I made the mistake this morning of reading a front-page profile of Sonia Sotomayor in the New York Times. If that information alone isn't enough to prove I should have known better, this was the headline:
"To Get to Sotomayor's Core, Start in New York: Milestones in Work and Life, Set to a City's Rhythms"
In this profile, we find that Sonia is both everyman and Renaissance woman, who power-walks the Brooklyn Bridge and power-lunches in the village. Swoon. We are informed, in the first three paragraphs, that she throws Christmas parties "where judges and janitors spill into the hallway" and is "godmother to the children of lawyers and secretaries alike." (Aren't they executive assistants these days? But I digress.) This is the kind of ostentatious, self-conscious bean-counting of the disadvantaged with which only urbane liberals can be comfortable, both in their personal lives and public policy. Are Sotomayor's relationships illustrative of her character? Sure, and they reveal she's a basically decent person (just like many federal judges-even some of the strict constructionists!). Unless, of course, Sotomayor approaches her relationships in the same way the New York Times reporter writes about them- collecting blue-collar chits and counting friends of color as karmic cool points. Sotomayor, as we've been informed ad nauseam, has a compelling life story that started in a low-income, mostly single-parent Puerto Rican home in the Bronx. It is not at all surprising that she has connections with both the community she came from and the tony world to which she rose. One would hope that she treats those relationships with more authenticity than the reporter, who paints them into gauche, low-income caricatures on the progressive tableau of Sotomayor's life. (Oh, look dahling! She was kind enough to invite the janitors. How delightfully real and tolerant and New York of her.) Sotomayor herself even becomes a caricature in the hands of the writer, so very anxious is he to inform you of both her superiority as a woman of color steeped in the grit and culture of the City of New York, and by extension (and perhaps more importantly), his liberal superiority in recognizing her as such. Sotomayor didn't just advise clerks and invite them into her home, naturally attentive to those in whom she saw her own struggles. No, that would be so average (and is likely true of every Justice on the high court). Visiting Sonia Sotomayor is "akin to seeing a Puerto Rican tía, an aunt, replete with dishes of rice and chicken." Oh, the duality! I'm simultaneously aching at the profundity and totally impressed that he knows the word, "tia" (and how to make an accent mark on the keyboard).Now, one could argue that Sotomayor is close to a caricature of a different kind, which the writer never addresses- the grievance-mongering, race-conscious, modern liberal, equally at home with quotas, back-room deals, and bullying for the greater good, defying the patriarchy even if it means betraying the very "equality" she purports to support. Had I been the writer of this profile, I might have noted that "her annual Christmas party looks, fittingly, as if she had administered a test to possible attendees, but when it did not yield appropriately diverse guests, she summarily uninvited the qualifying guests based upon race and dismissed their pleas for consideration on merit instead of skin color. Also, the cocktail wieners were good." But that would be cynical, and I have hope that Sotomayor's personal life might be the only place where she's not obsessively bean-counting and hegemony-harping. Moving on, the writer employs several more hallmarks of the self-involved, New York-centric profile. Reference to "The Warriors" and a Woody Allen flick? Check. Barely concealed preference for the allegedly authentic, crime-ridden New York of days gone by over Rudy Giuliani's clean, safe "Disney-flavored New York of recent vintage?" Check. I get that the reporter's called upon to write an interesting, human piece about Sotomayor, and he succeeds in parts. Such endeavors are naturally fluffy and positive, but you learn almost nothing about her judicial or political philosophies. By contrast, almost the entire first page of John Roberts' NYT profile, while nominally positive, is devoted to ferreting out just how politically conservative he actually is. The writer does not offer lyrical illustrations of Roberts' fair mind and goodness in action, but rather testimonies from friends that sound as if they came in response to the question, "So, all his friends are white Republicans, right?" Samuel Alito's profile is similarly devoted to assurances from liberal friends that he's not insane (whew!), and discussion of whether he is now or ever has been a part of the Reagan Revolution. I guess Roberts and Alito can't expect the same treatment as Sotomayor. Did they set their "milestones in work and life to the rhythms of the city?" I think not. What's most aggravating about the profile, however, is the implicit and common liberal conceit that compelling narratives, racial harmony, and helping others are solely the province of liberals, and particularly liberals in the Age of Obama. If one has the patience to dig through 40 pages of NYT search results about Justice Clarence Thomas' "anger" and Anita Hill's accusations against him, one can find two or three sentences about a man who had no indoor plumbing for much of his childhood, lived in a neighborhood called "Blood Bucket" in the Jim Crow South, and was raised by an illiterate grandfather to work hard and overcome segregation to attend Yale Law and become a Supreme Court justice. Not bad, as narratives go. "Only in America" stories of overcoming obstacles to reach improbable heights did not begin with Barack Obama. The custom of judges advising and mentoring clerks did not begin with Sonia Sotomayor. Christmas parties featuring both lawyers and janitors do not only happen in the nation's enlightened urban centers. And, white and black people have lived in harmony and even danced in the streets together many times before that fateful night in Grant Park when Obama became the president. (The night of the Steelers' fifth Super Bowl win comes to mind, on which I personally witnessed such a phenomenon on the streets of Pittsburgh. It struck me as fun, but not particularly rare, having grown up in modern America.) Racial rifts are healed and new understandings reached on football fields in rural Alabama just as often (and perhaps more often) than at "Race and Gender in the Media" symposia at Columbia. The poor are helped and communities- dare I say it?- organized in church soup kitchens and by Rotary Clubs in Kansas without the guidance of "Rules for Radicals" or Ivy-league non-profit gurus. Suffering people of all colors and creeds around the world are loved and helped just as often by Christian missionaries as by the UN or liberal NGOs. The routine dismissal of such facts among our friends on the left always elicits from me an emotion along the lines of...get over yourselves. But perhaps the writers and readers of the New York Times can be forgiven for their provincialism. Sotomayor's brother makes a joking observation about her that likely rings true with many in the paper's target audience: "I always joke that her vision does not extend beyond the Hudson River." (Is this not, by the way, the same embrace of her geographically and ideologically limited sphere as evidence of "authenticity" for which critics lambaste Sarah Palin?) If only the "rich experience" of our liberal friends more frequently reached beyond Big Apple boroughs and campus conferences, they'd be more "wise" and "more often than not, reach a better conclusion," as Sonia herself might say.
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