Listening to news reports over the last weeks, I have felt sadness and a deep sense of the absurd. As 1,600 migrant children were quietly transferred under cover of darkness to tent cities in the desert, I watched reports in which Donald Trump defended Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by comparing him to George Washington—who, the president asserted, might also “have a couple of things in his past.” The next clip on the newsfeed was titled “Seal slaps man with octopus.” Somehow, the juxtaposition seemed apt.
The Kavanaugh hearing has become a spectacle blocking all other light. The nation stopped and fell silent during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony because it raised existential questions about the norms of teenage behavior, about class difference, and about the disproportionate power over women’s bodies wielded in clubby circles of privilege. Likewise, Kavanaugh’s own testimony provoked questions about men’s and women’s comparative expectations for self-composure; what it signals when men cry; and, most of all, what it means when a judicial candidate expresses explicitly partisan rage against “revenge”-seeking Democrats, “outside left-wing opposition groups,” and those acting “on behalf of the Clintons.”
After each day of the hearings, I rode the bus home. For a hundred blocks, I overheard New Yorkers discussing the spectacle: teenage girls comparing their so-unhappy experiences at parties with drunken classmates; a conversation in Spanish about what Kavanaugh might rule if he were considering the indefinite detention of children; a pair of black mothers marveling at a country-club lifestyle in which “boys would be boys” without fear of police officers crashing the good times; three law students snorting at what they called Kavanaugh’s “originalist” meanings of “boof” and “devil’s triangle”; an elderly couple recalling that Strom Thurmond had waxed “quite righteously” during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, but that only after Thurmond’s death did it come out that he had fathered a child by his family’s 16-year-old black maid. “Wouldn’t that be statutory rape in today’s world?” asked the wife. “Not to mention child labor,” fretted the husband.
Over the noise, I have been struck by the significant silences about procedural structure. Much has been made of the fact that this is a “job interview, not a trial,” where the formal or usual courtroom rules would apply. Fair enough—but Senate committees still have power as deliberative bodies charged with ensuring that judicial codes of ethics will be followed.
Yet when Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana was asked what criteria he would use to evaluate Blasey Ford’s credibility, he responded, “That’s like asking me to explain the Holy Spirit.” It was a response that underscored the utter lack of a standard of proof by which the committee seemed to be proceeding.