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From Carswell to Kavanaugh

These words did in G. Harrold Carswell nearly five decades ago:

“I am Southern by ancestry, birth, training, inclination, belief and practice. And I believe that segregation of the races is proper and the only practical and correct way of life in our states. I have always so believed and I shall always so act.

“I shall be the last to submit to any attempt on the part of anyone to break down and to weaken this firmly established policy of our people.

“If my own brother were to advocate such a program, I would be compelled to take issue with him and to oppose him to the limit of my ability.

“I yield to no man, as a fellow candidate or as a fellow citizen, in the firm, vigorous belief in the principles of white supremacy, and I shall always be so governed.”

Wow, white supremacy once had “principles,” but that was in 1948. Carswell, then a young man, delivered these words to an American Legion chapter in a small town in Georgia when he was running for a seat in the state legislature. Twenty-two years later, when Richard Nixon nominated him for the Supreme Court, these words from a different era were unearthed and Carswell immediately apologized: “I renounce and reject the words themselves and the thoughts that they represent. They’re obnoxious and abhorrent to my personal philosophy.”

Too late.

Thirteen Republicans abandoned ship and voted against the nomination, leading to his defeat in the Senate. It was Nixon’s second straight Supreme Court nominee not to make it. Six months earlier, Clement Haynsworth’s nomination had also been rejected, at least partly because of pro-segregation court decisions he’d made.

Something bigger than politics was going on in this moment. The national consciousness had shifted, thanks to the civil rights movement, and suddenly the monstrous ugliness of white supremacy — no matter that it had quietly festered at the nation’s psychological foundation for two centuries, fomenting laws and wars and national policy — was unavoidably, politically apparent. It could no longer be defended. An apology couldn’t remove its stain. White supremacy had officially been shoved to the political margins, at least for the moment.

Welcome to 2018. Is something similar happening today in the uproar over Brett Kavanaugh? If so, what?

As I write, his nomination remains a possibility, but what seems unavoidably apparent is that Kavanaugh and his defenders have been caught, unexpectedly, in another profound shift in national consciousness. What’s different is that the shift is occurring right now. Kavanaugh is the movement, or rather, its trigger. He’s the bus driver, telling Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus, even though he adamantly denies having done so.

He’s suddenly the poster boy of disrespect for women’s rights — for their safety, for their humanity — at a moment when the wrong of it is suddenly apparent. “It’s a man’s world” is suddenly not the way things are anymore, just as “the principles” of good, old-fashioned white supremacy had collapsed into non-existence by the time Carswell was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1970.

As the fight to stop Kavanaugh’s nomination struggles forward, I think it’s crucial to nurture this moment and see it for what it is, regardless what happens next. This moment transcends politics. It transcends a man’s past behavior. It transcends legal procedure and the possibility that Kavanaugh lied under oath.

Kavanaugh doesn’t belong on the nation’s highest court because what he stands for is too small, too arrogant, too buried in prejudice and the devaluation of many lives. The sexual assault accusations aren’t his only disqualifying actions. Like Carswell and Haynsworth, his political and judicial record indicate obeisance to beliefs that should not control the nation’s future.

During his tenure in the George W. Bush administration, as both associate White House counsel and, later, White House staff secretary, Kavanaugh was involved in the administration’s controversial decisions on the rights of detainees, including the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, i.e., torture. When he became part of the U.S. Court of Appeals, he continued to function as a force to let the Bush administration torture and indefinitely detain its prisoners, maintaining in his decisions that the United States was not obligated to obey the norms of international law, such as the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture.

“Kavanaugh’s radical views have momentous implications,” Jamie Mayerfeld writes at Just Security. “A core purpose of international law is to shield individuals from the worst abuses of state power. If Kavanaugh is elevated to the Supreme Court, his insistence on marginalizing international law will severely undermine human rights.”

We’re at another moment of change. People are crying out to build a better world, one that does not devalue anyone. As Mayerfeld notes, Donald Trump once said, during his campaign, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

The past and the future are colliding once again.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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