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Christine Blasey Ford and the Train of History

October 10, 2018

In “The Class Struggles in France,” Marx referred to revolutions as the “locomotives of world history.” Walter Benjamin would later object. “Perhaps it is quite otherwise,” he wrote in the preparatory notes to his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” “Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.” History was not one with progress, Benjamin knew. Revolutions thwarted, not affirmed, the inexorable.

In her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Christine Blasey Ford also talked about a train:

“Once he was selected and it seemed like he was popular and it was a sure vote, I was calculating daily the risk/benefit for me of coming forward, and wondering whether I would just be jumping in front of a train that was headed to where it was headed anyway and that I would just be personally annihilated.”

For Blasey Ford, as often for Benjamin, the train—power on a preordained course—needs to be stopped. Its path, if not its very premise, is misguided. Yet if the train of history Benjamin wrote about carried all of humanity, the train Ford speaks of does not carry her—or perhaps any woman. It never has. That’s what it means to be silenced. There is no way to even pull the brake.

But history has allowed other means. If Blasey Ford has reminded us of anything, it is that when resistance proves insufficient from within—when the system won’t police itself, when there is no internal revolt, when the brakes fail—it can also come from without. You can show up and stand in the way. That’s what protest is: bearing witness with the body, embodying the scream that otherwise hasn’t been—won’t be—heard.

Not that such a thing is easy. Those who, throughout history, have pulled the brake on Benjamin’s train have done so because they’ve looked behind them and seen the destruction left on the tracks. Today, it isn’t difficult to see that destruction as the very thing Ford feared she would herself become. She thought she’d be “annihilated,” yet another casualty of a juggernauting ideology whose force is also its folly, oblivious to what it has impunely crushed.

But to be destroyed is to be forgotten, and Ford—unlike those left off the train of history in other eras—will not suffer that fate. If it is true that the train has pulled into yet another station with blood on its wheels, it is the blood of a survivor who, along with other women, has proven adept at finding alternate ways of getting places. After all, you have to already be ahead of a train in order to throw yourself in front of it. May these consolations help to fuel the real progress to come.

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