Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Hu's on First!?" Semantics and the Sotomayor Hearings

To help us identify all the players, at least one internet service has provided a seating chart for the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings to consider the president's nomination of 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States, where she would replace retiring Justice David Souter.  The seating chart reminds one of the defensive lineup graphics the networks regularly use in the top and bottom halves of the first inning of a baseball game, showing who plays where in the field.  Since it generally precedes the throwing of the first pitch, such a graphic does not show Hu's on first, since nobody has reached the bases yet.

The comparison--and the reference to a silly comic routine--seem apt for a number of reasons, not least the wheedling over the demise of white male prerogatives unleashed by the Republicans this week, particularly by their two most visible participants, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.  Graham as much as admitted his role in a losing cause, and seemed not to rule out switching uniforms to join the winning side, citing shrewdly the consequences of elections.  Translation:  he knows that he's not Hu, and certainly is not on first.

The "Hu's on first!?" gag, of course, pivots on both the unfamiliarity of a Chinese name seventy-five years ago or so, and its homonymity with the English word "who." Hence the exclamation point followed by a question mark.  The statement becomes a question if one mistakes a foreign name for an English pronoun.

"Hu's on first!?" comes to mind because Graham and Sessions both fail to see the upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland quality of their complaints against Judge Sotomayor.  Jeff Sessions lost a nomination to a federal judgeship because of comments he made suggesting bias in favor of the Ku Klux Klan and hostile to the NAACP.  He can't see that Sotomayor's remarks about her Latina wisdom do not amount to the same egregious, racist error he made, but rather speak to the benefits of diversity.  Hu's about to make it to first, and he's steamed.       

Likewise the ostensibly more likeable Graham.  He tried to turn the tables on Sotomayor's "wise Latina" observation by suggesting that had he made a remark about the superior wisdom of white men, it would have destroyed his political career.  He enjoined her with barely concealed frustration to exercise greater care in her public speaking.  He misses two points (at least).  First, as a Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor would--will--become immune to the discipline of the electoral process.  That does not mean she can shoot her mouth, as these hearings will have indelibly reminded her.  It simply means that Graham as a politician plays a different role than Sotomayor as a putative Supreme Court Justice.

More important, Sotomayor felt the need to say what she did precisely because white males such as Graham have said precisely what Graham admits--grudgingly?--he cannot any longer say, and said it for too long, in public, anyway.  Enough hatred of the ethnic "other" remains in states like Sessions' Alabama and Graham's South Carolina (we could include, of course, Kyl's Arizona, Hatch's Utah, and so on) that we need not imagine too hard what gets said in private.  As for Graham, he got picked off first, it's Hu's chance to run the bases, and he wants to do everything he can to hobble her.  As though her broken ankle doesn't hobble her sufficiently.

I hope using one of the sillier gags from the history of American comedy as a key for unlocking the inanity of the attack on Sotomayor from the Republicans has served a purpose.  As Sen. Klobuchar, Sen. Feingold, and Sen. Franken spoke in detail to her record as a judge on a range of issues, the Republicans directed the vast majority of their attention to a reverse discrimination suit filed by a firefighter who had already won a discrimination case on disability grounds, and one statement made in a speech to law students.  "Hu's on first!?"  Damned right she is, and the sooner the Republicans accept the changing demographics of our society, the sooner we'll have Supreme Court nomination hearings that don't send one party, at least, back to the dugout with mud on their faces and their uniforms in tatters. 

1 comment:

  1. What a unique presentation of what can be often such a tedious process. The characters change ( a bit) but some of the same ole same ole forces seem so close at hand. I wonder after reading your piece what is worse, bigotry or partisanship. I know it is bigotry and I feel so frustrated by how our legislators tow the company line, both right and left of center.

    In my coursework, I often get frustrated by our discussion when people speak without any regard to where we are in the conversation. I don't think we listen to one another deeply. I see the same of Capitol Hill. Is it too much to ask for hearings to be events where members truly hear one another and the woman who will hopefully be our next Supreme Court Justice?