• They Don’t Want to Know: Rebecca Solnit on Brett Kavanaugh and the Denial of Old White Men

    "There are so many witnesses. Their statements add up."

    The following article has been updated to reflect developing elements of this story.

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    They don’t want to know. They don’t want to know what these women or any women have experienced and what they have to say. They don’t want to add up the pieces of what all the people who knew Brett Kavanaugh as an incoherent hardcore drunk in his youth have told us about him. Kavanaugh doesn’t want to know—he told Senator Kamala Harris that he didn’t listen to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony as any lawyer looking to understand what the charges are would, to understand how to refute the specifics (or he lied under oath about this, since The Week reports, “On Thursday, morning, a Senate Judiciary Committee aide told The Wall Street Journal that Kavanaugh was watching Ford testify from a monitor in a separate room in the Dirksen Senate Building.”).

    He is from a culture of the suppression of knowledge, and he has told us so directly. He joked in a 2015 speech “What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep,” a familiar phrase that in its various versions has justified a tribalism that protects its own against the larger society by hiding facts. In his senior yearbook page from that elite school, he wrote, “He who would live in peace and at ease must not speak all he knows, nor JUDGE all he sees.” In addition to being a phrase in praise of denial, it’s an apparent joking reference to his friend Mark Judge. Judge is who Ford says was his accomplice in attacking her. Judge has refused to testify and the Republican-led Judiciary Commission has refused to subpoena him, voting down a move by Senator Blumenthal today to use this means to oblige him to tell us what he knows.

    Judge’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Rasor told the New Yorker that Judge had confessed to taking part in what appears to have been a gang rape: “Rasor recalled that Judge had told her ashamedly of an incident that involved him and other boys taking turns having sex with a drunk woman,” which might not have been regarded as rape then but is now. Gang-raping intoxicated and incapacitated girls is exactly what Julie Swetnick, the would-be witness who  came forward Wednesday, states that Kavanaugh and Judge did at the parties she attended. Many conservatives responded by blaming her for not reporting it at the time, rather than understand how seldom there were consequences for such reports then, how often victims were blamed, how readily rapists still get off—and how bystanders and victims are not responsible for rape, rapists are.

    Update: Judge, who had essentially gone into hiding, has agreed to cooperate with the FBI.

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    The Republicans supporting Kavanaugh do not want to know. When they claim to be shocked or incredulous about allegations of gang rape at preppies’ parties, they demonstrate that they have avoided the many, many stories that have been in the news the last several years about gang rapes by high-school athletes and college fraternity members, as recently as last week in the Washington Post. They don’t want to know how ordinary it is for the attacked to tell the truth and attackers to lie, in all crimes, not just sexual assault.

    They have decided, now that the cost of smearing victims the way they did Anita Hill—as delusional, fantasizing, manipulative—is too high, to pretend they care but to delicately, gingerly just pretend she doesn’t exist in any way that matters. They have denied her capacity to bear witness and the consequences of her testimony under oath as thoroughly as they did Hill’s but not as honestly. There’s an old adage that you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts; these men feel entitled to their own facts and to make the facts of others go away. In their cosmology, the facts that matter belong to the people who matter, and Kavanaugh matters in this scheme and Ford does not.

    “From beginning to end, the Kavanaugh nomination has been about thwarting knowledge and awareness.”

    While they pretend to pity the victim, these men reserve their real pity for the man who is alleged to have raped her and for all (white) men whose impunity is under threat now. They do not want to know what it means to be a victim; they insist on limiting their awareness to what it feels like to be an accused victimizer nd to make that victimizer over into the true victim. Their indignation—and Kavanaugh’s fury, displayed in red-faced shouting and histrionic tears of rage—is that anyone dare to hold a white male product of the country’s most elite institutions accountable.

    What has in the past been subtle is now obvious: this is a battle over whether this will be a country for all of us, a democracy in which everyone matters and all are equal, or a citadel of white male privilege. They are a minority—including babies and boys, white males make up a third of this country—but have long held majority power and are in a rageful panic about its ebb. This nomination is a power grab for the party committed to representing them at everyone else’s expense. That’s out in the open now; that clarity may mean that even if they win this battle, they’ve committed themselves to losing the war, because there will be backlash.

    I’m listening as I write this to Senator Ted Cruz denounce the “sensational, ridiculous charges”—attacking the victim directly now—and fret about Kavanaugh’s daughters because “these little girls have classmates of theirs repeat these charges to them.” It is the fault of rape victims that rape charges are unpleasant for the family; victims should shut up to protect the children from knowing who their father is. They could investigate his guilt or innocence, but they have chosen to suppress rather than pursue truth.

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    Cruz is now talking about Kavanaugh’s reputation of “being a boring boy scout: that’s been his reputation for a long time.” If you ask his college roommates and acquaintances you get other stories—about drunkenness and partying. If you ask three women and the people who back up their stories, he is a man who has treated women as having no inherent right to bodily boundaries and dignity to demonstrate dominion over them to other men. Kavanaugh keeps insisting that “the people who know me” affirm his version of who he is, which is an insistence that those who echo his version count and those who do not don’t count.

    The latest of his Yale friends, acquaintances, and roommates to come forward is Republican Lynne Brookes, who said on CNN “And there had to be a number of nights where he does not remember. In fact, I was witness to the night that he got tapped into that fraternity, and he was stumbling drunk in a ridiculous costume saying really dumb things. And I can almost guarantee that there’s no way that he remembers that night.” She is saying not knowing is fundamental to who he was, and by denying this he chooses not to know who he is. A person who does not know who he is, is dangerous, since he won’t hold himself accountable for what he did; a judge in this condition—since the judiciary is how all of us who come before it are held accountable—is outrageous. James Roche, his freshman roommate, said earlier that Kavanaugh was often “incoherently” drunk and became “aggressive and belligerent” in that  condition. There are so many witnesses. Another testifies to Kavanaugh’s vomit-caked dorm bathroom, because he was so habitually drunk and so habitually vomiting while drunk (and didn’t clean it up). Their statements add up.

    The desire to know and understand is perhaps the highest and most humane of all our impulses; it is the desire to open up, to grow, to reach out, to exceed one’s limits, to experience the humanity and truth of others. The pursuit of knowledge is the profession we pursue as lawyers, writers, historians, scientists, teachers, as it is that of anyone who seeks self-awareness and an understanding of the people and world around us. Or not. From beginning to end, the Kavanaugh nomination has been about thwarting knowledge and awareness, of denying the senate access to 100,000 pages of documents that would let him know what he actually did during the Bush Administration. We know enough, and we know that he has lied about receiving information stolen from the Democrats, distorted his record on many things. We have seen him prevaricate, waffle, and pretend to be confused and unable to remember when Kamala Harris asked him a simple yes or no question about recent actions, while he continues to insist his memory is unquestionable.

    “That Kavanaugh is not a nominee for a normal job makes this all the more grim and outrageous than it would be otherwise.”

    Alcohol in small quantities muffles acuity of perception—a glass of wine at dinner can make the day go into soft-focus; more can shift consciousness from soft-focus to dimness and incapacitation; yet more means blackouts in which consciousness is extinguished and/or memory of what happened while drunk is obliterated. Dr. Ford testified about the role of the hippocampus in memory formation; alcohol impairs that function; there is a state of inebriation in which memories are no longer being created. Alcohol is, in quantity, the drug of oblivion, of not knowing. I have been around men in drinking cultures where what happens while drunk is treated as off-limits while sober; it is supposed to be forgotten, ignored, off the record, not be held against the drinkers. “What happens at the party stays at the party.”

    Chris Hayes of MSNBC said, “The possibility hangs over all of this, one I return to over and over, that Blasey Ford’s account is absolutely true and that Kavanaugh has absolutely no memory of it and thinks he has been falsely accused.” Perhaps. Perhaps he is like many abusers who, when accused, respond something like “by saying I did this you are saying I am a bad person but I had the right to do it, I am guilty of nothing, and therefore you are wrong.” I wrote an essay this spring called “Nobody Knows” about how those regarded as nobody are treated as people without voices and rights; what those considered to be somebody who matters do to them they do to nobody. Nobody knows what you did, there are no witnesses, because this black person, this poor person, this child, this woman cannot bear witness; their word does not matter; their testimony has no consequences. Too many elites think that what they did to people who are no one is, categorically, nothing. And thus they are justified in claiming they did nothing and indignant w hen told they did something. I am not saying this is the case with Kavanaugh, but I am saying it is common.

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    Even our laws have enforced the nullity of some of us, not only as lacking rights but lacking the right to witness. In the notorious People vs. Hall case, California’s supreme court let off a murderer by ruling that the testimony of the three eyewitnesses—all Chinese—was inadmissible by an 1850 statue declaring that “no black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, a white person.” Truth and the ability to have our voices count is still something to which we have unequal access; #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are both movements to rectify this. The Republicans have demonstrated their commitment to rape culture, to a culture in which the voices of women will be ignored no matter regardless of the facts, in which men will be believed no matter how much evidence there is against them; and the racial equivalencies are everywhere we look, if we choose to.

    This unequal status is what has allowed so much sexual assault to be perpetrated, in the Catholic Church, in families, on campuses, so much sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. It is a direct consequence of the suppression of knowledge and the right and capacity of all of us to have it, to speak it and be heard, and to have consequences for our speech. Equality is one of the fundamental values of this country, delivered in small doses since 1776, and sometimes large ones—the freeing of enslaved people, the granting of voting rights to women, citizenship for Native Americans, the right to educational equality, the Civil Rights act, marriage equality.

    That Kavanaugh is not a nominee for a normal job makes this all the more grim and outrageous than it would be otherwise. The job of a Supreme Court justice is to fathom what is true and right, to defend that principle of equality under the law, to pursue justice through an honest quest for truth, to be nonpartisan.

    There is a stunning TV commercial making the rounds in which a series of white people denounce Paul Gosar, a candidate for reelection in Arizona. At the end you find out they’re his siblings who have chosen their values over their brother. There are two competing ideologies in this country, loyalty to fact-based ethics and loyalty to one’s tribe.

    Some of us are purely tribal—our loyalty is to our family, posse, gang, political party, identity group, no matter what. That’s been part of the gangster ethos of the Trump Administration. Others among us are ideological: our primary loyalty is to values and truth, and we will repudiate or tell harsh truths about even people we love if they violate those values. The tribalists will repudiate values to stay with the gang. It’s a way to understand how good Republicans are at cohesiveness and how bad Democrats can be, and why that is sometimes a good thing.

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    Kavanaugh, like so many of his kind, appears to be bound by loyalties to his elite organizations and to male privilege, white privilege, and the privileges of the wealthy, and to the party committed to all this, the Republican Party—whose ruthlessly partisan player he was and is. Often, membership in the clan makes its members themselves indifferent to the larger society and the rights and interests of other kinds of people. This loyalty also overrides their loyalty to truth and knowledge. It’s an ethos in which the power that resides in the elites stays in the elites, and what is known by outsiders stays outside.

    Rebecca Solnit
    Rebecca Solnit
    Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-five books on feminism, environmental and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and catastrophe. She co-edited the 2023 anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. Her other books include Orwell’s Roses; Recollections of My Nonexistence; Hope in the Dark; Men Explain Things to Me; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she writes regularly for the Guardian, serves on the board of the climate group Oil Change International, and in 2022 launched the climate project Not Too Late (nottoolateclimate.com).

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