It’s About Equality

Christine Blasey Ford. Testifying before the Senate, 27 September 2018.

The struggle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court embodies a fundamental civil rights struggle, in which accusations of sexual assault are debated in relation to broader issues of personhood. Kavanaugh represents the proposition that the state may control women’s bodies if they want to exercise self-governance by deciding on an abortion. The would-be justice represents a proposition that US constitutional law will honour claimed rights of religious discrimination against queers, refusing equality to people who choose to exercise sexual autonomy.

Sexual assault intrinsically involves rejection of equal personhood and autonomy. The person is no longer an integral consciousness: it is a living object for subjugation. Still, there are cognizable borders of civil behaviour that need to be crossed in order to assault another person. Alcohol provides a classic means of facilitating such border-crossing, dispelling remnant inhibitions and, as a consequence, enabling assault.

When Kavanaugh over-consumed alcohol, like many others who want to claim the supposed entitlements of aggressive masculinity, he fueled a belief in his own dominance. In that self-elevation, to serve his own privileged desire, Kavanaugh denigrated and denied the personhood of Christine Blasey Ford and however many other women he attacked over the years. His repeated statement “I like beer” means ‘I like the person I become when I drink beer.’

The drunk Kavanaugh became the person that the sober Kavanaugh could not afford to let loose in public, the one who expressed his scorn and disdain for inferiors such as women. This is behaviour visible when a repressed, nominally polite white-collar office worker drinks and beats his wife, or when a respected journalist drinks heavily and stands insulting and threatening diners in a restaurant. Alcohol magnifies the righteous belligerence so easily visible in Kavanaugh’s second Senate appearance.

Similar belligerence informs the Trump Administration and its bigoted antagonism towards assertions of equal personhood by migrants, Muslims, people of colour, and queer folk. Based on his written record and judicial history, Kavanaugh has long operated within the ambit of male privilege that drives the Trump Administration. For his supporters, Kavanaugh represents a potentially decades-long consolidation of such privilege through what would become a bloc of five relatively young Republican-appointed male justices. The US Supreme Court, the bastion of civil rights defence under Earl Warren, would become a defender of the old order.

We learn social offence early and these experiences constitute our first lessons in civil rights. When 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh attacked 15-year-old Christine Ford, he was demonstrating lessons of predation that he absorbed throughout his upper-middle-class childhood and adolescence. The rights of perceived lesser beings were violable and the list of lesser beings was long. Kavanaugh came to adulthood in a Reagan-nurtured generation of Republican operatives for whom partisan, cultural, and economic interests advanced in the name of the state negated individual or group claims for justice. They and their successors constituted the front-guard of a long, slow rollback against civil rights gains during the three decades following World War II.

These politics became deeply entrenched in both domestic and foreign policy where self-governance, whether for a woman over her own reproductive freedom or Nicaraguans demanding political freedom, was anathema. Bodies were to be governed, not rule themselves. Under Reaganism, ‘freedom’ became a demand against communist governments, not a demand for the United States itself to honour. The Reagan Administration supported the Webster anti-choice decision and gag legislation against reproductive choice. Freedom was not autonomy; self-determination was for whites, not people of colour. Under Reaganism, South Africans seeking racial equality faced State Department antagonism and deportation efforts by US immigration authorities.

This is the ideological inheritance that Kavanaugh prospectively brings to the US Supreme Court, along with a political history of collaboration with the Starr Inquisition and a veneer of crass Trumpism. This is a social world that employs pious invocations of opposition to racism and male chivalry towards women in minimal nods towards electoral realities. Civil rights are the stuff of sneers. Under the new dispensation, one linking Reaganism with its descendant Trump-time bastards, capital and corporate personhood have greatest value and autonomy, especially as enunciated in the 2010 Citizens United decision. Kavanaugh’s career embodies this use of constitutional law as a defence of class privilege.

The Trump nominee is one more significant advance in the long drive to push back against expanded concepts of equal personhood shaped by the civil rights legislation and litigation driven by racial and ethnic group protests, the women’s and LGBT movements, disability rights activism, migrant and refugee advocacy, and other movements that challenge white male political hegemony. This is a global push-back. Kavanaugh followed the same principles where he dissented in Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp. and sought to immunize capital against legal process when Aceh villagers in Indonesia asked for tort damages following the murder, rape, and torture that had been loosed against them by Exxon Mobil’s private security contractors. In his view, the lives of distant coloured people had no standing in a US courtroom.

Brett Kavanaugh’s complaints of victimization are a demand for immunization against past acts that have received social sanction. He adopts a victim role in order to victimize. Kavanaugh echoes the ethos of the Great Pussy-Grabber when he portrays himself as a sacrificial victim of an unprincipled left, a source of conspiracy that will be punished in due course. As Greg Sargent acutely observes, “When Trump presents Kavanaugh as the true victim in this situation, and when he sweepingly declares that the moral of the Kavanaugh story is that men across America are in great danger of unfair persecution, he seems to know exactly what he’s doing.” This is less conscious planning than a well-learned defence of scoundrels complaining ‘What about my civil rights?’ when confronted by complaints.

The true identity of victims is the heart of the matter. There is an expansive range of potential victims from adverse Supreme Court rulings. Not only Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy. The target is a massive body of judicial holdings that affirm equal rights protections for race, gender, disability, and other protected categories. Rather than those to whom actual harm has been done, the new-old claimants to victim status are those who did or benefited from the harm. Now it becomes the Christine Blasey Fords of the world, those whose equal rights have been savaged, who are proclaimed offenders.

The path to reversal of constitutional protections is clear. As did Gorsuch during his confirmation hearing, Kavanaugh uses the transparent rhetorical camouflage of claimed allegiance to Supreme Court precedent to deny any intention to change prior holding. These are well-rehearsed open pretences.

Victimizers lie to feed their social habits. Someone else lies: they are truth-tellers, or so they tell themselves. Kavanaugh’s second Senate hearing was when his carefully-constructed lies fractured. With his world coming unglued, so did his public persona. Outrage and self-pity dominated his no-longer-careful voice. When Christine Blasey Ford confronted Kavanaugh’s self-presentation, the lie of denial became his only recourse. Ford came to Washington to claim her personhood and Kavanaugh rejected it once again, as he did years ago when he drunkenly climbed atop her as a teenager and held her down against her will. To do other than deny would collapse his self-righteous world.

Kavanaugh will not tell the truth, so our politics and educational action must collapse his world. That is difficult work, but we must do it. Facing an earlier white-driven reaction against 1960s civil rights activism, Langston Hughes wrote:

All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
(“The Backlash Blues”)

For this reason, the forces of racism and misogyny that Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh represent will fail in the end: the world-at-large is their opponent.

Yet the history of the American republic is a story of how the few exerted control over the many, quite different from the standard model of US history published in schoolbooks. That history is a measure of the difficulty in undoing Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump behind him.

Photograph courtesy of Ninian Reid. Published under a Creative Commons license.