By Ellen Goodman
Let us hope that Sonia Sotomayor’s tumble on the way to Washington doesn’t become a metaphor for her journey to the Supreme Court. For the moment, the broken ankle that had her navigating the Senate halls on crutches brought out the inner gentlemen in her opponents.
Republican David Vitter, for one, greeted her with a bag of ice and a pillow. “I hope you all note that some Republicans are empathetic too,” he quipped. I’m not sure about empathy, but after the recent sniping at the nominee as too aggressive and/or not bright enough, I’ll settle for the more benign sexism of chivalry.
In any case, this turned the chatter away from the reality program of the month: “Identity Politics, the Sequel.”
I can’t help noting that in the Sotomayor drama, the charge of “identity politics” is leveled at relative newcomers. I have yet to hear a certified member of the Establishment derided as a practitioner of this dark art. For that matter, identity itself seems to be exclusively a matter of race, gender and minority status.
Consider what happened when Dick Cheney declared himself in favor of same-sex marriage. “I think, you know, freedom means freedom for everyone,” he said. “I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish, any kind of arrangement they wish.”
Of course, it is entirely possible that the country’s most ardent defender of torture merely thinks that marital bondage should be extended to everyone. But it’s pretty clear that Cheney came to this view because of his, um, identity, as the father of a lesbian daughter, Mary, who is raising his grandchild with her partner, Heather. To paraphrase Sotomayor, might not the parent of a gay child understand something more than a parent who doesn’t share that life experience?
Remember the young men hostile to Title IX when they were college wrestlers. Many became big fans when their daughters wanted equal time on the lacrosse field. Identity politics? You bet.
A friend of mine, an observant Catholic, bolted out of her seat after the priest blessed all those parishioners “from natural conception to natural death.” How dare you not bless my two grandchildren? asked this grandmother of IVF girls. Identity politics? Absolutely.
And did anyone notice the silence when Laura Bush said of Sotomayor, “As a woman, I’m proud that there might be another woman on the court”? Yipes.
We all have multiple identities, but the political dialogue changes. When I was a kid in Boston, identity politics were as natural as neighborhoods. Only they were called ethnic politics. By the late 1960s, the Irish, Italians and Jews who had been kept out of Yankee clubs and corporations were often bewildered to find themselves lumped together and tagged: white men.
But today no one suggests that Chief Justice John Roberts is playing identity politics when, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote recently in The New Yorker, he reflects “a view that the court should almost always defer to the existing power relationships in society.”
While we are on the subject, folks who call themselves originalists—purist followers of the Founding Fathers—ought to note that some of the Fathers identified more with slave owners than with slaves. With husbands, not wives. Wouldn’t a wise slave “with the richness of her experiences” have reached a better conclusion about the peculiar institution of slavery? Wouldn’t a wise woman have reached a faster decision about suffrage?
One of the ironies of the Sotomayor nomination is that her “identity” has been seen as the exclusive product of her ethnicity and gender. Those other pieces of identity—the child of public housing, the first non-mother, etc.—are discounted. Meanwhile, even her defenders feel compelled to show that her legal decisions are not influenced by her being a Latina. There is, of course, nothing female or Puerto Rican about the vast majority of cases. But supporters have scoured her decisions to show that she was “mainstream” on immigration law.
The hearings begin on July 13. The very fact that she has to prove her impartiality to a Senate that is more than three-fourths white and male is a bit bizarre. But let us dedicate these hearings to the memory of Ginger Rogers.
As the late Ann Richards once said, Ginger had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only she had to do it backward and in high heels. Sonia Sotomayor is going to have to do this dance forward and on crutches.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group