I’m long-winded. Wordy. Verbose. You don’t hafta tell me. I know. This is due, in part, to my love of language. It is also a result of my strong desire to be fully understood. When asked a complex question, I feel compelled to respond completely, giving a glimpse into my thought process, exposing the underpinnings of my opining. Consequently, I could never be a politician.
In this ADD-addled age, brevity trumps meaning. Content and context are increasingly the casualties of convenience and expedience. Consider “wise Latina-gate”: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has been pilloried recently for a sentence she uttered in 2001 at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.””Oh no!” the punditocracy cried in horrified unison, “This woman is an anti-white racist!”
Let’s set aside that an almost verbatim quote from Sotomayor, delivered in a 1994 speech entitled “Women in the Judiciary,” elicited no outcry from Republican senators who voted to confirm her appointment to the Federal Court of Appeals in 1998, even though the transcript was included in her nomination package.
That sentence, isolated, is eyebrow-raising. But now consider the addition of the preceding and following paragraphs:
“Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line, since Professor Resnik attributes it to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.
“Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues, including Brown.”
Does the addition of more of her words make you less likely to believe that she is a closet member of the FALN (a Marxist-Leninist Puerto Rican separatist group on the FBI’s list of terrorist organizations)? Is it clear, from the plus-sized speech snippet, that the phrasing “wise Latina woman” is not a title that Sotomayor has arrogantly bestowed upon herself, but rather an echo of the colorblind and gender-blind quote used to frame the discussion?
Sotomayor spoke that day after being chosen to give the Honorable Judge Mario G. Olmos Law & Cultural Diversity Lecture, which commemorates the life and career of a distinguished Berkeley law grad who was dedicated to community service and the promotion of equality and justice. Sotomayor’s lecture was entitled “A Latina Voice,” and sought to reconcile notions of identity, diversity and the law. Only three years prior to the speech, in 1997, the state of California had enacted Proposition 209, the comprehensive anti-affirmative action law. In her lecture, Sotomayor mentioned that the U.S. Supreme Court had never upheld a woman’s claim in a gender discrimination case prior to 1972, and referenced other situations in which an, ahem, nondiverse court would be almost unanimously viewed today as “wrong.”
The additional quoted text, speech title, occasion and setting convey that Sotomayor’s comments were targeted to consideration of judicial diversity’s impact on such cases of discrimination, racial and gender equity. It would be ludicrous to assume that her statements were any kind of blanket assertions of Latina female superiority. She even included an opposing example (Brown v. Board of Education) of an all-white male court getting it right.
Unfortunately, two long paragraphs of text don’t fit into TV’s ubiquitous on-screen text boxes that tell us which story we’re not being given details about. Granted, it would be difficult to put all that text on the screen without the majority of Americans convulsing in fits of IARATS (I Ain’t Readin’ Alla THAT Stuff).
Mmmmm. Sound bites. We’d like our news in 100-calorie fun-packs, please! Two-sentence news stories make about as much sense as eating 1 and 5/8ths Oreos. Doesn’t matter. We’ll scarf down several bags and swear we’re healthy.
Politicians and pundits know the deal, giving rise to the state of affairs in which vapidity is virtue. How else do you avoid having your words chopped and screwedsampled, recombined and distorted like Houston hip-hop meant for fans high on cough syrup? Talk slooooow. Keep it simple. This explains the Obama administration’s apologies on its Supreme Court nominee’s behalf, walking back the quote in its isolated context, characterizing it as if it were some brief indiscretion, to be excused and obscured by her wealth of objective qualifications.
Sotomayor meant exactly what she said. She also meant everything that she said before and after it. Her glaring, retrospective faux pas was in speaking in academic terms, with humanity and complexity, about a situation that has vexed this country since its inception: When it comes to America’s identity politics, the only demographic that can be unquestionably assumed to possess pristine impartiality is white men. Everyone else is presumed biased until proven innocent.
Americans who don’t know the law are under the egregious misconception that judging doesn’t require, well, judgment. This is the exact opposite of reality. If the laws of this land were drafted sufficiently clearly, I suppose that computers could render decisions. But envision your moronic city councilperson, county or state legislator, of whatever political stripe, enacting his or her whims with the flick of a pen and then reconsider the task our constitution has given the judiciary.
Lost amid the manufactured outrage, fomented on behalf of that dense 25 percent or so of the country that still thinks that Bush did a great job with the war, economy and civil liberties, is that this Supreme Court nominee is a decidedly center-right candidate. She was appointed to U.S. District Court in 1991 by George H.W. Bush. Analyses of her record, including one by the bastion of conservatism, the Wall Street Journal, have determined that her rulings tilt to the right of Justice David Souter, the white male she has been selected to replace, finding that Sotomayor more often rules with the government or corporate interests than with individuals.
Perhaps that’s irony for those easily swayed by talking heads, but this is intentional disingenuousness on the part of political string-pullers. After “wise Latina-gate” fades, we’ll hear more about the affirmative action case Ricci v. DeStefano, in which Sotomayor was part of a three-judge panel that unanimously upheld a lower-court ruling in favor of the city of New Haven, Conn. Those who couldn’t care less about her judicial qualifications will forget their traditional anti-judicial-activism screeds and instead castigate her for not overturning the will of the legislators of New Haven. And the media won’t call them on it, because that issue will be impossible to frame intelligently in two sentences.
Rather than a meta-analysis of a political figure’s potential to advance the cause of freedom and justice, we will have, instead, a long, disconnected series of discussions intended to distract. How many understand that if Sotomayor is successfully framed in the public imagination as far left, this means that the only “acceptable” candidates will be actual conservatives?
As newspapers continue to go belly up, cable news networks will continue to chase the bucks, running toward the ideological bent of their target advertising demographics. The Internet, which has potential as a tool in service of an educated electorate, will continue its rapid congealing into partisan portals, in which previously held ideas are perpetually reinforced in an ever-narrowing feedback loop.
Rather than apologize for misinterpreted statements, the White House should have demanded a discussion of the issues in context and, I daresay, at length. To do otherwise damns us all to a future in which the only people found fit to serve are hermits, saints or the rare genius who can convey the complexities of life in words so compact and simplistic that they defy distortion by a civilization with a declining attention span.
If we don’t insist that people engage on issues larger than a sound bite, we may as well require all elected and prospective government officials to communicate exclusively via Twitter, the Internet outlet of choice for flighty communicators. If that’s how its gonna be, I’ll be mad. Because instead of eliciting IARATS in my readers, I could have presented this entire column as follows:
Ppl r dumb. Don’t say a whole lot. Don’t say anything requiring context or analysis. Talk in small chunks so u stay out of troublez, ok?