Like a lot of Americans, today I watched a female surrogate hand-picked by a team of old Republican men interrogate a sexual assault survivor, and then I watched a man accused of sexual assault yell and cry about facing questions about his character en route to being handed a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. In the intervening time, I watched the female surrogate be dismissed and ignored by the men who used her as a shield, and I watched several adult men throw scripted fits on live television. It was like watching Mr. Smith Goes To A Keg Party.
As a woman who has had bad things happen to her at the hands of men, as a person who has had bad things happen to her friends, as a human being who has seen how hard this is for a lot of people who have survived sexual abuse, it was a rough day.
The worst part of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee wasn’t the heartbreaking spectacle of a grown woman with a career and a family and decades of life and memories being reduced to one of the worst days of her life. It was that the greasy fossils determined to discredit her were so bad at pretending they gave a shit.
Senate Republicans have clearly realized the importance of pretending to care. They need a few women to vote for them in order to hold power after the midterms in November. But, more importantly, they need a handful of Republican senators (two of whom are, inconveniently, women) to believe that they gave Dr. Ford a fair chance to speak, before they dismiss her entirely and confirm her alleged assailant anyway. What’s important is making it look like they care without actually doing it. That’d be a tall order for even a seasoned empath.
Empathy is not like riding a bike; it’s more like speaking a second language. You go awhile without using it and suddenly you’re getting your words wrong. You’re calling the pope (el papá) the potato (el papa) and telling a Spanish-speaking friend that you have 30 anos (anuses) instead of telling them you’re 30 years (años) old.
As such, Chuck Grassley’s gang of ghouls (today voiced by Maricopa County prosecutor Rachel Mitchell) weren’t able to pull off the empathy theater they were attempting. Grassley could barely contain his crusty rage, interrupting his female colleagues, in addition to both Dr. Ford and Mitchell. After Dr. Ford’s testimony and before Kavanaugh’s, a melting down Lindsey Graham complained to journalists that he was being “ambushed.” Calming a little toward the end of his rant, Graham tried to stick to the agreed-upon sympathy kabuki, calling Ford a “nice lady” who was “as much a victim in this as, I think, Brett Kavanaugh.” But he couldn’t keep it up for long. “Not this close to the midterms!” he whined.
A NPR/Marist/PBS NewsHour poll released earlier this week showed that a single-digit percentage of Republican men believe Dr. Ford. Fifty-four percent of all Republicans said Kavanaugh should be confirmed even if her accusations are true.
I thought about that poll when we switched over to Fox News during the first break in Ford’s testimony. Commentators there found Ford credible. One said that he thought Mitchell’s presence in the courtroom actually made Ford seem more sympathetic. Nobody was attacking Ford.
The implication here is that Ford would have seemed less credible if GOP members of the judiciary had stopped ceding their time to Mitchell and had yelled at Ford themselves. You want to discredit a woman, get a man to yell at her. Maybe there’s a portion of the American public that would have responded to that, like the Republican men, who according to NPR/Marist, almost all believe that Ford is lying. Maybe the president, who seems to have an affinity for yelling, would have been more pleased if the Republican men of the Senate had thrown a series of tantrums aimed at a woman with a quavering voice.
I cynically worry that today’s charade was an attempt by the GOP to reassure its voting base that all this “me too” business wasn’t going to lead to any real lasting social changes. That sure, sexual assault exists, but the people who do it don’t look like the the old white men of the judiciary committee. They don’t look like Brett Kavanaugh. Grassley and company were never interested in finding the truth, just appearing to care about maybe finding the truth.
And then there’s Kavanaugh himself.
The 53-year-old nominee shouted through his opening statement like an Applebee’s customer demanding a bloomin’ onion over a waitress explaining that Applebee’s doesn’t sell bloomin’ onions. Kavanaugh vowed to never give up, even though the Democrats were trying hard to stop him (unfortunate phrasing for a man facing sexual assault allegations).
Kavanaugh had difficulty disguising his contempt for the people questioning him for most of the hearing. At one point, he started raising his voice to Rachel Mitchell before apparently remembering that she was the GOP’s ringer, hired to make him look innocent. He responded to Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar with a sneer when she asked him if he’d ever blacked out from drinking. “Have you?”
Kavanaugh wasn’t even able to summon empathy for Ford apart from his denials. His emotions reflected self-pity, not self-reflection. Kavanaugh teared up when he mentioned his 10-year-old daughter saying the family should pray for Ford. It was his daughter who showed the empathy, not Kavanaugh. “I am not questioning that Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person,” he said, generously. It just wasn’t him.
Republican senators seemed to agree that the way around the misogynist-or-party traitor trap was to try to believe both witnesses but turn the focus on the real victims: Republican senators. During his time questioning Kavanaugh, an embarrassingly irate Graham again acknowledged that in a way, Dr. Ford was also a victim, like Brett Kavanaugh. But, more importantly, said Lindsey Graham, Lindsey Graham is a victim of political gamesmanship. Graham was being forced to endure something terrible at the hands of people who wish him harm. How terrible for him.
During the break between Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimony, Texas Republican John Cornyn said he found Ford to be credible. But after Kavanaugh testified, he believed Kavanaugh. The rest of the Republican men on the committee agreed. Something happened to Christine Blasey Ford! Somebody did it! But not Kavanaugh!
During intermissions, panels of political opinion-havers agreed: Of course everybody believed Dr. Ford. But they also believed Brett Kavanaugh. Yes, they were in favor of having their cake, but also, they were in favor of eating it, too. Yes, something happened to Ford. But we cannot punish anyone for it. That’d be a bridge too far.
Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2011’s The Case of the Missing Perpetrator that when it comes to women “the passive tense is so often a cover-up and that the missing subject in a circumlocutionary sentence is often the guilty party.”
Acknowledging that harm has come to women is kind of useless in alleviating that harm when we refuse en masse to acknowledge the person inflicting harm, or even care to acknowledge him. There is no middle ground here. Either you believe that Dr. Ford is telling the truth and Kavanaugh is a liar or that Dr. Ford is lying and Kavanaugh is telling the truth. And it’s clear that most minds were made up well before today.
Kavanaugh will likely get confirmed. He’ll get what he wanted, as he always has. His daughters, his wife, and the girls he coached in basketball might wonder, in the back of their minds, if the man they thought they knew has a dark past.
And Ford will spend the rest of her life branded a sexual-assault survivor with no assailant, somebody who deserves the illusion of empathy but not justice.