Once again I have been casting my subjective eye over the cultural landscape, a landscape that is always changing in ways one can never imagine. For some 2 years now the main news story worldwide was Donald Trump. However, for the past few weeks the biggest news story in America has been focused not on Trump but instead on Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh is Trump’s second pick to be a justice to reside on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States of America. Neil Gorsuch was his first.
Close to the time of writing, the Senate confirmed 53 year old Kavanaugh as the 114th Supreme Court justice by a vote of 50 to 48, one of the narrowest margins in Senate history. 50 is actually the lowest number of votes for a Supreme Court justice ever, but it is also the most yeses Kavanaugh has probably ever heard in his life (thanks to Saturday Night Live for that joke). And this all came after arguably the most bitterly partisan political and cultural battle in modern American history. So divisive has this confirmation battle been that it seems to have touched all aspects of American society, as well as generating headlines all over the rest of the globe.
But why all this fuss? It is due to the controversy surrounding Kavanaugh who has multiple allegations of sexual misconduct placed against him, notably from Dr Christine Blasey Ford. I will spare you the details of these allegations as much has already been written on this subject. I am more interested in the broader impact of this whole saga, and just how wide-ranging various reactions have been.
To the delight of the Republican party Kavanaugh did not back down in the face of all of these accusations. On the contrary, in a snarling refrain in front of a Congress committee that must seem all-too-familiar to victims of sexual assault, Kavanaugh angrily insisted “you’ll never get me to quit.” So strange was his performance that the satirical TV show Saturday Night Live got Hollywood star Matt Damon to play the role of Kavanaugh in the opening sketch of the first episode of their new season.
Dr Ford also gave her testimony to the same Senate judiciary committee, testifying against Kavanaugh. Whilst the entire day of testimony made for compelling TV viewing, Republicans could not hide the dire spectacle of 11 white men sitting in judgment over one clearly sincere white woman. The chairman was Chuck Grassley, an 85 year old from Iowa. Orrin Hatch, an 84 year old from Utah, described Ford as an “attractive” and “pleasing” witness (not creepy at all). Despite this, so momentous was her credible and emotional performance that Time magazine decide to put Dr Ford and her powerful words on their prestigious front cover:
By now the fault lines in America were all too clear for all to see. Divisions were there not just in political terms, but also in terms of gender, and they were getting wider and deeper. The divided rhetoric on all sides had curdled to such a nasty and pungent degree that one could easily think things could not possibly get any worse. And then along comes Trump and decides to mock Dr Ford and her testimony in front of thousands of his supporters. And much laughter ensued. My own reaction to seeing the so called most powerful person on the planet do such a thing was stomach churning. This is not the first time Trump has cruelly mocked someone, but this time it felt a little colder and crueller than previous occasions. The comedian Sarah Silverman responded to the mocking by Trump by saying:
He’s not even worth it. He is a void. He’s unwell, he’s building an incredible case for an insanity plea. – Sarah Silverman
Fellow comedian Jim Jefferies also joined the debate by making a rather relevant point about the legal hypocrisy surrounding how the Republicans are reacting to all this:
Conservatives need to make their minds up. If a Mexican gets busted for an ounce of weed, Republicans think “a threat to the community.” But when a prep school kid is accused of sexual assault, suddenly they’re all about “due process.” Which is it? – Jim Jefferies
As seems to be the occurrence now in such matters, weird and wonderful conspiracy theories have made their way on to social media. My favourite occurred on Friday when Trump, making a shameful moment in American history that bit more shameful, tweeted that the anti-Kavanaugh protesters on Capitol Hill were all “paid for by Soros,” repeating a common conspiracy-theory surrounding George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust-survivor and financier, a claim that is obviously false.
Say what you like about the Republican party machine but they are ruthless in their endeavours, in this case getting their man on to the Supreme Court. This ruthless streak is captured so poetically by the cartoonist Mr Fish:
Whilst this particular cartoon was rather brutal in making its point, it was another cartoon that caused a much larger stir. There is a line that political cartoons rarely cross, and that is you do not parody or lampoon the children of political figures if they are minors, much in the same way that White House correspondents generally do not write about the personal lives of underage members of the first family. However, veteran cartoonist Chris Britt decided to cross that line with the following image:
The cartoon depicts 10-year-old Liza Kavanaugh praying to God about her father. She is kneeling by her bedside and saying “Dear God, forgive my angry, lying, alcoholic father for sexually assaulting Dr Ford.” The cartoon parodies the opening statement by Kavanaugh during his committee appearance last week, where he emotionally recounted that his daughter had said to her mother that “we should pray for the woman,” referring to Dr Ford.
Some have argued that Kavanaugh should not be the most important news story in the States. In a newspaper interview satirist Bill Maher suggested that perhaps it should be the environment, but then offered reasons as to why it is not:
When was the last time anyone discussed the environment? It gets lost, because Trump sets off 100 bombs a week and we chase every one of them. Meanwhile, slowly we become inhabitants of a less and less inhabitable planet. That problem didn’t go away just because we are interested in what happened to Brett Kavanaugh in high school. There are so many issues like that. – Bill Maher
And recently on his TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, there was a brief discussion about another rather important news story, one involving the fact that Trump and his father managed to con their way out of paying half a billion dollars in inheritance tax to the American government. Maher asked his panel of guests why this particular story wasn’t as big of an issue as perhaps it should be. No real answer was given by anyone. However, one of the guests did make the following point regarding the New York Times report on the Trump family fortune:
We’ve always known this president is a conman, right, and so he engaged in tax planning but he also engaged in tax fraud. That was in the New York Times article, deliberate tax fraud. I think the big takeaway from the New York Times story is what a terrible businessperson Donald Trump actually is. And here’s what I mean by that. This is a guy that we know was born on third base and the idiot, instead of stealing home, stole second, right. This is a guy who figured out how to lose everything his father gave him, and then asked for a bail out. – David Jolly, former congressman for Florida
The Kavanaugh saga has already done many things in American society, one of the main things being is causing further divisions. With the recent confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, and followed soon by the midterm elections, there is no doubt this polarization will only increase in the days and weeks ahead. Guardian journalist David Smith described just some of the ways these divisions manifest themselves:
The only thing everyone agrees on is that the division runs deep – and no one is quite sure where it is heading…At almost every turn, the battle lines are drawn. Black against white, college-educated against not, “expert” against “deplorable”, hipster against hunter, Hollywood against heartland, liberal against conservative, pro-choice against pro-life, secular against Christian, urban against rural, woman against man, young against old, citizens of nowhere against citizens of somewhere…Duck Dynasty vs Modern Family. – David Smith
Another line of division seems to be around who is the actual victim and who is the assailant. President Trump, whilst standing on the White House lawn, told reporters that the reaction to the allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct against Kavanaugh now makes it a dangerous time for men:
It is a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very, very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. It really does. You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life and somebody could accuse you of something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman, as everybody says. But somebody could accuse you of something and you’re automatically guilty. But in this realm you are truly guilty until proven innocent. That’s one of the very, very bad things that’s taking place right now. – President Trump
Whilst this comment was strange enough (straight white male privilege still rules the world), something even stranger followed: Democratic supporter Bill Maher kind of agreed with Trump, his arch-nemesis, again on his show Real Time. Maher asked guests the following conundrum:
I do think that when Trump said “It’s a very scary time for young men…” Yes, let’s get out the world’s smallest violin but, wait, let me just ask a question first, okay. It does seem like things have morphed from ‘listen to any woman who says she’s been wronged,’ which is the right thing to do, to ‘automatically believe.’ That’s what’s scary. – Bill Maher
So even bleeding heart liberals are getting confused as to where the battle lines are. And such is the wide social impact of this news story that it has even crossed over religious boundaries and is now directly affecting Muslims, more specifically one in particular. Imam Zaid Shakir is the Muslim-American co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is the other co-founder). Shakir had to delete a 1,300 word Facebook post after receiving a backlash for suggesting sharia law should be applied in judging if Dr Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh are credible. He began by saying “I do not support the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. My position, however, is based neither on the accusations nor the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.” The Imam went on to say he did not support Kavanaugh because he believes “he lied under oath” and is “too politically partisan to sit on the Supreme Court.”
But then Shakir went on to say that he believes Ford’s allegations “cannot be used as evidence against Judge Kavanaugh.” He based his reasoning on “Muslim teachings” from the Qur’an, citing verse 24:4 which says “Those who bring charges of sexual improprieties against chaste women, then fail to come forth with four corroborating witnesses, lash them eighty times and never again accept their testimony. Such are truly corrupt.”
He also cited following verses which warn against alleging accusations without witnesses and claim those who do so “are liars in the sight of God.”
“The honor these verses are designed to protect is real, as are the condemnations they issue, as well as the punishments they threaten,” Shakir wrote. Echoing the aforementioned views of Trump and Maher, Shakir added “If anyone can randomly produce vile accusations against anyone they please, and the only standard assessing the veracity of those accusations is our subjective feeling concerning the credibility of the accuser or the accused, none of us would be safe against the impugnment of his or her honor.”
The post was later deleted after backlash but Shakir followed-up in an additional post where he claimed he deleted the original because he “misused verses from the Qur’an to support an argument that would have been more correctly supported by another verse” and because “some people, especially sisters, have been harmed and I am not in the business of harming people.”
In another follow-up post he walked back his claim that Dr Ford needed four witnesses and said “anyone accusing someone of sexual violence, such as attempted rape, need not bring forth four witnesses to corroborate their claim. Furthermore, they are clear of any crime or sin unless after a proper investigation the accuser is proven to have lied.”
“While I apologize for that lack of clarity and any hurt it may have caused, I do warn against diminishing the power of patience and prayer,” he added. “There is always more that can be said about any issue, but I will take my own advice and shut up, pray, and be patient with Allah’s decree.”
The battle over Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is over and the Republicans have won, they now have their long desired conservative majority on the Court. But, mark my words, this whole affair involving Kavanaugh and Dr Ford is far from over. The political, legal, and cultural ramifications will continue to echo throughout American society for years to come. I leave you with selected quotes from an article written by the British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, an article where she speaks not just about Trump and Kavanaugh but also about the winners of the recent Nobel Peace Prize.
Donald Trump Has Turned America Into A Place Where Victims Are Mocked And Being Merciless Is A Virtue
Shappi Khorsandi, 06 Oct 2018, independent.co.uk
Trump could not have mocked someone’s account of sexual abuse in the first week of his candidacy. He and the culture he represents have built up to this and they are still building.
I was delighted to hear that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to two people fighting to end sexual violence rather than to a golf enthusiast with bog roll on his shoes who likes to publicly mock those who say they are victims of sexual violence. Restores faith, y’know?
Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were selected over Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to win this year’s prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. Mukwege is a gynaecologist who, despite threats to his own life, has looked after thousands of people who have been sexually assaulted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Murad is a 25-year-old Yazidi woman who was kidnapped by Islamic State militants and held as a sex slave.
Hold on, I need to repeat what happened because I don’t think it’s sunk in even with myself fully yet. The president of the United States of America stood on a podium, at a rally, and mocked a woman for telling her story of being sexually assaulted and everybody laughed and applauded. There isn’t a Nobel Prize for Utterly Sordid Bastardry so how he got a nomination in the first place is puzzling. Trump could not have mocked someone’s account of sexual abuse in the first week of his candidacy. He and the culture he represents have built up to this and they are still building.
In the Trump culture, being merciless has become a virtue. Those who are brave enough to tell their stories of abuse are “hysterical”. Speaking up against abuse and atrocities is seen as a weakness and those who do this must be mocked and humiliated.