The Casual Cruelty Of Privilege
Our week began with yet another profoundly disturbing chapter in the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrant and refugee children. The New York Times reports that hundreds of underage Latino youth are being taken under the cover of darkness from their foster homes and shelters across the country and shipped off to a “tent city” in Texas near our southern border. These children will no longer be able to attend school, their access to legal services to pursue their immigration claims will be dramatically reduced, and their new settingswill not be licensed and monitored by the state child welfare authorities who ensure the safety and education of children who have been separated from their families.
The justification for these nighttime evacuations is that the government has run out of space in appropriate facilities. There is no choice, we are told, but to subject these children to the trauma of being torn, yet again, from places where they enjoyed some minimal level of normalcy and being taken to (what must be properly called) an internment camp. Yet the current crisis is not a result of increased immigration – since the numbers of those crossing the border have remained steady – but the predictable consequence of the Trump’s Administration’s draconian immigration policies. These policies have reduced the willingness of relatives to come forward for fear of their own deportation, thus lengthening the time it takes to place these youth with caregivers. The Trump administration apparently anticipated the consequences of these policies, yet made no preparation to deal with them.
This latest episode comes at the same time that hundreds of Latino children, who were forcibly taken from their parents by the Trump administration earlier this year, still remain separated from them months after a court ordered deadline for reunification. In most of these cases, the Trump Administration has deported parents, while keeping their children; it now claims that it cannot locate the parents. Children were taken from parents seeking asylum without any thought, much less a plan, on how, when and under what circumstances they would be reunited.
As a parent, I have often asked myself these past months: “what makes it possible for government officials, many of whom are parents themselves, to inflict such cruelty on children?” I have concluded that the answer lies in the ability to create emotional distance between themselves and the objects of their policy. Establishing physical distance is one way of distancing yourself emotionally: you make decisions in Washington DC that others, hundreds of miles away, execute. You don’t have to witness the wails of children and the sobs of parents as they torn from each other at the border; you don’t have to hear motherless children crying themselves to sleep at night; and you need not confront the fear on the faces of children as they are told moments before they were to go to bed that they are being sent to an internment camp. (Why others would “follow orders” to execute these policies is a separate, no less troubling question.) Emotional distance is also achieved by denying the humanity of the objects of your policy: Latino immigrants and refugees become “animals” who “breed” and “infest.” The greater the emotional distance, the less the empathy; the less the empathy, the easier it is to treat other people’s children in ways that you would never allow your own children to be treated. Racism is central to this process.
My thoughts on what makes cruelty by the power elite possible returned to me last week as I watched Brett Kavanaugh’s appearance before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Kavanaugh’s testimony was the capstone of ten days of revelations. After the harrowing tales of sexual assaults told by Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, the reports of Kavanaugh’s binge drinking by college roommates, friends and acquaintances, and Kavanaugh’s own contemporaneous words in the Georgetown Prep High School yearbook, the portrait of the man that had begun to emerge was one of entitled wealth and privilege that left the damaged lives of others in its wake. One moment of Blasey Ford’s entirely credible testimony added a particularly telling piece to that picture: when she recounted how she could never forget the uproarious laughter shared by Kavanaugh and Judge as Kavanaugh assaulted her, one saw in bright relief a toxic masculinity that bonded and found pleasure in the domination and humiliation of others. Deborah Ramirez’s account of sexual assault also involved laughter at her degradation by Kavanaugh. The commonplace truth that rape is not about sex, but power, is starkly evident in the survivors’ accounts of Kavanaugh’s assaults on them.
While much attention has been paid to Kavanaugh’s excessive drinking and the possibility that blackouts meant that he truly did not recall the sexual assaults, there is another equally plausible reason why he would not remember his actions: because as traumatic as they were for the women involved, he never gave them a second thought. The cruelty of privilege is a casual cruelty. This is manifest in Kavanaugh’s own words from his personal entry in the Georgetown Prep High School yearbook. Kavanaugh had to address these words in his Senate testimony, because he could not simply deny his authorship in the same way he denied, however improbably, his excessive drinking and sexual assaults. Smirking, he offered the most implausible explanations for a number of references that those who had attended high school and college in the early 1980s, including many of his classmates, knew as sexual slang: “devil’s triangle” became a drinking game, “FFFFFFFourth of July” became a reference to a friend’s speech impediment, and “boofed” became flatulence.*
But one yearbook reference was particularly difficult to explain away: together with thirteen other Georgetown Prep classmates, Kavanaugh identified himself as a “Renate alumnius.”(sic) The reference was to a Renate Schroeder Dolphin, who attended a Catholic girls high school in the vicinity of Georgetown Prep, and it was a boast of sexual conquest, as Kavanaugh’s classmates verified.**
“I can’t begin to comprehend what goes through the minds of 17-year-old boys who write such things,” Renate Dolphin told the New York Times, “but the insinuation is horrible, hurtful and simply untrue. I pray their daughters are never treated this way.”
The “Renate alumnius” reference was appalling, but it is unlikely that the Senate would see a single act of this nature as disqualifying for a seat on the Supreme Court. If it were the only transgression, a mature man could have responded in a way that would have closed the issue: “I apologize to Renate Dolphin. I am deeply ashamed that I participated in this cruel attack on this young woman’s name, reputation and personal dignity when I was a teenager. I am a wiser and better person today and I would never do something like that again.” Instead, Kavanaugh unbelievably claimed that the numerous references to Renate Dolphin in the Georgetown Prep yearbook were entirely innocent, and it was the media and the Senate Democrats who were responsible for the harm done to her. The blustering, cowardly refusal to accept responsibility for his own actions spoke volumes. It is part of a pattern: cruelty that damages women’s lives, and then moves on without so much as an insincere apology.
Kavanaugh’s intense rage at being called to account for his actions of thirty years past has the ring of authenticity: never did he dream that the rules of class, gender and race privilege that he had lived by allowed for such accountability. The repeated assertions in his testimony that he was “first in his class” at the elite Georgetown Prep and had been admitted to “Yale Law School, the best law school in the nation” were markers of his claim on that privilege, and assertions of his belief that it was entirely deserved.***
In his mind, he had a late 20th century droit du seigneur. But the vassals have found their voice, and the day of accountability has arrived – if not in the Senate, which now hangs in the balance, then in the court of public opinion.
In the treatment of Latino immigrant and refugee youth and in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, the American people have had a window into the soul of its power elite. What we have seen is ugly. The choice ‘we the people’ face now is as simple as cruelty or human decency.
* In a comically inept effort to provide cover for this exercise in misrepresentation, the Wikipedia entry for “devil’s triangle” was changedfrom a Capitol Hill computer shortly after Kavanaugh’s testimony to conform to his explanation. (This Kavanaugh conforming definition was subsequently deleted by Wikipedia editors.) Likewise, a second Kavanaugh conforming definition for “devil’s triangle” suddenly appeared on the Urban Dictionary entry for the term; it was quickly followed by a third definition: “A pretend drinking game made up on 9/27/18 by “Honorable” Brett Kavanaugh when faced with credible allegations of sexual assault put forward by no less than four (so far) women.”
** One other ‘Renate alumnus’ offered this dittyin his yearbook entry: “You need a date / and it’s getting late / so don’t hesitate / to call Renate.”)
*** In one of the many lies in his testimony, Kavanaugh said that he had gotten into Yale not because “he had any connections,” but because “he worked his tail off.” In fact, he was a ‘legacy’ student – his grandfather was a Yale graduate. Jason Lemon, “Kavanaugh Said He Had ‘No Connections’ to Yale. He Was, in Fact, a Legacy Student” in Newsweek, September 30, 2018.