OPED: In daylong Senate hearings, a circus of human pain

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh speaks at the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool Image via AP)

“This is a circus,” roared the furious Judge Brett Kavanaugh, reflecting how we often respond when a seemingly controlled life of achievement devolves into escalating chaos that we discover we can’t control. We’re all in show business. But that was not the right metaphor for a dramatic spectacle Thursday so raw, so gripping, so emotional, so terrifying, frankly, that anyone who started watching could not pull themselves away.

Not unless you meant the circus of human pain.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, a woman who accused him of sexual assault in the 1980s, testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C. This was a day so excruciating, in fact, so relentless in its emotional cruelty, that merely to consume it (all day long) involved feelings of personal guilt. It was a reminder, another reminder, of the ineptness of the U.S. Senate when it comes to the safe and fair examination of personal accusation.

Thursday morning, between monologuing senators arguing about their own palpably destructive procedures and sticking to their talking points, America watched an unspeakably brave woman reliving something that remained firmly in her present.

Memories of traumatic events do not leave us and are often manifest in overt vulnerability, which requires enormous strength to live with, let alone overcome. Anyone who follows the theater, that art form where we come together to hear often painful stories of past experiences in the hope that we might better learn how to live together on this planet, comes to prize moments when we watch what seems like life being lived in the moment. See enough of it and you learn when pain is fake.

But our most vaunted theater actors are people living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. It is actually far more difficult to live truthfully in truthful and terrible circumstances. That was what Ford clearly was doing Thursday morning; to interpret her testimony, as intellectually rich as it was sincere, merely as a performance or an act of political partisanship was to suggest an acting ability so profound as to be inconceivable.

Everything about Ford – her trapped voice, her gulps, her presence in the moment, her forthcoming nature, the desire for everything to be over – rang true. Whatever one’s political stripe, no reasonable person with an open mind could possibly doubt that this was anything other than her personal truth.

But in this particular arena, even this could not be conceded.

To many of us watching, this day was a clear delineation of how privileged winners get to write their own history of personal achievement; their victims must suffer in silence. It also was a reminder of how a night trivial in memory to one party can be catastrophic to another, ricocheting through decades of her subsequent life, changing everything from her voice to her potential for happiness.

Once Kavanaugh took the stand, he roared and railed like Coriolanus in a tragic Shakespearean mixture of anger, defiance and sorrow. The senators certainly looked Shakespearean in their pervasive pettiness, nattering nabobs of repetition and personal brand burnishment, lacking in feeling and consumed by covering themselves. Even as those before them suffered.

That said, tragic metaphors don’t sit so easily with a defense that include the cultural dominance of “Porky’s” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as potential evidence.

More clearly than ever before, the horrors of a youth in the cultural petri dish of the early 1980s was on naked display. What was the impact of those Hollywood films on the young men who watched them? This was the formative era of many of those who now are being called to account. What did those movies do?

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Kavanaugh’s rage was understandable and unsurprising: after all, his potential fate was professional death, at a minimum, and he surely had intuited the most likely result of the day, which would be no conclusive disposition of what had happened. All historical events are, by their very definition, absent and subject to interpretation. But what was so extraordinary about this event was its very existence was contested by Kavanaugh. He found himself in a fight not so much about what happened on the night in question, but whether it happened at all.

On a deeper level, Kavanaugh also had clearly figured out he was caught in precisely the kind of trap that befell Oedipus the King in the iconic Sophocles play of that name.

He surely knew that the anger he needed to summon to defend himself against what he saw as a smear campaign by the Democrats on the committee would, in fact, disqualify him for the very job he sought: that of a nonpartisan judge capable of gaining the trust and respect of all Americans. Especially its women.

He knew he could not win. His fate was otherwise.

— Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.