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Et tu, Dreyfus?


One of the latest tropes in discussions of the Kavanaugh confirmation has been to refer to France’s infamous Dreyfus Affair.  Kavanaugh supporters (Dreher, Schindler, Brooks) rely on a shallow understanding of events to draw a parallel between their man and the wrongly accused Alfred Dreyfus. But Kavanaugh is no Dreyfus, and his reactionary partisans are far from Dreyfusards.

The argument that Kavanaugh, like Dreyfus, was targeted for “who he is” as a white man would be laughable if it did not carry so much power these days. Over and again we encounter the idea that demanding basic equality for others is demeaning and discriminatory against those who have sat atop our social-political-economic power structure these past few centuries. Ironically, the instinct to connect anti-Kavanaugh protests to anti-Semitism only holds up logically if one buys into spurious claims of Jewish conspiracy and world domination. Then again, Trump and others were awfully quick to accuse anti-Kavanaugh protestors of being paid Soros operatives. As I and others have written, this knee-jerk anti-Sorosism is the latest in anti-Semitic fashion, most effectively weaponized by Hungary’s neo-fascist Fidesz government. But I digress.

An entitled, wealthy white man embedded in networks of prestige and privilege, auditioning for the highest position within our country’s judicial system has little in common with an Alsatian Jewish artillery officer framed for treason. In the first place, as so many have insisted, Kavanaugh did not face criminal charges. His only potential exile was back to his seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, not exactly Devil’s Island. Kavanaugh’s freedom was not at stake, only his fervent belief that he deserved to be in a position of even greater power.

Moreover, opposition to Kavanaugh had nothing to do with who he was, and everything to do with what he has done–from his policy positions and legal rulings to his alleged sexual assaults and misconduct to his public rejection of judicial impartiality. The only effect his identity as a white man has on how his beliefs and actions are received is that our society will refuse to punish him as it would a man of color, of lower class, of fewer connections.

If anyone in this tragedy resembles Dreyfus, it is Dr. Ford. The image of Dreyfus pleading his case in a room dominated by a crucifix (within the supposedly secular institutions of a French military tribunal) has its echoes in the photographs of Ford recounting her experiences while facing the male-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee.

There is a strong case to make that Kavanaugh’s confirmation may prove to be as polarizing for American politics as the fight between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards was for France’s Third Republic (Schneider, Douthat). Yet here, too, the pro-Kavanaugh forces misunderstand their role. If anything, they sound like the anti-Drefusards–a far cry from the Dreyfusard rallying to the importance of broader justice and the defense of basic rights.

And so it is not surprising that, for all they might wish to wrap themselves in the heroic mantle of those who fought against a wrongful conviction, none of the pro-Kavanaugh folks have bothered to cite Zola’s iconic “J’accuse!” [in English] directly. Zola’s demands and values have little to do with the case for Kavanaugh.

Zola demanded open hearings, transparency, and deeper investigation into the facts. These are, after all, the defining characteristics–and it is surreal to be in a place where this needs to be affirmed–of a healthy judicial system based on the rule of law. Zola’s appeal to impartial justice could not be further from the obstructionist process we saw play out in the Senate–or from Kavanaugh’s own invocation of political enmity.

Ah, what a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial, tyrannical practices! What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming back down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.

Kavanaugh’s supporters further distance themselves from the Dreyfusards by standing on the wrong side of history. The majority of the US population opposes his confirmation. The easy dismissal of sexual assault and misconduct will not outlast the #metoo wave. In the same way that the anti-Dreyfusards are now seen as a precursor to the horrors of Vichy France, Kavanaugh will be an icon for the party that detains migrant children in camps.

With this in mind, Zola gives us cause for optimism (even as we rightly fear how far we must still fall before climbing once again).

I repeat with the most vehement conviction: truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it. Today is only the beginning, for it is only today that the positions have become clear: on one side, those who are guilty, who do not want the light to shine forth, on the other, those who seek justice and who will give their lives to attain it. I said it before and I repeat it now: when truth is buried underground, it grows and it builds up so much force that the day it explodes it blasts everything with it.

Let this be our rallying cry:

I have but one passion, the search for light, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.

Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and investigate in the full light of day!

I am waiting.

We are waiting. And, like Zola, we will not wait quietly or passively, but with mounting pressure, with a readiness to call out every hypocrisy, every travesty of justice, every crime. J’accuse.

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