The problem with the overwhelming majority of comments you will see on the subject of the Sotomayor nomination, or any other nomination to the court, is that it is shallow, and informed almost entirely by the commenters’ partisan leanings. All you will learn from it is which side the writer chooses in our never-ending party madness, or the parallel culture wars.
That is unfortunately true of this piece in The New Yorker by Jeffrey Toobin. It drips with this attitude: I’m a liberal, so I think this, and if you disagree with me you’re a conservative, and you think this. Never mind what you actually think.
The thrust of the piece is to stick up for the idea that Judge Sotomayor may have been selected in part because of her ethnicity and gender, as a good thing that should be neither side-stepped nor apologized for:
Still, even Obama, in announcing his choice, shied away from stating the obvious: that Sotomayor was picked in part because she is a Hispanic woman. (The President called his choice an “important step” but didn’t say why.) There was no need for such reticence. Earlier Presidents didn’t apologize for preserving the geographic balance, and this one need not be reluctant to acknowledge that Hispanics, the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, who by 2050 will represent a third of the American people, deserve a place at this most exclusive table for nine. (Nor, of course, did he note that the nomination was in part to satisfy Hispanic voters—the electoral benefit being another constant among Presidents.) As Barack Obama knows better than most, it is a sign of a mature and healthy society when the best of formerly excluded groups have the opportunity to earn their way to the top.
Actually, there IS good reason for such reticence and the president is to be praised for recognizing that. Mr. Toobin raises as an argument the tradition, dating to the earliest days of the Republic, of providing geographical balance on the court, followed by such notions as the “Catholic seat” or the “Jewish seat.” (Interesting thing about that is that if Sotomayor is confirmed, we’ll be down to one Protestant seat. Which is wonderful for me as a Catholic — or would be, if I didn’t consider it anathema to think in such terms.)
In fact, I think the “geographic balance” is a bad practice to institutionalize as well. If a legislature wants to have representatives of various congressional districts on a board or commission, OK. But in the absence of such requirements, it is a disservice for a president or governor to consider whether a person is from Charleston, or is Latina, or what have you. Those biographical details are points you MIGHT bring up in introducing a speaker, depending on the audience. But they are NOT qualifications for the Court, and only legitimate qualifications should enter into the discussion.
So no, comparing the idea of considering a nominee’s ethnicity to considering his or her hometown doesn’t strengthen your argument.
But that part is just hapless. This part, the part in which prejudices about what other people think are aired, is actually offensive:
As with earlier breakthrough nominations, Obama’s selection of Sotomayor has stirred some old-fashioned ugliness, and in that alone it serves as a reminder of the value of a diverse bench and society. Some anonymous portrayals of the Judge offered the kind of patronizing critiques (“not that smart”) that often greet outsiders at white-male preserves. Women who have integrated such bastions will be familiar, too, with the descriptions of her temperament (“domineering”), which are of a variety that tend to reveal more about the insecurity of male holdovers than about the comportment of female pioneers. The pernicious implication of such views is that white males, who constitute a hundred and six of the hundred and ten individuals who have served on the Court, made it on merit, and that Sotomayor is somehow less deserving.
People who share Mr. Toobin’s mindset are nodding their heads right now: Yep, that’s exactly what those pigs say about women. Yep, that’s the kind of code we hear about minorities. Which, to borrow Mr. Toobin’s condescending tone, tells you more about the nodders than it does about the people they’re nodding about.
Let me propose a couple of thoughts: What if she isn’t “all that smart?” I have no idea whether she is or not, but that can be true even of Latinas, you know, just as it can be of white Anglo men (and are you going to say you don’t know some white guys who aren’t as smart as they should be?). And what if she is domineering? That, too, is possible. It is not automatically impossible for a woman to be overbearing. She doesn’t get a free pass on that by virtue of gender — except among the people who are nodding at Mr. Toobin’s stereotypes.
The interesting thing that apparently escapes Mr. Toobin is that in fact, a white male would have to be very secure indeed in his judgment to offer such a criticism of a Latina nominee — if he dared to do it on the record and for attribution, which evidently none are doing, which is the only point here that argues for the insecurity Mr. Toobin suggests.
As for the last point in that paragraph: Exactly who said the other hundred and six individuals were immune to the objections of not being smart enough, or too domineering? I missed that part. Oh, yeah, I forgot: Surely all the powerful white guys out there ARE saying that, because, you know, that’s how they are. Everybody nod now.
Anyway, I had hoped for something more subtle and thoughtful and nuanced from The New Yorker. The cartoons are certainly more sophisticated than this. So is this wonderful little piece in the same edition, in which a Chinese woman describes what Hemingway meant to her in the summer she was watching her mother go mad. A sample:
I was reading “A Farewell to Arms” one night when my father came into my bedroom. The family was counting on me, he said. Neither he nor my sister could keep my mother from going mad. “She loves you more than your sister or me.” I promised to try my best. When he left, I turned off the light. There was not a trace of a breeze. Through the open window, I could hear a chess party, a group of old bachelors under a street lamp, laughingly cursing one another’s moves on the chessboard. I listened to a man slapping mosquitoes, and wished that I were the hero of Hemingway’s novel. I would have given up the use of both my legs to be in Italy, drinking vermouth, watching horse races, and exchanging off-color jokes with my fellow-officers as the old bachelors were doing outside.
Sound interesting? It was. I got something fresh and original and worth reading from each paragraph. But I can’t say the same for Mr. Toobin’s bit of partisan cheerleading. Or perhaps I should say, nodleading.
To conclude: One reason you don’t see me taking sides on Sotomayor — I might express concerns, or seize upon encouraging signs, but I have no idea whether she should be confirmed or not — is because I don’t subscribe to either side in this game. I have to think for myself. And I have not had time — nor am I likely to have time — to study her record closely enough to pass judgment one way or the other.
Nor should I be expected to. That’s why we have a system of representative democracy. We elect people to take the time to study these things, and vote in good faith based upon their best judgment. Unfortunately, that breaks down when the elected representatives themselves surrender their thought processes to the parties and interest groups that depend upon pointless conflict for their very existence. And even more unfortunately, elected representatives are all too eager to do that.