Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An end we take personally.

Like many in my generation the name Kennedy and the word politics are
synonymous, not so much the family’s pivotal role on the national scene but in driving
own involvement.  The first
Presidential campaigns that captivated me were those of Adlai Stevenson, but I
was just a kid.  I cast my first
Presidential vote for Jack Kennedy and have been an unabashed political junky
ever since.  I never vote without
remembering him.  Kennedy was young,
especially in contrast to old guys like Truman and Eisenhower.  He was one of us and so we could
relate to him personally.  His
stunning death hit us hard and still evokes a visceral feeling of sadness for
me these many years after.   By
the time he ran, Bobby Kennedy was significantly more evolved than Jack had
been and in some respects also the emotionally more accessible.  So his loss was perhaps all the more
painful both because he seemed to have so much promise and because the times
were so much darker.  We were
convinced he could make a difference. 
I remain so, but where Jack and Bobby might have taken us is pure

We don’t have to be bothered with conjecture or caught up in myth when
it comes to Edward Moore Kennedy. 
He lived his three score years and ten, and in doing so set before us a
complete record.  Was he, as people
are saying, ultimately the most significant Kennedy?  Perhaps, but saying so probably does a disservice to his
brothers and to him.  Jack had a
unique charisma and was a memorable orator.  He gave politics a new image and, as someone who has spent
much of his career helping build brands, I don’t discount how important that
was at the time and still is. 
Bobby had passion and an aura of empathy that overshadowed the toughness
beneath.  As such, he touched our
hearts.  Teddy is the Kennedy we
really knew best, but who never evoked those larger than life stirrings within
us.  He was no more than real life size,
flawed like us, which is what made him so endearing.  He will be remembered solely for the

I think the real strength and substance of the Kennedy brothers was a
capacity to grow and in fact to thrive on adversity.  The Bay of Pigs made the Kennedy presidency, and Jack’s
death brought out a new Bobby. 
They thrived on defeat, not at the ballot box where they didn’t experience
it, but in real life where it seemed sometimes an irrational curse.  Ted Kennedy’s moment came in that
painful sunshine interview with Roger Mudd where he blew any chance of being
president and understood, probably for the first time, what job awaited doing
with the title he had already firmly in his grasp.

They came to call him the lion of the Senate.  I don’t quite know what that means.  Republicans vilified him as the poster
boy of liberalism, a handy dartboard to shoot at in their most vitriolic
campaign commercials.  In a way
both are cardboard images, too single dimensional to capture his large frame
and personality or the depth of his accomplishments.  Circumstance cast him into the role of family grownup and
patriarch at too early an age and, we should not forget, by a clan that still
somehow values men over women. 
From all we know, he was more than up to the task perhaps aided by that
famous Kennedy imperative to  suck it up and perform, regardless of pain or cost.

I never thought Ted Kennedy a great speaker.  He never had the emotional pull that his brothers had in
concretely influencing my life.  He
made some mistakes from which only a Kennedy could emerge in one piece –
countless politicians have ended in the dustbin for far less.  But he steadfastly stood for things in
a world where conviction has become a rare commodity.  Thanks to his older brothers learning curve, he came to them
earlier and held on even when it hurt him.  His absence in these last months of an often disgraceful,
heartless and disingenuous debate on healthcare is deeply felt and whatever
legislation comes will be less because of it.  He opposed the Iraq war and never wavered.  He stood with Barack Obama when the
talking heads were writing him off, again.  Whether that support was pivotal is conjecture, which doesn’t
pertain to this Kennedy or how he should be remembered.  His record needs no speculative embellishment.

Remembering Jack and Bobby still brings tears to my eyes, a sense of
personal loss and hurt that sometimes surprises me in its intensity.  The loss of Ted Kennedy is moving in
its own way, but not at all for what might have been. Bobby loved to quote George
Bernard Shaw’s "I dream of things that never were and ask why not?  Ted Kennedy’s life responded with, “why
not, indeed?  He pursued the dream contending that it would never die.   Let’s hope so, because that would be a legacy.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

The original "don't ask, don't tell".

There are few policies as innately hypocritical and fundamentally
cruel as “don’t ask, don’t tell”. 
It is disheartening that President Obama hasn’t acted to overturn
it.  The idea that we could deny a
man or a woman the right to die for their country because they happened to be
born gay or lesbian seems to go against everything that we claim to stand for
as a nation.  Don’t ask, don’t tell
promotes the very kind of “passing” that became a painful option for light
skinned African Americans or that forced Jews to gentrify their names to get
ahead in business or in Hollywood. 
It is an invitation to deception whose byproduct is often unbearable
self-loathing.  It is a basic civil
rights issue.

But we shouldn’t blame Bill Clinton or the generals for this
disgraceful charade.  They were
merely following what they learned in the house of God.  If any institutions have been guilty of
fostering don’t ask, don’t tell it has been religious ones across all
faiths.  The inevitable result of
this misguided practice is the wrenching unwinding that has been taking place
in numerous denominations over the past years, last week in the decision of
the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America’s general national assembly to allow gays and lesbians
with “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” to
serve as official ministers.  Thank
you Lord.

is fully expected that the decision, whose language in itself evidences a
continuing hypocrisy that I’ll come to later, will lead to the kind of schism facing the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians.  It might be different had they not
embraced don’t ask, don’t tell for so many years, in effect casting a blind eye
on what was there for everyone to see. 
What these churches are going through is reconciling reality with myth
and what they are painfully discovering is that half measures are not progressive but

In the Episcopal case, it was apparently
okay to have gay priests, even when not widely acknowledged, but not a gay
bishop.  High visibility makes a huge
difference, an opening not of the priest’s but of the church’s closet door.  In the other two, it was alright for
those in committed relationships to carry the burden of ministry but not the
title – a kind of system analogous to “wetback illegals” who do all the work
but at much reduced compensation and little if any psychic reward.  “I’m not really a minister but I play
one on TV.”  In their story on the
Lutheran vote, the NY Times quotes San Francisco’s Rev. Megan Roher, “To be
able to be a full member of the church is really a lifelong dream”.  She is in a committed same-sex
relationship and serves in three Lutheran congregations (think wetback) but is
not officially on the church’s roster of clergy members.  What was truly poignant was when she
added, “I don’t have to have an asterisk next to my name anymore.”  Asterisks, you will remember, are
applied to the suspect or drug induced misbegotten “records” of millionaire
athletes, a symbol of shame.  Note the
shame in that case transcends the individual in discrediting the sport (institution) and its

open secret of all religious orders is that being gay or lesbian is in fact the
very natural way for a segment of the population and aspiring to religious
leadership is as natural to them as to their heterosexual counterparts.  And of course, the institutions and the
pretending minority members have joined in playing the game, but not with the
same handicap.   Don’t ask,
don’t tell is just another form of blackmail in which both the perpetrator and
the victim are forced into an unholy partnership, but the first holds all the

back to that “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous” formulation.  Notice that there is no mention of
marriage, which in itself bespeaks both inequality and a continuing disingenuousness. 
I entered the rabbinate single though I left the pulpit married.  During those early days no one ever
suggested that the only kind of relationship I could have was publicly
accountable, lifelong and monogamous. 
This is not to suggest that synagogues or churches necessary want their
clergy living in “sin”, but somehow “normal” relationships between a man and
woman are accepted as, well (to borrow language from my friend Doug Smith)
“just the way we do things around here”. 
They are judged by an entirely different standard.  I suppose there is an element of don’t
ask, don’t tell in these situations, one equally as hypocritical, but you and I
know it’s not quite the same. 
Perhaps clergy living with someone of the opposite sex in other than the
sanctity of marriage would face criticism or in some cases the loss of a job,
but it would fall into the category of being thought of as a “bad boy”, a
second or third level sinner. 
Being a “bad girl” of course falls in an entirely different category,
but as Gail Collins likes to say, “I digress”.

Don’t ask, don’t tell is a charade that discredits the military and
those who risk their lives for us on the field of battle.  Don’t ask, don’t tell in the church
makes some wonder what other hypocrisies are afoot under God’s roof.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Supreme tilt of faith.

When Al Smith ran in 1928, Americans simply weren’t ready for a Roman Catholic
president.  It took another thirty-two
years for Jack Kennedy to break that barrier, but only after reassuring the
country of his independence from the Pope and with a razor thin plurality.  By 1960, term limits had been imposed
on the office, which possibly worked in his favor.  While no Catholic has held the presidency since, the idea
that a candidate’s personal beliefs should be an impediment seems, and hopefully
is, so “yesterday”, unless of course the person happens to be an avowed atheist
or a Moslem.

Perhaps the best evidence that most religious litmus tests are behind
us can be found in the Supreme Court where Catholics fared marginally
better early on. Roger B. Taney,
born during the revolutionary war, was the first to be appointed and indeed served
(1836-64) as our fifth Chief Justice, an office two others (Edward White and
John Roberts) have held since. We’ve
come a long way since the country rejected Al Smith, and fortunately so.  Catholics hold offices at almost every
level of government including two of the highest, Speaker of the House and Vice
President.  Not only was it
heartening that Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as the first Hispanic Justice but
also that her religion was never at issue.  At the same time, while given only passing notice, one can’t
help being struck by the unprecedented religious tilt of the Roberts Court.  With her ascendancy, its life tenured
members comprise one Protestant, two Jews and now six Roman Catholics,
numerically a decisive majority.  From
the day Andrew Jackson appointed Taney 173 years ago, twelve more Roman Catholics
have come to the court and remarkably half of them sit today.  There is no reason to believe that a
Catholic justice will be any more or less ideologically bound by faith than
would a Protestant or a Jew.  Nor
can we assume one will lean more to the right or left than the other. Clarence
Thomas is seen by some as perhaps the most doctrinaire conservative on the
current court but the late William Brennan (also a Catholic) was its iconic
liberal.  That said, the
significant Catholic majority does raise at least the potential of a problem
worthy of discussion, if only academically.  Any good lawyer will tell you to consider not only the best
but also the worst-case possibilities in any situation. 

The Catholic Church remains among the most hierarchical of all faiths
and is especially distinguished in having a single, absolute and infallible leader.
What The Vicar of Christ promulgates is ultimate doctrine, subject to change
only by himself or a subsequent pope. Catholics are expected to follow his dicta.  Recent surveys suggest that in fact a
majority don’t necessarily do so, especially on hot button issues.  Nevertheless, it was the Church’s prescribed
way that gave voters pause in 1928 and 1960 and, in theory at least, remains
worth considering today in the face of such a lopsided tilt of faith on the Supreme
Court.  We do know that several of its
members are especially devout and, in at least one case for sure, that such
beliefs can carry into the courtroom. 
During formal arguments in 2005 regarding the placement of the Ten Commandments
in public places, Justice Antonin Scalia declared from the bench “that
[our] government comes – derives its authority from God”.  That view may account for what he
describes as his “originalist” view of the Constitution.  It is a term with theological overtones
that eschews the idea of dynamic evolving law.  It calls for adherence to original meaning, according a
sacrosanct aura consistent with an extension of the divinely revealed Word.  No other justice self describes as an
originalist or ascribes the divine to law in that way, but the Scalia example
shows what happens when the lines between faith and law blur.

So in that light, it’s not irrational to be concerned about the
religious affiliation of a majority on the court, especially if they belong to a
hierarchical church.  That’s especially
true when looking at what is likely to be on their docket in the years ahead.  In that, the issue of reproductive
choice comes to mind first but so do matters of same-sex marriage, end-of-life and stem cell research.  In each of these the Pope, and thus the
Church, have unambiguous positions based upon what are considered fundamental
tenants of their faith.  The American
Bishops, for example, generally support healthcare reform but have made it
clear that they will oppose any coverage of abortions, considered the taking of
human life which they believe begins with conception.  It seems reasonable to conclude that several of the Justices,
including Scalia, (assumably as a matter of personal faith) favor overturning
Roe and, at the very least, would be prone to imposing more restrictions on
abortions even were they to remain (as I would hope) legal.

The Church has already demonstrated how it views office holder members
who stray from doctrine.  During
the 2004 campaign several bishops withheld Communion from presidential candidate
John Kerry because of his pro-choice stand.  In the 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," (The
Gospel of Life), considered among his most important, Pope John Paul, II (revered
by his successor) specifically condemned the growing acceptance of abortion and
for that matter of euthanasia.  So
it is fair to wonder what kind of pressure might be brought to bear on six
Roman Catholic justices who hold absolute determinative power over the fate of these

I know nothing of Justice Sotomayor’s religious beliefs; some describe
her as more a cultural than religious Catholic.  While it’s true that, as a group, Hispanics (whether Protestant
or Catholic) tend to be more religiously conservative that may have no bearing
on her decision-making.  Indeed, we
have every reason to think that, on civil matters, she will most likely side
with the court’s liberals.  At the
same time, and despite the disingenuous arguments to the contrary during her
hearings, I believe we all do come to our work with life experiences, not to
mention personal beliefs.  Who we
are and where we come from impacts on our decisions, sometimes determines them.  I wish it were possible to believe
without question that jurists check their personal religion at the courtroom
door, even if I’d like to think most or all do just that.  The reason for any concern in this
instance is that the political conservatism out of which many in the current court
members come has been so intertwined with far right religious ideology.  Perhaps Justice Scalia personally believes
that our government (and assumably laws) derives directly from God.  Many people of different faiths hold
that view not only about laws but also about everything we touch.  It is when he injects that idea into a
case before the court, that it becomes more than a personal view, especially if

Our democracy is founded on the idea of checks and balances.  The theory is that the three branches
of government keep each other honest and protect us against abuses.  The reality of checks and balances
doesn’t always live up to the promise, certainly not equally so.  The ultimate check in our system resides
not in the interaction of our governmental braches but in the voting booth with
one notable exception, our federal courts.  Having an overly religiously driven president, senator or representative
is correctable; having a similarly inclined Supreme Court Justice is not.  The idea that parochial religious views
might themselves be tenured in the highest court of the land, albeit only
hypothetically so, is unnerving and would be regardless of what faith they
might represent.  So to me, the
real question raised by the court’s Roman Catholic tilt is whether the
potential it raises, however remote, isn’t another reason to revisit the logic,
and indeed the possible danger, of lifetime tenure.  I say this knowing full well that some might construe such a
question generally prejudicial or specifically anti-Catholic.  After all, for virtually all of its
history the Supreme Court has been dominated by Protestants not to mention that
group called men and few have complained. 
It’s a valid point.  So let
me add that my concern is equally with the potential abuse of a majority tilted
to the right, left or for that matter one gender.

The unquestioned religious imbalance on today’s Court, whether it will
play out as I suggest it could in a worst case, is just another reason to consider
the merit of imposing some kind of term limits for Justices.  The existing system was conceived at a
much earlier time, and with the intention, I would suggest naively, of insuring
objectivity.  “Blind justice” is
perhaps a noble aspiration but it is largely a myth.  Given the relative young age of the ideological conservatives
now sitting, the court is likely to tack right for the foreseeable future,
regardless of where the public may be.  Now we can add that, and for the same reason, the likelihood
of a long standing Catholic majority.  We shouldn’t assume that having Catholics or Jews in the
majority would be any different than having had Protestants for all these years.  That said, life tenure is a very long
time and the current makeup of the court, religious and otherwise, only brings
that into sharper focus.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Public vs. Private

One of the many myths being spread about healthcare reform is that
private insurance companies couldn’t possibly compete with a public plan like
an expanded Medicare.  Nonsense!  Ironically what belies this myth is
just the straw man put up as proof by opponents: the Post
Office.  They prefer to cite the
Post Office, which has nothing to do with delivering health services, as an
example of the government’s inability to run anything instead of Medicare that
does, and successfully so.

Well, was there anything (probably bills) in your mailbox this
week?  Did you have any concern
about the card you sent to grandma (assuming the government hasn’t killed her)
arriving?  The fact is that the
Post Office does work.  More relevant
in the context of the current debate is that private companies (notably FedEx
and UPS) are very successfully competing with the public Post Office, this despite
their being late to the game. 
When, for example, FedEx was started, the Post Office was long
entrenched both in fact and in our minds as the primary shipper of record.  Private enterprise found
vulnerabilities in their service and capitalized (providing overnight delivery)
on them.  They have been making
money, lots of it, for most of the time since.  And guess what?  The competition has made the Post Office better.

So what makes any intelligent person believe that private insurance
companies couldn’t compete with a government insurance program?  Of course, as FedEx and UPS have shown
us, they can.  In fact, as a result
of the competition the private insurers  (like the Post Office  did) are likely to get better at what they
do and probably increase their bottom line as a result. Competition in a free market society is, we are told, a good
thing.  Do those in private
enterprise think so little of themselves that they can’t compete with anyone,
including the government?  Moreover, if the premise that Uncle Sam can’t manage things well is really true, then all
the better.  It won’t be a fair

By way of disclosure, I’m insured by Medicare and think everyone,
regardless of age, should have the option of being as well.  Without that, universal healthcare will
remain a dream not a reality.  If
you have any questions in that regard, don’t ask your member of Congress or insurance carrier,  ask
your neighbor or one of your uninsured or underinsured kids.

Friday, August 14, 2009


The rage being displayed at Town Hall forums is more than disturbing,
but by no means surprising.  
When Barack Obama assumed the presidency we assumed (or at least hoped
for) a new era of civility.  That,
of course, was never possible, certainly not by itself.  Bitter dispute has been in the air and
systematically fostered for almost four decades.  Ironically, while much of the current rage is coming from
the Right, it was the liberal columnist Tom Braden who is credited with
bringing its emblematic broadcast Crossfire to CNN.  While Braden, who started the Left/Right dual on radio in
1977, died earlier this year, his opposite number Pat Buchanan continues to
spew vitriol in the cable world. 
Crossfire set a tone, one that has been taken to its predictable heights
by people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly but also by Keith Obermann.  It has also raised its ugly head on the
floors of the House and Senate and is a pervasive leitmotif in political
discourse at all levels.

Rage as a method of communication is corrosive.  Shouters whether they be domestic
squabblers, schoolyard disputants or anyone else are rarely, if ever,
listeners.  Rage is an often-irrational
emotional expression and it’s no wonder that it is so often accompanied by
illogical outbursts or purposeful misinformation.  The whole idea is if we yell loud enough our opposite number
will be intimidated and as a result even accept our claims as fact not fiction.  Sadly, it often works.

Pundits of all stripes are rushing to microphones and into “print” to
explain the underlying causes of this rage.  Presenting themselves as objective rational and evenhanded
voices, they say that healthcare proposals, the current subject of rage, have
not been adequately explained.  
They say Americans are unnerved by government takeovers (somewhat
exaggerated) of banks and auto companies and fear for our free market
system.  They speak of underlying concerns
of White America who, despite voiced pride in the accomplishment, see the first
African American President as a token for their own projected loss of majority
status.  All of this may explain
some of what is going on, but it is an of-the-moment rationalization, beside
the point.

Rage is who we have become. 
It is a pervasive and debilitating national illness, one that needs to
be addressed before it becomes terminal. 
It has been suggested that part of the problem on the Republican side is
an absence of leadership.  In fact,
the leadership it has is playing a significant role in stoking the rage and one
can’t help but wonder (considering its self-defeating potential) to what
end.  But again, blaming their
current situation is just another distraction.  It’s not a one-sided partisan problem but what as become a
universal way of doing. 

Some have suggested that quieting rage must be a prime objective of
the President.  He should use his
extraordinary communicative skills to that end.  I can’t disagree. 
But in truth all of the burden can’t stand on his shoulders.  The sad thing is that it isn’t only the
Republicans who seem to lack leadership; there is a widespread vacuum in that
regard.  The country is bereft
of credible moral voices.  Walter
Cronkite, not the man but a most trusted figurehead, is not to be found.  To be sure we have individualized
social and religious leaders, but they speak largely to and for their own
constituencies.  They lack national
name or face recognition.  Everyone
is, or seems to be, a partisan. 
None of those "evenhanded" voices we hear explaining rage are in fact
independent.  They are but

Historians have long debated whether leaders make the times or whether
circumstance produce them.  My
best guess is that it is a combination of both.  One thing I do know for sure is that the first step is to
observe, to really listen.  The
next, and this is an absolute requirement, is to look in the mirror.  That may help us understand if we
ourselves are part of the problem, which is surely the case if only in our
silence.  But the most important
thing we should be asking ourselves, and most especially those with a voice and
a potential following, is what are we going to do about this national rage?  We had better do it soon.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Healthcare: It's not about ME!

That we have a problem with healthcare is now broadly accepted.  Nonetheless, polls suggest that most of
America’s covered are satisfied with their own insurance.  This finding mirrors the seeming
inconsistency that, while Congress is held in basement level esteem, the
majority of us are satisfied with our own representation.  Go figure.  We seem to place supreme value on incumbency, personal or
societal, which is why we are so stubbornly resistant, if not to the idea, then
to the reality of change.  As the
August recess looms, the President’s healthcare imitative will be put to the
test, and the outcome is by no means certain.  Indeed those satisfaction numbers could spell real trouble,
especially when coupled with the finding by ABC that over 80% of respondents
worry that their own cost might rise or that their own coverage diminish.  That 80% plus number is most telling,
not only for the healthcare debate, but also for what it says about our society
as a whole.   To put mildly,
we have become an increasingly selfish people.  It's all about ME.  What’s worse is that not only do we want what we have, and
more of it; we begrudge others their share.  That’s why the disparity between the “have’s” and the “have
not’s” is growing at an alarming rate.

It may well be that whatever changes are made in healthcare will have
some (likely marginal) impact on those of us who are covered.  But this effort is not about me.  It’s about those Americans who don’t
have insurance.  In that sense,
even polling the insured is a mere,  if not willful, distraction because what we have is not at
issue, at least in a fundamental sense. 
 Again, it’s not about me,
but about my neighbor.  Perhaps the
Golden Rule is universal to all faiths but it has become a largely meaningless
platitude.  We pay it pious lip
service, but for all practical purposes, to paraphrase the famous Mr. Butler, we regularly
tell our neighbors, “frankly my dears, we don’t give a damn.”

We may berate the greed on Wall Street, which on its level is
unconscionable, but relatively speaking most of us do live in glass
houses.  So our politicians are
attuned (also selfishly) to be more concerned about the proverbial “me”, the modestly
or greatly advantaged, than the mostly or completly disadvantaged.  One of the newest ploys is to suggest
reform will lead to euthanasia, while the reality is that the current system of
large-scale depravation is all too often an act of murder.  People are getting sicker and dying
prematurely because they have no insurance or are massively underinsured, not
the reverse.

The ugly truth of this debate is that the opponents of healthcare
expansion and reform at best are deaf and heartless and at worst are nothing
other than malicious.  They may not
live physically in a gated community but seem to blot out the sounds
and sights of depravation.  It’s bad
enough when individuals are selfish; it’s catastrophic when leaders act with
nothing less than criminal neglect. 
I have vivid memories of heated debates about impending socialized
medicine.  That was when Truman was
President so let’s not talk about rushing into reform some six decades later.  Medicare, a controversial program when
it was finally passed was not, as some obstructionists argued at the time, the
end of the world, quite the contrary. It’s callous that opponents of healthcare reform
point to the Post Office and not it for proof that government programs don’t
work.  Have any of them bothered to
ask their parents?

The President argues the economic imperative of healthcare
reform.  I can’t disagree and in
fact wonder, for example, what would have happened to our auto industry had
universal healthcare been put in place back in the Truman years.  Leaving aside their misguided product decisions,
would their manufacturing have been uncompetitive absent the burden of private
healthcare?  People say they are
confused about the many proposals on the table.  My cynical side would say, calculated confusion, but for the
moment forget about economics and confusion.  The real question before us is not about this or that approach.
 It’s about us – who we have
become, who we are and who we will be.

Fixing healthcare is a matter of values, yes family values.  It is about how and if we care about
and for each other.   It is a
test of character, our national and personal character.  In many ways, I think it is a watershed
issue, a test of our viability. 
It’s one that we will fail only at our collective peril.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Post Racial. Forget it!

Sergeant Crowley did “act stupidly”, if nothing else then in arresting
in his own home Skip Gates, among the most distinguished and well known academics
in the country.  And the election
of Barack Obama as President, notwithstanding, race, including rightful pent up
anger against manifestations of ongoing institutional discrimination, remains a
significant issue.  I don’t have a
single African American friend who has not experienced it and whose reaction is
equally one of visceral outrage.  
So, too, did race remain center stage throughout the recent largely
boring Sotomayor hearings which, being a masochist, I watched from beginning to
end.  I really need to get a life.

Perhaps the soon-to-be Justice didn’t reveal much during those maddingly
choreographed hearings, but I for one found them most (and disturbingly)
revealing.  In that, there were two
principal players, Judge Sotomayor and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the
committee’s ranking Republican. 
Sessions had famously once been turned down for a judgeship by the same
committee in part because of the kind words he had to say about the Klan and his
prosecution (unsuccessful) of civil rights workers.  This time around, joined by his Republican lemmings, Sessions
obsessed over a few words in the text of an inspirational speech (delivered
several times) and a single case of claimed discrimination against white fire
fighters to which he and they returned repeatedly during their individual
statements and three rounds of questioning.  Both had an undeniable subtext of racism, not to mention
outrage that a Hispanic (or for that matter a woman) would dare make yet another
incursion into the old boys club.

“I would hope” Judge Sotomayor had told her young audiences, “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.”  Well “would hope” is not an absolute
claim but rather an aspiration for personal performance and “a white male who
hasn’t lived that life” hardly suggests every white male.  And what exactly is “that life”?  To be sure, it’s the experience of
being an ethnic minority (ask an earlier generation of the Kennedy or Scalia
families about that) but also in her case of being poor and of succeeding by
dint of perseverance and hard work. 
It’s also not forgetting where you came from even if you have been
fortunate enough to reach a different and exalted place.  It took a woman Justice Ginsburg to
enlighten male colleagues with only sheltered locker room experience about the
special and potentially traumatic indignity an impressionable young girl would
experience in a strip search. 
Indeed, and despite her difference on the subject with Justice O’Conner,
would anyone dare even raise an eyebrow if Sotomayor had suggested to those
students that a “wise woman” might make (or definitely would make) a better
decision than a group of men?  Race, or more specifically pride in race, makes the

If you have any doubt about the undertone of racism, consider two
supporting complaints: that the Judge had served on the board of the Puerto
Rican Defense Fund and, as Sessions said in his opening remarks, “Judges have
cited foreign laws” suggesting she was innately that kind of judge.  Both remind us of Sotomayor’s
“otherness” and of her fluency with an alien tongue – clearly not fully American.  But of course we’re not supposed to come
to such conclusions in this post racial world.  As we learned, even hinting that the arrest of Professor
Gates was not a good thing was considered getting the President off message,
and a happily compliant press looking for conflict and ratings made sure it was
just that.  To win office Barack
Obama had to develop a post racial strategy, one that is familiar to any person
of color, or of a minority religion for that matter, who wants to succeed in
this “pluralistic” society.  As
columnist Bob
put it, “The message that has gone out to the public is that
powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be
very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police
misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly
targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.”  It is a message that leaves Herbert
with outrage, and rightly so.  In
fact we should all be outraged and ashamed that at this late date, and after
all we’ve been through, we have not reached a post-racial age or anything close
to it.

Even the complaint that Barack Obama is trying to do too much may
bespeak and undertone of “how uppity of him to think like that.”  The alarming fact that a majority of
Republicans now believe that he is not a native born American and thus really
not Constitutionally entitled to his office, is even more blatant.  The behind the back snickers endure not
only for African Americans and Latinos but also for anyone who is somehow
different.  Asian Americans, Jews
and even Mormons know the sound of those whispers all too well.  The irony of course is that the one
time “majority” is fast losing its numerical supremacy.  Perhaps in the end that is really
what’s bothering them.  Jeff
Sessions, the essence of the man, is still fighting the civil war and the irate
fire fighters of New Haven do feel themselves victimized by altered
demographics.  Entitlement doesn’t
cut it any more, and their trying to overturn affirmative action is like
putting a finger in the dike in the face of an oncoming flood.  Pluralism will ultimately win out, and all
would do well not to stand in its way, which will only lead to shared and
universal pain.

Sonia Sotomayor will undoubtedly join the highest court in the land
within a few days. Henry Louis Gates Jr. will continue with his work at Harvard
and take center stage in yet another PBS series.  Barack Obama will likely prevail in getting a lot of things
done.  All of them are here and
here to stay.  That said, seeing
them before us, we shouldn’t forget the vast majority who remain left behind
and those, including them, who are expected to walk on eggs to survive.