Justice Kavanaugh and the Triumph of Symbol over Reality

“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Attributed to Mark Twain

Americans at their best are a pragmatic “can do” folk, be it “Yankee ingenuity” or good old fashioned “get ‘r done.”  We are at our worst when we stray from this pragmatic bent into the misty fields of sacerdotal ideology, which is to say when we ascribe to our pet ideologies a sacred nature, and confer a sainthood, or at the very least, a priestly ordination upon our favored ideologues.  In the antebellum period, abolitionist ideology exercised over the course of time a profound effect upon the Yankee mind.  More and more northerners, even those whom the abolitionists annoyed, came to accept the idiocy of the “slave power conspiracy.”  For the innocent and uninitiated, this conspiracy theory asserted that southern slaveholders were planning to use the powers of the federal government to expand slavery into the territories and throughout the Union.  Once this was accomplished, free white labor would be degraded, and the stout wheat farmers of the Midwest would find themselves enslaved.  Of course this was nonsense.

During the crisis of the 1850s Southerners did insist on being allowed equal access to the territories, which did mean that slaveholders could settle in the territories with their slaves, but everyone knew this was not happening and was not going to happen.  There was a bare handful of slaves in the territories; ironically the anti-slavery, Mormon dominated Utah territory had the most (29) according to the 1860 census.   Realities, however, no longer mattered.  Symbols defined people’s views of each other whether one was opposing the “Black Republicans” or the “Slave Power.”  Thus Southerners and Northerners, who had a great deal in common, were now ready to kill each other.

On balance, I do believe the North bears the much greater blame in all of this.  Beginning with the Missouri Compromise and lasting through and after the war, Northern politicians continually painted the South as a part of Dante’s Inferno.  Southern fire-eaters and pro-slavery apologists began to play the same sort of game, but they were very much Johnny-come-latelies; the most extreme pro-slavery folk were also viewed by many in the South as an eccentric minority.  Also, the South’s politicians were asking for a symbolic concession on the territories issue. Which is to say that most Southerners probably understood that even if the slave property friendly Lecompton constitution was approved by the federal government for the Kansas territory, sooner or later slavery would be abolished in Kansas as more northerners than southerners made their way into Kansas.  But when the symbolic becomes the real, symbolic concessions, such as what the South was seeking since the days of John C. Calhoun, become in the minds of many northerners very real and very dangerous concessions.  And so to quote Father Abraham, “the war came.”

For a time it was a restrained war, a war waged by people who were on the whole Christian, through the states and a federal government, under most of the provisions, laws, and customs that governed the prosecution of conflicts.  As the war progressed, civilized restraints lost their hold upon the war lords of the North.  But with the exceptions of Kentucky and Maryland, where brother literally fought brother, and the Missouri—Kansas border, the war was mostly a war between the states.   Where symbol most ardently challenged reality, the frontiers and borders of the Southland, that is where civil war reigned.

Which brings us to the present day.  The controversy surrounding the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court illustrates that left-leaning Americans are once again embracing the symbolic over the real.  In my view, some of us on the right and the left had good reasons to oppose Judge Kavanaugh. Judge Kavanaugh seems to be a decent man and a supporter of the second amendment, but in my view he is horribly wrong on many constitutional issues.  His support of and involvement in framing the misnamed “Patriot Act” decidedly places him in the anti-fourth and anti-fifth amendment camp.  I am not sure if he realizes that there are a ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution, and his support for an expansive executive branch gives me the willies. Seems we have some grounds here for a united front of some rightist and civil liberty minded leftists to oppose Judge Kavanaugh.

The left, however, chose to make a symbol of Kavanaugh that bears no resemblance to the man.  Hoping to portray Judge Kavanaugh as  dangerous example of white male privilege run amok, the Senate Democrats relied upon a witness, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was unable to provide even the bare minimum of corroboration, not evidence mind you, but simple corroboration, of her claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her thirty-five years ago.  Soon others, even less credible than Dr. Ford, came forth from the woodwork alleging even more terrible and criminal behavior on the part of Kavanaugh in his high school and college days.  Senate Democrats ran with it, and soon Judge Kavanaugh found himself the new symbol of evil, white male, patriarchy running wild and on the loose. Senator Susan Collins is spot on when she suggested that Kavanaugh is far more moderate than many on the left believe.  That does not matter. What matters to the left, with their threats of impeachment, violence, “resistance,” etc. is not who Kavanaugh is, but what he symbolizes in their minds.  The Democrats have moved beyond the politics of personal destruction to a politics of hate, and in the political climate of hate, symbol will always trump reality.

What the Kavanaugh case illustrates for the larger political and cultural picture is disturbing.  The dividing lines in America no longer run along the Mason and Dixon, the Ohio River, and the southern border of Missouri.  The division occurs as a blue archipelago of metropolitan areas in a sea of rural red.  It is now a replay of court versus country.  If the current trend continues and the left remains committed to the politics of symbol and hate, God forbid, we have an excellent historical example of what it might look like if the left makes good on its threats of violence.  The example is America’s first true civil war, the brutal conflict in South Carolina during the American Revolution. There were few niceties and a plethora of atrocities fueled by hatred committed by both the patriot and loyalist.  As they say in the low country of that gallant little state, it was not pleasant.  Let us pray the same fate does not await us all.

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