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The Tragedy of Professor Christine Blasey Ford / The Folly of Judge Brett Kavanaugh

On the presentation of self and the pursuit of justice

I was not intending to watch the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings from beginning to end, but Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on Thursday morning was so compelling that my writing had to wait. I was mesmerized by a truth-teller. Her testimony was an amazing combination of embodied reason and affect.

Clearly very nervous, her shaking voice had powerful, quiet authority. She reported on her horrific experiences of an attempted rape, with vivid primary details remembered, with the secondary context foggy or forgotten, and with her own expertise explaining why this was the case.

I thought it would be impossible not to believe her testimony, and I noted that even over at Fox News the reporters and commentators recognized her as a persuasive and unimpeachable witness. Since Thursday, I have not come across anyone who has questioned her character or nobility. True, many have ignored what she said and its implication, but all pay tribute to her as a person, even Donald Trump.

This led me to predict on Facebook: “Kavanaugh is toast. Possible toasters: Republicans on the committee hesitate and call for further investigation and then his candidacy languishes. Trump withdraws the nomination, given how closely he defines reality through television. Even Fox News commentators realize Blasey Ford has been extremely persuasive. Least likely, if it goes to the Senate for a vote, he is voted down.”

My prediction still may come true, but as we now know, the tide changed on Thursday afternoon. The drama intensified with Brett Kavanaugh’s unprecedented performance, that of a political fighter, Trump-like, and as Peter Dreier argues here likely intentionally so. With a performance that was decidedly not of a judge, Kavanaugh appeared demonic to this viewer, but I fear not to many others, including the TV addict in the White House. Kavanaugh had a clear strategy, attack, combining anger and emotion, without regard for decorum and the previously prevailing precedent, though apparently following the models of Trump and Clarence Thomas.

Later on Facebook, I noted: “The Republicans are trying to pull off the collective equivalent of Thomas’s high tech lynching assertion, and the right-wing media, as I write this, are condemning the Democrats for staging an electronic lynching. It’s a strategy, which I fear might work, but think (or is it hope?), it won’t.”

I actually bought the intellectual presentation of Kavanaugh’s earlier session with the Judiciary Committee and his mild-mannered demeanor in his interview on Fox News. Not that I was convinced in any way that I would be happy with him as a Supreme Court Justice, but it did seem that the way he presented himself, convincingly defined who he is: a very smart, soft-spoken, courtly and deliberate conservative judge. But he presented something quite different on Thursday, defining himself, I think, with unintentional accuracy.

Kavanaugh is wilder, more opportunistic, more partisan and cruder than I suspected. While it is clear that his brutalist performance probably kept his candidacy alive, I think that it is this presentation of himself that is the most telling, and it should disqualify him as a Supreme Court Justice. What he said, but particularly how he said it, (or should I say shouted it?), is disqualifying. The attacks on the Clintons and Democrats broadly, his disrespectful interruptions of senators, his belligerent refusal to answer questions, culminated in his refusal to answer Senator Klobuchar. He aggressively questioned her whether she ever had blacked out because of excessive drinking, as his testimony was indicating that he may have liked beer a bit too much in the past, and perhaps in the present.

He revealed himself as a sexist bully. He revealed that he sought to be a Justice of the Supreme Court by any means necessary. He revealed that his disposition now is perfectly compatible with Blasey Ford’s account of him as a teenager.

The tragedy of Professor Christine Blasey Ford: she spoke truth to power with eloquence and an authentic demeanor, as a survivor of an attempted rape, which has cast a shadow on her adult life. She bravely testified about this as her civic responsibility, sure to bring her nothing but personal pain. She had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose, moving all who saw and heard her. Yet, Kavanaugh’s Trumpist performance likely will trump her testimony.

I note this on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning, two days after my usual Friday deadline. I have been overwhelmed by the political performances, watching a unsettled political scene, deeply concerned about the state of justice and democracy in American life.

Importantly, I remind myself, nonetheless, the world we live in is strikingly a better one because Blassey Ford spoke up, even if Kavanaugh gets his much desired Supreme Court appointment. Because she spoke, others will. Because she spoke the way she did, she revealed a path to dignity that overcomes shame. Because she spoke, an ignoble person revealed himself for what he is, also revealing the cynicism of his supporters (especially Lindsey Graham) who ignore the truth she bravely presented. Her personal tragedy is a public gift. I think that we have a responsibility to make the most of it.

The folly of Judge Brett Kavanaugh : his reputation has been destroyed by the way he responded to Blasey Ford’s allegations. Even if she is somehow mistaken about the the attempted rape (something I think is highly unlikely), it’s clear that the life-long public servant has no right to be one. In the way she speaks and acts, she reveals the kind of civic virtue we would expect from a Supreme Court Justice or a university professor. He reveals the disposition to speak and act that is disqualifying for a Justice of the Supreme Court (and also a university professor). I was deeply concerned about his appointment because of key issues facing the court, on voting and civil rights, abortion and even contraception, health care broadly, environmental protections, unions, and much more. But the way Kavanaugh presents himself, I think, transcends these concerns. No matter where you stand on these issues, the way he acts reveals a political street fighter, not a Supreme Court Justice.

On Facebook on Friday morning I confessed: “My early morning fear, after a sleepless night: 2 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices will be sexual predators. I would like to think that this is a disproportionate representation in comparison to the nation as a whole, but given what I am learning from #MeToo, perhaps not.”

A number of friends noted “2 of 9 that we know of.” Here I want to note that Thomas and Kavanaugh share something else in their demeanor, revealed in the confirmation testimony: an inability to distinguish between self interest and justice.

Donald Trump celebrates that Kavanaugh is a fighter. I note that a fighter pursues victory, not calm deliberation about the law and constitutional democracy. Fighting is appropriate in the pursuit of democracy in the streets, not in the adjudication in highest court of the land.

At Public Seminar, there is a kind of debate going on, about how deliberate the performance of Kavanaugh and his Republican supporters have been. Jeffrey C. Isaac thinks that the performances are unhinged, while, as I have already indicated, Peter Dreier judges that they are part of an intentional strategy for a reactionary hegemony in the courts. Looking closely, I don’t see much difference between the two of them. Both, after all, recognize a combination of an intentional political project, what Isaac refers to as “constitutional hardball,” and the way it is unfettered by the norms actually required for democratic promise to be realized. Both call for social movement response, not only to achieve progressive goals, but to defend democratic means to those goals, i.e. in this case, the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. Yet, though I think their differences are minor, I believe that the fact that there are such differences is instructive. The presentations of self by Kavanaugh, and Graham, et al, may have been intentional (i.e. hinged), but they also were unhinged from the norms and practices necessary for democratic life.

The presentation of a private citizen, Professor Christine Blasey Ford, on the very important other hand, demonstrates the democratic alternative.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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