Guttenberg, Kavanaugh, and the Handshake that Wasn’t
At a break on the first day of the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee was approached by Fred Guttenberg who had his hand out to shake that of Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh refused, turning his back on the father of one of the kids killed in the Parkland shooting.
Those on the political right would have us believe this was a scripted moment that means nothing. They’re at least partially right because it was partially scripted, but it’s the unscripted part that means everything.
Almost Everything in Politics is Scripted
They would have us believe that this handshake that wasn’t is irrelevant because it was scripted, but if that were the case, almost everything in politics would be irrelevant and that’s obviously not true.
Campaign speeches are scripted. Convention speeches are scripted. Commercials are scripted. Speeches from the floors of the House and Senate are scripted. Almost every public statement made by almost every politician in America is scripted. Even supposedly off-the-cuff statements are—if not actually scripted—discussed ad nauseam by candidate and staff before they’re made.
But the prevalence of scripted discourse in politics is irrelevant here because while Fred Guttenberg was almost certainly staging a stunt, Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t obliged to follow the script.
The Important Part Wasn’t Scripted
Offering to shake the hand of a political opponent is rarely newsworthy. Accepting a handshake from a political opponent is almost never newsworthy. Had Brett Kavanaugh shaken Guttenberg’s hand, and offered a trite platitude about the Parkland tragedy, we wouldn’t be talking about it today because we wouldn’t have known it happened.
It became newsworthy because Brett Kavanaugh refused to engage in the simplest, most basic of our cultural norms. A handshake is the baseline greeting for people who aren’t necessarily the best of friends, but who accept the other as part of their world.
The Shriveled Turnip at the Heart of the American Political Right
That’s why Kavanaugh’s refusal to shake hands is so revealing. It’s emblematic of a political movement that makes a lack of empathy and the denial of humanity a core tenet of everything they espouse.
If you are not a rich, able-bodied, cis-gendered white Christian man, the current Republican Party doesn’t think you’re human enough to count. To borrow from one of the worst decisions our Supreme Court has ever handed down, the Republican Party thinks that if you’re not a rich, able-bodied, cis-gendered white Christian male, you have no rights which the rich, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white Christian male is bound to respect.
They think people are poor because they’re lazy. They think people are disabled because they deserve to be. They think women are just there to help men be more manly. They think immigrants are diseased moochers. They think brown people are lazy and unintelligent. They not only think they’re better than us, they think they’re so much better than us that they’re the only ones who deserve a seat at the table.
The Price of Access to the Public Arena is Acceptance
There’s an argument we see every time someone from the political right is publicly disinvited from an event. It’s censorship. If you really believed in an open exchange of ideas, you’d let everyone in. You’re being hypocrites, blah blah blah blah, it’s all bullshit.
Access to public debate has a price. That price is accepting the humanity of everyone else who argues in the public debate. If you do not accept that women, disabled people, gay people, brown people, trans people, and people that just don’t agree with you on anything at all have the same right to access public spaces, the same right to have their votes counted, the same right to work, to worship (or not), and to just be themselves, then you have no right to demand a place in the discussion.
And that is why the handshake-that-wasn’t is newsworthy. It’s not simply a matter of one person being dismissive of another, it’s a matter of the fundamental flaw of an entire political movement. They think that they’re the only ones who are smart enough, dedicated enough, honest enough, and correct enough to make public policy and every single one of those qualifications is shorthand for being white enough.
They think they count and we don’t.