Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sarah vs. Sonia

Following up on this post, Pat Buchanan says that Judge Sonia Sotomayor is getting a free ride because she’s a “self-described ‘affirmative action baby’ from Princeton,” whereas Sarah Palin is an up-from-the-sticks conservative who never got a break. “Pundits here gets hoots of appreciation for doing to a white Christian woman what would constitute a hate crime if done to a ‘wise Latina woman.'” Conor Clarke notes that there’s a difference.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong, much less “arch,” about criticizing Sarah Palin for being an anti-intellectual demagogue while simultaneously demanding respect for Sonia Sotomayor. Palin’s whole shtick is that she’s an ordinary American with ordinary American concerns. Which is completely fine. But I’m of the mind that our leaders should be exceptional people — hard-working Type-A meritocrats with actual expertise — and I think Sotomayor is one of those people. (Palin, not so much.) That’s my preference, of course, and not necessarily the country’s. But I like to think it’s a perfectly legitimate distinction, not a “hate crime.” [Italics in the original]

I’ll go further than that; it should be a requirement that anyone appointed to the Supreme Court or elected to the White House is by far the smartest person in the room. I do not want someone of an average intellect, much less someone who is anti-intellectual, running the country or interpreting the Constitution. We’re not talking about a county commission here. (And even if we were, I don’t want an incurious boor on the county commission either.)

A couple of other points. First, if Sonia Sotomayor was an affirmative-action admission to Princeton, all that did was get her in the door. After that, she was on her own. It wasn’t affirmative-action that got her to the top of her class. (If it was affirmative-action that got her into Yale Law School, she was following in the footsteps of another justice on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. Funny, but I don’t remember Mr. Buchanan complaining about Mr. Thomas’s admissions history.) By the way, what is wrong with affirmative-action anyway? All it does it make it a level admissions playing field for people who were not born with the automatic credentials (white, male, and trust-funded) to get in to a school like Princeton or Yale. It seems that the people who complain the most about people like Sonia Sotomayor getting a leg up have never faced the challenge of getting into a college or getting a job with history and patriarchy stacked against them.

Second, the Republican mantra of being the party of the “common man” is born out of nothing more than a cynical attempt to curry favor with an electorate that they wouldn’t dare be associated with if they could avoid it. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy played on the fear and loathing of white voters who felt assaulted by the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and provided a fertile ground for starting the culture wars against reproductive choice, gay rights, and basically anyone who didn’t look, act, or have sex like them. It was, and it continues to be, an exploitation of the foolish and the weak, preying on their fears of the unknown and feeding them the pablum of smaller government and lower taxes. It wins elections, but it doesn’t run the country very well. What’s worse is that the people who master-minded it don’t really care.

What it comes down to is that Sonia Sotomayor, even if she had help along the way, has had to work harder for what she achieved than Sarah Palin ever did. It shows in the way they both dealt with the adversity they have both faced in the last month. Judge Sotomayor has faced down an attack machine that questioned everything from her intellect to her choice of clothing, and she has taken it with grace and aplomb. Gov. Palin has dealt with her self-inflicted public mockery festival with all the maturity of a spoiled child. Sarah Palin took it for granted that she was entitled to whatever she wanted because she’s believed in the George W. Bush model that anyone can grow up to be president without having to actually, you know, work at it. It’s easy for her to quit her job because it doesn’t really mean that much to her, and it’s easy to give away something you never had to work for. Sonia Sotomayor has never taken anything for granted.