America was supposedly founded on the principle that power must be accountable if it is not to be tyrannical. Yet, the recent debate over abortion rights has illustrated once again that too many Americans in positions of power would prefer a populace that acquiesced silently to even monstrous abuses.
Too many Americans in positions of power would prefer a populace that acquiesced silently to even monstrous abuses.
Over the weekend, protesters organized a vigil outside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to protest the threatened repeal of Roe v. Wade.
The protest at Kavanaugh’s house was peaceful — as you can see from video shot during it. Yet, many pundits and officials reacted as if they were staring down the barrel of an incoming revolution. Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Texas, claimed without evidence that protesters were “threatening violence against Supreme Court justices.”
John Harwood, CNN’s White House correspondent, intoned, “It is wrong to even hint at physically threatening a public official,” even though no one (except maybe him) had hinted at any such thing. Jen Psaki, Biden’s soon-to-be-ex-press secretary, sent a tweet declaring that protests “should never include violence, threats, or vandalism”— even though, again, the protesters going viral were nonviolent and seemed to have committed no vandalism.
It’s true that nonviolent protesting outside someone’s house can be uncomfortable and annoying for the target of said protest. And Americans generally feel like they should have a right to privacy in their homes. They don’t want their sleep or their family disturbed. Kavanaugh is a very powerful man, which means in most social settings he is treated with deference and even reverence. He isn’t accustomed to having his privacy disturbed or his personal space impinged upon.
Kavanaugh’s presumption of personal inviolability, however, is strikingly at odds with the draft decision he appears to support about abortion. The leaked opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, rejects the right to privacy that has guaranteed abortion rights in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The decision, if implemented, would mean lawmakers could extend state-sanctioned power and violence not just into homes but also into uteruses. Many conservative state laws primed to go into effect if Roe is repealed include no exemptions for rape. That means that women who are sexually assaulted would be forced to carry babies to term. States like Mississippi may even be contemplating bans on some forms of birth control.
The decision, if implemented, would mean lawmakers could extend state-sanctioned power and violence not just into homes but also into uteruses.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that protests around abortion can be extremely aggressive — at least when not aimed at Supreme Court justices. In 2014, the court struck down a Massachusetts law that created 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics. The law was intended to reduce harassment of patients and to prevent shootings similar to those that occurred in 1994.
Nor have harassment and violence in anti-abortion protests diminished. Incidents of violence reached record highs in recent years, as people seeking abortions at clinics around the country have been verbally and sometimes even physically attacked by protesters.
Yet, despite the 2014 ruling, an 8-foot fence has been erected around the Supreme Court building so justices don’t have to interact with protesters who object to their assault on abortion rights.
The majority of the Supreme Court believes that pregnant, poor, desperate people who try to access reproductive health care should have to brave a gantlet of abuse and potential violence. Supreme Court justices themselves can keep protesters from their workplace and are, according to powerful politicians and members of the commentariat, also supposed to be insulated from nonviolent protesters in their private lives. This despite the fact that, according to this Supreme Court, a right to privacy doesn’t actually exist.
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The double standard here is all the more repulsive for being so transparent. Powerful people identify with powerful people. This identification is exacerbated when the powerful people in question are men who are exercising power over women. Philosopher Kate Manne refers to this as “himpathy”—“the inappropriate or outsize sympathy extended to male perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence over their female victims, who are often erased in the process.”
Manne has discussed the himpathy extended to Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. Senate Republicans dismissed testimony by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when both were in high school. Ford has had to move four times because of death threats. Meanwhile, Kavanaugh is happily ensconced in Chevy Chase, where mild threats to his privacy are decried by supporters as unacceptable violence.
This disproportion is the essence of tyranny. The unelected deciders are not to be confronted, or even questioned. Those who are decided upon, in contrast, have little inherent right to life, to liberty, to pleasure or to their own bodies. The bland language of deference and the cruel language of obedience are one language. It is the language of authoritarianism. And a country in which the powerful can seize rights and bodies without even nonviolent protest is not a democracy.
CORRECTION (May 10, 2022, 9:50 a.m. ET): A previous version of this column misstated when Christine Blasey Ford said Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. They were in high school at the time, not in college.