the body politic

The Road to Progress Is Paved With Pain

Protesters rallying against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in New York. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Today, as United States Senate Republicans, minus the vote of one Republican woman and with the help of one Democratic man, vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, we can see very clearly what is happening. They are shoring up the power of the minority in this country over its majority population, and in doing so, acting to subvert the founding promises — of democracy and representation — which have always been hollow, yet have been the notions to which that minority power has clung with dishonest reverence.

In gaining control of the Supreme Court that may last them generations, they will be able to reverse the progress that had been made, over centuries, by previous generations of angry protesters, loudmouths, and hysterics. A court cemented by the confirmation of an ill-tempered and elite Beach Week participant, a seemingly congenital perjurer and alleged perpetrator in at least two credible instances of assault, will likely work to dismantle workplace and collective bargaining protections, what’s left of affirmative action, abortion rights and perhaps access to birth control itself, and of course the promise of full enfranchisement — the true and most powerful tool of our theoretical democracy.

The behaviors of the past few weeks — the actual logistical efforts made by Republicans to discredit, disarm, and punish those who would impede their further accumulation of power — are the meta rehearsal of what they want to do on a grand legal and legislative scale: They want to ensure that minority rulers in this country, will never again have to “put up with” the objections made in loud voices — or take into consideration the popular yearning for dignity, respect, recognition and full participation that those voices might be channeling.

That they succeeded gives us every reason to feel defeated, dead inside. I was poleaxed yesterday by a social media message from the activist Allison Turkos, who had confronted Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and spoken to him directly on Thursday, asked how he would vote, and told him of her experience as a survivor of sexual assault. “I have no words, I have no tears,” Turkos wrote. “I have no feeling. I gave it all away. I emptied every part of me. They didn’t care. They didn’t hear, they didn’t believe. They’re voting against us. I begged you to #Believe Survivors and it did nothing.”

But I believe — perhaps I have to believe, but there you go, I have to believe — that the point is that indeed they did hear, did believe, and that they were terrified. Those big powerful men were so scared they couldn’t look women in the eyes and tell them the truth about how they were planning to vote to contain and quell their power.

And the fact is, they have reason to fear those women and men who had come to try to halt their illegitimate and undemocratic attempts to bolster minority rule. After all, they wouldn’t have so much progress to reverse if that progress hadn’t been made in the first place by masses of people willing to yell and scream and sit and organize and run and devote entire lives to trying to make this country something better than it is — something closer to what it always claimed to be.

Even now, in this moment of terrible, long-term, consequentially chilling defeat, those who voiced their fury did something incredibly powerful: They made this all so visible; we can see it, write about it, show the world what just happened. Here was a view of the powerful, old white men — in power for so long that they can call up tape of how they dismissed and derided Anita Hill — and the white women, the “female assistants” and partisan handmaidens who are eager, perhaps avid, to help them in their pursuit of further suffocating authority. We heard and saw Turkos confronting Manchin, Jess Morales confronting Ted Cruz, and of course Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher demanding that Jeff Flake look them in their eyes. And then we watched all of those men vote for Kavanaugh.

To say that a beast of mass dissent has been waking up for a while — from Occupy and Black Lives Matter, through the women’s marches and teachers’ and fast food workers’ strikes happening in recent weeks — is no silver lining. This shouldn’t make us feel good. This should make us feel aware that the fight ahead is endless, and will be ugly, and that millions of us will not live long enough to see it succeed against attempts to quash it.

Women protest the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 1991.
Women protest the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in October of 1991. Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP

Friday, October 5, was the anniversary of the New York Times’ story on Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault, making it the unofficial anniversary of #MeToo, a movement that is itself an extension of Tarana Burke’s 2006 Me Too movement to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual assault, which was itself a form of resistance enabled by the testimony of Anita Hill, which itself was grounded in the legal cases asserting sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination, brought by women of color in the 1970s and drawing their basis in civil rights law on racial discrimination, themselves precipitated by centuries of mass protest movements.

This road is winding, long, unjust and cruel. It is set up to make victories — legal, electoral, moral — few and far between. But it also shows us, sometimes in blinkingly small and incomplete instances, that those victories are sometimes possible. If they weren’t, these powerful men and their allies wouldn’t be so desperate to silence and stop the masses from exerting their will, their rights, and their humanity as somehow equal to the humanity of those who wield power over them.

On the same day that the we learned that Brett Kavanaugh would be confirmed to the Supreme Court, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder for the death of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old boy shot 16 times dead in 2014 as he was walking away from police officers. The poet Nate Marshall, in a piece at BuzzFeed noting the historic nature of this conviction — Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer convicted of murder in more than 50 years — described how, while he wanted to “feel joy…vindication…righteous relief…[and] the satisfaction in knowing that the work of organizers, activists, artists, and so many everyday people across the city and country was not in vain, that there was restitution for the theft of a young man’s life,” what he mostly feels instead is sad, and aware that it “should not take the continued martyrdom of black people to expose the country’s moral bankruptcy.” And yet, Marshall went on, he retains some hope that “this verdict opens a small window through which we might reconsider, as a society, what justice looks like.”

This is the brutally hard, but morally crucial project ahead.

The Road to Progress Is Paved With Pain