That “Wise Latina” Problem: Racism or Racialism?

It’s always blackly humorous when an uncomfortable truth lurches out into the middle of our prevaricating world and causes people, many of them highly intelligent, to start tying themselves in knots and committing little acts of intellectual hari-kari.

I refer of course to Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s comment about the “wise Latina” and the WL’s  apparent superiority of judgment over a white male judge.

The very long speech  from which it comes is here if you want the fullest context. Here’s the full graph in which the WL comment appears:

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 that line 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.

I’m sure the nominee will rephrase and restate and refine these comments during her confirmation, because for all the context that’s here, we still need more.

Is the judge saying that in every conceivable case, the WL will reach a better conclusion than the white male?  If that’s what she means, the remark is absurd on its face and racist–or at least (see below) racialist— to boot. And everyone who wants to weigh in on this debate, include the various Beltway Prevaricators, ought to have to take a shot of truth serum and admit what we all know in our hearts: Any white male judge who had made such a remark would be cast out as a racist scumdog; in fact, he wouldn’t even be nominated to the Court. The remark would be a dealbreaker.

Is there any way in which these remarks could be defensible? If Judge S. had made a more limited claim, yes.

Suppose she had said, “I can think of any number of situations involving immigration law or gender equity or access to family planning in which a wise Latina, by virtue of her ethnicity and gender, might bring to the case insights that might bring about a better conclusion than you might get had the case been heard solely by white males.”

I can go with that. As Henry James said, “We see what we bring,” and there’s no doubt that Judge S.  brings something that can be valuable from time to time in the court’s deliberations.

But here’s the problem that pops up once you start down that racial/ethnic/gender-magic road: You have to grant, by your own racial logic, that white males also have certain insights by virtue of race and class that would make them more perceptive and “wise” than blacks or Latinas depending on the case at hand.  The logic can’t apply only to WLs;  if you as a woman know things I as a man cannot know, then the converse must be true as well. And on and on, through Native Americans and  gay Filipinos and transgendered Irishmen-cum-women.

So  does the incendiary “racist” tag apply to those in the Wise-Latina school?  Maybe. But going a level deeper, what the remarks really imply is “racialist” ideology; the belief that, deep down, we are not all the same. We are creatures of different ethnic and gender tribes; blood, finally, is supreme, on the Supreme Court and everywhere else.

We have gone a long way toward accepting this “wisdom of the blood” tribalism over the past 30 years. It would not be wise at all to go further.

Updike’s Last Works, and My Updike Story

  At least for now, I’ve foresworn another extended period of mourning for John Updike, America’s greatest writer (though I reserve the right to break out the elegies at a moment’s notice.)

Meanwhile, two posthumous collections from the master have appeared. These could be the last, though given Updike’s amazing productivity, who knows how many others might still be in the pipeline? And of course, editors and publishers will be remixing and rematching his stories for decades to come.  The New York Times‘ review of both collections is here 

By the way, linking to that earlier blog entry reminds me that in the midst of all the Updike farewells,  I forgot to tell my own humble Updike story. So here it is, perhaps worth no more than you paid for it.

Around 1981-82 I was trying to make the jump from full-time teaching into journalism and had set up a nice transitional gig with the then-robust  Dallas Morning News. I was the unofficial literary go-to guy, writing frequent book reviews and interviewing circuit-riding authors who came to town pushing their books. It was great chillin’, as we did not say then,  with the likes of Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr, James Dickey,  Reynolds Price, Joseph Heller, James Michener, Dorothy Uhnak,  Richard Condon, Jamake Highwater, Wilfred Sheed and others. I was already a longtime Updike lover  when he came to read from a new book–it must have been Rabbit is Rich, the third volume of the Rabbitalogy–  at the SMU Literary Festival.

After the event Updike was to be feted at some Park Cities matron’s home. I finagled an invitation, another proof of the awesome power held by the ink-stained press  in those days. To his hosts’ surprise, Updike was polite but not effusive,  quickly proving himself capable of answering long questions with short answers.   At one point he drifted away from the crowd and stood by himself on the cobblestoned  patio where the beer keg was.  I glommed on and asked a few more questions. I recall one had to do with his famed essay on Ted Williams’ last game at Fenway, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” After that piece he had never written about baseball again,  and I wondered why. His straightforward answer, so different from the teasing roundabouts of his prose, was something like, “That one pretty well exhausted my fascination with the game, and after that I found I had no more to say.”

Later in the evening he agreed to sign some books, so I abandoned the cold  mask of objectivity and lined up like a fan. ( I had brought along my hardcover copy of Rabbit Redux, the second Angstrom book, hoping for just such a moment.) It was close to the holidays, and when my turn came I think I said something about the weather in Boston, where he lived, or white Christmases or something.

To my delight he opened the  book and  began sketching an apple-cheeked Santa Claus on a blank page. He added voice bubbles with “Ho, Ho Ho!” inside, then signed it “To Chris Tucker–John Updike.”  Hoping for more repartee, I  mentioned his early desire to be an artist, which he had confessed in some essay, and he said, “Now only the doodles remain.”

Fast forward a couple of years to a painful, scorched-earth divorce –not Updike’s, or one of his character’s, but mine. Along with so much else I lost the book to my ex, who cared little for Updike but who knew how to hurt me deeply. I never saw the book again and never wanted to ask our son about it, because I knew he would either lie or tell me she had sold it. Hope she got at least fifty bucks.

Can this tale possibly have a happy ending? Fast forward more than 25 years  to January 2008. Updike was again in Dallas for a lecture/Q&A at the Nasher Sculpture Garden. Once more the Morning News came through for me, and after the lecture I stood  in a much longer line than the one in 1981, holding my just-purchased copy of The Early Stories. As I inched forward I saw Updike exchanging bits of small talk with other loyalists, and at one point a young woman with the center  asked that people not request lengthy or multiple dedications–“To Bud and Karleen, whose brief sojourn in the East Village ten years ago was enlivened by a discussion of one of my New York stories, ‘The Lucid Eye in Silver Town.'”

Finally I reached the signing table, and as Updike opened my book I couldn’t help but mention that he had signed another book for me long ago, and had even drawn a Santa Claus, but the book  had vanished in the chaos of divorce.

“Oh?” he said, squinting up at me with a half-grin. “Well, we can fix that.”

And, I swear, he proceeded to draw the identical Santa,with the apple cheeks and billowing white hair and  voice bubbles saying “Ho, Ho, Ho,”  and signed it to me again.

I could have hugged him, and now I wish I had.

Slam-Dunk Sonia?

 

Slate’s John Dickerson shows why the Repubs would have a hard time derailing the Sotomayor Supreme Court nom even if they had the votes, which they either do or don’t depending on whether the Minnesota Senate race is ever settled: 
  • Woman: Check. (She’ll be the third in history if she makes it.)
  • Hispanic: Check. (She’s the first Hispanic nominee.)
  • Bipartisan: Check. (She was first nominated by President George H.W. Bush.)
  • Experienced: Check. (She’s been confirmed by the Senate twice and has more federal judicial experience than those sitting on the court did when they were nominated.)
  • Liberal: Check.
  • Smart: Check. (She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and has a law degree from Yale.)
  • Legal range: Check. (She has been a prosecutor, trial judge, and private lawyer.)
  • Biography: Check and check. (Obama praised her “extraordinary journey.” Sotomayor grew up in a housing project and lost her father at age 9.)
  • As a bonus, Sotomayor is even credited with saving baseball. No word yet on her stance on apple pie.

Barring a demonization of megaBorkian proportions, I’d say she’s in, if not by a slam-dunk, at least a nice jumper from the top of the key.

Memorial Day Thoughts

I’ve gone back through the past on Muse Machine and picked out some entries appropriate for today. 

 

From 2007, here is a radio commentary about the death of Al Brank, my grade-school principal and a decorated hero of World War Two. 

From 2008, here  are thoughts on war and loss from Lincoln, Obama, Hemingway and others.  

Finally,  “In Flanders Fields” is one of the great war poems of all time, and it’s frequently misread, I think.  The poem and some thoughts are here.

More Bad News on Newspapers

I want to say something vibrantly positive about newspapers, I do; I want to say they’ll be with us forever despite the continue drip…drip…drip of bad news about the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the now-vanished Rocky Mountain News, the incredible shrinking Dallas Morning News (for which I just re-upped my sub–at $360 a year) and more. . . 

But in order to work up a decent money shot of optimistic cheer, I’ve just gotta quit reading stuff like this.