The Kavanaugh case revealed a system rigged against women | Nesrine Malik

There are no silver linings to the judge’s confirmation. But the history of women’s activism shows the virtue of persistence

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King Jr, “but it bends towards justice.” It is hard to keep faith with that right now. A woman with everything to lose took on the might of the US political establishment, only to see the man she accused of sexually assaulting her appointed to the highest court in the land, following a hasty smokescreen of an investigation.

Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the supreme court on Saturday was not just a defeat for sexual assault victims, it was also a clear reaffirmation of an entrenched, patriarchal hierarchy. It was a reminder to all women that there was more important business to be done; there were ideological agendas that needed to be advanced and political careers that needed to be protected. The perfunctory way the Republicans endorsed a shoddy FBI probe, the result of which was a foregone conclusion, sent a clear message that many women are familiar with: this is bigger than you.

And yet it still felt like the worst might not happen. Maybe it was because #MeToo gave rise to the false hope that fundamental change was truly possible. Perhaps it was because the moral contrast between Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh was so huge it was almost comical: Ford composed, human and brittle; Kavanaugh snarling, rude and unravelling. This was the bad guy, the images screamed, and he wasn’t even trying to hide it. But with every new revelation, with every apparent lie Kavanaugh told during his testimony, there was always an underlying sense of futility. Everyone was just going through the motions. It was excruciatingly tense and yet deep down we already knew the outcome. Like watching a bullet travel in slow motion towards its target.

So who today wants to hear nonsense about long arcs bending towards justice? Can anyone find comfort in empty aphorisms about how we shall prevail? This surely is a time to look defeat right in the eye and make peace with it. To allow anger and try to figure out what to do with it. To acknowledge that women marched and said, “Me too”, and were told: “So what?” And it is true that there appear to be no silver linings. In fact, there is only the possibility of more setbacks, as the balance of the supreme court shifts to the right, and the nightmare of Roe v Wade being overturned, leading to a rollback of abortion rights, becomes reality. A man accused of sexual assault and of exposing himself to another woman will preside over the reproductive rights of women until the end of his natural life, if he so chooses.

The US (along with the rest of the west) likes to believe itself a virtuous defender of women’s rights. There is no doubt that a woman’s lot on the whole is likely to be better if she is born in the United States as opposed to, say, Afghanistan. But the relative advances made mask the many ways in which women are second-class citizens. The Ford-Kavanaugh affair spelled them all out in plain view: a culture of violence towards women in schools and universities; the cultural disdain towards women’s pain, evidenced in the public mockery of Ford’s experience by President Trump and the grotesque laughing faces lined up behind him at a Mississippi rally; the obdurate patriarchy underpinning the state and mobilising its machinery to ensure that Kavanaugh was shepherded to confirmation.

This dirty business was all conducted in language and ritual designed to vaunt the liberal greatness of the US, even while liberal values were undermined. We saw the self-conscious show of “respect for due process”, the charade of “moderate” Republicans in solemn deliberation, and the pantomime of supposed bipartisanship. Those at the sharp end of US foreign policy are familiar with this con, which advances cynical interests and atrocities abroad, but always with a supposedly heavy heart as it accepts the burden of living up to its values. The con has now been perpetrated on American women, told in tortured rhetoric by their representatives that a difficult moral decision has been made in the best interests of the nation. The language of aspiration, of hope in a better future, has been hijacked.

But the temptation to despair must be resisted. There will be other moments of reckoning. Martin Luther King’s arc is more like a zig-zag; a freehand scribble that loops, rising and falling, sometimes towards justice and at other times away from it. It is a frontline in the battle for justice that advances and retreats. Thinking of progress as some inexorable, linear thing, where achievements can be ticked off as settled for good, creates a false sense of comfort. It breeds the kind of complacency that ushered in a Trump victory, which has now installed a judge whose influence is likely to outlast Trump’s administration by decades.

When the system is so rigged against women, so hardwired against the promotion of their basic rights, the fight for justice is not fought in landmark battles. It is fought street by street, in messy skirmishes of unpredictable outcome. There is no guarantee that the Kavanaugh episode will unleash an anger that will finally turn the tide and fulfil the promise of the #MeToo movement. Right now, it looks like Ford’s efforts were for nothing, and the collective emotional investment of women from all over the world paid out no dividend in justice. But fighting for a cause is about the mundane hollowness of repetition.

Sometimes there will be a breakthrough, sometimes we will be pushed back. This is the arc of women’s activism throughout history, and it bends towards persistence. Victory is not certain, but defeat is – if we despair. We just have to show up and keep showing up. There is no other choice.

• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist


Nesrine Malik

The GuardianTramp

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