Identity Politics as Surreal Performance Art

When what was once terribly important is, for some reason, no longer that important, and what was used to sway public opinion and taste mysteriously simply stops working, what you have left is camp – whatever it was is now oddly appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. See Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on “Camp” from 1964 – we’re talking artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and “shocking” excess that actually shocks no one. Those are the key elements. You yawn, then you smile, and then you’re ironically charmed. But you do get the joke. Whoever came up with the work, or the original idea, did not, and never could. Their innocent seriousness is, finally, what’s so fascinating. And you try not to be smug. It is fascinating. Roller derby is like that.

And so is identity politics – you are oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity – and you fight back politically. It worked for the Irish in Boston and the blacks in the South, and the gay community plays at it a bit now. But then, with affirmative action and efforts to even the playing field, as they say, white men decided they were being marginalized, or some did. And with efforts to keep religion out of politics – drop the official prayers and remember a whole lot of fine people who are not born-again evangelical Christians live here too – a good number of those born-again evangelical Christians decided they were an oppressed and marginalized minority. Given the position of white males in our society, and most of the country being quite Christian, this is where things turned into camp.

What you got then – and what we have now – is the frivolous naiveté and the heavy-duty pretentiousness of self-defined victimhood, but without the charm. An utter lack of self-awareness is only charming in pop art, and teenage girls. With this, someone will grab you by the lapels and ask you why you’re not outraged that white men are now getting they short end of the stick and everyone’s pickling on Christians these day – and demand you be as outraged as they seem to be. You might say that as far as you can tell, as a white man, you’ve had a pretty easy ride, and there seem to be far more Christians around than anything else combined. But don’t say that – you’ll get the lecture on being a traitor to your race and accused of trying to make Jesus cry. Just nod politely and smile – and back away.

But be prepared for more of this, as the nation’s first black president has nominated a long-serving, highly educated judge to become the nation’s first Latino Supreme Court justice – and what was camp has turned into surreal performance art, as the attacks on Sonia Sotomayor spin into the absurd.

As you know, the pronunciation of her name is unnatural – real Americans don’t put the accent on those syllables, and asking us to pronounce her name the way she does is an affront to us all. Why do we always have to adjust? It’s not fair and it’s not right and this is not the America we all know anymore, and so on. And she likes odd Puerto Rican cuisine – stuff no one else eats – and she’s proud of it. This may cloud her impartiality – she’s so into pigs’ feet and black beans perhaps she cannot think straight, or something. This may be saying the food is fine, but she shouldn’t talk about it – it shows a she’s one to favor minority views in all matters. And these folks are serious in their speculation. And of course she doesn’t have enough money in her retirement account – she’s either flighty and totally irresponsible, or making fun of normal people who invest everything they have in what they cannot possibly afford but which will keep rising in value forever – except when t doesn’t. You cannot make this stuff up. These are three serious arguments – or we’re told they’re serious. You yawn, then you smile, and then you’re ironically charmed, or you’re not.

Paul Krugman comments:

But is this any crazier, when you come down to it, than the Cult of Bush that ruled much of Washington for years? It was positive, not negative (though there was plenty of that too), but it was similarly about identity politics – you were supposed to support Bush, not because of how he did his job, but because he was… a regular guy.

He cites Peggy Noonan:

I was asked this week why the president seems so attractive to the heartland, to what used to be called Middle America. A big question. I found my mind going to this word: normal.

Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man. He’s normal. He thinks in a sort of common-sense way. He speaks the language of business and sports and politics. You know him. He’s not exotic. But if there’s a fire on the block, he’ll run out and help. He’ll help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, “Where’s Sally?” He’s responsible. He’s not an intellectual.

Krugman notes that doesn’t seem to work any longer, if it ever did. But the Republicans don’t, or can’t, get the joke:

The thing that is really driving conservatives crazy, I think, is that their identity politics just isn’t working like it used to. Their whole approach has been based on the belief that Americans vote as if they live in Mayberry, and fear and hate anyone who looks a bit different; now that the country just isn’t like that, they’ve gone mad.

And more and more people aren’t doing Mayberry – the Andy Griffith Show became camp long ago. They have figured out that diversity, and minority voices, are useful, as Matthew Yglesias argues:

Jewish people are not in any serious way oppressed in the United States of America. But still, being a member of a religious minority group is a distinctive experience. Even in a country that doesn’t officially make Christianity an official state religion, Christianity seems to be the official religion of the state. When Christmas comes around, everyone gets days off so that people can go spend the holidays with their families. When Passover comes around, you get nothing. Mail comes on Saturday but not on Sunday. Liquor stores are closed on Sunday. That’s life, and it’s hardly the worst thing in the world. But it does give you a different perspective on things. And I think it’s a perspective that would probably help a Jewish judge to understand the claims of minority religious groups in general. Not just other Jews, but Muslims and Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the rest. These insights don’t necessarily determine outcomes, but you could imagine a Christian missing some of the real dynamics here. And by the same token, it strikes me as plausible to say that a Muslim judge or a Hindu judge would have similar virtues.

But this is a way of saying that membership in a religious minority group could enhance a judge’s insight into the constitutional protections due to members of religious minority groups. It’s not a claim about Muslims and Hindus and Jews. It would make no sense to look a Hindu judge in India and attribute special insights to him. For a Christian in the United States to say that being a Christian gives him special insight into religious freedom litigation would be creepy and possibly offensive. But if he was saying that his background growing up as a Christian in Lebanon gives him special insight – that would be a totally different thing.

That’s what Sonia Sotomayor has been saying all along, and Yglesias sees that as a good thing:

More broadly, you don’t need to make any claims about the special virtues of any group in particular in order to see the point that a diverse group of decision-makers is going to reach a better understanding of issues than a monolithic group would.

But of course, were you cynically minded you could see this all as political gamesmanship. There’s Bill Pascoe’s CQ Politics article Did Obama Just Use the Sotomayor Nomination To Lock in Florida – Florida’s Hispanic population large and growing and increasingly composed of Puerto Ricans rather than Cuban-Americans. Game, set, match.

Yglesias argues that is somewhat misguided:

George Bush appointed minorities to a number of high-profile positions, and I don’t ultimately think that having elevated a Hispanic judge to the Supreme Court in place of Samuel Alito would have done much to move votes. Ultimately, I just see little evidence that these kinds of appointment decisions have a huge impact on voting.

But what you could see having some impact is less Obama’s decision to appoint Sotomayor than reaction to the conservative reaction to Sotomayor. I think if you look at election results over time, it’s clear that a large number of non-white or non-Anglo Americans seem to have the sense that the Republican Party and the conservative movement don’t have their best interests at heart. And when people see conservatives not just saying “well, I’m a conservative and Sotomayor isn’t, so I’m not happy about the choice” but engaging in bizarre tirades against the “unnatural” pronunciation of her name and the evils of Puerto Rican cuisine while suggesting that the kind of resume that was suitable for Samuel Alito doesn’t cut the mustard for Sonia Sotomayor, well then I think that tends to reinforce the sense that conservatives are very interested in white people’s problems and not so interested in anyone else.

That’s damaging. But that’s not really about Obama picking Sotomayor – it’s about the crazies on the right coming out to play.

And he finds it fascinating:

You never hear Rush Limbaugh decrying everyday racism against non-whites in the United States. You never hear him recounting an anecdote about an African-American man having trouble hailing a cab or being followed by a shopkeeper. He doesn’t do stories about how people with stereotypically “black” names suffer job discrimination. He doesn’t bemoan the fact that the United States has an aircraft carrier named after a fanatical segregationist – which is fine. Everyone’s interested in some things and not in others. Rush isn’t interested in racism. Except that like most conservatives, he’s actually very interested in allegations of racial discrimination against white people. He sees the defense of white interests as integral to his political mission. And he hates identity politics.

Yes it is absurd, but no more absurd than this clip from CNN – Tom Tancredo, the anti-immigrant guy who says Miami is like a third-world country as all here hears is Spanish, denounces Sonia Sotomayor for her association with the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) – they’re the Latino advocacy group much like the NAACP. But to Tancredo they’re the equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan. They are a violent racist terrorist organization:

TANCREDO: If you belong to an organization called La Raza, in this case, which is, from my point of view anyway, nothing more than a Latino – it’s a counterpart – a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses. If you belong to something like that in a way that’s going to convince me and a lot of other people that it’s got nothing to do with race. Even though the logo of La Raza is “All for the race. Nothing for the rest.” What does that tell you?

SANCHEZ: Alright. We’re not talking about – we’re not talking about La Raza –

TANCREDO: She’s a member! She’s a member of La Raza!

Yeah, well, see Dave Meyer – this is not just a slur on Sotomayor and the National Council of La Raza, it’s a serious slur on Senator John McCain, who delivered the keynote at their 2004 conference and also addressed the group in 2008. And Senator Mel Martinez accepted an award from them earlier this year. Maybe those two key Republicans have some explaining to do. Or Tom Tancredo is full of crap and doesn’t know it. That is what they call High Camp.

And this is what makes Yglesias so interesting on this issue:

As anyone who knows me can attest, I don’t have what you’d call a strong “Hispanic” identity. Three of my four grandparents are Jews from Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather, José Yglesias, was a Cuban-American born in Florida. But that puts the family’s actual Hispanic ancestry pretty far back in the past. He grew up in a Spanish-dominant immigrant community, but spoke English fluently. My dad grew up in an English-speaking household and knows some Spanish. I took a semester of Spanish at NYU one summer. And Cuban-American political identity in the United States is heavily oriented around a highly ideological far-right approach to Latin America policy that neither I nor anyone else in my family shares. The Yglesiases emigrated from Cuba before the Revolution, José was initially a Castro supporter, and though he gave that up he and my dad and I all share what you might call anti-anti-Castro views.

But for all that, I have to say that I am really truly deeply and personally pissed off by the tenor of a lot of the commentary on Sonia Sotomayor. The idea that any time a person with a Spanish last name is tapped for a job, his or her entire lifetime of accomplishments is going to be wiped out in a riptide of bitching and moaning about “identity politics” is not a fun concept for me to contemplate. Qualifications like time at Princeton, Yale Law, and on the Circuit Court that work well for guys with Italian names suddenly don’t work if you have a Spanish name. Heaven forbid if someone were to decide that there ought to be at least one Hispanic columnist at a major American newspaper.

Somehow, when George W. Bush affects a Texas accent, that’s not identity politics. When John Edwards gets a VP nomination, that’s not identity politics. But Sonia Sotomayor! Oh my heavens!

There will be a price to pay:

I think conservatives are playing with fire here, and underestimating the number of, say, Mexican-Americans in Texas who didn’t think of themselves as having a great deal in common with Puerto Ricans from New York who are waking up today to find that in the eyes of the conservative movement normal qualifications for office don’t count unless you’re a white Anglo.

But as Mike Madden argues in Salon, the white man is being oppressed!

Just think about it:

Imagine a world where the nation’s first black president has nominated a long-serving, highly educated judge to become the nation’s first Latino Supreme Court justice, and only its third female justice. The president is popular with voters in and out of his political party; the opposition party is struggling to come back from two straight losing elections by showing it’s got a vision for the future, as well as hoping not to fall completely out of favor with Latinos, the country’s largest – and fastest-growing – minority group.

You might not think, in that world, that early opposition to the court nominee would involve accusing her of being racist and sexist, and steadily questioning her intelligence in a way that implies she’s an affirmative action pick. That might seem, in fact, like a fairly self-destructive strategy, one that even the opposition party’s most hardcore base would want to avoid.

But no:

“White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw,” wrote Newt Gingrich – whom conservatives routinely fall over themselves to praise as a driving force of ideas for the Republican Party, and who is also, at least for now, making noises about running for president in 2012 – on Tuesday on his Twitter feed. The ex-House speaker managed to make the sentiment sound even more Neolithic by compressing it to fit Twitter’s 140-character limit. “Latina woman racist should also withdraw.” He seemed to be grunting, not tweeting. (Gingrich was then forced to fend off questions about whether he had posted that item while touring Auschwitz – which he denies, and which you couldn’t make up.)

Yes, it is getting surreal:

But the base wants a battle, and some conservatives seem unable to resist using Sotomayor’s nomination to bring up the resentment-based, racial backlash politics that the country mostly avoided during last year’s historic election. The Sotomayor nomination has, at last, unleashed the pent-up id of a faithful, and fearful, GOP demographic – the aging white male. Focusing on a New Haven, Conn., affirmative action case Sotomayor helped decide, a few lines from a 2001 lecture and a New Republic article questioning her intelligence that even the author is trying to back away from, the wingnut and pundit case against Sotomayor isn’t particularly subtle. Or smart. But it does seem to involve more than a little of what Freud called “projection.”

And he proceeds to make a pretty good argument for that, and in the end it comes down to one thing. They’re feeling oppressed and marginalized:

Not surprisingly, the idea of trying to block a Latina judge from the Supreme Court by stirring up resentment over affirmative action doesn’t strike many observers as the best way to appeal to Latino voters. “If Sonia Sotomayor’s name were John Smith, she’d be just as qualified, and no one would be charging affirmative action or reverse racism,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who left John McCain’s presidential campaign last year because he didn’t want to help it go negative against Obama. “To suggest as much is itself racist. And I think most Americans see right through the smoke screen.”

And this detail is telling:

“Latino voters are responding with a tremendous sense of pride and appreciation,” said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen & Associates, a Democratic polling firm that surveyed Latino voters for Obama’s campaign last year. “The Hispanic community – especially after the immigration issue – is very sensitive to dog-whistle attack politics. During the immigration debate, Hispanics were never directly attacked or called out, but the message they received was they were not wanted here.” The dog-whistle line may have already been crossed; it’s not exactly a hidden message to call someone a race hustler.

Yep, call her a dim-witted affirmative action hire, who is a racist to boot, and people will see your over-compensation and obvious projection. As before, an utter lack of self-awareness is only charming in pop art, and teenage girls.

And there’s Joe Conason with Sonia Sotomayor is not Clarence Thomas – “Why do Republicans think Sotomayor is a mediocre beneficiary of affirmative action? Because they had their own.”

Conason just takes us back:

Eighteen years ago, the Senate confirmation of Thomas earned historic notoriety for its bizarre descent into conflicting recollections of sexual harassment and pornographic banter. But the lingering question about the man selected to replace the legendary Justice Thurgood Marshall was whether he fulfilled the White House description of him as “the most qualified [candidate] at this time.” As Thomas confessed in his memoir a few years ago, “Even I had my doubts about so extravagant a claim.”

So extravagant was Bush’s assertion as to verge on comical. Far from being the “most qualified,” Thomas was a nominee with no experience on the bench beyond the 18 months he had served on the U.S. District Court of Appeals. He had never written a significant legal brief or article. He had achieved no distinction in private practice or law enforcement. He had never even argued a case in federal court, let alone at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Indeed, his entire career had resulted from affirmative action, beginning with his admission to Holy Cross College, continuing with his acceptance by Yale Law School, and including his first job as an assistant attorney general in Missouri. Thomas later insisted that he had been damaged by the stigma of affirmative action, especially when he tried to find a job after graduating from Yale Law. … Still, when Missouri Attorney General (and later Republican senator) John Danforth came to Yale, his legal alma mater, in search of African-American employees for his office, Thomas stepped right up.

And that is how the first Bush came up with Thomas:

Every account of those deliberations indicates that Bush and his aides went through a list of potential African-American nominees to the high court – and rejected politically moderate judges with better qualifications than Thomas, such as Amalya Kearse. They picked him because they had to fill a “black seat” on the court, and because he was prepared to enforce their ideology on the court – a function he has reliably performed in lockstep with Justice Antonin Scalia.

In other words, Thomas was chosen from a Bush White House shortlist that excluded white males – supposedly a profound sin when committed by the Obama White House in selecting Sotomayor.

Yet the right can never bring its corrosive racial skepticism to bear on Thomas, a man who had proven his willingness to parrot reactionary bromides. He is the single most prominent beneficiary of the quest for diversity in American history, but he is their diversity candidate – and thus deserved elevation, if not as a distinguished jurist, then because he had suffered discrimination as a conservative.

It’s the fine performance art of identity politics, turned camp. Only this time it is not oddly appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. It’s just stupid. But then, if you don’t get the joke, you can’t help yourself.

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 Affirmative Action, Dog Whistle Politics, Identity Politics, La Raza, Sonia Sotomayor, Sotomayor Nomination, Tom Tancredo. Bookmark the permalink.

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