Kavanaugh and white boys’ club politics in the US
Kavanaugh's testimony exposed not only his own lack of credibility but also the deep-seated misogyny of US politics.
By: Hamid Dabashi
Like millions of other people around the globe, in the United States and elsewhere, I was transfixed by the testimonies of both Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, watching them from beginning to end.
I found her testimony believable, his not.
This is not a matter of blind partisanship. This is the result of being a witness in real time to a noble truth shining against a whole regime of falsehood – from President Donald Trump who nominated him to the 11 Republican members of the US Senate Judiciary Committee who were trying to railroad his confirmation and to Judge Kavanaugh himself.
Dr Ford is one of a number of women who have accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault and who had dared to go public against a powerful man and the even more powerful men supporting him. They came forward with their allegations of sexual assault at a time when the #MeToo movement falsely promised that such daring attempts to bring up sexual violence against women would be met with more sympathy by the public.
Her courageous act exposed how the class supremacy of white wealth and power would instantly resort to vindictive anger and fury to silence and dismiss anyone who would dare challenge its institutional privileges.
After watching the two testimonies, I am more convinced than ever before that Judge Kavanaugh would be a calamitous appointment to the Supreme Court and would tip the balance in a decidedly reactionary right-wing swing for decades to come.
Witness for the prosecution
Facing accusations of multiple sexual assaults by a number of women, Judge Kavanaugh made even more evident his schoolyard bullying tendencies, brazen partisanship, and disdain for those who challenge his politics and doubt his judicial integrity during that fuming, sniffing, self-pitying spectacle he staged on September 27.
In sharp contrast to him stood the towering courage of Dr Ford who came forward, faced the blatant hostility of 11 white Republican men tipping the balance of the US judiciary committee and accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was 15 years old.
Why do I find her testimony more believable?
Because her first and final witness was Judge Kavanaugh himself!
The quiet power and neuroscientific precision of Dr Ford’s testimony reduced Judge Kavanaugh to a 17-year-old boy sitting in a 53-year-old man’s suit, angry, conspiratorial, vindictive, in full denial, self-entitled, and seemingly caught red-handed. It was as if he was sitting in the principal’s office with his parents, vehemently and nervously defending himself.
In his spectacular performance, Judge Kavanaugh produced the single most believable eyewitness Dr Ford needed to convince me in her story: The man I saw on TV behaved like a 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh the morning after he had sobered up from a terrible deed he had done the night before and had moved into full, self-entitled, white boy denial.
Dr Ford’s supporting evidence was her own life – going through extensive therapy, suffering from anxiety and claustrophobia to the point of demanding a second security door in her home and more importantly, dedicating her career to the very science that would teach her how never to forget the precise scientific description of what had happened to her.
She sat there in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee having earned an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology (1988), a master’s degree in clinical psychology (1991), a PhD in educational psychology (1996) and writing her dissertation on “Measuring Young Children’s Coping Responses to Interpersonal Conflict”, before earning yet another master’s degree in epidemiology (2009).
Dr Ford had translated her teenage trauma into a lifelong academic and scholarly career. On September 27, she sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee the victim, the eyewitness, and the expert – all in one.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said when asked what she remembered the most of that night.
When Senator Dianne Feinstein inquired: “How are you so sure that it was he,” Professor Ford simply said: “The same way that I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now, just basic memory functions and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain… That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift.”
The scream that Dr Ford said that horrific night had stifled finally come out in the precise, specific, scientific, staccatos of her testimony 36 years later for the whole world to hear.
Has something broken?
There is much more at stake here than the barefaced, boastful, ambitions of an ultra-conservative judge riding on the political wave of Trump and Trumpism – brandishing his toxic masculinity, repeatedly yelling: “I drank beer with my friends, almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers, sometimes others did… I liked beer, I still like beer.” His pathetic bravura machismo had only one audience: Donald Trump, so he would not drop him cold and move on to the next on his list.
The spectacle of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings and the obscenity of a gang of 11 white men shamelessly disregarding a woman describing a traumatic experience dismantled every shred of credibility the US Senate may have ever thought it had.
“The US Senate used to be known as the world’s greatest deliberative body. On Thursday, it shredded most of what remains of that reputation.”
That is the judicious opinion of Edward Luce of the Financial Times, who seems to have a distant and generous memory of a time when the US Senate was worthy of that praise. I have no such memory.
For the over 40 years that I have lived in the US and for as long as my memory of racism and misogyny in the US remembers, the US Senate has never been anything but what we saw during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing – an overwhelmingly white privileged, self-entitled group of men perpetuating the privileges of their race and class.
Their outrageous demographic obscenity was emphasised that much more by the presence of a Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor who they had brought to do their dirty work for them: questioning Dr Ford as if she were a suspect.
A New York Times editorial published on September 28 rightly pointed out the cowardice of those 11 Republic senators who did not dare face Dr Ford themselves. It noted:
“Eventually, as Judge Kavanaugh testified, the Republican senators ventured out from behind their shield. Doubtless seeking to ape President Trump’s style and win his approval, they began competing with each other to make the most ferocious denunciation of their Democratic colleagues and the most heartfelt declaration of sympathy for Judge Kavanaugh, in a show of empathy far keener than they managed to muster for Dr Blasey.”
This is at the crux of the matter – the structural white masculinity at the heart of right-wing American politics. There is a long distance between the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and this spectacle of white male privilege ganging up against a vulnerable woman. But the two poles connect the same spectrum of raging white power.
Over the more than four decades I have lived in the US, this is the fourth time that I have seen the nation transfixed by a public spectacle on which hangs the fate of the country – its moral fibre, its sense of self-respect, its fear of decadent implosion.
The first was the July 1987 televised congressional hearing of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council on the Iran-Contra affair, when the Reagan administration was implicated in illicit exchange of arms for the release of US hostages and the use of the proceeds to finance a covert operation in Nicaragua. On that occasion, the depth of US clandestine treacheries interfering in other nations’ affairs was put on full global display.
The second was the testimony of attorney Anita Hill, who accused Judge Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee, of sexual assault. During those proceedings, the selfsame shameless masculinist abuse targeted a young African American woman daring to share publicly her harrowing experiences.
The third was the trial of O J Simpson in 1994 when the racial divide tearing this country asunder was on full display.
And the fourth was these US Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Kavanaugh, a deja vu of the Anita Hill hearings, which look and feel as if nothing has changed in between. Some of the very same Republican senators are still serving on the same committee staging an identical, callous disregard for another human being’s suffering.
These four events were massive dramatic spectacles, which brought the entire nation in front of TV screens, wondering where their country was headed.
The point at issue in all of these cases and in this most recent trauma is not just the overwhelming testimony of Dr Ford and the categorical way in which it was disregarded by the Republicans.
It is also the structural misogyny that comes down from Trump, spreads to almost the entirety of the Republican party, represented by the 11 white men serving on this committee and then manifested in the angry, vindictive, and arrogant screed of Kavanaugh.
In the end, Dr Ford’s testimony will go down in history as one of those pivotal moments which pave the way for women to have a safe and dignified space to live, work and thrive, to be taken seriously in their pain and suffering, so the deep-seated misogyny of power can be dismantled.