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Professorville’s Matron Saint

What we can learn from Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony

Palo Alto, once a sleepy university town known for its leafiness and Stanford’s awkward alcohol ban, has in recent years been devoured by IT zealots, those gluttons made of silicon who now control our lives and send out driverless cars to crush us.

The other day, for the launch of Apple’s most stupendous achievement yet (a slightly bigger phone), a long line formed outside the Apple Store on University Avenue, Palo Alto’s main street. A well-behaved bunch, heads bowed over their current cellphones (in stoic acceptance, it seemed, of their dwindling value), they patiently awaited their chance to view, in well-regulated shifts, the new jewel in Apple’s crown, or the raisin in Apple’s pie. (Full disclosure: I am not fond of raisins.) But they weren’t all they seemed, these eager beavers, these fans, these fawns. Word on the ground had it that at least half the line was made up of Apple employees, propelled outside to boost numbers for the sake of the TV crew at the entrance. Fake fun.

It’s kind of surprising that out of the parched, hard-bitten, megalomaniacal, unegalitarian soil of modern Palo Alto came a heroine for our times.

This is now a town where it’s suspiciously difficult to get a bagel, and you can easily spend fifty bucks on ham and eggs. The lean, rich, young, and powerful strut the streets, disdainful of anyone wearing old Armani. They work twelve-hour days in service to the man, produce batches of sushi-addicted children, and leave the gardening to mow-blow guys from out of town. Increasingly, no manual laborer can afford to live within a hundred miles of the place.

The city’s awash with construction projects, designed to make every house excessively fancy, drain the water table, and drive the last of the poor into the outer solar system. The main conflicts, apart from cellphone theft, tree injury, or the occasional mountain lion sighting, arise between residentialists and developers. Palo Alto’s all aquiver at the moment over female liberation—or so I thought. Many a lush front yard in Professorville (the area that used to house Stanford faculty members but is now mostly given over to techy millionaires) is adorned with signs that say “WE BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S EDUCATION.” I assumed this must signal some noble city-wide charity effort in support of Afghan girls, a talisman against the Taliban. But it turns out the signs merely endorse an ambitious, unneighborly project proposed by Castilleja. Known as Casti for short, this already large private girls’ school wants to greatly expand its operation, while remaining on its current constricted plot of land: this means new multi-story buildings, more students, more SUVs, noise, cranes, pollution, and the disruption of bike lanes. So much for global altruism. I’m all for women’s education too, but the plight of wealthy parents who may have to shove their daughters in the car and look for a different private school, does not seem a top priority in a nation going so rapidly down the drain.

So it’s kind of surprising that out of the parched, hard-bitten, megalomaniacal, unegalitarian soil of modern Palo Alto came a heroine for our times. Not some false friend, some Musky envoy of consumerism from Silicon Valley—of course not—but a teacher and researcher from Stanford and the lesser-known Palo Alto University, which specializes in psychology. In the midst of the circus the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings had already become, the “collegial” Christine Blasey Ford arrived as some sort of Lady Justice—not exactly blind perhaps, but with eyes often shrouded by wayward hair or her reading glasses—a haloed saint to outrank any choirboy. 

When she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and their strange drama-neutralizing prosecutor, Blasey Ford exhibited an almost forgotten quality in this Trumped-up era: integrity up the wazoo. Nervous but not hesitant, agonized but unabashed, as certain of her ground as anyone in that room or elsewhere, Blasey Ford kept the world riveted to their screens for hours Thursday morning. While Democrats and Republicans blustered and filibustered around her, she remained cogent, generous, and informative, just glugging her caffeine and telling it the way it (so obviously) is. What an ad for Coke! If Coca-Cola doesn’t hand her a million-buck contract pronto they’re fools. Fools.

How these professors do try to teach us things, don’t they? There was another professor like that not so long ago: Anita Hill. Since the humiliation of giving her testimony and seeing Clarence Thomas anointed anyway, Hill has had to live in a country that declared her life, her feelings, and her patriotic efforts, of no account—or “crap,” as Senator Lindsey Graham likes to say. Thomas was unleashed to make as many pubic hair jokes as he wants while American women were sentenced to live in internal exile.

The United States is just one great big internment camp for women; we are all “detained,” awaiting a fair hearing. After all, if Blasey Ford and Anita Hill can be disregarded, any sexual-assault survivor can be.

But there seems to have been a sea change since #MeToo, in the way women’s oppression is viewed, at least in public. If you listen hard, you can hear the faint sound of hand-wringing. Avenues of legal redress are getting more apparent, as is the scale of the problem (something like one in three women, and one in six men, have been victims of sexual assault, according to the Centers for Disease Control). There is the power of many voices, previously silenced. Our cholerically incoherent president weighs in to shut them up of course. Next he’ll be blaming Blasey Ford for meddling in the 2016 election. Who knows—she could even be Chinese. But even the bloviating tweets of the mushroomy, breast-beating pussy-grabber can’t drown out the hurricane of scorn and disgust that’s coming his way. The eye of the storm is on him.

Nervous but not hesitant, agonized but unabashed, Blasey Ford kept the world riveted to their screens for hours Thursday morning.

And, though the Senate process of appointing Supreme Court justices now seems a goofy ballgame, with everybody elbowing for partisan power, there was glory in the female senators (all Democrats, naturally) on the committee; glory in the presence of Blasey Ford, doing her civic duty; glory in shoving actual aging women in the nation’s face, in contrast to the Hollywoodized, WASP-coiffed, neon-clad TV commentators who only watch and jabber. 

One sign of the new awareness of, and revulsion for, sexual harassment was the speed with which American “gentlemen and women,” as Senator Grassley would put it, rallied behind Blasey Ford. She did not reach the hearing in Washington as alone and undefended as Anita Hill did. Within hours of hearing about Kavanaugh’s alleged drunken ravishing attempt in the 1980s, Palo Altoans were pledging support for his victim, both moral and financial. A plane flew over, pulling a banner saying “THANK YOU CHRISTINE. WE HAVE YOUR BACK.” And I witnessed a touching little demonstration in the center of town this Thursday, right after Blasey Ford’s testimony had been heard live across the nation. As Kavanaugh, the cornered bully, raged and blubbered and sniffed his way through his own televised testimony like an irate baby, displaying his own particular brand of “judicial temperament” for all to see, a humbler crowd of about sixty people marched along Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto, yelling “Hey hey, ho ho, Kavanaugh has got to go!” 

They passed right under my window at the Cardinal (a nice old-fashioned hotel that has somehow managed to retain its original elevator, Spanish-style lobby, and existence itself, amid the techno drive toward ever more brutalist forms of moneyed conformity). Half a block away, Blasey Ford’s supporters gathered before City Hall to hold a kindly event, hoisting placards that said “I BELIEVE DR. FORD (& DR. HILL)” and “I AM ASHAMED OF THE SHIT-SHOW THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HAS BECOME” and “CHRISTINE THANK YOU FOR CHALLENGING BEGOTTED REPUBLICANS [sic].” They were warmly welcomed in person by the mayor, Liz Kniss, who this week confessed her own experiences of sexual assault, to show solidarity with Blasey Ford. (When asked if she wanted her statement to influence what was happening in Washington, she said yes—which makes her another hero.) Using a megaphone to be heard over the rambling diatribe of a rogue male who’d gate-crashed the protest to yell something interminable but unintelligible about Obamacare, Kniss informed the crowd that Kavanaugh now seemed to be falling apart, and there was a chance, just a chance, that he might lose the nomination. The almost all-female gathering cheered, and amiably dispersed, wishing each other well.

Here are some news-you-can-use takeaways from the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, in no particular order. Feel free to revise, augment, and update as need be in the months of struggle ahead.

The United States is just one great big internment camp for women; we are all “detained,” awaiting a fair hearing.

  1. Close all fraternities (and sororities). They breed damsels in distress.
  2. Educate. Pay the teachers!
  3. Gently suggest to all adolescents that shoving people into bedrooms, jumping on them, and dry-humping them against their will, covering their mouths so they can’t breathe or scream, tearing their clothes off, scaring them to death, laughing “uproariously” at them, salaciously teasing and mocking them, flashing your genitals at them, and/or drugging and gang-raping them, may someday rule you out of high office—even if you are rich, white and male. 
  4. “You can’t lie your way onto the Supreme Court.” (Or can you? This is yet to be determined.)
  5. Don’t let people with a “pathological” lack of empathy for rape victims become Supreme Court judges.
  6. Self-pity can and will overwhelm reason. Not such a good thing to see overtaking the intellectual makeup of someone auditioning to be a maximally powerful judge for life.
  7. When appropriate, use the FBI.
  8. Have no fear of vocal fry. Blasey Ford uses it as a shield.
  9. When interviewing people at Senate hearings and “so-called” investigations, do not hide like cowards behind a hired female prosecutor. It makes you look silly.
  10. Respect women. 
  11. Would it kill you to believe them? 
  12. Whether in your house or the courthouse, you have a right to two front doors.