It’s both a truism and true that politics is about power, how it’s used and who it’s used against. But politics are also about the business of pain—about which individuals and which communities bear how much and at what cost, and so implicitly whose pain is worth more than others. Everyone lives in and with this reality, and the fact of it is much heavier for people who, as the result of various concrete political policies and the institutional realities that follow from them, have been deemed to deserve more pain than others. A policy or decision that takes x action in pursuit of y outcome, to unfold along timetable z, expressed in euphemism and lingo and through a cascade of stagey whereupons will do some much more immediate things to real people. It will distribute pain, and pain is not nearly so abstracted.
Pain is urgent. Pain is not ambiguous, and is knowable in a much more immediate way. At the risk of belaboring an obvious point, pain hurts. Humans and other animals go to great lengths to avoid it; people talk a great deal, in churches and schools and homes, about the importance of loving one another, which amounts to helping wherever there is hurt. This is an elemental truth and widely understood, but it’s also inconvenient when and where it gets in the way of something you want—money, power, comfort, sex, or any of the other things over which people tend to hurt each other. This is why politicians go to such great lengths to conceal the ways in which they go against this truth—why they are so eager to let rules and order and abstraction conceal their complicity and otherwise make simple things appear complicated.
But pain and the responsibility inherent to it are simple. It is a difficult and unpleasant thing, thinking about another person’s pain and knowing that you have had a role in causing it, but if you want to be good or aspire to an ethical life, it’s also necessary. That’s something you have to want, though, and it’s something you have to do all the time. I believe that there’s something innate in people that wants to do right and be good, but because I live in the same stupid rotten world that you do I have at this point noticed that the existence of whatever you want to call that fine urge to kindness does not guarantee that people will actually do right or be good. It is infinitely easier to believe that you are right and that what you do is therefore good and work righteously backwards from there. So mostly people just do that.
On Thursday, the Senate judiciary committee and many millions of Americans were presented with two different expressions of pain. In the morning, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke about being sexually assaulted by a couple of insensate drunks at a party when she was a teenager. She talked about hearing them laugh at her while she struggled, and about thinking that she might die in that room with that sound in her ears; she talked about how the trauma of that moment of violation, even after she escaped, has followed her throughout the rest of her life and how she fought for years to win some tenuous peace with the experience.
She spoke, too, about why she decided to come forward and talk about it, which is because the person she identified as assaulting her that night—the owner of the body on hers and the hands clamped over her mouth and on her body without her consent—has been nominated for the Supreme Court. Senators sat there and listened to her describe all this; the ones from one side commended her for her bravery and strength and asked very few questions and the ones from the other entrusted all their questions to a woman prosecutor flown in from Arizona, who undertook a halting course of cross examination aimed at discrediting the details of Dr. Ford’s testimony. In the afternoon, the man she was talking about got to sit in front of the Senators.
In a 45-minute opening statement that oscillated between sputtering umbrage and queasy tearfulness, Kavanaugh talked about his own suffering in all this. He did not talk about what Dr. Ford talked about. The nominee instead heatedly iterated and reiterated that his life and his good name and his family had been destroyed—he used the word over and over—by the shameful and underhanded actions of Senators on the one side for various reasons having to do with their own partisan interests. That stood in for Dr. Ford’s testimony from earlier in the day, all of which he categorically denied—he allowed that something terrible might well have happened to her more or less as she described it, but that he had nothing to do with it—and which it later emerged he did not listen to at all. The ostensible reason that Dr. Ford testified first was that Kavanaugh, as a man accused, deserved to respond to the accusations against him. He didn’t do that. He talked about his own pain instead. He made a bet, there: that his pain would seem more valuable and more immediate and easier to understand than hers.
In a break from the earlier stages of his confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh offered one hypothetical after another in laying out how he might be made to hurt: he might never be able to work as a federal judge again, or teach law again, or coach youth basketball again. He spoke about the damage done to his reputation, stopping periodically to fight back tears. He spoke about how unpleasant and invasive it was to have to answer questions, in private and also in public, about his past. He kept bringing up sports for some reason, and also where he went to college and law school. With the help of some Republican Senators on the committee, several of whom were reported to be in tears during his statement, Kavanaugh finally allowed that, yes, during this last week and change he had been through hell. When Senator Chris Coons of Delaware suggested delaying the vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination by seven days so that a more thorough investigation of the charges could go forward, Kavanaugh responded, “do you have any idea how long these 10 days have been?” He meant for him.
And so it wound on down, and then out. Senators from one side thanked him for putting up with all this inconvenience and Senators from the other asked him a series of repetitive and notably polite questions about whether he might perhaps once have been a loutish and aggressive blackout drunk, to which he responded in a series of testy filibusters and what is, by Senate standards, fiery counterpunching. When Senators asked him about his drinking and behavior while drunk—or, in one case, after one Senator talked about her father, a 92-year-old who is still in Alcoholics Anonymous—Kavanaugh frequently replied by asking whether they drink beers, or like to drink beers, or what they drink instead of beers.
As it happens, the last time the Senate voted to confirm a Supreme Court justice after a woman raised credible allegations of sexual abuse against him, things went very similarly. That was 27 years ago. A woman spoke, in full knowledge that her pain mostly represented an inconvenience to people who had things they wanted and a schedule to keep, about how a man had thoughtlessly and casually caused her great pain. Senators listened to her and then they listened to the man, who talked about his pain and left hers out of it. He talked about how he had been made to appear in public as someone other than who he believed himself to be, and how the process had humiliated and wronged him, and the Senators listened and then cast their votes. That nominee didn’t talk as much about playing high school sports as this one, and he did less shouting and sneering, but it mattered a lot less at that time how the president thought you looked on television, and whether he thought you were yelling enough.
Everything slipped violently out of joint, sometime longer ago than anyone can quite identify. It might be that the things that appear to be breaking or recently broken were in fact never joined in the first place. The interplay of power and pain goes on, both more abstract and more unabashed than before; in rhetoric and in bloody fact, inflicting maximum pain is now explicitly the primary work of the state. It is the purpose of everything that the people now in power do every day: to punish and push down wherever and whenever it is easiest, to do violence not just because of the old principles that have traditionally justified such violence, but precisely because it is easy to do. What was once subtext is now explicitly principle. When the Senators vote to confirm Kavanaugh on Friday they will vote not just about whose pain is more real but whose pain means more. They already know how he will distribute pain in the future.
Power now works without shame or remorse or even the dubious old courtesy of mask or euphemism; it takes care to make it clear that it believes that the suffering it creates doesn’t matter. It matters even less that those who suffer asked for so little in the first place—to be able to pay their medical bills, or for their assaulter to just go on being entirely too powerful rather than supremely powerful.
Power pushes and pushes and pushes the pain out and down and away from itself. Power looks over all the human wreckage it has made and if it pauses at all it’s for just the briefest moment, to note with some satisfaction how unnecessarily difficult and terribly inconvenient but ultimately worthwhile it all was. Power expects everyone else to just go on hurting. It expects us to believe that this is the only way it ever could be and that the pain it hands down is all anyone deserves, and only theirs to give.