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General News    H3'ed 10/23/18

Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Brett Kavanaugh, Raised by the Power of the Pack

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I felt discouraged recently when it hit home: I'll never be a Supreme Court justice. Reviewing my life, I came to the realization that I was in no way qualified -- and no, I'm not talking about my utter lack of legal experience (except as a juror). I was thinking instead of the qualifications that -- as TomDispatchregular and former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte lays out today -- the Kavanaugh hearings revealed for being the right sort of boy/man for the job.

I certainly spent parts of my 1950s childhood dreaming of joining the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field. ("Engelhardt darts to his right, picks up the hot grounder, and fires it to first!") On an actual baseball diamond, however, I had a few problems fielding any grounder or, for that matter, judging the depth of fly balls (I always ran in), or doing much but whiffing at the plate. Unlike Brett K., sports, it turned out, was not my natural resting place. Worse yet, when I was at college, no fraternity ever tapped me, though I can still remember Saturday nights in my room listening to music pound away at a nearby frat house. And drinking? Well, give me credit there: I did get black-out drunk in high school. My best friend and I went into my parents' liquor cabinet while they were away and downed much of a bottle of vodka. Brett K. would have been proud of me. I puked big time, passed out, woke up, and blamed the mess on my dog, and -- what could better indicate my lack of Supreme quality -- I thought it was so gross I never did it again.

And let's not even turn to girls in those years. It was hard enough to approach one in the right spirit. Assault her? I couldn't imagine.

So consider me hopeless. All of this only helped me in one small way in my life: when my daughter and son were young, I volunteered to coach their little league baseball teams. And being more or less grown-up by then, my heart went out to the kids on those teams who -- remembrance of things past -- weren't especially good or skillful. Unlike a number of the other coaches, out of pity for my former self, I focused my efforts on them, gave them extra practice time, and you know what? Because of that, the teams I coached always did better than I expected.

Now, take a moment to check out Lipsyte's account of the truly bizarre world of "successful" boys and men and then consider your own Supreme qualifications in this all-American world of ours. Tom

Trump and Kavanaugh Win One for the Pack
How Frats, Teams, and Gangs Divide, Conquer, and Now Judge America
By Robert Lipsyte

Brett Kavanaugh's hellish Supreme Court fraternity pledge week offered many lessons, but the most powerful, if least noted, was about the raising of boys in America -- all boys, not just the groomed Georgetown elite from which the judge emerged. Too many boys are raised in packs, whether they're called fraternities, sports teams, or gangs, all of which offer brotherhood in return for loyalty, obedience, and a dedicated contempt for the Other -- anyone, that is, who isn't a member, above all women. Kavanaugh was raised (and raised up) by just such packs.

Frats, teams, and gangs have their differences, often involving social class and skill sets, but there's one great similarity: the sense, often nurtured and reinforced by booze, battle, and group sex, that you are part of a special brotherhood. The promise of that brotherhood is to defend boys against a supposedly hostile environment by isolating them from the rest of their world and indoctrinating them with a set of tribal values that must be upheld beyond reason.

For most boys, as was true for young Brett, it starts with making the sports team (or not), being discarded -- "cut" -- (or not), as a pyramid of talent narrows to travel teams, all-stars, and elite leagues in middle school, high school, college, and finally the pros. The prime lesson is always the same: winning is everything and doing so in a dominating way by crushing the opposition is the best of all. In the process, finding an edge by working the refs, purposely injuring opponents, taking drugs, or protecting bad boys become standard tactics in the quest for victory. As Kavanaugh reminded us often enough, being captain of his Georgetown Prep high school basketball team and a member of the football team made him the proudest of proud jocks.

Naturally, fraternities prize such products of Jock Culture, boys growing to manhood who are already popular, trained to take orders, and used to hanging out with their own while excluding others. Frats, in turn, offer the same rewards as teams do, especially a set of brothers who will have your back, no matter what kind of a "puker" you are -- as long as you're loyal. At Yale, Kavanaugh pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon (or Deke), then well known as a hard-drinking frat for jocks, whose many famous members once included Presidents Gerald Ford and that father-and-son team, George H.W. and George W. Bush. Kavanaugh's Deke connections may even have brought him to the attention of the younger Bush as he headed into his presidency and landed Brett his various jobs in that administration. Perhaps it also helped recommend him to one of the country's most notorious and dangerous gangs of conservatives, the Federalist Society.

For the past four decades, much like gangs in minority neighborhoods drafting tough and vulnerable teenagers, the conservative Federalists have been recruiting ambitious students and lawyers with the potential to become judges. Their success reached a peak with Kavanaugh's recent confirmation, a victory with a Trumpian touch. The judge's diatribe about the Clintons and the rest of the left-wing conspiracy to take him out should have evoked the president's pitch on the viciousness of MS-13, a gang of mostly young Central Americans that originated in Los Angeles and has spread into immigrant communities across the country.

Boys Will Be You Know What

Team, frat, or gang, the macho sensibility of the pack will never die as long as it's applauded or at least tolerated in the culture at large as a boys-will-be-boys phenomenon -- as long as it's a given that we need such boys raised up strong and straight, prepared to fight our wars, man (never woman) our teams, and of course run our country. If you are a boy and an outsider, you are likely to play along to avoid trouble. Growing up bookish in Queens, The Donald's borough, so many years ago, I found myself feigning more interest than I had in New York's major league baseball teams and didn't protest too much when other boys misinterpreted a platonic relationship with a girl as something steamier. It kept my image on the male track, reasonably protected from the bullies who went after boys like me.

I was in a college fraternity, saw plenty of alcoholic aggression and sexual misbehavior, but never quite connected that to the code of the pack. Yes, there were drunk guys, horny guys, screwed-up guys, maybe even a few truly bad guys, but I didn't grasp that it was all meant to be a brotherhood against the rest of the world (especially women). My teaching moment came at 24, a lesson (appropriately enough) directly from the locker room.

It was 1962. I was then a rookie baseball reporter for the New York Times, covering the Yankees on the road. The older sportswriters were, at best, warily sociable. Would I, they wondered, disrupt their easy lives with some kind of unexpected reporting? The ballplayers were subtly hostile, especially stars like Mickey Mantle. Would I violate the covenant of the trade: that what happens on the road stays on the road? I felt like an interloper, outside the little bubble they were all traveling in. I was disconnected, lonely, and anxious that such social relations would affect my job, that mine would turn out to be a brief career in sports writing.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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