Watching the Kavanaugh hearings

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Wednesday September 12, 2018
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Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. When Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, at least Californians can know that those two feminist badasses did everything in their power as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and as its most junior member, respectively, to stop it. The most compelling miniseries of the new fall TV season has been, without question, the hearings for SCOTUS nominee Kavanaugh. These hearings, broadcast live on C-SPAN and in part on CNN and MSNBC, have been an education. The best parts have reinforced the predicate of this republic: democracy, transparency of government, and exercise of our First Amendment rights.

There are historical points where TV really rises for us as a nation. We've just passed yet another 9/11 anniversary. We wrote here about what a unifying force TV was during those terrible and deeply emotional days after the worst terrorist attack in the mainland U.S. in our history. There have been definitive moments in which we have been united (or divided) since, and TV has highlighted those moments for us. We shall, for example, never forget the real-time ongoing news coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting two summers ago. Nor forget how gut-wrenching it was as parents and partners searched for their loved ones, already knowing that it was a futile search and that those bodies lay within the carnage that was left.

We've witnessed countess school shootings, Columbine to Parkland. And no one can ever forget the very specific horror that was Sandy Hook, because no one will ever be able to comprehend murdering 20 first graders at their desks 10 days before Christmas, no matter how long we live.

And so it is that we watched the Kavanaugh hearings, which addressed gun violence, anti-LGBT hate, and overwhelmingly, a woman's right to bodily autonomy. We watched Feinstein and Harris (as well as Mazie Hirono, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, in particular) elicit the most damning testimony from witnesses on Sept. 7. It's been difficult to watch some of this testimony because we know exactly how much our lives will be impacted by Kavanaugh's decisions.

As Feinstein and Harris have made clear, Kavanaugh is not on our side. He is not for the women and he is not for the gays. Whether trans people have even made it onto his radar seems dubious. There was no mention of trans issues in these hearings to our knowledge. Several Democratic senators had letters added into the testimony pile, and at least one of these was from a trans woman activist, Sarah McBride, who is the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.

It was Harris who first asked Kavanaugh if he viewed Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage, as landmark civil rights law. He refused to say it was. But he didn't just refuse to say it was, he referred to the June 2018 case of Masterpiece Cake Shop in which the SCOTUS ruled in favor of religious liberty over the rights of gay men and lesbians to get a wedding cake.

Kavanaugh referenced this case repeatedly when asked again about Obergefell by Harris, who dogged him on it, and by Hirono and by Feinstein. Booker and Harris tag-teamed on Obergefell. Booker asked point-blank if Kavanaugh believed it was "morally unacceptable" to fire a person because they were gay after asking him about firing women and people of color, which Kavanaugh said would be wrong. But when Booker asked if that was true about firing people on the basis of their sexual orientation, Kavanaugh demurred.

This is important for many reasons, not the least of which are that there is no federal law prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, and that in November 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions disallowed cases of anti-LGBT discrimination to be argued on the basis of Title IX, despite lower-court rulings.

Harris and Feinstein tweeted about their thoughts on Kavanaugh throughout the hearings, but on the final day, Sept. 7, they were vociferous. Harris noted Friday afternoon, "Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage across the country, and was one of the great moments in the history of the Supreme Court. Despite repeated questioning, Kavanaugh refused to say it was correctly decided." She attached her dramatic questioning of Kavanaugh, and it did not look good for him.

On that final day of hearings we were, as we have been much of the past two years, in a hospital. Watching CSPAN on our phone was quite the counterpoint to what we witnessed in the Kavanaugh hearings that day.

On Sept. 7 we watched Kavanaugh's character witnesses. These were almost wholly women and people of color who had been law students, law clerks and colleagues of Kavanaugh's. To a one they testified to what an empathetic and generous person he is. That seems indisputable. Kavanaugh works in soup kitchens. He mentors a group of black law students to further broaden the racial demographic of law clerks. He coaches one of his daughter's teams. He clearly has lots of women friends and colleagues who admire and respect him.

But also on that day were other testimonies, including those of three young teens. Aayalah Eastmond is a survivor of the Parkland school shooting. Her uncle was also killed in gun violence. Jackson Corbin has a genetic disorder that means he spends a hellish amount of time in hospitals and with specialists. Hunter LaChance has asthma.

These were kids who were TV perfect. Eastmond is a beautiful high school senior, with long braids and glowing dark skin. Corbin was an adorable Harry Potter-esque kid whose disease makes him small for his 13 years. And LaChance was a gorgeous 15-year-old sports enthusiast who also spends a lot of time in hospitals with uncontrolled asthma.

Eastmond's testimony was chilling. She was literally protected from being shot to death by the bodies of the two people who were shot in front of her in her classroom on Holocaust studies. She described every minute of the incident in her classroom, where there was not enough "safe" space in the room, and where people died. She described being "covered in blood and body matter," of phoning her parents and telling them she loved them and asking them to tell her siblings she loved them. She described being certain she was going to die. It was electric testimony during which she never wavered, never cried. She said, "Remember all victims of gun violence."

Then she referenced an incident those of us watching the hearings had witnessed the first day. Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the Parkland shooting, had introduced himself to Kavanaugh, mentioned his daughter and held out his hand to shake Kavanaugh's. Kavanaugh looked at him, then turned and walked away. Eastmond ended her statement, "If Judge Kavanaugh doesn't have the decency to shake the hand of the father of a victim of gun violence, he won't have the decency to protect us from gun violence."

There really wasn't any testimony over the week that was more powerful or more gutting.

Corbin described how his life will be at risk if the Affordable Care Act is overturned and his family can no longer get health insurance to cover his and his younger brother's pre-existing conditions. He detailed how he has been an activist for the past few years, for this. He is 13. He ended his statement saying, "I speak not just for children. I speak for everyone." We heard the haunting refrain of dozens of friends dead from AIDS over the years in his final caveat: "I speak for everyone who could be diagnosed tomorrow. I may still be a kid, but the decisions you make today will affect our futures."

LaChance held up a coffee-stirrer and asked the committee to try breathing through one. We know what that means because we have had asthma, like LaChance, since childhood. He argued for clean air, for climate science, for the lives of the millions of Americans impacted by lung disease and pollution. Something Californians experiencing ever-more-intense fire seasons have been living through, and trying to breathe through.

Then there was John Dean, former White House Counsel for Richard Nixon. Dean has become a bit of a darling of the Resistance since Trump's presidency. In exchange for a reduced sentence, this architect of the Watergate cover-up was a witness for the prosecution. Had Nixon not been pardoned by Gerald Ford, he would likely have gone to prison for the crimes detailed by Dean. As it was, he was the only president ever to have been forced to resign. Dean testified to how a pall will hang over Kavanaugh's term as SCOTUS justice, as it has for Clarence Thomas because of lies told during the Senate Judiciary hearings about Anita Hill. It was a brief but powerful statement.

The numbers aren't there for the Democrats. They are missing only a couple of votes, but missing they are. And on paper Kavanaugh looks great. By the time you read this, he may have already been confirmed and headed to the SCOTUS for the first Monday in October.

But that doesn't make this reporting here any less necessary. Our lives, as women, as LGBTQ, as people of color, as immigrants, as poor, sick and disabled, matter. Those lives rarely make it to the evening news or to proceedings like these. Our lives were put out there by Harris, Feinstein and Booker. They made clear how important LGBTQ people are, and in lieu of our own testimony, spoke for us. We were able to witness it in real time and know that we would not be voiceless in these hearings. Kavanaugh was held to scrutiny from these Democratic senators. Not from GOP senators.

While Kavanaugh may be a nice man in his personal life, that's not the role he will play for this nation. His originalist views are antithetical to our very lives.

'Purge' world

As we watched the first episode of "Purge" after the opening day of the Kavanaugh hearings, we were struck by just how hyperrealistic was the depiction of an America off-kilter due to an unfettered political regime. The "Purge" world looks like our own. It's America right now. That's what makes "Purge" terrifying.

We love horror, and "Purge" gives us horror times a bazillion. The actual gore has been tamped down a bit for the small screen from that in the "Purge" film franchise. But hearing the screams of someone being dragged behind a car in the distance or seeing the shadows of a group of masked revelers on the purge holiday chopping someone to bits with axes is somehow even more horrific. Yet it is the underlying theme of dystopia and a vaguely defined authoritarian Nazism that is most harrowing. There's everything here in this latest offering from USA: some erotic queer sex right up front, pretty people of all races, solid writing and acting, superb photography and an absolutely unnerving sense that what we're watching isn't wholly fiction.

If you want pretty and creepy, then you want to watch Lifetime's latest series, "You," a stalker drama told from the vantage point of the stalker. It's very good. It stars "Gossip Girl"'s hunky Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a techie bookstore manager who meets and falls for, then stalks a customer, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a poet and MFA student with her own history. Shay Mitchell, everyone's favorite lesbian heartthrob from "Pretty Little Liars," and Zach Cherry also star.

Don't be put off by Lifetime as a brand. We just saw a smart little indie teen lesbian film on Lifetime, "The Archer," which we urge you to watch online or on demand. Lifetime also, like FX and several other networks devoting themselves to 50/50 gender representation, has been a space for women filmmakers, writers and producers to excel.

"You" is terrific. It's slick, atmospheric, and creepy as hell. Badgely is riveting as the charming sociopath, and gives an Emmy-worthy performance. This series addresses the issue of privacy: How culpable are we in our lives when we put everything online, have our pet's name as our password for everything, and leave our virtual door unlocked and our windows open to the world, and to guys like Joe. Told in the second person, Joe is our unreliable narrator.

"You" is clever, smart, and has some gay moments. It has a Me Too subplot, and no one is one-dimensional. It's funny, ironic, and did we mention how good Badgely is? So good. We cringe a little when we start to like Joe and yell at the screen when MFA candidate Guinevere does things that she knows she shouldn't.

Finally, CNN detailed the case of two lesbians who were caned (yes, publicly caned like it's the Middle Ages) in Malaysia for being caught touching in a car. Being gay is against the law in Malaysia. The world remains an unsafe place for LGBTQ people every day. "Law & Order" will address that to a degree in the upcoming series "Law & Order: Hate Crimes," which we'll detail soon.

So for the fun stuff you can turn off and the real life that you cannot, for the hoofbeats of authoritarianism in real life and in fiction, you know you really must stay tuned.

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