Wednesday, October 10, 2018

‘Indelible in the hippocampus’:
Kavanaugh and America


IT WAS the closest thing this country’s had to a communal experience about men and women and power and rape, and we got it the way we seem to like it, boiled down, distilled, soundbitten for your convenience. It was all over the country, on smartphones and tablets, watched on subways and airline seatbacks, cafes and bars. We tuned into it collectively; it was like what people did back in the wartime forties, when everyone’s radio was tuned to the heavyweight championship fight. It was an event, it was a moment, it was history. It was everything, everything, except a conversation.

A great fight card came together on Sept. 27, and for the promoters responsible for the bout, collectively called the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was all pretty much a sure thing. Some palooka outta California, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, dared to go up against the golden boy, Brett Michael Kavanaugh. This was gonna be good.

That, more or less, was the expectation. When it was over, the calculus by which Americans suspended their disbelief had changed — the doctor from Cali won on points with them, going away — but the machinations of a ruthlessly partisan Republican congressional leadership were consistent to the end.

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Now, with “Justice Kavanaugh” as a phrase we’ll be saddled with for the indefinite future, you can’t help but look back at how we got here. Even with a short-term perspective of days and weeks, we can see how this was more than the agony of memory, legislative agendas and jockeying for political leverage. The enduring power of the Kavanaugh affair isn’t found in its literality, in what it was. What will endure is what it means and what it says: about this nation, its future, its women and its people.

Blasey, who spoke first before the committee, was asked by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to recall and describe the strongest memory from the night that Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her. She did so, introducing a word that imparted a forensic poetry to what would become an otherwise brutal recitation of conservative grievance.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Blasey said, voice breaking as she described her victimization. “The uproarious laughter between the two. They're having fun at my expense.”

The word “hippocampus” refers to the ridges in the lateral ventricles of the human brain, and is believed to be the seat of memory and emotion tin the human body, but she might as well have been talking about something bigger, wider, more national in scope. She could be referencing the national memory bank.

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ONE THING for sure: The memory bank of the Democratic leadership wasn’t working. The effort to stop Kavanaugh was hampered by too long and deep a look in the rear-view mirror. Blasey’s allegations were utterly necessary to be heard; the FBI investigation that ensued deserved more than the limits imposed by the Trump White House, operational handcuffs that rendered that investigation almost nonexistent in real terms.

But the bid to stop Kavanaugh’s appointment was one-dimensional. From almost the beginning, the Democrats framed the possible confirmation of Kavanaugh as a battle against the judge as a teenager who got away with sexual assault, as a juvenile whose escapades were possibly criminal. Over time, it seemed, there was no other calculus, nothing else of any importance to be brought to bear in the discussion. Kavanaugh’s situational tolerance for women and their reproductive rights was the crux of the debate.

Not enough was said during or after the hearings about Kavanaugh’s proven occasions with perjury: His embroideries at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s most recent hearing, and at hearings in 2004 and 2006.


His unforced ethical errors going back to 2002 and 2003, when Kavanaugh was a Bush 44 White House lawyer who secretly harvested intel from documents belonging to the staff of Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, a committee member.

His apparent misstatements about his knowledge of the Bush 44 warrantless wiretapping program and torture policy.

The Democrats could have made a better, more judicially credible case — considering the sexist, deeply provincial, institutionally obsessive Republican lawmaker audience they were trying to persuade — if they’d played down targeting Kavanaugh for what he did in high school and focused more on what Kavanaugh did in the years since, as a fully formed grown-ass man who’s been in the national judiciary for at least a dozen recent years.

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Instead, we got spectacle, one that distilled not just the difference between Democrats and Republicans but also that variable gulf between women and men — itself distilled in the difference between a frightened but courageous woman bringing truth to power and a powerful, ambitious judge with a Trumpian ego.

Equally obvious to the American people was the spectre of Brett Michael Kavanaugh, a tirelessly strategic judicial careerist whose behavior on Thursday — veering from fulminating complainer to mewling sentimentalist — led enlightened minds to dread what he would be like either under the influence or under the black robe of the high court. What lane would he drive in, what was his emotional baseline, his tolerance for robust debate? Can he stand to not get his way?

We asked those questions even though we know, at least partly, what Kavanaugh’s evident rage was all about: In Dr. Ford’s allegations, he was forced to deal with someone he couldn’t bully, a woman smarter and more emotionally grounded than he is by orders of magnitude. He knew he was outclassed from the jump; all he could bring to the table at his committee hearing was white-hot, white male rage. He did, and it was not a good look.

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THAT WAS THE week that will be: The pepper pot from South Carolina, Lindsay Graham, snarled more than usual in his defense of Kavanaugh last week. Orrin Hatch stained his long career in the Senate. And President* Trump, who’d appeared to be backing away from his own latest high-court pick, kept his powder dry and waited for the Senate to vote. The Senate did just that, with Maine Senator Nancy Collins — the deciding vote — taking 45 minutes to rationalize a surrender, to announce an obsequiousness that was obvious the moment she opened her mouth.

And then, there it was from Monday, Oct. 8, that image you couldn’t help seeing: Kavanaugh in the White House, taking a ceremonial oath of office. It was everywhere.

His first day on the bench, he played the avid student sent from Central Casting: solicitous, serious, no doubt a bit starstruck. “I’m honored to serve alongside all of my new colleagues, each of whom I know, and each of whom I greatly admire and deeply respect,” Kavanaugh said.

“My focus now is to be the best justice I can be. I take this office with gratitude and no bitterness. On the Supreme Court, I will seek to be a force for stability and unity. My goal is to be a great justice for all Americans and for all of America.”

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We’re about to find out what kind of America Justice Kavanaugh envisions. But some engrams cut deeper than others; some things you can’t forget, or you can’t stop speculating on why you can’t forget them. We saw the protests and pickets, the people dragged from the hearings; we remember the picture of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, cornered in an elevator like a rat in a cage. We saw shouting and countershouting, pickets and shoving and all the barbed vitriol you could ask for. Unless you were asking for a real conversation.

And just as indelible in the media hippocampus, inescapable if you were watching the hearings on TV, was the sight of the woman at the nominee’s distant right: Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, his wife and mother of his children, who sat maybe six feet behind her husband with an undisguisable expression, one that brought the emotional centerpiece of the Kavanaugh case roaring back into focus.

It wasn’t the expression of a wife being supportive or steely in the face of ridiculous claims against her husband. You could charitably describe it as something more, something deeper and more quietly, agonizingly profound.

Maybe it was sadness, or worry, or residual exhaustion after the previous two or three months of circus. Maybe it was pity, or even fear. But she wouldn’t be much of a human being, she couldn’t be much of an American woman in the 21st century without also betraying that visage of doubt, the sign in her face that, for at least those semi-private moments, Ashley Kavanaugh entertained a notion she’d be loathe to ever filter through the lens of intellect and interview and public scrutiny, a possibility she would never, ever admit out loud: What if maybe, just maybe, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez and all the others were telling the truth?

Image credits: All images: Screengrabs from the hearing broadcast.

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