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Saturday, September 29, 2018


LFC makes three brief but interesting comments on my piece about Kavanaugh’s presentation and what it reveals about him.  Here is the first:  “I agree w/ certain aspects of the post but I think it's somewhat hazardous to engage in this sort of psychoanalysis-at-a-distance of someone one 'knows' only as filtered through the media reports about his life or through his televised testimony. Hazardous, but not necessarily completely groundless.”

I want to take a moment to push back against the tendency to discount or discourage evaluations of the motives and personalities of others as “armchair psychoanalysis” and hence unwise.  [By the way, since psychoanalysts, in my experience, always sit in armchairs, we need some other phrase of disparagement.]  As anyone will know who has watched my video lectures on Freud, I insist on the impossibility, even for Freud, of engaging in psychoanalysis at a distance, as it were, so let that be understood as given in what I am now going to say.

Human beings [and many other mammals, as it happens] are constantly observing others, forming judgments about their motivations and probable future behavior, and adjusting what they think and do accordingly.  Let me give you several familiar examples.

Every time we get in a car and drive, we engage in on-going observations of and judgments about the other persons driving on the same roads.  When I drive from my home to the entry to the nearby Interstate, on my way to RDU airport, there is a stretch of two lane country road on which people routinely drive 50 or 60 miles an hour.  That means that the cars in the opposite lane and I are approaching one another at between 100 and 120 mph.  My survival depends on making snap judgments about the reliability and probable behavior of people I do not know and will never meet.

When I walk on a busy street in midtown Manhattan, I am walking alongside or counter to people very close to me, and I must make a series of judgments about their probable next steps if I am to avoid bumping into them.  At the same time, I am alert to any walkers whose behavior deviates from the norm in ways suggesting that they are mentally disturbed or potentially dangerous.  [I am old enough to recall when someone speaking loudly to no one at all was a sure tell.  Now, they are probably on their cellphones.  It took me a while to adjust to the new reality.]  It is of course not just human beings who engage in this sort of ongoing interpretation.  As I fanatic viewer of nature shows on TV, I am aware that predators like lions and cheetahs will observe a herd of Impala or Wildebeest and instantly spot the one animal whose slightly abnormal behavior is a sign that it might be injured and hence easier to kill.

When young people go to Singles bars [I am told], they acutely observe their fellow patrons looking for signs that someone might be receptive to a come-on.

And so forth.  Interpreting the behavior and divining the motivations of other people is one the principal things we humans do, and natural selection has made us really good at it.  So when I observe a wildly deviant bit of behavior like Kavanaugh’s Judiciary Committee testimony, and draw from it conclusions about his character and motivations, I am not engaging in armchair psychoanalysis.  I am simply engaging in the oldest human activity: people watching.


s. wallerstein said...

Most of us are fairly good at noticing a potentially dangerous pugnacious drunk as we walk down the street at night. Likewise, we're proficient at sizing up whether the man ahead of us or the woman behind us in a long line in a supermarket would be more receptive to our starting a conversation complaining about big business.

We're not so good at speculating at people's conscious and unconscious motives though.

I've been in therapy several times. The first time the psychologist, who already had a referral from a psychiatrist, with whom I had conversed once, had me take several tests, a Rorschach, one where one draws figures, etc., before he even began to converse with me. The last time the psychologist had me tell my life story (I was older then) for several hour sessions, asking me detailed questions about my family, the reasons and motives behind my life decisions, etc., closely observing my facial expressions and body language, taking copious notes before she zeroed in on what she considered to be problem areas.

So can one really know much about Kavanaugh's conscious and unconscious motives having watched him for a few hours on TV? Maybe if one is especially perceptive, but in general, it's easy to make mistakes if one speculates about such subjects.

MS said...

Just as an aside. Judge Kavanaugh was asked whether he had watched Dr. Ford’s testimony. He replied that he had not, that he was working on his opening statement during her testimony instead.

How believable is that? As a judge, he knows that any defendant (which was his status in the context of the hearing) would have a constitutional right to be present while any accuser testified. He was not present because Dr. Ford requested that she not be required to testify with him in the room. But would he not want to know precisely what his accuser was testifying to prior to his appearance, in a hearing that would dramatically affect his life and regarding an accusation that he himself indicated had ruined his reputation and turned his life upside down? Would he instead be writing or revising his opening statement, which he undoubtedly had prepared days before the hearing and had carefully reviewed to make sure he made the points he wanted to make and used the tone that he thought would be the most effective? Would he not want to know ahead of his testimony whether Dr. Ford had made a point that he was previously unaware of, so that he would be prepared to respond if questioned about it? Would he not want to see how effective the prosecutor who was retained by the Republicans on the Committee was in order to measure how effective she might be in questioning him? Moreover, would not his own attorney(s) and/or advisers recommend that he watch her testimony so that he would be better prepared to counter it if anything new was said?

Sorry, I do not believe that he did not watch Dr. Ford’s testimony.

MS said...


And if he did watch Dr. Ford's testimony, as I maintain he did, then in denying that he did, he committed perjury - again.

LFC said...

What did Kavanaugh have to gain by lying about this particular point, i.e., whether he watched her testimony?

He knew roughly what Ford was going to say. I don't find it hard to believe that he decided not to watch. If something drastically new had been introduced, one of his lawyers, at least one of whom was no doubt present during Ford's testimony, wd have told him.

s. wallerstein said...

Should we necessarily assume that Kavanaugh is a completely cold-blooded Machiavellian rational being?

Couldn't it be that he was very nervous and distraught before having to testify? That his lawyers and those who are advising him (probably a psychologist at this point) told him to not watch Ford's testimony because it would upset him even more and to take a long nap or go for a run or go to the gym to work off his nervous energy? His lawyers would watch Ford's testimony and brief him on it before he went on stage. That the whole affair may be freaking Kavanaugh out is independent of the question of whether he is lying or not.

MS said...

Sorry, I do not agree with either explanation offered by LFC or s. wallerstein. Every defendant in any case, whether civil or criminal, wants to be present to hear their adversary’s testimony. It is generally always the case that they know ahead of time what their adversary’s version of events is. In a civil case, there have been depositions, all of which the plaintiff/defendant has attended. The defendant, the accused party, still insists on being present for the live testimony at trial. In a criminal case, there has been a preliminary hearing – long before the criminal trial – at which the defendant’s accuser has testified. Criminal defendants still insist on being present at the criminal trial, regardless how nervous they may be. They have a lot at stake other than whether they will be awarded a prestigious promotion. Like J. Kavanaugh, they also have their reputation at stake, as well as a potential death penalty or extensive prison sentence.

J. Kavanaugh, being a seasoned attorney and judge, has experienced the jitters before and learned to deal with them. Every attorney does. With respect to a hearing that would have a decisive effect on his future, his reputation, and his family’s well being, he would want to know as much as possible regarding what his accuser actually testified. Moreover, he would want to know how effective an examination was conducted by the prosecutor retained by the Republicans. He would not already know this just by knowing what Dr. Ford had previously stated.

I went back to watch Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony regarding whether he watched Dr. Ford testify. The question was asked by Sen. Harris. She used the word “watch” and when Judge Kavanaugh answered the he had not, she failed to pursue any follow up questions, which I would fault her for, since she is a former prosecutor.

Although I think it highly likely that J. Kavanaugh did in fact watch Dr. Ford’s testimony – since no one in his position, with his legal experience, would want to go into a critical hearing without any knowledge regarding precisely what his accuser had testified to – Sen. Harris’ failure to ask follow-up questions may have let him off the hook. J. Kavanaugh, as a seasoned attorney and judge, would anticipate that he would be asked that question. He would know that the answer that would best convince his audience as to the truth of his denial of what he was accused of would be to respond that he had not watched the testimony – it would send a message of strength, that I am so confident of my innocence that I did not need to watch my accuser’s testimony.

There are two possible ways that Kavanaugh could have been apprised of what Dr. Ford testified to – rather than watch it, he could have listened to it as he was revising and polishing his opening statement, as he claims. His denial that he had watched the testimony would therefore be truthful and not constitute perjury. (Similar to President’s Clinton’s response, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”) Sen. Harris should have known to close that door by asking the additional question whether he had, in fact, listened to the testimony, even if he had not watched it.

Alternatively, he could have requested one of his aides to watch/listen to the testimony and report to him before he commenced his testimony whether Dr. Ford had testified regarding anything he did not already know and how effective Ms. Mitchell’s examination of Dr. Ford was. In that case, his denial that he watched the testimony would still be truthful. I fault Sen. Harris, and her colleagues, for failing to close this door as well. Perhaps with her years in the Senate, Sen. Harris’ prosecutorial skills have atrophied somewhat.

I am convinced that J. Kavanaugh did not go into that hearing with absolutely no information regarding the content of Dr. Ford’s testimony. This is important, since the truth would have undermined the impression that he wished to convey - that he is so convinced of his innocence that Dr. Ford’s testimony was essentially irrelevant.

LFC said...


Are you aware that K has retained counsel in this matter? He doesn't need "aides" for this; he has lawyers.

MS said...

Yes, I am aware that he has lawyers. And yes, it could have been an attorney rather than an aide. But his lawyers could not watch or listen to Dr. Ford’s testimony, and inform him of the salient points, knowing he would deny having any prior knowledge of her testimony if asked. They could be disbarred for doing so for suborning perjury.

While I think it highly unlikely that, as s. wallerstein suggests, J. Kavanaugh went for a walk or took a nap during Dr. Ford’s testimony to calm his nerves, if he did either, then he did not spend the time working on his opening statement, did he? That is still perjury. His statement that he did this instead of watching her testimony was all orchestrated to demonstrate that her testimony was irrelevant.

Is he a “cold-blooded Machiavelian rational being”? Yes, I believe he is, and many aspects of his professional career point to that – his work on the Ken Starr investigation and his advocating asking President Clinton graphically sexual questions simply to humiliate him; his pressing to reopen the Vince Foster suicide investigation, just to advance the crazed right-wing theory that he had been having an affair with Hillary Clinton and did not commit suicide, but was murdered, in the face of Foster’s pleas that the investigation not be reopened because the claim was causing her family emotional trauma; his support of water-boarding as an effective and moral form of interrogation; his opinion that a teenage girl should be denied an abortion that she desperately wanted until sponsor was found for her, thereby delaying the abortion until past the time that an abortion could not legally be performed. I believe that he is a despicable, egotistical, conservative ideologue who would lie about anything if he thought it would advance his career and put him in a position to further the conservative agenda – I don’t care how many times he attends Church or how many girls’ sports teams he coaches.

MS said...


"Foster's widow"

"past the time that an abortion could legally be performed"

Michael S said...

(a long-time reader prompted to comment (probably only this once, so: thank you, Prof. Wolff, for keeping up this blog) out of something like prurience...) I almost wholly concur with Prof. Wolff's assessment of Kavanaugh - especially picking up on the detail that Kavanaugh and Judge were having a good time with each other, which I think does indeed carry the significance suggested.

One departure from Prof. Wolff. When Kavanaugh says (e.g.) 'I didn't do it', or 'this is a political hit-job', or whatever; viz., (in my estimation) when he lies, with no obvious tells, in front of senators, and millions; and so he has to be (in effect) answering a different question, or meaning something different, (internally, as it were) (if we're assuming he's not a total sociopath; not impossible, but neither necessary nor helpful in this case) -- when he says this, I don't hear him say 'I'm a good boy', or not exactly.

I hear him as saying: it doesn't matter, it's not important, it has nothing to do with this. Part of this, perhaps the central part, is indeed him saying: I'm basically good. One reason he thinks this is because - as Prof Wolff noted - it's unlikely the assault was borne out of any general lustrous sadism, or any particular contemporaneous state of sexual desire. He's good, because he didn't do anything wrong, because it was - in effect, for him - only a practical joke with a friend; it was (in fact, truly) indifferent to him whether there was a human, a teenage girl, there, as the object of the practical joke.

And, therefore (the thought goes), because I'm good, and because - given the evident narcissism - he thinks that he deserves to serve on the Supreme Court, it doesn't matter. He's indignant because what he believes he deserves might be denied to him on something irrelevant. The righteous indignation is revealing. His anger was not that of someone who's been misrecognised (as someone who was saying 'I'm a good boy' might present). It was that of someone who believes that something insignificant, in fact, a positive nothing, has been placed in between him and what he deserves.

One other reason to add to the list of Reasons Not to Trust This Man - in addition to the seemingly almost entire absence of empathy (outside of his children; not uncommon amongst sociopaths), noxious narcissism, and willingness to (obviously!) lie under oath - is the (to me) creepy lack of facial tells. Aside from when he talked about his children, his face ran the quite limited gamut of indignation, contempt, self-satisfaction, arrogance and aggression. Aside from these, there isn't a lot going on, externally. (Compare with Dr. Ford, whose face, free from cognitive control or practised/habitual dissemblance, is from moment-to-moment as alive as her; whatever is going on with her, you see it, roughly speaking).

Of course, given the narcissism, his intelligence, and the fact that - in my estimation - this wasn't likely sexually motivated, the many women and men who are willing to sincerely attest to his good character is unsurprising. It would be odder if this weren't the case. This is exactly what someone like this does. Cultivate wide networks of useful people. Dissemble widely. Build and preserve reputation. (One question - intellectually interesting, perhaps, for people-watchers, but, now, practically of no importance - is to what extent Kavanaugh himself is aware of his own narcissism. My guess is not very much at all. The sort of circumstances within which and reasons why some narcissists come to recognise themselves don't seem likely to have arisen in his case.)

But, yeah, liar.

Mobius Trip said...

“They pose as having discovered and attained their real opinions through the self-evolution of a cold, pure, divinely unperturbed dialectic (in contrast to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and more stupid than the rest - these speak of ‘inspiration’): while what happens at bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an ‘inspiration’, generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event - they are one and all advocates who do not want to be regarded as such, and for the most part no better than cunning pleaders for their prejudices, with they baptize ‘truths’ - and very far from possessing the courage of the conscience which admits this fact to itself, very far from possessing the good tase of the courage which publishes this fact, whether to warn a foe or a friend or out of high spirits and in order to mock itself.”

Beyond Good &Evil, #5, Nietzsche.

It seems that the right is just a little less factually incorrect about the narrative.

Jerry Fresia said...

I was hoping that a Dem senator would have gone for a Perry Mason moment by pushing him over the edge with question-type accusations like "Have you always had a drinking problem?" or "Has the aggression and sense of entitlement that has been on display today been fueled by alcohol or are you always this way?" or "If you make it to the court, can the female justices expect to see the belligerent misogyny that you've just shown Senator Klobuchar?"

Giiven his facial expressions and the poor behavior described above, however, one of my mother's more succint descriptions of such people sticks in my mind: "pukey."

Michael S said...

Second thoughts...perhaps I don't disagree with Prof. Woolf on the phrasing: he might be saying he's a good boy, or something like it - but he's saying it to himself, or to part of himself, or whatever (rephrase according to preferred model of the mind). He's angry at that part of himself (his shadow/etc.); and he's angrily denying it existence. The memory (whether it was ever consciously repressed or not) is likely closely tied to the very part of himself that made him do it. Hence the bubbles of rage. (Not: 'I'm a good boy', which is externally directed, but something like 'You don't exist', directed at a part of himself).

One problem with using terms like sociopath, as I did, or 'cold-blooded Machiavellian', is that they are very loosely and variably understood. A second problem is that, on any but the most restrictive understanding of them, they apply to 60-95% of people in the higher strata of politics, law, business, etc., and then to use them regarding (e.g.) Kavanaugh is not to say very much.

Regarding the Dems questioning - I agree with Jerry Fresia. Aside from a few questions, by a couple of senators, they were inept. Anyone with any sense of the kind of person Kavanaugh is and some basic understanding of the nuances of human communication would have played on his narcissicism and arrogance. (I don't buy the claim that the Dem senators' foreseeing Flake's change of heart, in focusing so much on simply asking for an FBI investigation, was the reason that most of the rest of their questioning was so inert).

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