When academics defend colleagues accused of harassment
Whelan, an intimate of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is now a candidate for the position of associate justice on the Supreme Court, wrote a bizarre extended tweetstorm defending his friend from the accusations of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her at a party 35 years ago. In an elaborate eruption on Twitter, Whelan provided diagrams and photographs of the party house in question and concluded by fingering one of Kavanaugh’s classmates, whom he identified by name and whom Ford pointedly said had not been involved.
Firestorms of disapproval erupted in both cases. Butler published a letter in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which she confessed to not knowing a whole lot about the accusations against Ronell, admitted that she should not have attributed motives to the student in question, conceded that accusations of sexual harassment should be resolved on the basis of evidence, and regretted having implied that Ronell’s academic reputation should earn her “differential treatment.” She also confessed that she should not have signed her letter as the president-elect of the Modern Language Association—the 25,000-member association of literary scholars. Her letter appeared next to an article with the title, “I Worked With Avital Ronnell. I Believe Her Accuser.”
When will the Harvey effect reach academia?
For his part, Whelan declared that he had made “an appalling and inexcusable error of judgment” and had “grievously and carelessly wronged the person I identified,” and took down his tweet thread. He then went back to attacking Ford’s memory of the attempted rape. As of this moment, we do not know if Whelan will face a lawsuit for defamation of character, but we do know that by virtue of running a think tank whose name leads with the word ethics, he is in hot water.
The stories of Whelan and Butler have nothing to do with whether one thinks Kavanaugh and Ronell did nothing at all or behaved appallingly. They have everything to do with the current crisis of American elites in many fields, including the law and higher education. For the lawyer and the professor are exquisitely similar. Their academic pedigree is magnificent: Harvard Law School, Yale graduate school. Their position in their profession is eminent, if detached from the rest of the world. If you are a liberal, you probably do not know or care that Whelan writes often for National Review and is a leading figure in conservative legal circles; if you do not know, or care to know, much about critical theory, the writings of Butler are academic in the unflattering sense of that term. But in their world, they are, if not royalty, lords of the realm.
Their motives here are also similar: Eminent friends are being taken down at the peak of their professional career by someone who is, in their world, a nobody. It’s outrageous, and it has to be stopped. And if, by so doing, you defame a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, accusing him of attempted rape, or effectively threaten to obliterate a graduate student’s career by lending a mob of literature professors the imprimatur of the MLA, so be it. That is the point and that is the sin: the willingness to stomp hard on a defenseless little guy in order to protect your highly privileged pal.