One of the Best Speeches You Will Ever Hear from the Senate Floor

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Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, delivered an outstanding 18-minute speech on the Senate floor last night, addressing the incredible pain and horror of sexual assault, lamenting the false binary choice being offered to Americans, and chastising our tribalistic “addiction to the circus.”

Every single line is worth noting.

The 18-minute video is above, and the complete transcript is below.


Mr. President:

I rise to say in public what I’ve been discussing with many individual Nebraskans over the last 17 days—about the MeToo movement . . . the important MeToo movement, about our nation’s accelerating descent into tribalism, and about our continuing decline of the Senate as a deliberative body.

Or, as a Nebraska woman put it more bluntly a couple nights ago: “What the hell is happening to my country?!”

One part of the answer to her urgent question is that the Senate is being swallowed whole by 24/7 cable news. And that inclination, that temptation, probably just can’t be reconciled with being a great deliberative body. Doing reality-TV and wrestling with big, hard complicated long-term problems are just fundamentally different things.

I am not here tonight to talk about the Supreme Court confirmation votes that we will probably be taking this weekend.  I am here to talk about the nasty process we’ve been navigating over the past 86 days—and about the false choices some people are claiming stand before us, and about where we in the Senate will go next week, next month, and next year after that vote.

I’m not here to talk about how fundamentally broken the Senate Judiciary Committee is—or about how absurd it is to think that the problems in our committees are going to be solved by preening and grandstanding Senators looking for soundbites—though both of those things are obviously true.

No, I’m here to talk about the false choice that is being repeated hour after hour after hour on television—that this confirmation vote about one vacant seat on the Supreme Court. In that vote, we are going to be making a giant binary choice about the much broader issue of whether we do or don’t care about women.

That is simply not true. That is not what we are doing this weekend.

Fortunately, many Nebraskans the last two weekends when I’ve been home have been much more nuanced than the kind of screaming that we hear on battling cable news channels. A Supreme Court confirmation vote isn’t a grand choice about whether we love our daughters or whether we trust our sons. That is not the choice before us. This is a consent decision about one person for one seat.

Again, I’m not here to talk tonight about the particular vote. There’s lots of lobbying going on around this body right now—I’m not here to talk about that particular vote.  But I will say that I’ve spent more than 150 hours, at this point, reviewing documents, and in hearings, and consulting investigators and experts related to this confirmation. Moreover, I’ll also say that although I’ve said many complimentary things about Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his distinguished record of twelve years of service on the D.C. Circuit Court—I will say that I urged the President (back in June and early July) to make a different choice before he announced this nomination). I urged him to nominate a different individual. I urged the President to nominate a woman.

Part of my argument then was that the very important MeToo movement was also very new—and that this Senate is not at all well prepared to handle potential allegations of sexual harassment and assault that might have come forward. This is absent knowing a particular nominee. Let me be clear: There is some academic literature that suggests that very few allegations of sexual assault in the broader culture are fabricated—or stated conversely, the hefty majority of allegations of sexual assault in our broader culture are probably true. But in politics, in this city—a place filled with politicians who constantly believe that the end justifies the means—that situation might well have been different, I argued in June. So in the interest of cautious prudence, I urged a different path than the one that was chosen.

But, so what? Once the decision was made, once the President made his nomination, that meant that the work the Senate needed to do was to evaluate the specific evidence and claims about the specific individual that was on the floor before us.

But we’re being told now that our vote isn’t about a specific individual, a specific seat, or specific evidence. But rather, we’re being told that choice before us in this confirmation is a much broader choice about whether we do or don’t care about women.

If you turn on cable news or if you open up social media—and I highly recommend against both of those things in times like this (For the last two and a half weeks, I have stayed clear almost entirely of those two ugly places and it has been good for my soul)—but what you hear if you turn on cable or if you look at social media is:

“Pick a side!”

It is good versus evil.

Everything is immediate.

Everything is certain.

There’s no doubt; there is no gray.

There are only tribes of Hatfields and McCoys; Israelis and Palestinians.

A world of generational hatred without end—no listening; no understanding; no empathy; and no possibility that perhaps, just maybe, in a broken world, violence, pain, and shame are all too real.

And perhaps trying to make angels and devils out of your fellow countrymen and women is not the most useful way for us to try to make sense of the world. Everything might not be black-and-white simple.

We regularly seem in this body and in the politicized culture that we’re trying to serve on cable news we seem to lack any awareness of the possibility, that maybe—just maybe—constant-instant certainty about political battle lines might not be a good way to go forward.  We might be undermining rather than building a healthier world for our kids.

Well, I don’t believe that this is what most Americans want.

I don’t believe most Americans are political addicts.

I don’t believe most Americans trust us in this institution.

I don’t believe that most Americans want our political class to be our leaders right now.

I don’t believe that most Americans want to see each and every question, each and every sphere of life, each and every institution across the land to be politicized.

I think most Americans are a lot more like my wife—who called me last week from Nebraska, sobbing, after both opening statements on Thursday.

What we saw and heard during last Thursday’s eight grotesquely public hours was two different families hurting badly.  Two families, the Ford family and the Kavanaugh family—both of them homes with children—that have been the recipients of constant death threats.  And for what? For one seat on the Supreme court? We know that this isn’t about that when people are threatening death. This is about tribe. One of these two families can’t let their girls go out alone now; the other family has had to move out of their home.  In both northern California and suburban Maryland, there are extra folks being hired in the important work of protection and security details but a part of our economy that we don’t want to grow and that is indisputably growing in our time. This isn’t right.

We saw people having to grapple with the brokenness, and the sinfulness, of a fallen world—but they were not just grappling with it.  They were grappling with the nastiness East of Eden real time, on television as a kind of polititainment art.

No one really thinks that our body politic is going to get any healthier by giving more oxygen to the one-man clown-show that is Michael Avennati.

But you know what?  Not being down with the Circus is not the same thing as being indifferent to the complexities of the MeToo moment.

I believe that we have a widespread legacy of sexual assault in this country.

I believe we don’t have much of a shared sexual ethic right now—and we haven’t for quite some time—and I think horrible stuff has happened, and continues to happen.

I’ve wept with the victims of sexual assault, and I believe the advocacy groups’ data that between one-fifth and one-third of American women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  And given that most women have many other important women in their lives—a mom, and a daughter, sisters, and a couple of close friends—it means that the overwhelming majority of American women have been deeply affected, deeply hurt, by the tragedy of sexual violence.

I have had two dear, dear friends who have been raped, and it is an act from the pit of hell.

People—men and women—are created in the image of God—imago Dei, as we say in Christianity.  Sexuality is a deep and precious gift—it is an intimacy, it is a oneness—that is to be shared and given—never taken. Sex is big, not small—and you don’t get to decide it for someone else.

The MeToo movement is a complicated movement, but it has been a very good thing. Far too often, many girls and women have been told that they are meat. They’ve been told this in word and in deed that they are parts to be consumed—rather than God’s children to be cherished and respected and partnered with.

Caitlin Flanagan, of The Atlantic—one of the most profound writers on sexuality in our time—wrote recently about a horrible experience she endured during her senior year of high school on Long Island.  She was the victim of an attempted date rape. And she had contemplated suicide in the aftermath.  She struggled in school and she doubted her worth and value.

After she struggled against this boy trying to violently force himself on her for many scary minutes, he finally gave up–and just decided to re-start their car. They drove away from that deserted beach in silence.

Listen to her words. She writes:

I told no one. In my mind, this was not an example of male aggression used against a girl to extract sex from her. In my mind, this was an example of how undesirable I was. This was the proof that I was not the kind of girl you took to parties. I was not the kind of girl you wanted to get to know. I was the kind of girl you took to a deserted parking lot and tried to make give you sex. Telling someone would not be revealing what he had done; it would be revealing how deserving I was of that kind of treatment.

Hear what’s she’s saying here. This precious young girl was hearing in her sexual assault that there must be something wrong with her—that she is the kind of girl worthy only of being groped—she’s not worth being taken to dinner or engaged in conversation as if she has a mind.

If that doesn’t make you cry, there’s something wrong with you.

A now-adult Ms. Flanagan continues:

My depression quickly escalated to a point where, if I’d been evaluated by a psychiatrist, I would probably have been institutionalized as a danger to myself. I had plans for how I was going to kill myself. I managed to make a few friends, who introduced me to acid, which was no help with the depression. I sat in classes in a blank state, except for English. (“To the girl about whom I will someday say, ‘I knew her when,’” my English teacher wrote in that yearbook, words that stunned me when I first read them, and that I’ve never forgotten.)”

What a blessing to have had this kind of teacher—someone who proclaimed to Flanagan her dignity and her worth. Who shouted meaning into her soul.

Our culture has been living through an epidemic of sexual assaults. And these attacks on girls’ worth—on women’s worth—need to be grappled with. They need a reckoning.

What we’re dealing with here is horrible physically.

But it’s more than that.

We are dealing with, we’re dealing with something that has a spiritual level as well.

My view is that the MeToo movement is going to might some mistakes, it’s going to have some excesses, but overall, it has been an important and a needed development. A whole lot of brave women have stepped forward and they’ve exposed their abusers—who have been some of the most powerful men in Hollywood and media and corporate America and elsewhere. These women did this at unthinkable professional and personal risk. They deserve our respect.

They also deserve not to have their progress co-opted by the cynics who run this town. Their stories are not fodder for fundraising emails. The MeToo movement doesn’t belong to the Left or to the Right; the MeToo movement belongs to the women who have found in it an inspiration to step forward and confront the people who hurt them.

I have two daughters and, God forbid, in the event that something ever happened to one of my daughters, I want them to feel like they can come forward knowing that their accusations will be taken seriously. That they wouldn’t be dismissed or vilified for speaking up. They wouldn’t be ashamed or blamed.

We all know that the President cannot lead us through this time.

We know that he is dispositionally unable to restrain his impulse to divide us.

His mockery of Dr. Ford last night in Mississippi was wrong—but it doesn’t really surprise anyone. It’s who he is.

Similarly, it was wrong last week when he said that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities.”

It was wrong when people insinuate that a woman bears blame for her sexual assault because she was drunk. This reinforces the stereotypes that have caused millions of women to bury their experiences of abuse and assault for decades.  This kind of repugnant nonsense creates excuses for abusers. Just because a women drinks—or even drinks too much—does not make her body, or her sexuality, any less her own. And I don’t want anyone telling those poisonous lies to my daughters.

I also have a son.  And in the event that, God forbid, he’s ever accused of a crime, I hope he is presumed innocent, and that he’s permitted to exercise his right to defend himself. I think there are a whole lot of parents out there who think the same thing. I don’t just “think” this—I know this—because I’ve been answering the phone in my office this week. I’ve taken the calls from Nebraska moms who say just this.

We want this not because of our politics. We want this because we believe that girls and boys (women and men)—daughters and sons—are created with dignity and worth.

This is not about choosing between believing our daughters and protecting our sons.That choice is false.

But you know what my constituents back in Nebraska told me this weekend they think this is now about? They think this is about us. They think its about all of us in this town being addicted to the circus. They don’t think very many of us are interested in truth. They think we’re interested in political instrumentality. They think we’re interested in exploiting differences and divisions in America because we’re addicted to short term power in a city that isn’t worthy of much respect.

In closing, let me read you one more note from another Nebraska woman this week:

I was angry at yesterday’s hearing [this came in last Friday actually], angry that something as important as a conversation about the victimization of a woman at the hands of a man became just another move in a game of partisan chess. But I was also deeply troubled. Troubled that the painful memories shared by Dr. Ford in that hearing, troubled by the painful memories it evoked in women across the country who have suffered sexual violence. Troubled by the fact that this violence comes at the hands of men. I’m deeply saddened by this violence committed at the hands of men. I just can’t comprehend it. I weep for our sons and for our daughters that it exists in our fallen world. And to those victims for whom yesterday’s hearing brought fresh pain, I am so sorry that a political circus opened these wounds anew. I’m sorry that this abomination of humanity was ever experienced at all.

She continues:

Senator, I want you to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, but I also worry that the vote might be heard as a reflection on the validity on other women’s experiences. I worry that pundits are going to tell women that. I’m tired of women’s stories just being used for politicians’ ends.  I’m tired of women being used and discarded. Women’s pain isn’t just supposed to be a political football.

She’s obviously right.

The MeToo movement doesn’t belong to politicians.

The MeToo movement has elevated our consciousness and our awareness of sexual assault and sexual violence against women. And we must not give back the important ground in this movement by authorizing this media circus to stand in for generations of stories and tragic pain. And no matter how much cable news screams this, it would be an egregious offense against the cause of women to call this one “up or down” a proxy for the validation and validity of claims of sexual violence.

We can do better than that and we must do better—if we’re actually going to care about women and if we’re going to serve our constituents in this body.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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