Horror and Humanity in a Post-Kavanaugh World

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me…Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?
― J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

It has been two weeks now since the most dramatic day of the Kavanaugh hearings and, despite the loving prodding of some friends and family, I’ve not yet been able to put pen to paper over it, to work out exactly what it all means and how I feel about it. Maybe that’s because so many others, far smarter than I, have already given their hot take (see Anastasia Basil, Ijeoma Oluo, Emily Witt, and my friend Layna Mosely for just a few good and varied perspectives) or maybe it’s because it increasingly feels like all we are left with right now are perfectly solid points that are ringing hollow, clichés I cannot bring myself to try and rework, and the stating of the obvious to a choir poised to nod furiously in agreement with me. (But, please, if you are a member of that choir, keep nodding! It makes me feels so good.) A lot of the latter has to do with the fractured nature of media consumption and extreme partisanship in the Trump era, and only a bit to do with the fact that we—women, queers, progressives, people who care about things like equality, dignity, and justice—aren’t always speaking in a way that makes others want to listen closely, if at all. And I know, I know, we shouldn’t have to “talk pretty” to be heard, rage is a normal response to this madness, all men everywhere can just fuck right off, etc., etc. I feel all of that and more most days, as I have for decades now.

Like most of the people with whom I keep company, I am angry and devastated by what I see, on the one hand, as a kind of thoughtlessness (in my more generous moments) on the part of people who seem to take little issue with Kavanaugh’s nomination and, on the other hand, a relentless and suffocating misogyny (in my less generous, but no less reasonable, moments) on the part of a nation that continues to lie to itself and to women about progress we have made on the scores of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The last two weeks have been so painful for too many of us, recalling and reliving our own sexual trauma and violations, bearing witness to the very public airing of Dr. Blasey Ford’s sexual assault, struggling to share space with men we may love but who we know will never truly understand, and feeling totally at sea because, as Jessica Valenti recently wrote, we still lack the precise language for the long-term trauma caused by living in a country that seems to (still) hate women. The rage simultaneously engulfs us and pours out of every fiber of our being. How could it be otherwise?

My husband will sometimes tell me, on those days when I am so angry I can hardly speak, that such anger is not useful, that it will only eat away at me and thwart any positive change I might make in the world. Truly, little else makes me want to throttle him more. See how anger works? When talking about gendered violence, it feels like more of a choice, or a privilege, for some than it does others. I have read and taught Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice, which, like so much of her work, is beautifully written and reasonable beyond all measure. In it, she makes the argument that anger, in almost all cases, is a morally untenable response to injustice and that it is not ultimately a helpful tool in working towards a more just and better world. There are many good criticisms of her arguments, but one that has not been so widely discussed is simply that anger in the face of an injustice is not something we typically experience or conceive of as a choice. Of course, one can, with a lot of work on oneself, compartmentalizing, and either personal evolution or self-delusion, depending on how one looks at it, overcome anger. But anger is such a desirable and seductive emotion, one that feels so good to us when we have been wronged, and those of us who are frequently on the side of anger, as it were, often look at people who appear unmoved by such things as the Kavanaugh hearings, not as highly evolved, reasonable beings who manage to keep the personal out of the political, but rather as totally oblivious morons who are seriously out of touch with all that is presently unravelling in our world. Sometimes that’s right, but not always.

Nevertheless, I take both my husband and Martha Nussbaum to be well-meaning, highly intelligent people, so I’d like to follow their instructive suggestion and press the pause button on my anger for a moment and to try and speak in a different register here. And that will mean doing something that doesn’t feel quite right to me at the moment and something that a lot of smart enough people might correctly think is counter-productive, which is to ratchet down the tone a bit and to refrain from making the worst kind of impulsive judgments about those with whom I disagree or, worse, whose political judgments and decisions may be inconceivably unjust to me. Why do this now, you might ask, at such a critical and low point for women in this country? It’s a fair question. (It’s especially fair if you happen to know me personally and have some familiarity with my habit of telling those who disagree with me to fuck off.) I suppose my answer to that is partly personal and partly political. Living, as we do, in a free society (by which I simply mean that it, for now, is democratic in form), but one that is deeply patriarchal and racist, necessarily means, at times, loving people who uphold or benefit from a system which we abhor and which, at times, threatens our very existence. This is a hard truth, but one that most anyone above a certain age understands and accepts. (I’ll come back to this point about the need to go on living with people who may believe, say, and do things that we find unconscionable a bit later.) Politically speaking, if we are to go on together as fellow-citizens in some democratic fashion with an eye to the common good, then we must talk to each other in a way that reflects and, whenever possible, engenders mutual regard and understanding. This requires more than a moderate temperament and a solid training in civic discourse; it requires the sort of care of one’s own soul that so much about late-modernity makes nearly impossible. One has to look no further than Facebook or Twitter to see how quickly we abandon civility and the sort of deliberative capacities on which our very democracy depends. We have to stay present for ourselves and for one another, and to keep from sliding into the abyss, from becoming so dislocated from our shared moral life that we become totally unhinged. Full disclosure: I feel my own screws loosening.

Here are my cards.

First, I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I believe she was assaulted and that her memory of the perpetrator is correct. I believe this not only because she was a “credible witness” (a phrase I have come to loathe for its condescension and the ease with which it can, apparently, be dismissed in the face of misogynist indignation) but also, quite simply, because I have lived as a girl and a woman for nearly 40 years now, and so know something about the perfectly ordinary and totalizing nature of our violation by men. I don’t require “hard evidence” in this case because I, like many women I know, live every day in a world where sexual degradation, harassment and assault are fundamental features of our existence, so fundamental and ubiquitous, in fact, that they do not register with many people. It’s the water in which we all swim every day. Until we are drowned, anyway. This doesn’t mean, of course, that false accusations are not sometimes made or traumatic events misremembered. Of course they are. But they are so exceedingly rare that to dismiss Blasey Ford’s allegations out of hand simply because neither Kavanaugh nor Mark Judge say they remember the night they engaged in acts that they and we all recognize as horrific and illegal on the grounds that Blasey Ford could possibly be lying or forgetting is totally at odds with anything approaching a fair process for adjudicating sexual assault claims. This is not something that reasonable people will debate.

Second, I believe that Brett Kavanaugh is unfit for the court both because I find Dr. Blasey Ford’s and others’ claims about troubling behavior in his youth and time in college and law school totally believable and sufficiently corroborated and, perhaps just as importantly, because he lacks the character and temperament any reasonable person should like to see in a justice who sits on the highest court in the land.

Third, I do not necessarily think that Kavanaugh himself has deep knowledge of the events that passed between him and Dr. Blasey Ford, and that is because, again, I believe Dr. Blasey Ford when she says that he was severely inebriated at the time of the assault. (Also, I have been around enough drunken men to know that most have no clue how horrifying they are when intoxicated, and rarely remember the offenses they gave or lines they crossed.) And so, in this way, I found much of his testimony compelling, too, not because I think he is innocent (I absolutely do not), but rather because he seemed to truly not believe he had done such horrific things to another person. Perhaps he was just a really good liar and remembers it all, but I certainly think it is plausible that he does not. And it doesn’t hurt to give him the benefit of the doubt on that score. Indeed, Blasey Ford herself seemed to do so. Again, this in no way makes him a sympathetic figure in this story or someone who is entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court (I quite agree with Senator Klobuchar that literally no one is entitled to this.) I’m only pointing out that it’s totally possible that he has no recollection, thus further complicating the case and how we might feel about it.

Fourth, I do believe there are plenty of liberals and democrats who do not care much at all about Blasey Ford as an actual human being who has suffered serious trauma, but rather saw her as a pawn in a political game they had little to no chance of winning to begin with. Having common cause with such craven and morally bankrupt people is not something I personally relish.

Fifth, I do believe that there are some conservatives and republicans for whom support of Kavanaugh, or at least their view that he was owed an up or down vote, does not necessarily mean that they hate women in general or Blasey Ford in particular. (I do not, by the way, place in that category Susan Collins and other senators who saw the full report and well understood the constraints placed on the FBI investigation by the administration. Those people are spineless and, in the case of Collins, offered up the weakest, most imbecilic of defenses so as to be perfectly transparent about her own weakness.)

Sixth, I am the daughter of an alcoholic. My father has been mostly sober since the mid-nineties, we remain incredibly close despite the suffering caused by his drinking, and it is because we believe in honesty, accountability, and forgiveness that our family has weathered the storms of his addiction. I mention this to reveal my own personal baggage around alcohol, but also to demonstrate that one can both be completely unwilling to countenance drunken behavior and have deep compassion and concern for the person who, for whatever reason, is engaging in it. Both are possible. I am not down with demonizing alcoholics or addicts of any kind, and the extent to which that has been done by those wishing to block his appointment is totally unacceptable. Not all drunks rape women. That said, I do find the multiple accounts (including his own!) of Kavanaugh’s excessive drinking believable, and so it is reasonable to imagine that he possibly, perhaps even probably, did many awful things during that time, some of which he likely cannot remember, and which makes his appointment to the Supreme Court untenable, in my view. I do not believe, however, that his excessive drinking alone makes him a terrible person or unfit for all manner of other well-respected and well-compensated jobs. (I do not feel the same about the claims that he committed sexual assault, however. Such allegations carry far more weight, because they involve harm to others, clear criminal behavior, and character problems that sobriety will not correct.)

These six cards I have just laid out don’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things or reveal anything especially new in our collective thinking about the Kavanaugh hearings. I admit it: I have nothing new to say on the matter. And although I am usually eager to give my own hot take on current events, I do not think that is what I am trying to do here. Indeed, it has taken me two weeks—an eternity in the era of fast thinking and even faster writing—to write anything at all. Rather, these scattered thoughts mark an attempt by me to stay sane, to stay present, and to speak rationally and without rage about something that has shaken me to my core and, at times, made me want to write off individuals I love and an entire half of the human population (again).

I used to teach J. M. Coetzee’s novella Elizabeth Costello in my course at University of North Carolina on politics and animal life. In it, the main character, Elizabeth, can be seen at times as a fierce advocate for animal rights, as the only sane person in a world filled with people who daily participate and are complicit in the most horrific acts of violence against animal creatures they well know are sentient beings, and for little more than their own pleasure and unwillingness to consider bad habits. I liked teaching this book because, besides being written by a masterful novelist and a philosopher of sorts in his own right, it reveals quite a lot about differences between how a philosopher, particularly one engaged in talk of animal rights, thinks about our treatment of animals and how a poet writes about it. The latter, Elizabeth believes, is far more likely to move a person in the right direction. If, that is, such a person possesses an openness—even a tiny one—to seeing animals as fellow creatures. But if there is no moral uptake in a person, they will not be moved by poetry or art or literature or anything of the sort. The idea is something like this: we all have the facts, or at least have the ability to access them. They are there for us, indeed in an instant at our very fingertips, if we wish to avail ourselves of them. But facts so rarely move people, as told in this New Yorker article on the inability of facts to change our minds and the limits of reason. This story by Coetzee, and the philosophy of Cora Diamond that is closely related to it, so beautifully illustrates this feature of modern life.

Viewed another and I think more interesting way, the novel is a vivid depiction of what happens to a person when they are no longer able to live with what they take to be a horror of stupefying proportions, perpetuated every day by people they are supposed to love. It is Elizabeth, in the end, who has become so radically isolated, so unhinged from familial and social life, as to be barely recognizable as human. She, it turns out, is the wounded animal in a world that cannot make any more sense of her than she can of it. One has the distinct feeling she will slip away at any moment, choosing instead to let go of life rather than find a way to live with its ordinary evil.

I fear this is what I am becoming—a person who increasingly cannot break bread with those who do not see the massive destruction of women all around us. And, yet, I must. I’m not suggesting that I should accept immorality, banal evil, or thoughtlessness in others, not at all. Rather, I am saying that I have to continue to seek understanding, to take the more generous view of those I love whenever possible, and to find common cause. Not because I owe it to those I love but who do not see the world as I do, but because my ability to take part in the ordinary moral life we create together is how I know that I am (still) human. So let us stay present for ourselves and for others, and let us keep telling our stories any way we can. They may well be the only hope we have now.

October 12, 2008

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