Secrecy dominates this world, and first and foremost as the secret of domination.
—Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1998
Periodically, it seems, the fake language of power is pushed aside by the real language of power on the floor of the U.S. Senate, in a hearing for the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice nominee. In the current iteration, the real language of power came out in the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, recounting the attempted rape that she suffered at the hands of nominee Brett Kavanaugh when she was fifteen years old and he was seventeen, and then in the belligerent response from Kavanaugh.
The fake language of power is measured and closely considered, while the real language of power is raw and brutal. The latter is usually heard only behind closed, locked doors. It is there reduced to its most basic elements: coercion and control carried out through brute force. The message is physical: I can do whatever I want to you, take whatever I want from you, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. When an individual, however young, however drunk, feels this power, and likes it, it changes him. He will never be the same.
In the sexual seizure of adolescence and early adulthood, some males cross the line into assault, and once they do that, it is no longer about the sex for them: it is about control and power and the cruelty involved. Rape is an act of war. On the same day as the Kavanaugh hearings, it was announced that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2018 was awarded to Nadia Murad, who has become a spokeswoman for survivors of sexual violence by ISIS, and to Dr. Denis Mukwege, who has treated thousands of women survivors of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Upon hearing of the award, Dr. Mukwege told reporters: “This Nobel Prize reflects the recognition of suffering and the lack of a just reparation for women victims of rape and sexual violence in all countries of the world and on all continents” and he dedicated the Nobel Peace Prize to “women of all countries bruised by conflict and facing everyday violence.”
In his own prepared remarks before the Judiciary Committee, Brett Kavanaugh sliced through the facade of civility behind which he had been hiding throughout the rest of the hearings. Coached by the White House in the Trumpian method, he lashed out at his accusers while assuming the role of victim, and voiced the frustrations of a white male whose privilege is threatened: How dare you question me! I was born to be here. I worked my tail off. I was at the top of my class at prep school and at Yale. I'm a judge!
Kavanaugh’s rant was one of the most striking enactments of the arrogance of unquestioned power and privilege that has appeared in public in recent memory. That pinched red face and porcine sniffing will not soon fade from our collective memory. Shy Southern belle flower Lindsey Graham was so caught up in it that he was moved to perform his own version of aggrieved manly indignation, to comic effect. To his Democratic tormentors, he hissed, “O how you want power, and I pray you never get it!”
In the end, what Kavanaugh made abundantly clear in his speech was that he believes that the law is, ultimately, a weapon for the powerful to use against the powerless. And he thus made clear why he was put in this place by a President who has spent his entire life flaunting his impunity to the rule of law, based on his wealth and privilege and celebrity, and is now given free rein to extend that impunity. Sexual harassment and assault and unequal justice are inextricably bound. “You can do anything—grab ‘em by the pussy!”
We now have two sitting Supreme Court justices who demonstrably do not believe in the principle inscribed over the entrance to the Court: EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. Clarence Thomas clapped loudly as Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in by Trump.
In her testimony, Dr. Blasey Ford said the thing that was most indelible in her memory was the laughter of Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge as they attacked her. And when Donald Trump mocked Dr. Blasey Ford's testimony later, and the rally crowd of supporters laughed and cheered, one got a sense of the psychopathology of the current moment in U.S. politics. When enough people in the country get a taste for the real language of power, and they like it, we are moving into extremely dangerous territory. It is their laughter that should alert us to the coming peril.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss is the author of the forthcoming book Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (The MIT Press, 2020), and Chair of the MFA program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York.