• They Do Things Differently There

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So said the English writer, L. P. Hartley, in the first sentence of his famous novel, The Go-Between.

    In the light of recent events in the United States, we might make a similar observation about the US. Despite the familiarity of so much of American culture to New Zealanders, via Hollywood and the television screen, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that they do indeed “do things differently there.”

    Do you recall the last time a new judge was appointed to the New Zealand Supreme Court? Do you even know the name of the new appointee or the nature of the process that was followed?

    Yet the appointment of a new judge to the US Supreme Court hit the headlines and kept the American nation – and the world – transfixed for weeks on end.

    It was on prime time news day after day and was surrounded by a swirl of political intrigue, allegations of sexual impropriety and public demonstrations. The President of the country was deeply involved and directly campaigned at election-style rallies to support his nominee and to discredit and mock one of the witnesses who opposed the appointment.

    Opinion polls were conducted on a daily basis to measure the degree of support or otherwise there was for the nominee and his critics. Any shifts in opinion were said to be likely to influence the outcome of the mid-term elections and, as a result, to decide which political party would control Congress, and perhaps even indicate whether Donald Trump would or could win a second term.

    The public – that is, society as a whole – was revealed to be deeply divided, not just about the nominee himself and his suitability, but about wider questions as well. On the one hand, there were those who applauded the courage of the woman who gave evidence about an alleged assault on her by the nominee and were satisfied that she should be believed. Her courage and credibility became an article of faith for large numbers who saw the episode as further evidence of the treatment suffered by many women at the hands of sexual predators.

    On the other hand, were similarly large numbers who professed to see the allegations as politically motivated – “she was paid by the Democrats to say those things” according to some Trump supporters – and who agreed with the President that men were being unfairly targeted and themselves needed protection.

    In the end, then, the controversy may have produced a victory for the nominee and for the President, who now has a Supreme Court (as his supporters wanted) with a majority in favour of conservative social attitudes – on abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights. Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment was, incidentally, the second appointment in a row, following the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas, of a judge who holds such views but who was also, as a nominee, accused of similar sexual behaviour.

    Brett Kananaugh’s appointment was, in other words, achieved at the cost of laying bare and exacerbating the deep and visceral divisions that rack American society. A President and a process that should have tried to heal those divisions succeeded in doing the opposite.

    Yes, they do things differently there. Despite our admiration for so much that is American, we can at least be grateful that, at least in this respect, we do not model ourselves on everything they do. The Kavanaugh episode should at least teach us that highly politicised processes can be deeply damaging and that short-term political victories can sometimes be achieved at a cost that is too high to pay.

    Bryan Gould
    8 October 2018