Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Identity politics and the culture of narcissism

President Obama has nominated the first Latina--nobody remembers Benjamin Cardozo anymore--to fill Justice David Souter's Supreme Court seat.  Fortunately Sonia Sotomayor has very impressive credentials, and apparently enough Bronx moxey to have a chance at offsetting the influence of her fellow New Yorker, Justice Antonin Scalia, and perhaps at persuading Justice Anthony Kennedy to join 5-4 majorities against rather than with Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia, and Justices Alito and Thomas.  And did I--need I--mention the goodwill Obama has secured in the Latino community, not to mention the velvet-lined coffin he's handed conservative Senate Republicans--i.e., everybody but Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins--by giving them a candidate they cannot possibly have wanted but whose community they cannot afford to alienate?

To all of which I want to say "huzzah," but my conscience nags at me.  I thank the President in his wisdom for obviously having a very impressive short list comprised entirely of women.  In a sense Obama has treated this nomination as finding a replacement as much for Sandra Day O'Connor as for Souter, and laudably so.  

Yet one of the cases likely to give the Republicans whatever ammunition they feel they can let fly involves an affirmative action case involving a fire department exam no minorities passed in New Haven, CT, a city I know well, with a history of racial division, suspicion and violence.  The whole scenario sickens one, a kind of replay of the absurd charge of "elitism" slung at Obama by the McCain campaign.  Substitute Sotomayor's Princeton and Yale for Obama's Columbia and Harvard:  the affirmative action generation has come to power.  And what case of Sotomayor's most annoys the Republicans but an affirmative action case; how poetically perfect, how cynically rich.  Now, at least, we know what really frightened conservatives about affirmative action:  that it would work.

And yet that nagging conscience won't quite leave me in peace.  Think of the constituencies either considered or mentioned in the leadup to this nomination, and even in its aftermath.  Women's groups would not have forgiven him for choosing a male.  The LGBT community wanted one of two openly lesbian lawyers from Stanford, one of whom, Kathleen Sullivan, long ago impressed me as a guest commentator on PBS.  She had my "vote."  The Latino community had a couple of contenders, though White House aides carefully pointed out that published short lists did not necessarily look like the real thing--although in the end they actually did, just longer.  Pragmatism weighed in Sotomayor's favor, and the usual dash of Obama bravado, daring the Republicans to go after her, knowing they cannot, except suicidally.

I believe in affirmative action, and salute what it has accomplished for all whom it has benefitted (that would include society most of all), and have great respect for the pioneers and second and third waves of the women's movement and LGBT activists.  I simply can't escape a certain feeling of unease at the chorus of "Mine!  Pick mine, Mr. President.  (... or I may not vote for you again, you bastard...) " that has attended this process like a stage-whisper.  

Obviously it matters that he picked Sotomayor, that she had the credentials that he could pick her, just as it would have mattered had he picked Kathleen Sullivan, not so much because of her credentials but because she achieved it all as an openly lesbian woman.  To me, it matters most that we put aside the politics of narcissism and recognize Judge Sotomayor for the most important symbolism she represents:  the exaltation of the outsider proclaimed on the statue that guards the harbor in her (and Ginsburg and Scalia's) home city.  If the other five Catholics and the two Jews in the Supreme Court speak to the nineteenth-century wave of immigration dominated by Eastern European Jews, Irish and Italians, Sotomayor speaks to the battles fought in the twentieth century that carry into the twenty-first.  Let those who see their face in hers reflect on the importance that other faces bring to the table; but let the others recognize that all outsiders benefit when one outsider gains entrance to the highest court in the land.     


1 comment:

  1. A few years ago, I was assisting a class at Duke. The professor asked the students to go to one side of the room if they were for affirmative action and to the other side if they were against. The side that was against affirmative action overwhelmed the side that was for almost three fold. What this exercise pointed out to me, as someone who joined the 'for' side is affirmative action is not only about culture, race or orientation, it is about age. The millennials on down, in my experience, believe we have achieved what we set out to do fifty years ago.