Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Remember Dr. Christine Blasey Ford?
How long ago the autumn of 2018 seems now, when a California psychology professor testified in public that Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers growing up in an elite Maryland neighborhood. (Kavanaugh denied all allegations.)
We know that to escape violent threats, Ford was forced to move houses four times and to hire private security. We know that, as of March, she had returned only partially to her job, unable to teach classes. We know that Kavanaugh is now Associate Justice Kavanaugh of the Supreme Court. Remind me again how he-said-she-saids ruin men’s lives.
Shortly before Ford’s allegations, prominent Yale Law professor Amy Chua endorsed Kavanaugh’s nomination, writing in The Wall Street Journal how delighted she’d been that her own daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, had recently accepted an appellate court clerkship from Kavanaugh. (One had the slight feeling that Chua was explaining how lucky Kavanaugh was to have been allowed to hire her daughter.)
After Kavanaugh became mired in allegations about his sexual behavior and underage drinking, Chua went to bat for him again, while also being forced to deny allegations that that she had advised female students at Yale to cultivate a certain “look” if they wanted to clerk for Kavanaugh. Could Chua simply be trying to keep in with a powerful friend, legal blogs asked at the time, so that her daughter might one day have a shot at a Supreme Court clerkship with him?
On Twitter, Chua-Rubenfeld denied any such possibility – her obligations to the US Army, she asserted in July 2018, meant that she “won’t be applying to SCOTUS anytime soon.” How unjust we were to hint at such an improper motive.
It’s now June 2019. And it’s just been announced that Chua-Rubenfeld will be clerking for Kavanaugh, commencing October 2019. As Leonard Cohen once sang, “everybody knows the dice are loaded – everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.”
Here’s the lesson we should learn: the new establishment doesn’t care how obvious it is that they’ve rigged the game. From President Donald Trump’s appointment of his daughter Ivanka Trump to the White House to the clerkship recruiting circuit, the ability to pull off flagrant nepotism is the 21st century’s must-have display of power.
Last October, Adam Serwer published an article in The Atlantic about President Trump’s electoral base, with the now-famous headline: “The cruelty is the point.” Citing the separation of immigrants from their children, the treatment of Ford, the mockery of gun violence survivors and much more, Sewer argued that for many in Trumpland, “community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them.”
But perhaps we need an update. For many in the establishment – and not just Trump loyalists – the corruption is the point. The nepotism is the point. Appointing the daughter of the powerful woman who may have helped your nomination – it’s the latest way to “own the libs.” Kavanaugh wants us to know he simply doesn’t care what we think of him. He’s won.
It is impossible that Kavanaugh should have appointed Chua-Rubenfeld without knowing that many would see this as payback for her mother’s support. It is impossible that Chua-Rubenfeld should have accepted, without knowing that she was going back on a public statement that she would not be applying for a clerkship “anytime soon.”
The Code of Conduct for United States Judges states that judges should avoid not only impropriety but “the Appearance of Impropriety” at all times. And it appears Kavanaugh’s flagrant disregard for such appearances is the point. Thus far, Kavanaugh and Chua-Rubenfeld have not commented on the hire.
One can’t avoid feeling sorry for Chua-Rubenfeld. Her childhood has already been exposed to public gaze in Amy Chua’s witty bestseller “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (a more self-aware memoir of helicopter parenting than some may realize.) It can’t be fun to have strangers on the internet try to dissect whether she’s really worthy of the job for which she no doubt feels she’s worked hard.
Contemporaries at Yale Law School have told me she’s genuinely brilliant. She was hired by Kavanaugh for the appellate court long before her mother started promoting Kavanaugh’s candidacy – and it’s not uncommon for new Supreme Court justices to bring their circuit clerks with them. Justice Sonia Sotomayor did the same.
But it’s equally hard to avoid perceiving Chua-Rubenfeld as anything but the product of the very Tiger Mother parenting her mother so proudly advertised.
She’s already been through Yale Law School, where her parents are both prominent and powerful figures. Might it not have been simply a better idea to attend Harvard Law or (perish the thought!) Georgetown? Couldn’t she have applied for a clerkship with Chief Justice John Roberts, instead of Kavanaugh? Or, at the very least, if Chua really wanted her daughter to stand on her own two feet, shouldn’t she simply have kept quiet about her daughter’s boss? Unless, of course, flashing her connections was the point.
When Ford gave evidence against Kavanaugh, I wrote about my own experiences making a public claim of sexual harassment against a powerful UK politician. (My claim was later ruled “plausible,” and although he had denied all charges, the politician resigned at the end of a classified civil service inquiry in his broader behavior, of which only a summary was released.) What shocked me, while the inquiry was ongoing, was how direct witnesses of his behavior seemed to have blank memories when it counted. Watching friends racing to distance themselves from me was like watching a slug shrivel when touched by salt.
We don’t know for sure whether Kavanaugh is or was ever a sexual predator. We never will. But we do know that sexual harassment is one of the little secrets that permeates institutions of power. Everyone covers up for it, because it happens within trusted circles – and within those circles everyone has something to gain from keeping their patrons in post.
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One of the strongest points of affinity I felt with Ford was the sense of being labeled a class traitor. Women who grow up in proximity to elites aren’t supposed to draw back the curtain. We’re supposed to keep nasty secrets, even at our own expense. If we play along, we might get to climb the rungs of the ladder, too. If not, we’re cast out.
It’s quite possible that Kavanaugh behaves impeccably with women. It’s quite possible that Chua has never told young female law clerks to let him objectify them. And it is quite possible that Chua-Rubenfeld is thoroughly deserving of a place at Yale Law School, a clerkship with a senior justice and a glittering career to follow after.
But thanks to her mother, we’ll never know. So, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some of these people simply don’t care about even the illusion of meritocracy. The relevance of the #MeToo experience here is that it exposed a world in which establishment figures cover up for each other, trade favors and burnish each others’ – often hypocritical – reputations. The nepotism is the point.