June 3, 2009
Saint Sonia, or NotBy Robert Oscar Lopez
As a Republican who voted for John McCain after defecting to vote for Kerry in 2004, and as a Puerto Rican Yale graduate who lived in the Bronx, I got a triple blessing this year. The Republicans nominated their first female vice presidential candidate, the Republicans elected their first African American party chairman, and Barack Obama unveiled Sonia Sotomayor. I saw historic firsts being bestowed on intelligent, exceptional individuals who rose from humble origins. I've worn a proud grin for much of the last nine months.
Alas, however, the conservative objections to Sotomayor are substantial and real.
President Obama has repeatedly brushed aside worries about Sotomayor's racial ideology, claiming that her 2001 speech in Berkeley, in which she implied that a Latina judge would render better verdicts than a white man, is being quoted out of context. I agree with President Obama. In full context, Sotomayor's statement is far more troubling.
As a literary critic and self-proclaimed New Historicist, I care about context. I force my students to do historical readings so they can understand what was happening in America at the time texts like Iola Leroy and Sport of the Gods were written. I make them memorize all the Presidents that governed the United States during the time span covered by the course, which party they came from, what the most contentious issues were, and where the author and likely readership fit into the spectrum of competing political forces. Context is everything.
But when you contextualize, you need to be more rather than less specific, which is where Obama and I part ways. When Sotomayor said, in 2001, that she would hope that a Latina judge with richness of experience would more often than not reach a better decision than a white man, do we need to consider her audience? Read the whole essay? Maybe that isn't enough. We also need to examine the context of the President calling for more context. Who is the unspoken beneficiary of Obama's discourse?
A smart critic will start contextualizing by first asking why we are talking about what we are talking about, in the first place. Sotomayor is being talked about today, because the president is a Democrat and she is Hispanic. Hispanics are possibly the bloc that decided the 2008 election, since as many as 44% of them voted for Bush in 2004, but by 2006 Republicans were only capturing about 30% of the Hispanic vote. That figure flat-lined in 2008, even with a Latino-friendly candidate like John McCain.[i]
Obama is embroiled in controversies related to abortion, military policy, and immigration, all areas where a plurality or majority of Latinos disagrees with him. According to the Gallup Poll Social Series, between 2004 and 2006, the number of Latinos and Latinas identifying themselves as "liberal" dropped from 30% to 21% and from 26% to 20%, respectively. The number of Latina "conservatives" flat-lined at 35%, but the number of Latino male "conservatives" shot up from 29% to 36%.[ii]
The subtext in the Sotomayor controversy is that Latinos are voting more Democratic these days, but they are less Democratic in their values. When the President speaks to Latinos, he is walking a precarious tightrope. Obama's team of number crunchers is undoubtedly troubleshooting for anything that could trigger a backlash among religious, military, or entrepreneurial Hispanics.
With this meta-context in mind, everyone must wonder whether Sotomayor is the right person for the right job at the right time. Republicans should understand, however, that the biggest problem is not her in particular. The problem is rather the Democrats who are not even hiding their intent to play Hispanics as pawns in the next few election cycles.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York could refrain from running for re-election in 2010 to make room for a Puerto Rican from his native New York. Why not step aside and rally behind Nydia Velazquez? But Schumer rather threatens Republicans by telling them that the GOP would oppose Sotomayor "at their peril," hinting that Hispanics are so enthralled with Sotomayor that any Republican hardball will have us marching to the orders of Howard Dean and Barack Obama in perpetuity.
How stupid do Latinos look? Are Democrats like Schumer going to talk about us in the third person this way indefinitely, expecting us never to put two and two together and figure out we're being used?
The same meme seems to be repeated everywhere, from the Wall Street Journal's editorial which compares Sotomayor to a porcelain doll filled with poison gas because if you "break her" you will "die," to the usual suspects on CNN (too many to reprise here). Apparently we Latinos are really the blind, obedient mob that the Democrats and some Latino spokespeople assume we are, so starved for an apotheosis that we will suspend all political judgment if it means our children will get a new role model. We are supposed to concede that it's impossible to teach our children to work hard and study unless Sotomayor becomes the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, and we vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats in 2010 and Obama gets re-elected in 2012. Next they must have a bridge to sell us.
Obama invited us all to read Sotomayor's fitness for the job through her personal characteristics: her race, her Bronx housing project, her poverty. These are inspiring factoids, but also threadbare stereotypes. Recall other compelling life stories from history, and how the people behind those stories fared in popular opinion as time went on. Unlike Kennedy, Nixon wasn't from the Northeast and had no Ivy pedigree; his eventual nemesis would be Archibald Cox, described by Jonathan Aitken in Nixon: A Life, this way: "Aloof, patrician, and ardently liberal, [Cox] was a pillar of the East Coast establishment; a Harvard professor; a former Solicitor-General in the Kennedy administration; and a McGovern voter."[iii] Nixon was the little guy with a long, long sob story. Even Oliver Stone's Shakespearean refraction of Nixon humanized the thirty-seventh president's struggle to get through Whittier College while helping his Quaker mother with the struggling family business after his brother died. Clarence Thomas was fatherless and poor, John Edwards' father worked in the mills, Bill Clinton's childhood in Hope was scarring, Sarah Palin had to align her pro-life views with a Down Syndrome baby, Miguel Estrada immigrated from Central America, Alberto Gonzales came from a humble Mexican American family in Texas, Michael Steele started out working class... The list can go on and on.
Over time, the world forgot all these empathetic figures' pain. The world would care more about whether they used government agencies to spy on opponents, sexually harassed Anita Hill, fathered illegitimate children, committed perjury, really couldn't name a Supreme Court decision, fired attorneys in violation of federal law, or generally let their personal foibles impinge upon official duties. Maybe it was wrong to publicize Nixon's private conversations, interrogate Thomas about pubic hairs on coke cans, track down Edwards in hotel bathrooms, pull out semen-stained dresses, and watch Bristol Palin's deadbeat boyfriend on Larry King Live. It was racially insensitive for the Democrats to filibuster Estrada's appointment, drive Gonzales out of the Attorney General's office, and parody Michael Steele as a self-hating Oreo. But by asking America to consider people for public office through the lens of their personal lives, politicos invite obnoxious scrutiny.
Obama and Sotomayor asked Americans to define her by her life experiences. It was inevitable less flattering questions would cross our minds. As it turns out, she seems deluded about the pathos of her childhood story. Her biography sounds canned, a trite tale she may have pulled out each time she wants to outshine rivals for the next step up. She was out of the Bronx and in Princeton over three decades ago, never to know poverty again. Isn't her fixation on how she lived in the 1960s awfully contrived? She seems to associate the travails of poverty, fatherlessness, and diabetes with being Latina and female; but why? Lots of non-Latinos, and men of all races including Latino, have been poor, lost parents, and struggled with bodily ailments. Normal people with functioning judgment should be able to discern racial identity from life events that aren't racially defined. Shouldn't they?
Hang on, there's more. She went to a private Catholic school and sailed through two Ivy League campuses without a hitch, acquiring a far more privileged life than the vast majority of Puerto Ricans. Success doesn't make her any less Puerto Rican, but it ought to make her reconsider what exactly she means by "Latina" experience. Will she consider Latinos who grew up in suburbs not Latino enough for her empathy? Are Latinos who were born poor and stayed poor okay? She assumes that the specific life she led encapsulates the story of all or at least most Latinos. But she soared from a poor neighborhood to an elite coterie during a time when the Left insists racism in America was rampant and all-powerful. Somehow Democrats do not view St. Sonia as an aberration; rather, her Democratic backers believe her life includes the same discrimination and racial injustice experienced by Latinos who are still poor today.
For all these competing claims to be true, she would have to be Wonder Woman, simultaneously pressed by the worst possible circumstances and uniquely strong enough to overcome them, which conveniently entitles her to speak for the most oppressed people from the position of the most privileged class in society. The sum total of the Democrats' rhetoric makes Sotomayor look more qualified than other people for a highly prestigious job; as well, the Ivy League is affirmed as the gold standard for every ethnic community's progress, and as a bonus Hispanics are told to ignore their ideological differences with the Democratic Party and kick out more Republicans from swing districts in 2010. Reading the Sotomayor with an eye to whom the story benefits, I feel manipulated.
"Empathy" implies that we should relate to Sonia Sotomayor the way we would relate to someone we know. Okay, I say. If I knew her personally (which I do not), what would cross my mind? She got high grades at top colleges. Does this mean that she was a prodigy, or that she subverted everything in her life to calculating, cold ambition? Is that why her marriage fell apart? Tens of millions of American couples make their marriages work, so why couldn't she? Does she consider race and gender to have played a role in the choices she made in her marriage? Apparently some people who have worked with her say she's rude, impulsive, and arrogant. In video clips she looks messy and gruff. Maybe I'm being too personal. But if we decide we should ignore her divorce, appearance, and demeanor, then why are we being asked to pay so much attention to her race, gender, poverty and pedigree?
By now you should have a headache. Wouldn't it have been nice if Obama had introduced her without framing her through the sentimental filter of ethnography? Wouldn't we all be having a more pleasant conversation if Democrats like Chuck Schumer had not thrown her Hispanic identity and its ramifications in everyone's face? The Democrats chose how to introduce her. They are to blame, if the discussion seems divisive now.
Most of the problem I have with Sonia Sotomayor deals not with Sotomayor, but with her patrons. But she is a problem as well. She seems to use race and gender as shorthand for human particularities far too complex for such labels. A rudimentary fallacy on that scale is terrifying. The more you contextualize her statements, the more you infer that she misreads everything: Latinos, white men, women, poverty, richness, me, you, herself. She misreads life. How can she judge?
Robert Lopez is a scholar of American literature and classical antiquity at California State Northridge.
[i] Sanchez, Leslie. Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 32.