Signs of the End Times

Cave man, not care bear. Washington DC, January 2017

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the highest court in the land is, in the current circumstances, roughly on par in terms of certainty with death and taxes. There is not that much to add at this point. It was a foregone conclusion as soon as Anthony Kennedy was convinced to retire.

Whoever was put forward in his place by the Trump Administration would be successful, absent some sort of proof that they had committed an offence against the kind of person that anyone in power cares about (i.e. not women). That this particular case necessitated an extra hearing and supplementary “investigation” by the FBI was perhaps an indication of progress. In years past, if the person in question was white, male, and Republican, chances are no one would have bothered.

There was the usual penumbra of pseudo-events that seem invariably to surround moments of spectacle in American politics. With a predictability surpassing that of swallows to Capistrano, Mr Trump eventually gave vent to his feelings toward Christine Blasey Ford, and (let’s face it) to women in general, with a torrent of hare-brained mockery at a political rally in Mississippi. And then, equally predictably, there was a wave of pearl-clutching by mainstream Republicans professing shock and horror that a grotesque violation of human decency and political decorum should once again be emitted by the president

The aptly monikered Senator Jeff Flake made a point of negotiating with his colleagues across the aisle on a process that would allow them to feel as if the niceties had been attended to, while at the same time providing cover for supposedly moderate Republicans like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins to do exactly what they were inclined to do in the first place.

The advent of oral birth control created a space for action. The antifeminist rage bouncing around the public sphere at this moment is an indication of the degree of threat perceived by the beneficiaries of the old system.

"There is no need for speculation: the world has learned the lesson that things do not always go forward, that breakthroughs made by human endeavour that seem to be permanent and secured can also be lost. Culture can die, for it has died at least once before. The jackals howl in Ephesus, where Heraclitus and Paul preached; in the marble halls of hundreds of cities in Asia Minor, the thorns proliferate and only a handful of stunted barbarians cower; the desert sands swirl above the holy gardens of Cyrene...Anyone who has wandered, contemplatively, through the Roman forum must have felt instinctively that the belief in eternal, continuous progress is a delusion."

There is no historical certainty, no direction that history is moving inexorably. And the fact that the old ways and mores are in a process of disintegrating does not mean that the struggle against misogyny and patriarchy are any less severe. There is an old Greek proverb that goes, if you’re going to eat a donkey, the tail is the hardest part. Whatever else #MeToo may turn out to have been, it has fired a shot across the bow of that segment of manhood that still viewed females as a sort of blank surface on which to project their drives and desires. The fear and loathing that it has aroused can be seen in myriad assertions of the dangers now confronting males, from Mr Trump’s assertion that it is, “a scary time for young men in America" on down the line.

And, indeed, it might be a scary time for men socialised in an environment in which consent was not really an issue. That the moral onus of this is on men rather than on women is, as usual, lost on people like the president. What is a young man supposed to think when a candidate for the presidency’s open bragging about sexually assaulting women is met with a collective “meh” by 30% of the electorate? Still, #MeToo has pushed the toothpaste out of the tube in terms of acknowledging the full humanity of women. Those who fail to recognize this do so at their own peril.

It remains to be seen whether the struggle over the Kavanaugh appointment will lead to greater degrees of organisation among women and their allies. The abuse and repression of women are not problems that are simply going to fix themselves, or that will get better over time. The spread of decency can be reversed. Civilization can go backward, and it can collapse. So there are lots of ways that this could go backward.

The Kavanaugh nomination (and confirmation) show the degree of fear that women’s challenge to the systems of oppression that they have for millennia endured. It remains to be seen whether the path to a more decent society can be forced open before the jackals howl.

Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Published under a Creative Commons license.