This article was originally published by one of our founders on Medium and reposted here with permission.
Thinking back, the outcry from various political conservatives I know, both at ND and elsewhere, over purported anti-Catholic sentiment during Barrett’s 2017 confirmation hearings directly affected my own political views, facilitating my significant shift to the left. Just today, I realized that I associate Barrett’s career trajectory with a turning in my own mind and life.
Barrett’s confirmation to the 7th Circuit was going down just as Trump-Pence were expanding the exemption for religious objectors to the ACA’s birth control benefit, i.e. preparing to empower institutions like Notre Dame to use their economic standing to actively obstruct employees’ and students’ access to reproductive healthcare under the distorted label of religious freedom. (Recall that we used to have two separate plans via the ACA’s accommodation process; the government directly reimbursed insurance companies for all contraceptive-related care.)
Anyway, back in late 2017, I remember being pretty blown away by the morally absurd claims that then-Professor Amy Coney Barrett — a person with material security who was vying for a position of considerable authority and public status — was seriously harmed by a few tactless questions during her confirmation hearings. I was blown away because the same folks who were claiming that religious freedom was under siege were simultaneously refusing to lend any credence to the first-hand testimonies of low-income and vulnerable people who can become pregnant at ND about the harms we/they experience as a result of obstructed access to reproductive healthcare.
That’s probably what radicalized me, so to speak. I realized that a lot of people who self-describe as “morally serious” interpret moral seriousness to mean Barrett endured a grave injustice during her confirmation hearing while dismissing the harms experienced by the person who needs regular access to emergency contraception (which is $40-$50/pill) in order to correct a severe and potentially life-threatening hormonal imbalance. In my own case, I was already enraged about the hours and money I’d spent trying to access care that should have been free and seamless — costs my cis-men colleagues (some of whom were also my romantic partners during grad school) did not incur, but often benefited from. So there was a backdrop of frustration, anger, etc. about birth control coverage — but the rush to emblazon coffee mugs with “the dogma lives loudly within you” as if Barrett was some kind of champion for the downtrodden was what really made me want to puke. (I started learning to organize instead.)
Reflecting on the events of three years ago is helping me understand more clearly the emotional response I’ve had not only to the recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but to the nomination of Barrett, of all people, to replace her. In the wake of her nomination, I’ve been obsessively reading coverage about ACB. The undercurrent of mounting anxiety I’m experiencing, which is distracting me from completely focusing on my work, must be connected not only to what is to come — but also to what’s happened already: the illegal imposition of burdensome costs on people who need access to reproductive healthcare at Notre Dame, along with restricted options.
My dissertation (“Traumatic Time and Therapeutic Freedom: Enduring, Healing, and Starting Anew in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought”) begins with a discussion of the interview Arendt gave to Günter Gaus in 1964 when she famously protests his description of her as a philosopher, saying “my profession, if one can even speak of it at all is political theory.” After briefly discussing the significance of the distinction between philosophy and political theory for Arendt, I write: “Later in the interview, Gaus invited Arendt to expand on what prompted her apostasy from philosophy, asking: ‘Is there a definite event in your memory that dates your turn to the political?’ Arendt answered with characteristic decisiveness: ‘I would say February 27, 1933, the burning of the Reichstag, and the illegal arrests that followed during the same night.’ Though her upbringing was fairly secular, Arendt’s effort to understand politics — the realm of human life and activity that occupies the most prominent place in her writings — was bound up from the first with the persecution of the Jewish people in mid-twentieth century Europe. ‘If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew,’ Arendt told Gaus in the interview.
“In addition to demonstrating the significance of the fate of the Jewish people in Arendt’s intellectual trajectory (might she have “stayed with” philosophy if the rise of National Socialism had been thwarted?), the specificity of her reply to Gaus also attests to the primacy of discrete moments in time in Arendt’s political theory. Per Jonathan Schell: “it was events that set her mind in motion, and philosophy that had to adjust,” a view corroborated by Arendt’s own reflections on how the horrific events of a particular day prompted her to reorient the course of her intellectual and professional life, to devote her attention to the political rather than the philosophical realm. Events — temporal happenings — are the basic unit of Arendt’s thought, the point from which her tentative and provisional analyses depart. In other words, Arendt locates the significance of politics not in static transhistorical forms, but in transitory, historical, and contingent occurrences.”
If asked to date my own turn to the political, I’d say October 6, 2017: the day Fr. Jenkins — currently quarantining after attending Judge Barrett’s SCOTUS nomination party unmasked — released his statement “welcoming” and “applauding” the HHS’s implementation of a conception of religious liberty that distorts harmer and harmed.