Elite spaces and bodies

Over the past few days, the Senate confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court has dominated news coverage in the US, and made its way to international news outlets and discussion. A lot of digital ink has been spilled in discussing the process, the nominee, the multiple allegations of sexual assault against him, and the clarity and accuracy of the accusers’ memory. Looking at the process as a whole and especially the televised hearings that occurred last week, I want to examine two geographic aspects, and, just as a warning, I am going veer between political critique and analytical distance, sometimes wildly so.

First, the elite of American society inhabit and circulate through a set of spaces and places that the vast majority of people could never even dream of accessing. The news media have combed over the minutiae of Kavanaugh’s teenage and college years, detailing the spatially circumscribed circuit of prep schools, beach towns, suburban party houses, country clubs, and, the kicker of course, Yale University. I was briefly hoping we would all be treated to a blow-by-blow account of Skull and Bones’ initiation and hazing rituals, but Kavanaugh was only a member of Truth and Courage, the sole purpose of which seems to have been to drink. Why one needs a ‘secret society’ and an institutional affiliation to drink beer is unclear, but this tidbit does help us place Kavanaugh in the elite circles that filter through Yale, perhaps a rung or two below the old money Bushes but clearly above working class kids like Deborah Ramirez, the second woman to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, following Christine Blasey Ford. Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee provided not only riveting political theater for a national audience that has become addicted to churning political news that reads like a celebrity tabloid, but also an emotional and deeply personal account of a terrifying encounter with two young men and that she has held close for decades. I will return to this below, but the last week has laid out (again, and clearly) how the hallowed halls of places like Yale and Georgetown Prep are inextricably tied to the drunken beach weeks and Saturday night parties at friends’ homes in exurban cul-de-sacs, and that all of these enclaves of economic power are also, often, bastions of social and sexual license, stretching across generations. It is important to remember, as Corey Robin points out, that conservatism’s beating heart is not the superficial bleating of partisans in committee hearings or the moralistic hand-wringing and finger-wagging of hypocrites from their pulpits, but the strenuous defense of what he calls the “private life of power” that structures daily life and which is always under pressure from below. As Robin (2017, p 10) puts it:

One of the reasons the subordinate’s exercise of agency so agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast … is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. “Here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. “Men are not ready to recognize it in the home.”

But let’s get real here. The gated communities and country clubs, the expensive finishing schools and prestigious law firms through which an American ruling class reproduces itself are not news. Mantras about freedom, liberty, social mobility, equality are all well-worn covers in a society deeply divided by class, race, and gender. This brings me to the second point, which is that confrontations over these divisions and their resolution increasingly has taken the form of a personal and performative politics of the body. This is powerful and effective in some ways, and deeply limiting and potentially contradictory in others, as it can, depending on the specific moment or political battle, hinge on individuals who do not play their part well, or who fit into social categories deemed marginal, undesirable, or powerless. This week’s hearings and especially the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh’s response are prime examples of this body politics in action. Let me say, I believe these women who have come forward. There’s no glory in coming forward to state that one was sexually assaulted, and the personal and political danger of a false accusation on a national stage and under oath is a risk that, I think, most women would not dare take. It’s dangerous enough to one’s mental health and personal and family well-being to come forward with real trauma, as witnessed by the death threats Blasey Ford received over the last week. Yet in a political sense, the truth of her allegations about Brett Kavanaugh don’t seem to matter. What does matter, to some degree, is the believability of their respective performances before a panel of Senators, almost (probably all) of whom already know exactly how they plan to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which is after all the endgame of this process. Media coverage of the testimony, and social media discussion that has followed, made hay of what seemed a reversal of traditional gendered behavior. Blasey Ford was by turns cool, calm, and collected, unassuming and straightforward, earnest and direct, answering questions from Senators and a well-known prosecutor that Republicans brought in to avoid rehashing the Anita Hill spectacle of 25 years ago, in which a panel of old white men salaciously asked a woman to recount the lurid details of her sexual harassment on live tv before an audience of millions. By contrast, Kavanaugh appeared from the get-go as ‘hysterical’ and angry, lashing out at his accusers, condemning the whole process as a disgrace rooted in a Democratic conspiracy seeking revenge for his participation in Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Then he cried. He’s every country club bully from a 1980s teen movie.

Many commentators deemed his performance as not benefitting the seat for which he aims, while others identified him as a cypher of white male privilege or of mediocre banality, under attack and unable to respond except by throwing a fit. While I happen to agree with this assessment, I return to my point – what matters more is the performance of the role, not necessarily the truth of the lines spoken. By this I absolutely do not mean to question Blasey Ford’s account of what happened to her those many years ago; as noted on my social media feeds by several women I know and respect, women do not easily forget their attackers. Of course, the quality and reception of the performance do depend partly on the veracity of the matter under debate (and there is absolutely no reason to believe Blasey Ford is lying about any of this, as she has told her story privately many times before), but also partly on the body performing it. It absolutely matters that Christine Blasey Ford is white, that she is a highly educated and well-respected researcher, and that she is happily married. Media, as well as political supporters and opponents of Kavanaugh, scrutinized her every movement and word to ensure that nothing was amiss, that nothing that might indicate dishonesty or deceit could be detected, and that she was not simply a hysterical woman misremembering which drunk boys tried to fuck her when she was 15. It also matters that Brett Kavanaugh’s face was captured in numerous photos in a contorted angry grimace, that his tone was hectoring and condescending, and that he did nothing to undercut the idea that his is a charmed life of power, privilege, and beer.

We must consider affect, emotion, and the body as important and sometimes determining factors in political decision making (I examine this, for example, in my current research on diplomatic labor). These matter, often a great deal, and the performance of a political role — from martyr in violent armed struggle to representative showing up for run-of-the-mill roll call votes — is inseparable from our lives as social beings, with deeply held and felt attachments, emotions, and beliefs about what’s right and wrong, what’s good and just, and the proper order of things. These also  must contend with predictable (though not iron-clad) structures, ideologies, and constraints that shape and direct the agency of those who would exercise political power. The scale and site of the body — the individual person, marked by, produced through, and challenging of categorizations such as gender, class, race, religious affiliation, age, and so on — is inseparable from other sites and scales, but,I would argue, political geographers have not looked much at how this matters for elite actors. There is a good deal of research and analysis and critique of how contemporary geopolitics and state policies operates by identifying and managing bodies and populations who are the objects of political action: refugees and migrants, the working poor, women and children in developing countries, civilians targeted by military power. There is less on the bodies of elite actors and the spaces through which they reproduce their power (a good example of this kind of work is this 2009 article by Mary Thomas and Mat Coleman on the importance of George W. Bush’s facial expressions for how people understood and critiqued his administration; it seems to have only been cited twice). This is in part due to the difficulty of accessing these people and places, and in part due to the fact that the effects of power’s exercise are easier and more immediately available to examine closely and critically than the production and reproduction of that power. But maybe the meshing of personal and political, institutional and intimate exhibited by the Kavanaugh confirmation spectacle has come at the right time, and will spur some closer attention to these themes among geographers, and crack open (and critique, challenge, and dismantle) the enclaved and taken for granted spaces of elite power.

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