Try as I might to rise above it, I felt a visceral dislike for the men grilling Biden’s supreme court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson
For sheer drama, we will probably never match the spectacle of Judge Brett Kavanaugh snivelling through his supreme court confirmation hearings in 2018. But this week’s hearing by the Senate judiciary committee to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s pick for the supreme court, came a close second. There was Republican senator Josh Hawley asking Jackson if she was soft on child molesters. There was Lindsey Graham, going on a rant that, if not quite expletive-filled, took on a playground quality with language like “crap”, “ass” and “how would you feel if we did that to you?” And there was Ted Cruz, straight-facedly asking Jackson if she thinks babies are racist. Along with someone throwing a pie at Rupert Murdoch and Zoom meetings of the Handforth parish council, it was up there with the best histrionics of the committee room canon.
Jackson herself was almost supernaturally composed, occasionally letting a pause extend a beat beyond normal to indicate the scale of the resources required to stay calm. The confirmation hearings at the supreme court have become a grandstanding opportunity for ambitious senators, rather than a useful extra-legal enquiry, and of course they are completely partisan. But while, four years ago, no one but the staunchest Republican could hear Kavanaugh’s inarticulate address and conclude he occupied his seat on merit alone, the visceral dislike many of us on the left felt towards, say, Amy Coney Barrett, seemed to me not entirely premised on her performance and track record.
What I mean by that, is that while Coney Barrett’s thoughts on abortion and connection to groups such as People of Praise were legitimately concerning, there was, on my part at least, also a visceral dislike of the woman that took much more personal form. Ugh, I recall thinking, while watching her confirmation hearing; look at her fanatically straight hair and beady little eyes. She’s clearly a Catholic fundamentalist. And what’s up with her adoption of all those children? In spite of the mixed racial makeup of her family, I bet at heart she’s a massive racist. So my internal judgments jogged along, and very enjoyable they were, too, premised as they were on moral superiority. In similar form, one can imagine without too much effort, what visceral responses Jackson’s broad outline might trigger in spectators on the right.
I don’t mean to erase the two women’s legitimate differences. Late last year, Barrett, in the course of hearing an abortion case, made the bizarre and, to my mind, woefully wrong-headed assertion that adoption rendered many abortions unnecessary. But it was still a useful thought experiment to consider that nominees put forward to the supreme court by Republican presidents were as subject to extra-judicial dislike as those coming in from the left. Unlike Kavanaugh, Barrett is clearly highly intelligent and extremely well qualified. With super-human effort, I can stop the domino-run of character assassination that takes off once I understand that I don’t like her politics, and consider the possibility that she’s not a bad judge.
Where this experiment falls down is in trying to extend the same largesse to the Republican senators themselves. However hard I try, I can’t put most Republican senators in the same category as Dianne Feinstein. I can concentrate on keeping my responses relevant until my veins stand out, but a single image of Hawley will trigger a flood of judgment that always terminates in, oh, gross, what a terrible little runt that man is: he’s literally got a pin head. This is not a helpful or sophisticated response, but oh God, here comes Ted Cruz: the state of that man.
This kind of reflex attack is recreational and tribal, used on both sides to foment connections with others who feel the same way. Increasingly, I wonder if the extreme sport of giving a minute to the possibility that, in some of our responses, we’re as trigger-happy as the other lot, is a beneficial undertaking worth putting time in to. Aren’t we as childish as them, sometimes? And as reluctant to take into account the whole story? I can do this, I think. I can consider people I violently disagree with fully rounded human beings worthy of consideration and respect. And then I’m caught off guard by a clip of Graham, scurrying out of the committee room like a tiny, angry blond mole. The state of that man. And there it is; all my mature aims, once again, lost.
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