My take on the Right’s objections to Sotomayor, so far:
- She’s not intelligent.
Of all of the talking points the Right might have hustled up about Sotomayor, this one is the least intelligent. She graduated Princeton summa cum laude, and then went on to Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale law journal. Not intelligent?
Much of the “not intelligent” buzz derives from Jeffrey Rosen’s sleazy little New Republic smear job on Sotomayor, published a few days ago. Glenn Greenwald takes the Rosen piece apart and reveals it to be cheap and shoddy propaganda.
One other thing before I move on to the next point — yesterday I quoted from a Washington Post profile of Sotomayor in which a number of her colleagues (and, unlike Jeffrey Rosen’s sources, these people gave their names) called the SCOTUS nominee “brilliant.” Today at the same URL there is an entirely different story about Sotomayor. The “brilliant” quotes are gone; the new article emphasizes Sotomayor’s ethnicity rather than her intellect. Make of that what you will.
- She’s temperamental, or difficult, or even bullying
Some also call her tough and exacting. In other words, traits that would be an asset to a man are a liability to Sotomayor. And I’ve yet to see a concrete example of her “temperamental” behavior.
- Obama chose empathy over intelligence
As John Yoo (John Yoo, people!) put it, “President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor shows that empathy has won out over excellence in the White House.”
There’s a common fallacy — much beloved of people who themselves have second-rate minds — that people are either logical and rational or emotional and empathetic. To be logical requires squelching emotion — think Mr. Spock — because emotions and rational thinking cannot co-exist in the same head.
This is nonsense. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was among our most intelligent presidents, yet he also was a man of deep compassion. Think also of Albert Schweitzer. I don’t know that Sonia Sotomayor belongs in the Lincoln-Schweitzer category; such people are rare. But a definition of true genius may be an ability to understand the same thing on several levels at once.
I think it’s true that there are some kinds of passions that override rational thinking. Greed is chief among these; also fear, or any impulse to protect and defend one’s ego and self-identity. But genuine compassion and empathy are very far removed from self-destructive passions.
There’s a theory of emotional intelligence that enjoys considerable support in the social sciences. As I understand it, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand and manage one’s own emotions and “read” and relate to other people’s emotions as part of navigating social networks. Emotional intelligence is part of a complex of intelligences that enable one to perceive and comprehend the world.
Not everyone accepts “EI” as an “intelligence,” but I have known many people who were bright enough at book-learnin’ but who were stymied by their own and other peoples’ emotions. So I think there is something to it. The point is that there are many different kinds of intelligence, and IMO the most genuinely intelligent people are those who integrate diverse intelligences.
There’s a fellow named Gerald Huther who is head of neurobiological research at a psychiatric clinic in Germany. Huther wrote a book called The Compassionate Brain: A Revolutionary Guide to Developing Your Intelligence to Its Full Potential. Another edition of the book came out with a different subtitle — How Empathy Creates Intelligence.
Huther’s basic argument is that brains change physically depending on how we use them, and he makes an argument based on brain physiology that the capacity of the brain develops most fully when emotion and intellect are balanced. This is from a review:
By following the usual human path of egocentricity – seeing oneself as the center of the world and acting accordingly – one embeds a fixed pattern of repetitive neuronal connectivity. The harder path of self-development, which leads to a more comprehensive, complex and more highly networked brain, consists in developing qualities that go beyond self-centeredness. Sensibleness, uprightness, humility, prudence, truthfulness, reliability, empathy, and courtesy; qualities such these cannot be developed in isolation. They come as part of a matrix of social feelings that involve connectedness and solidarity that transcend our usual self-centeredness. In the end, says Huther, a person who wishes to use his or her brain in the most comprehensive manner must also learn to love.
In my experience, people who pride themselves in being “logical” rather than “emotional” inevitably are a lot more emotional and a lot less logical than they want to admit. They just aren’t good at being honest with themselves about themselves. (John Yoo is, I suspect, such a person.) Which takes us to the next dig at Sotomayor –
- She’s an affirmative action hire, chosen because of her ethnicity and not her ability.
This is essentially what George Will says today, if you read between the lines. To Will, the function of “identity hires” like Thurgood Marshall and Sonia Sotomayor is to “balance” the court by showing favoritism to women and minorities over white men. Will writes,
And like conventional liberals, she embraces identity politics, including the idea of categorical representation: A person is what his or her race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference is, and members of a particular category can be represented — understood, empathized with — only by persons of the same identity.
Will presents no credible evidence whatsoever that Sotomayor believes this. He gives the much-maligned quote –”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.” But in this quote Sotomayor was not saying that “members of a particular category can be represented — understood, empathized with — only by persons of the same identity.” She’s saying that people with “a richness of experience” have a broader and more inclusive understanding of people than a white man “who hasn’t lived that life.” In other words, it’s not about ethnicity, but experience.
The irony, of course, is that white men usually have their own identity blindnesses and are just as guilty of identity favoritism as the people they accuse of identity favoritism. It’s just that they think of themselves as the default norm; therefore, their biases are not biases.
Anyway, turning to Sotomayor, what’s interesting about accusations of identity politics is that they implicitly assume that whiteness (or maleness) is some sort of neutral baseline. I call it the “invisible baseline” fallacy – and it’s certainly not a novel concept. The idea is that people forget that whiteness is itself an ethnicity – and one that shapes and colors perceptions (and that enjoys entrenched benefits). Instead, whiteness blends into the background and becomes part of an “invisible” baseline that is conceptualized as “normal.”
Will doesn’t use the word “diversity,” but there is no doubt a court made up of justices with diverse backgrounds will have a broader perspective, and a deeper collective intelligence, than one made up of privileged white males.
Any other themes you’ve seen in the pushback?