Boldly Fighting the Already Lost Cultural War

Unless you’re insecure and defensive about where you’re from, where you’ve been, who you know, and of course what you know – culture wars are kind of fun. They have nothing to do with being fat, ugly, old and smelly. Culture wars have to do with societal norms, or what people claim that everyone should agree should be norms, not with any one person’s physical presence. Everyone gets old and things deteriorate – it happens. Imagine Paris Hilton at seventy. It’s better to argue over how the culture is going to hell, or if we’re entering the long-awaited Age of Aquarius, with peace, love and understanding and such things (you know the song). Do we live in an age where we should be perpetually fearful and angry – see Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich – or calm and moderately hopeful – see Obama and his crowd. People argue over such things all the time, and what they feel drives policy – torture and war, or diplomacy and careful considered decency, universal healthcare or free-market, for-profit, buy-what-you-can-and-hope-you-don’t-get-screwed-over private policies, and almost every other issue. How you see the culture drives your decisions.

And then there’s Sonia Sotomayor, the woman born in the Bronx to parents who were immigrants from Puerto Rico, who excelled at Princeton and then at Yale Law School, then made her bones as a corporate lawyer, a district attorney, and was appointed to the Federal Bench by the first President Bush. Now she’s been nominated to the Supreme Court, and insecure and defensive types argue that she shouldn’t have been. And not having reviewed her rulings, they have decided there’s something wrong here. How can a divorced Hispanic woman from the lower class, with no investments or substantial assets, who still lives in an apartment in the West Village – yes, rented – possibly be right for this job? Yes, that has been argued back and forth. It’s a cultural thing.

Jason Zengerle notes that both Curt Levey (Time) and Ramesh Ponnuru (National Review) are arguing that Sotomayor is to Obama as Harriet Miers was to George W. Bush – she’s a pleasant lightweight. He just nominated her on a whim. He wasn’t thinking. This was just a bit of cultural foolishness. Yeah, she’s a Hispanic woman, but she knows nothing, really, and is an embarrassment.

And Zengerle finds that somewhat absurd:

I think it’s going to be much tougher to make that case against her than it was against Miers. The criticism resonated when it was made against Miers, after all, because of her resume (undergrad and law degrees from Southern Methodist University) and her close personal relationship with Bush (who first hired her as his personal lawyer when he was Texas Governor and later brought her along to Washington to work in the White House). Indeed, it’s pretty much inconceivable that any President other than Bush would have ever dreamed of her nominating her to the Court.

The same just can’t be said about Sotomayor, who went to Princeton for undergrad and Yale for law school, and who was being talked about as a potential Supreme Court nominee when Bill Clinton was president.

In the grand scheme of things, none of these attacks on Sotomayor are likely to matter. This whole confirmation “fight” is going to be kabuki. But even kabuki has to be at least slightly grounded in reality. The Sotomayor = Miers argument just isn’t.

But this is culture war, and Ponnuru defends himself – liberals have a double standard as they called Bush a “moron” even though he went to the same Ivy League kind of places that she did, after all.

Zengerle will have none of that:

Bush went to “those schools” during an era (actually, at the tail end of an era) when admission to those schools wasn’t necessarily a sign of towering intellect, at least if you hailed from the right family, as Bush did. As Nicholas Lemann explained it in his 2000 New Yorker profile of Bush:

“After Bush’s class was admitted, Yale’s new president, Kingman Brewster, Jr., a liberal-reformist New England patrician, brought in an insurrectionary new director of admissions, only twenty-nine years old, named R. Inslee Clark, Jr. Clark set about making Yale more of a national institution dominated by public-school graduates who were picked for their academic abilities. He made so many people mad that he lasted only five years in the job, but by that time the revolution was substantially complete. A good way of encapsulating the abrupt change from Old Yale to New Yale is this: George H. W. Bush is the eldest of four brothers. All four went to Yale. George W. Bush is the eldest of four brothers, too. He is the only one who went to Yale.”

This approach, of course, spread to the rest of the Ivies, which is how Sotomayor, a poor Hispanic girl from the Bronx who went to a Catholic high school, got admitted to Princeton, from which she graduated summa cum laude.

And Andrew Sullivan chimes in:

And Bush, of course, touted a “C” average. If we truly want a meritocracy in the US, we should get rid of both legacy and affirmative action.

Well, that may or may not be what we want, but the culture wars are raging. And they mostly center on what the hell Obama is doing nominating such a person. See Senator James Inhofe:

In the months ahead, it will be important for those of us in the U.S. Senate to weigh her qualifications and character as well as her ability to rule fairly without undue influence from her own personal race, gender, or political preferences.

She’s just the wrong sort of person, you see. And Hilzoy (Hilary Bok) is not amused:

Strange to say, Senator Inhofe had no such concerns about Samuel Alito. He didn’t wonder whether Alito’s personal race or gender – or even his impersonal race or gender, whatever those might be – would weigh too heavily with him, or prevent him from ruling fairly. I wonder why not?

Meanwhile, Paul at PowerLine headlines his post “Che Guevara in Robes.” I’ve been trying to think of something Sotomayor and Che have in common besides being Hispanic, but I’m coming up dry. But that’s nothing compared to Mike Huckabee thinking her first name is Maria. Any moment now, I suppose someone will ask how we know she’s in this country legally.

Well, Huckabee does keep calling her Maria. You remember pretty Natalie Wood pretending to be the pretty Puerto Rican girl in West Side Story. How can Sotomayor be qualified for the Supreme Court? It’s a cultural thing. Everyone has seen the movie.

Hilzoy also adds this:

Of course, none of these responses really compares to John “No law can prevent the President from crushing the testicles of a terrorist’s child” Yoo informing us of the real meaning of the Sotomayor nomination: that despite his best efforts, empathy has triumphed – and that this is a bad thing.

Yikes.

Well, he did say the former. And he did argue the latter.

To be fair, not everyone is joining the cultural war. In fact, on the right, there’s Hugh Hewitt:

Judge Sotomayor will almost certainly prove to be sharp and charming, intelligent and witty – because that’s what federal appeals court judges are trained to be, and she has been on the bench a very long time. Cryptic references to her temperament by retired clerks eager to be “in the mix” are the worst sort of gossip-dressed-up-as-journalism, and simply lower expectations which she will easily meet and exceed. The judge is obviously a bright and accomplished professional with an enormously appealing personal story which resembles that of Justices Thomas and Alito. This is a great country that allows anyone who works hard to rise, and some to rise spectacularly as has Judge Sotomayor.

Hewitt didn’t get the memo, as Sotomayor had said this:

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

That should outrage every fair-minded person, perhaps, except Greg Sargent looks at the full speech from which that quote was taken:

Read in context, it’s clear that Sotomayor was merely saying that it’s inevitable that a judge’s personal race-based and gender-based experiences will impact judging, particularly in race and sex discrimination cases.

As a result, she said, while such formative experiences can be enriching and contribute to wise decisions, a judge should also be aware of them in order to avoid being wholly dominated by them. She vowed “complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives.”

“I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences, but I accept my limitations,” she said – the opposite of what critics claim she said.

This causes Rod Dreher, the Crunchy Con, to admit he was wrong. And he says he’s relieved, because it strikes him as both idealistic and realistic:

I am sure Sotomayor and I have very different views on the justice, or injustice, of affirmative action, and I’m quite sure that I won’t much care for her rulings as a SCOTUS justice on issues that I care about. But seeing her controversial comment in its larger context makes it look a lot less provocative and troubling.

Of course there’s still Tom Tancredo:

Unfortunately for her and fortunately for us there are plenty of things that we’ve even talked about her already. I’m telling you, she appears to be a racist. She said things that are racist in any other context … You can still be a racist and have all those things in your background. You can be a racist and have all that stuff in your background.

Sullivan is amazed:

Putting Tom Tancredo front and center against Sotomayor must be the Obama administration’s dream come true. The critique of her seeming preoccupation with her heritage nonetheless seems valid to me, but it’s also a little – how does one say this? – 1995. The underlying arguments about affirmative action are still relevant, of course, but their salience seems less potent now. I’m not sure why – perhaps the war and the recession and the debt make the intensity of those fights seem like a luxury of a time of peace and prosperity and fiscal sanity. Perhaps Obama has made racial diversity less threatening to some. I see nothing in her record to disbar her from her seat so far – and one should remain aware that many special interest groups on both sides have a financial interest in stoking polarization whether it’s merited or not.

But Glenn Beck, the intellectual and political heart and soul of Fox News now, goes full tilt with the she’s-a-racist-bigot routine. And that also amazes Sullivan:

I hear Rush was saying that too. Look: there are real arguments about the morality of affirmative action. I oppose it. I view it as an unwitting perpetuation of racial thinking that, in the end, does more harm than good. But I don’t believe its proponents are conscious racists, intending to discriminate against whites because they’re bigots. And this nuance is exactly what talk radio has erased. What was once a rhetorical flourish, a way of making a point more graphically, has become a baseline argument for the right. It makes conservatives sound more bigoted than the “bigots” they’re denouncing.

It’s a problem – and Obama is shrewd and moderate enough to exploit it. He is doing to the GOP collectively what he did to Clinton and McCain and Cheney: he is aiding and abetting their self-destruction.

And what do you know, they’re doing just that. There’s Michael Goldfarb, the man who once claimed Sarah Palin was far superior to Obama, with this:

Sotomayor may have changed her views since her college days, though her record obviously indicates consistency, but perhaps what’s most striking is that on the issue of diversity, Obama seems to have the views of a 21-year-old Hispanic girl – that is, only by having a black president, an Hispanic justice, a female secretary of State, and Bozo the Clown as vice president will the United States become a true “vanguard of societal ideas and changes.”

That is cultural warfare, of course. But you cannot forget Rush Limbaugh:

“If ever a civil rights movement was needed in America, it is for the Republican Party. If ever we needed to start marching for freedom and constitutional rights, it’s for the Republican Party. The Republican Party is today’s oppressed minority, and it knows how to behave as one.” The GOP, Rush continued, know to go to the “back of the bus” and drink from the right water fountain. Rush then assured us that he is an “intellectual,” whereas Obama is a “narcissist.” And just in case you’re not sure what that means, Rush elaborated: “He’s like Narcissus.” Washington, D.C., Rush concluded, is the “Old South” for Republicans, and they are comfortable being an “oppressed minority.”

That’s pulling out all the stops. And then there’s Glenn Beck:

Right now, it’s the bottom of the ninth and we are down to our last out and our last strike. Will our government take strike three looking? Or, will they wake up and save the day with a heroic three pointer on a penalty shot?

Beck has a problem with mixed metaphors, of course – but if you’re fighting a cultural war, two sports are better than one, or something.

Of course it call come back to Obama saying he was looking for someone with empathy, then choosing someone with empathy for the wrong things, those things outside the cultural norms that are so obvious. And Adam Serwer notes that is a bit of very curious total nonsense:

Conservatives want their justices to empathize with the religious, the unborn, and powerful corporate interests. Liberals want their justices to empathize with women and minorities, workers and the downtrodden.

For all the pearl-clutching horror coming from the right, the conservative legal movement has picked its plaintiffs carefully, with an eye towards catching the winds of public opinion through sympathetic plaintiffs such as Frank Ricci, the white firefighter who was denied a promotion, or Terri Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, who sought to keep her on life support despite her husband’s claim that she expressed a desire not to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state.

Empathy is an important element of the conservative legal movement on both sides of the bench. Most recently, it’s been conservatives who have been arguing for empathy for the architects and perpetrators of torture on the grounds that they broke the law ostensibly in the interest of the country, while liberals have called for rigidity in upholding laws against torture.

Steve Benen agrees. It’s all how you look at it:

In abortion rights cases, conservative justices have expressed empathy for fetuses, hypothetical mothers, and would-be fathers. In gay rights cases, conservative justices have expressed empathy for conservative families. In cases involving public funding of private religious schools, conservative justices have expressed empathy for parents in underperforming public school districts.

In each case, the larger conservative movement didn’t express outrage at the judges’ willingness to break with the mechanical application of the law; they were thrilled. Empathy matters to the right, just so long as the “proper” person or group is the beneficiary.

It’s all part of the cultural war:

We’ve heard quite a bit over the last two days about Connecticut firefighter Frank Ricci, who, despite dyslexia, worked hard to do well on a written exam established by the local fire department for a promotion. He was passed over, however, because the test results were thrown out, when officials feared the exam was discriminatory against African Americans.

The legal question was a narrow one: “[T]he only real question before the court was whether New Haven had reason to believe that if the city used the test results it would be sued under Title VII. Mr. Ricci’s specific circumstances – his race, his dyslexia, and his professional aggravation – have no bearing on that legal question at all.”

So why are conservatives so quick to point to these details? Because they want the courts and the public to feel empathy for Ricci, appreciating the details that make him feel aggrieved.

The right may not like it, but empathy cuts both ways.

But all is fair in love and war.

But some folks don’t want to play the game. In fact, Kevin Drum says he’s sick of the whole business:

Conservatives, who seem constitutionally incapable of viewing any non-white nominee as anything other than identity politics run wild, have already decided she’s just a crass affirmative action hire. Out of a decade-long appellate court career, the only opinion of hers they seem to have heard of, or care about, is Ricci. And unlike all the middle class white guys on the court, who are apparently paragons of race-blind rationality, they’re convinced that she’s just naturally going to be incapable of judging any case before her as anything other than a woman and a Hispanic.

Not that it matters. We all know how this is going to play out. First, everyone is going to start looking for some dark secret in her background that will derail her nomination. That will probably fail. Then she’ll testify before the Senate, and everyone will ask what she thinks of Roe and Casey and Kelo. She’ll dutifully claim that she’s never even heard of these cases, and on the off chance that any of them ring a bell, she’ll sing the usual song about how it would be improper to say anything about any matter that might come before the court in the future. Which is everything. After a few weeks of this, all the Democrats and maybe a dozen or so Republicans will vote to confirm her and she’ll join the court in time for the fall term.

Drum says this is tedious, and has an alternative:

So instead of going through with it, why don’t we just pretend we did all this, confirm her tomorrow, and then get back to something important, like fighting a couple of wars, trying to rescue the world economy, creating a national healthcare plan, and stopping global warming?

But that’s no fun.

Of course, an item in Time indicates there is something serious going on, something no one expected:

Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is a historic milestone for Latinos, but it resonates well beyond Hispanic pride. It is perhaps the most potent symbol yet of a 21st century rapprochement between the U.S.’s two largest minorities, Latino Americans and African Americans, who in the 20th century could be as violently distrustful of each other as blacks and whites were.

After Latinos helped make Barack Obama the U.S.’s first black President by giving him a remarkable 67% of their vote and Obama seemingly returned the favor by selecting (pending her Senate confirmation) the first Latino Supreme Court Justice, decades of friction between the two groups seem to be melting like asphalt on a hot summer day in Sotomayor’s native Bronx. “The symbolism can’t be overstated,” says former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, one of the country’s largest African-American organizations. “There is a much greater sense of solidarity now between the two groups.” Says Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of the Bendixen & Associates public-opinion-research firm in Miami: “Ethnic tensions won’t be ended by one Supreme Court nomination, but the picture of an African-American President standing with a Latina Supreme Court nominee shows the groups coming together at the highest positions in the country. That can’t help but improve relations.”

It seems the Republicans are in trouble, as this shift in rather startling:

As recently as 2007, a poll conducted by Bendixen and the California-based New America Media organization had found that a majority of Hispanics and blacks preferred to do business with whites than with each other. But in a Gallup survey last year, about two-thirds of each group suddenly said they thought their relations were good. “From a Hispanic perspective, Obama’s election didn’t just mean that a black man could be President, but that any minority person could,” says Freddy Balsera, a Miami-based consultant who headed the Obama campaign’s Hispanic communications effort and is now a chair of the Democratic Party’s National Hispanic Leadership Council. “As a result, on Election Day you could feel a new appreciation on both sides for each community’s struggles.”

So the norms, or what people claim that everyone should agree should be norms, have already changed. You can call her Maria, or Harriet, and talk about baseball and basketball and all the rest. But the game was over already, or, if you want, the war was already lost. And when you see these folks fighting on, it’s somewhere between sad… and tedious. Actually it’s kind of boring. Why say more?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Empathy, Latino American and African American Reconciliation, Republicans and Anger, Sonia Sotomayor, Sotomayor Nomination, Sotomayor the Racist Bigot, War Over Cultural Norms. Bookmark the permalink.

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