Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Reading

Two Roads Diverged

If Judge Sonia Sotomayor joins Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, they may find that they have far more than a job title in common.

Both come from the humblest of beginnings. Both were members of the first sizable generation of minority students at elite colleges and then Yale Law School. Both benefited from affirmative action policies.

But that is where their similarities end, and their disagreements begin. For the first time, the Supreme Court would include two minority judges, but ones who stand at opposite poles of thinking about race, identity and opportunity. Judge Sotomayor and Justice Thomas have walked parallel paths and yet arrived at contrary conclusions, not only on legal questions, but on personal ones, too.

Judge Sotomayor celebrates being Latina, calling it a reason for her success; Justice Thomas bristles at attempts to define him by race and says he has succeeded despite the obstacles it posed. Being a woman of Puerto Rican descent is rich and fulfilling, Judge Sotomayor says, while Justice Thomas calls being a black man in America a largely searing experience. Off the bench, Judge Sotomayor has helped build affirmative action programs. On the bench, Justice Thomas has argued against them with thunderous force.

The two may sit together on a court that is struggling over whether race and ethnicity should be a factor in legal thinking, each pitting his or her hard-won lessons against the other’s. Both judges are passionate about minority success, dedicating countless hours to mentorship. But Judge Sotomayor sees herself as the successful product of diversity initiatives, whereas Justice Thomas, who thinks of himself as a scarred survivor of those efforts, believes they often backfire.

The two judges have lived, not just argued, the strongest cases for and against affirmative action, said Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University. With both on the court, he said, “their voices are going to come to exemplify the contending positions.”

Continued below the fold.

When Ms. Sotomayor and Mr. Thomas arrived at college — she at Princeton in 1972, he at Holy Cross in 1968 — they worried about the same thing: what others would think when they opened their mouths.

Ms. Sotomayor had grown up in the Bronx speaking Spanish; Mr. Thomas’s relatives in Pin Point, Ga., mixed English with Gullah, a language of the coastal South. Both attended Catholic school, where they were drilled by nuns in grammar and other subjects. But at college, they realized they still sounded unpolished.

Ms. Sotomayor shut herself in her dorm room and eventually resorted to grade-school grammar textbooks to relearn her syntax. Mr. Thomas barely spoke, he said later, and majored in English literature to conquer the language.

“I just worked at it,” he said in an interview years later, “on my pronunciations, sounding out words.”

For many East Coast colleges, it was a new era. After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Holy Cross pledged to do its part in the civil rights movement by recruiting black students; just a few months later, Mr. Thomas became one of six in his freshman class.

Princeton was integrating not only by race and ethnicity, but also by gender. Ms. Sotomayor was one of 20 Hispanics in her class, students estimate. Princeton had admitted women just a few years earlier, and “husband-hunters,” as one of the alumni still campaigning against their presence called them, were vastly outnumbered at the college.

When the students arrived, they were subject to constant suspicion that they had not earned their slots. “It was a question echoed over and over again, not only verbally but in people’s thoughts,” said Franklin Moore, a former Princeton administrator. Ms. Sotomayor and Mr. Thomas, honors students in high school, considered themselves qualified. But to prove their critics wrong, they studied with special determination.

“We can’t let these people think we just came off the street without anything to offer Princeton,” said Eneida Rosa, another member of the Hispanic contingent, describing how seriously she and Ms. Sotomayor took their studies.

The two future judges led similar student organizations — Mr. Thomas helped found a black student group, while Ms. Sotomayor was co-chairwoman of a Puerto Rican one — and shared the same liberal politics. They graduated at the top of their classes. And afterward, they each headed to Yale Law School.

But perhaps because of their backgrounds, Judge Sotomayor and Justice Thomas came to view their campus experiences in very different ways.

Leonard Pitts — We’ve Been Punk’d.

So Newt Gingrich now says Sonia Sotomayor is not a ”racist” after all. She must be trembling with relief.

Gingrich’s backpedaling came last week in an article on It leaves just two high-profile Republicans, former Rep. Tom Tancredo and radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh, still clinging to that absurd allegation.

As you know unless you are just back from Antarctica, this sudden spasm of righteous Republican rage is because of a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001 about the role gender, ethnicity and other characteristics play in a judge’s judgment. ”I would hope,” she said, ”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.”

It is, yes, a wince-inducing statement. You might even call it a tone deaf and culturally chauvinistic one. But does it support comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan such as Tancredo and Gingrich have made? Not in a million years.

The attempt to paint Sotomayor as such represents more than political overreach. No, this is part and parcel of a campaign by conservatives to arrogate unto themselves and/or neutralize the language of social grievance. We’ve seen this before. They sullied the word ”feminist” so thoroughly even feminists disdain it. They made ”liberal” such a vulgarity you’d never know liberals fought to ban child labor, end Jim Crow or win women the right to vote.

Having no record of their own of responding compassionately to social grievance (ask them what they did during the civil rights movement and they grow very quiet) conservatives have chosen instead to co-opt the language of that grievance. And if what they did to the language of women’s rights and progressivism took some gall, what they are seeking to do to the language of race suggests a testicular circumference of bovine proportions. There is something surreal about hearing those who have historically been the enemies of racial progress define racial progress as looking out for the poor white brother.

And whatever comes beyond surreal is what describes these three men in particular, none of whom has ever been distinguished by his previous tender concern for racial minorities lied upon, denied upon and systematically cheated of their square of the American Dream, telling us ”racism” is what happens when a Hispanic woman says something dumb about white men. We are, after all, talking about a man (Tancredo) who once called majority Hispanic Miami ”a third world” country, and another man (Limbaugh) who advised a black caller to ”take that bone out of your nose.” These are fighters against racism?

You keep waiting for someone to break up laughing. You keep looking for Ashton Kutcher to say you’ve been punk’d.

Ugh — Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press holds his nose and defends the free speech rights of fanatics.

Defending free speech is like being in love with a gifted but temperamental artist who is forever embarrassing you with his drunken public outbursts. You want to nurture your beloved’s creativity, but sometimes you wish you could just leave the bloviating SOB at home.

It is thus with mixed emotions that I rise — on second thought, I think I’ll stay seated — to champion the First Amendment rights of one Rev. Donald Spitz.

Spitz, the nominal leader of an anti-abortion extremist group that modestly styles itself the Army of God, has spent much of the last week celebrating the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

Spitz has never shot anyone himself, that we know of, but he has made it clear that he considers the whackadoo who gunned down Tiller an American hero. He likens the murder of Tiller, who was passing out programs in the vestibule of his church when he was shot in the head, to the execution of a madman who has opened fire on a playground full of preschoolers.

“I understand perfectly why someone would take action like that,” Spitz says.

The slaying of Tiller has triggered an emotional backlash among proponents of abortion rights, many of whom are urging Congress to toughen a 15-year-old federal law that restricts abortion foes from interfering with abortion clinics and their patients.

The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act made it a 10-year felony to physically interfere with an abortion clinic’s employees or patients. The act also established federal penalties for trespassing on or vandalizing abortion clinics anywhere in the United States.

Since the FACE Act’s passage, many states (but not Michigan) have also established buffer zones designed to keep protestors at a respectful distance from patients entering and exiting an abortion clinic. Abortion rights advocates like the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Eleanor Smeal want Congress to mandate buffer zones at all clinics, and some want criminal sanctions for people who encourage violence against abortion providers.

Blogging to Nowhere

“Hi, I’m Judy Nichols. Welcome to my rant.”

Thus was born Rantings of a Crazed Soccer Mom, the blog of a stay-at-home mother and murder-mystery writer from Wilmington, N.C. Mrs. Nichols, 52, put up her first post in late 2004, serving up a litany of gripes about the Bush administration and people who thought they had “a monopoly on morality.” After urging her readers to vote for John Kerry, she closed with a flourish: “Practice compassionate regime change.”

The post generated no comments.

Today, Mrs. Nichols speaks about her blog as if it were a diet or half-finished novel. “I’m going to get back to it,” she swears. Her last entry, in December of last year, was curt and none too profound. “Books make great gifts,” she began, breaking a silence of nearly a month.

Like Mrs. Nichols, many people start blogs with lofty aspirations — to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world. Getting started is easy, since all it takes to maintain a blog is a little time and inspiration. So why do blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants?

According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.

Judging from conversations with retired bloggers, many of the orphans were cast aside by people who had assumed that once they started blogging, the world would beat a path to their digital door.

Back to the Future — From the CBC in the early 1990’s, the wonder of “internet.”

Doonesbury — the mighty have fallen.