finish off with my favorite, the stuffing! Oh, and then there was the ultimate reward: pumpkin pie.

I applied the same principle to homework. I came home and got it done so I could turn my attention to what was more important to me. My time. I didn’t crack the books because I “valued a good education.” It was a means to an end. (Don’t get me wrong: I do love learning things. But I like doing so on my terms: Even though I graduated summa cum laude, I’ve learned a lot more through my own observation and independent research than I ever did in school).

Some of this independence doubtless stems from the fact that I’m an only child. Working alone has always been more comfortable for me than collaboration. Hence, my perfectionism: If I could “get it right” on my own, no one would have any excuse to throw their meddling monkey wrenches into my system.

Delayed gratification

But when I got laid off, however, that was one huge monkey wrench. My system had been set up to work until I was 65 (or older) and then enjoy the fruits of my labor. When I was laid off, I faced with the prospect of looking for a job in a moribund industry, or retraining myself for an entirely different field. Creating a new system from scratch.

I applied for a few jobs, didn’t get anywhere, and decided maybe that was for the best.

I don’t need a conventional job, so why should I go out of my way to pursue one? Certainly not because I’m craving responsibility. Fortunately, I had the ability to retire early and do what I always wanted to do: write books.

That was my original plan, anyway. I would earn a steady paycheck as a journalist while working as an author on the side.

But then I got lazy. I enjoyed journalism more than I thought I would and developed a system that worked, at least for 32 years. During that time, I’d put in an eight- or 10- or 12-hour day, after which I didn’t have much energy left to write for myself. I worked on precisely one book, which took me 10 years to finish, and that was it. (The result was my two-volume opus on the development of Western religion, “The Phoenix Principle.”)

Other than that, I put off my dream of becoming an author until the journalism industry started tanking and I got laid off the first time. I caught on with another newspaper a year later, and that gig lasted six more years before I got laid off again. Both times, I lost my job before I was ready: before my plan said I should.

But both times it gave me the opportunity to start writing more, so I did.

Now, I don’t have any excuse to delay my dream. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. I’m not going to get laid off again, and the sky’s the limit. So maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I always wanted to end up: Free of responsibility but working like hell ... because I like it.

Funny how things work out sometimes.

Moral of the story: Enjoy that pumpkin pie while you can. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, it won’t be on the table at all.





Kavanaugh hearing a triumph for toxic male anger

Stephen H. Provost

American hasn’t been made great again. It’s been sucked down into a sinkhole fueled by toxic male rage. The Kavanaugh hearings illustrated that beyond a reasonable doubt.

The problem goes much deeper than partisanship, tribalism or any other “ism.” It rests on one tragic but glaring truth, and one alone: Toxic male anger works.

Viewers, even those on the right, were moved by Christine Blasey Ford’s honest and credible testimony during the September 27 hearing. But when Brett Kavanaugh sat down to testify, it was as if nothing Ford had said mattered. Senators didn’t address the sexual assault Ford said Kavanaugh committed against her. All they cared about was the self-righteous anger he exhibited.

Even some liberal talking heads on cable news spoke favorably of a performance by a man who:

  • Engaged in hyper-partisan accusations unbefitting a nominee to any court.

  • Repeatedly refused to answer questions directly.

  • Sought to excuse drinking and crude behavior based on his immaturity, yet at the same time tried to whitewash it by touting how mature he was for his age (if one can call studying and playing football at an all-male prep school signs of maturity). I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. And you shouldn’t be able to excuse a crime by touting how many good things you’ve done. Bill Cosby, anyone?

“It’s all about me”

But most of all, Kavanaugh made it all about him, just like he probably made it all about him in that upstairs bedroom. (I say “probably” because he hasn’t been convicted in a court of law – which might happen if anyone ever conducted an impartial investigation. It’s no surprise that Kavanaugh refused to even call for an investigation, because he was obviously afraid of what an investigation could uncover. So was the committee. How disingenuous is it to say “I’ll do whatever the committee decides” when you know damn well the committee wants the same thing you do?)

In unleashing an angry, accusation-filled tirade against his enemies, Kavanaugh did exactly what the man who nominated him does in virtually every situation: refused to apologize or even acknowledge any degree of responsibility. This, predictably, earned high praise from the bloviator-in-chief. And it also cued Republican senators to follow his example. They’d appointed a sex-crimes prosecutor as their surrogate to question Professor Ford, not wanting to look like they were bullying a victim of a sexual assault. But when it came time to “question” Kavanaugh, they grabbed the microphone and went off on one tirade after another on his behalf.

Do they care about Brett Kavanaugh? Hardly. Because in their eyes, it’s all about them. Their re-election. Their power. Their egos. Their fear that someone who looks and acts a lot like them might actually be held accountable for doing something they find abhorrent. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s too similar to something they’ve done or wanted to do themselves.

Red herrings

This wasn’t about presumption of innocence – it wasn’t even a court case. It’s not about the fact that it happened a long time ago and that “people can change.” To that latter point, a Slate headline noted that “Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony made it easier than ever to picture him as an aggressive, entitled teen.”

It also made it very easy to picture him acting that way on the bench, making it all about him or about the people who look like him, while focusing his toxic male anger at those who dare to be different or to suggest that he might be wrong.

If Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth, she had every right to be flame-throwing pissed as hell at Kavanaugh and his apologists. Yet there wasn’t even a hint of anger in her testimony. Instead, she said she was “terrified” to be testifying, repeatedly deferred to the committee’s judgments and used words like “collegial” during her testimony.

Kavanaugh’s self-righteous explosions, which sent emotional shrapnel flying scattershot around the hearing room, provided quite a contrast. And you know what? They’re what won the day, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s even more unhinged testimony that left at least this viewer wondering why he seemed to be taking this so personally.

None of Professor Ford’s collegiality, cooperation and civility mattered – not a whit. It was all blown away by the destructive force of Category 5 Hurricane Brett.

Who we are

We were left with one inescapable conclusion: We, as a society, like toxic male anger. Because it works. In the short term. For us. Or at least for enough of us like it to elect a bully to our highest office and repeatedly look the other way when he runs roughshod over our traditions, our ethics and our fellow citizens. Christine Blasey Ford’s collegiality and civility? Signs of weakness - at least in the minds of far too many.

They excuse bullying and assault as “boys being boys” because they don’t dare give it their full-throated endorsement – even though that’s what they really want to do. If you doubt me, just look at how blatant racism, sexism and jingoism has come out of hiding. We thought we were on track to beating it. But like a stubborn and virulent disease, it was just lying dormant. We’d merely sent it underground.

Toxic male anger sends our soldiers off to die on foreign soil. It gives us negative campaigns at election time that make some of us want to turn off the television for a month until it’s all over. It excuses the excesses of drunken frat boys to the extent that it doesn’t matter what they do as long as the person from our side of the aisle gets elected. (A poll found that Republicans, by a 54 to 32 percent margin, thought Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if the accusations against him were true.)

We celebrate anti-heroes and vigilantes in our movies: people who break the rules so our side can prevail. Because our side is “right,” even righteous. We tolerate white supremacists and empower bullies in the hope that they might be on our side.

A 2-year-old’s tantrum

But toxic male anger isn’t on anyone’s side but its own. It’s the same amoral force that fuels the tantrums of 2-year-olds who have yet to learn right from wrong. The 2-year-old has an excuse. We don’t, because we do know right from wrong and we resort to it anyway.  

None of this is to say that all men are toxic or that the solution is merely to elect a bunch of women. Gender stereotyping won’t solve anything, and to suggest that males are a slave to toxic anger is an insult to those who aren’t. (It’s also to ignore the fact that such anger appeals to, and is employed by, any number of women – if it weren’t, the current occupant of the White House would have zero female supporters.)

Nor is it to suggest that anger doesn’t have a place. It’s a human reaction. But if we make it the driving force behind our most important decisions, as we did in the Kavanaugh case, we’ll end up with a country run by 2-year-olds.

If we aren’t already there.