A famous thought experiment proposed by a dude called Roger Fisher: that the President of the United States should be accompanied 24/7 by a volunteer who carries the nuclear launch codes with him, implanted in his chest. Should the President wish to launch nukes, killing tens of millions of people, he would have to first kill this one man with his own hands. Take a knife and cut the codes out of the volunteer’s chest. “The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.”
I mention this story not just to point out how bitterly ironic it is that this volunteer should be ‘he.’ After all who, after this week, could believe the President would care enough about the life of a woman for her death to give him any serious pause?
No, I raise it because yesterday evening I watched as two women confronted Senator Jeff Flake in a lift, as a desperate, last-minute attempt to get him to change his vote on Brett Kavanaugh.
They weren’t just asking him to change his vote, though: something quite abstract and removed from the pain of all the women protesting outside the building. Removed from Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who had spent the morning of the day before laying her pain and trauma out in front of Republican men who refused to engage her directly. Everything until the moment in the lift had been done at a distance: Mitchell asked Dr Ford the questions, so as to avoid the men themselves having to cut the volunteer’s heart out. Republicans referred to Dr Ford as a ‘pawn’, because it was much easier for them to criticise a nebulous group of ‘Democrats’ than it was to accept that the woman sitting in front of them was a real person: with thoughts, needs, experiences and choices of her own. During questioning, Dr Ford was even repeatedly referred to by Grassley as ‘she’ or ‘her’, as if speaking her name aloud would make her all too real.
I sat through the whole hearing. First slack-jawed in awe at Dr Ford as she recounted her story. Shaking with rage, I listened to her being probed as if she were on trial, and at the end I wept. I had no idea what would happen next: was her story enough? Was her recollection enough? Was her humility and dignity and composure enough? No. Of course not. Because she is a woman. And her testimony – as a woman – can only ever go so far. There’s a ‘he said’ to listen to, too, and the second Kavanaugh walked in, the Republican senators breathed a sigh of relief that they could open their ears now. Offer empathy now. Recognise the person sitting in front of them.
Dr Ford herself tried so hard to be ‘collegial’ – to sanitise her pain for the sake of the men assessing it – so as not to come across as dramatic or hysterical or rude. And the old white guys kept their distance, and pushed forward to a ‘yes’ vote anyway. Because really, when you think about it, what is the word of one woman? Three women? Three thousand women? Three billion?
They are still, as ever, only women.
So why did I mention the nuclear codes? Because that thought experiment proposes that if a politician is presented with the real, human, visceral damage that one of their decisions can do, they’ll take that decision more seriously. Just before the vote yesterday, when Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila confronted Senator Jeff Flake in a lift, they were tapping into that idea.
Click through and watch the video, it’s extraordinary and deeply uncomfortable. It’s the moment when a politician is forced to confront – not brush aside or ignore or tune out or pass to a subordinate – the very real impact of the decision he’s about to make.
“You’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you’re telling all woman in America, that they don’t matter.”
They didn’t just ask Jeff Flake to change his vote, these two activists told him ‘look me in the eye. Look me in the eye and tell me why you’re doing this.’ They volunteered to show him their very real, very personal pain.
They begged him to explain his decision directly to them – the people it would affect. To listen to what his decision would mean to them personally. They were the ‘volunteer’ in the thought experiment, whose blood must be seen up close, confronted up close, before making a choice that could affect millions of lives. They handed Jeff Flake that metaphorical knife and said ‘Here are the consequences – the direct consequences to me – are you actually going to do this?’
And Senator Jeff Flake recognised, in that moment, the reality of what he was doing. That a ‘yes’ vote on Kavanaugh would be a slap in the face to every single woman who has ever been assaulted – whether she reported it or not. That a ‘yes’ vote on Kavanaugh would justify his yelling, ranting, entitlement and dismiss even Dr Ford’s terrified, persistent calm. That a ‘yes’ didn’t just mean ‘I don’t believe her‘ but ‘I will never believe you.’
That every single woman in America would know, from that point onward, that if your assailant is rich and white and powerful, there is absolutely nothing you can do.
What did this hero do?
He gave them a week.
If you thought this post was going to end in my hailing Flake as a hero, you’re wrong. But I’m incensed to realised you wouldn’t be wholly wrong. Although ‘one week’ seems a pathetic amount of time in which to investigate multiple credible allegations of rape and sexual assault, and although Dr Ford has done more than enough to alert people to Kavanaugh’s alarming past, although he has repeatedly and demonstrably lied under oath, and although millions of women across the country are watching to see if Republicans can be persuaded that we are people too and therefore our testimony shouldn’t just be discounted as if we are children telling tall tales… still I am grateful.
This whole week has had me wondering: what is a woman worth? Her testimony is apparently worth nothing. Her experience is worth nothing. Even when added to the experiences and thoughts and shouts and votes of millions of other women, it’s still worth nothing.
The pompous entitlement of Kavanaugh’s screeching hysteria on Thursday, and the outraged, high-horse defences of the old boys who rallied round him, had me convinced that women were worth absolutely nothing. So when I listened to Jeff Flake call for a week’s investigation, I lay on my bed and wept with gratitude and relief.
We’re not worth nothing: we’re worth a week.
Blessed be the motherfucking fruit.
Comments on this piece are closed. If you’re sick of hearing about how angry Kavanaugh is making me, I promise I’ll be back to writing about sex tomorrow.