The clashes of contemporary political life can alienate anyone, but this is not the time to withdraw from the fight. As recent events clearly show, the most hopeful signs sometimes come from the places we least expect.
This past week has been a watershed in American political life—or so we are told. After the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday, the Internet was aswarm with posts, tweets, and articles about how the nation has not been this divided since the Civil War. I have my doubts. Has a senator been beaten with a cane in the Senate Chamber? Certainly hyperbole has usurped reasoned discourse, and it has certainly been loud. There has been a great deal of hysteria and posturing, but, in the end, through all the shouting and verbiage came an unexpected and tonic reassertion of reason. I think of that great image in Moby Dick when Stubb digs with his whale spade behind the fin of a rotting, malodorous whale and finds ambergris: “suddenly from out the very heart of this plague, there stole a faint stream of perfume, which flowed through the tide of bad smells without being absorbed by it, as one river will flow into and then along with another, without at all blending with it for a time.”
This perfume of reason came from someone I have been accustomed to think of with suspicion, Senator Susan Collins of Maine. On the life issues crucial to us, she is on the other side; even in the speech I am about to praise, she sought to assuage the apprehensions of abortion advocates by pointing to Judge Kavanaugh’s strong reliance on legal precedents—evidence that he would not be an activist for overturning Roe v. Wade. Still, the speech was extraordinary: it was responsible, reasoned, and firmly rooted in political principles. It was fair to Brett Kavanaugh, who has been vilified with such feral obscenity that it is difficult to tell young people, including our students, that a life of public service is worth the sacrifice.
But Sen. Collins’ speech, to my mind, showed why the sacrifice is worth it—and it was certainly a sacrifice for her. She had to know when she gave it what opprobrium would be poured upon her. For example, the New York Times writer Alexis Grenell, frothing with offense, averred that all the women who voted for Judge Kavanaugh were “gender traitors.” She described Sen. Collins’ riveting speech as “a slow funeral dirge about due process and some other nonsense I couldn’t even hear through my rage headache.” Maybe this kind of op-ed (which Ben Shapiro called “one of the most insulting and discriminatory pieces published in modern memory”) is the kind of evidence people might cite of a coming civil war. True, if due process is “nonsense,” it’s hard to know where to start a political conversation—at least one that respects the tradition of political liberty, instead of the legacy of Robespierre or Lenin or Mao. But Sen. Collins did her best to remind us of our own tradition, and I honor her for doing so.
Anger and envy and desire are powerful things. Reason is always imperiled by the passions of the political sphere. In the Republic (which our freshmen read in their second semester), Plato shows with unforgettable vividness how passions, whether in the mob or in the tyrannical soul, usurp the rule of reason. Our students think through Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which records in detail the violence of faction in ancient Greece—the very danger our founders sought to forestall in our new nation. The Bible, Aristotle’s Ethics, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the epics, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s plays—the perennial tensions are everywhere in our curriculum. Seeing real political unreason in action, though, is another matter. It’s searing, it’s profoundly disillusioning.
On Friday morning of last week, I was driving from Denver back to Lander during the cloture vote that cleared the way for the Senate vote on Judge Kavanaugh the next day. My Down syndrome daughter Julia patiently sat through the roll call, all the commentary in the aftermath (I kept switching between NPR and Fox News), and the speculation about what Sen. Collins would say in the speech she had scheduled for 3:00 PM. Although she had voted for cloture, it seemed possible that Sen. Collins would announce a no vote for Judge Kavanaugh’s actual confirmation and thus identify herself with the “gender” solidarity of women like Alexis Grenell. Instead, in her very first sentences she denounced “a confirmation process that has become so dysfunctional, it looks more like a caricature of a gutter-level political campaign than a solemn occasion.”
It was not a short speech. Geographically, it took me from south of Muddy Gap, past Split Rock, and all the way to Sweetwater Junction; the place names came to seem symbolic. She spoke with clarity and reason, reestablishing the solemnity of the occasion and the boundaries of civil discourse. She drew upon Federalist 76 to explain the prerogatives of presidents in making appointments and the responsibilities of senators in reviewing them. She praised Judge Kavanaugh’s record; she addressed the accusations made against him (her occasion to speak about due process); and she went further to vouch for the good characters of others being attacked from different sides, including Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Grassley.
It would truly have been a watershed moment last week if Judge Kavanaugh had been denied. He was affirmed, and Sen. Collins knew that her vote was pivotal, not only in giving a deserving man a place on the High Court, but also in establishing a precedent of measured deliberation for young men and women looking to her example. Sen. Collins did not “cave,” as Ms. Grenell asserts. She spoke like a senator. She reminded us of the high calling of public service, where reason is not a gendered responsibility. As my wife puts it, “My loyalty is not to my gender; it is to my country. My hope is that ordered liberty under the U.S. Constitution will never dissolve under the toxic playground rhetoric of girls and against boys.” Women who employ reason effectively are “gender traitors”? That’s one of the worst slurs on the sex I have ever encountered.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (October 2018).
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