15 Minutes of Fame

Anti-Kavanaugh protest. Washington DC, August 2018.

America is once again deploying that odd pantomime which arises when it becomes necessary to simultaneously affirm and negate the humanity of women. Brett Kavanaugh’s path to a lifetime tenure on the highest court in the land seemed straight and free of obstacles only two weeks ago.

Congressional Democrats could grouse and grump all they wanted, but in the final analysis, they simply didn’t have the numbers to prevent it from happening. But the charges of sexual assault levelled at Kavanaugh have, for the moment at least, knocked things into a cocked hat. Still, although the path to confirmation has taken on the appearance of a minefield, the judge’s supporters can rely on a standard roadmap to get their man to the Promised Land.

Defenders of Judge Kavanaugh have distinct advantages. Perhaps the most important is that such accusations are nothing new. In the era of #MeToo, claims by women of being subjected to every kind of sexual misdeed, from garden-variety harassment to out and out rape, have finally begun to get the prime facie credence that should have been theirs all along.

The multiplication of the charges has given rise to a concomitant increase in the arsenal of media coping mechanisms. From resistance to apology to spin, a range of tactics are now in play by which those now burdened with unaccustomed scrutiny of their libidinous excesses can defend, deflect, and generally avoid the consequences of their actions.

And, of course, even the highest reaches of American political life have been similarly blighted. Bill Clinton’s sexual “relationship” with Monica Lewinsky, which given the asymmetrical power relations involved must be viewed as coercive, has been fodder for tabloids in print and on the airwaves ever since.

The case of Anita Hill provides an even more apposite example. A charge, levelled by a woman, about events years previously, roiling a process that had been expected to have the quality of an anointing rather than a deliberation.

Here we may note the existence of an interesting and illuminating trope that emerges in such cases: the fame whore. This benighted creature seeks only to lift her public profile (and perhaps to obtain a book deal) by besmirching the character of any man with whom she has ever spent a quiet moment. Her actions are guided by the maxim (attributed to P.T. Barnum) that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Indeed, the pursuit of notoriety is her stock in trade, consequences be damned. Perhaps she will be doxxed on Twitter, or have aerial photographs of her house posted on 4Chan, or have pictures of her children, their school, her car, and other personal information bounced around the internet. She will have her character, her appearance, and her sexual mores dissected and evaluated (negatively) by a host of frat boy commentators in various stages of decrepitude, and probably by Ann Coulter as well, just for good measure.

All along, the commentators will find themselves moved to express confusion at what her motives could be, always implying while doing so that they are of a base and self-serving sort. No matter. It is the very act of achieving fame that makes it all worthwhile. And if she gets the occasional death threat, well, that is just the price of doing business.

Even the danger that one of the millions of her fellow citizens in possession of a strap might seek to take matters into their own hands is worth it in pursuit of the grail of fame (and perhaps even fortune).

The trashing of the accuser, in this case, started at the top, Mr Trump’s take on Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations was that it was “hard to imagine” that they could be true. Given the fact that Mr Trump has been credibly accused by more than a dozen women of conduct not dissimilar to that described in this case (and without even threadbare excuses of adolescence and alcoholism to fall back on), this seems hard to believe.

In any case, this all must be viewed in the context of the conservative project of stacking the bench. Not so long ago, Senator McConnell piously intoned that Mr Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court had to be subjected to the judgment of the voters as a justification for refusing to consider Merrick Garland’s appointment for the best part of a year. Now McConnell is intent on squeezing in Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation before the midterm elections in six weeks time.

The process was already awash in hypocrisy even before Ms Ford’s charges surfaced. So it is hardly surprising that congressional Republicans insist on Monday as a hard and fast deadline. It’s important that the process of feigned concern and public defamation be undertaken as soon as possible so that the whole matter can be dumped in the River Lethe and Judge Kavanaugh can get on with the business of revising (read “destroying”) the settled precedent of Roe v. Wade.

There has been some concern expressed by those Republicans now facing reelection that failure to at least seem to take the charges (if not the one making them) seriously might have a deleterious effect on their electoral prospects. But in the eyes of the Republican leadership, the possibility of short-term electoral losses is already built into the calculus of defending (or at least not criticising) Mr Trump.

There is a long game being played here, one in which the stakes, control of the Supreme Court for a generation, outweigh any possible outcomes in the current political season.

One hopes that Ms Ford’s charges will receive due consideration. But one should also not have any illusions about the actual likelihood of this happening. Much as #MeToo has affected the public sphere, this is nonetheless still very much a man’s world, all the more so as the stakes get higher.

The whole point of the Trump Administration is the remaking of the institutions of the republic. The sanctity of women’s bodies and their status as fully human are not just casualties of this process but in fact its targets. And so the grim charade continues, with its outcome hardly in doubt.

Photograph courtesy of Charles Edward Miller. Published under a Creative Commons license.