Sotomayor, Identity Politics and Catholicism


It is so kind of George Will to explain Judge Sotomayor’s beliefs to the rest of us. "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." Phew, I am glad he cleared that up.


I am also glad that these attempts by conservatives (Pat Buchanan was mouthing the same line on "Hardball" yesterday) to reduce Ms. Sotomayor’s nomination to a form of affirmative action guarantees their further decline as a party. The fastest growing demographic in this country is Latinos. They hear that Judge Sotomayor was chosen because of her identity as a Latina and they say to themselves: "We can’t win. She graduates top of her class from Princeton, goes to Yale Law, works on the Yale Law Journal, and still, they say she is only there because she is a Latina." If the GOP persists in this ugly attack on her nomination, they can kiss Arizona good-bye and it won’t be long before Texas comes into play.

I am no fan of identity politics. One of my favorite tomes is a short book by Leon Wieseltier called "Against Identity" which includes this gem: "I hear it said of a man that he leads a double life and I think to myself – just two?" But, Will and Buchanan and company are peddling a caricature of identity politics and putting it in Sotomayor’s mouth. Yesterday, in an unrelated story, an anthropologist was making a point about cultural differences. He recalled asking a French colleague, "How would you say such-and-such in French?" And she replied, "We wouldn’t say that in French." He wanted an interpretation but some cultural barriers are higher than linguistic ones.

One of those higher cultural differences is the religious life of a people and nation. People ask if Sotomayor is a Catholic and I reply that she is a Puerto Rican. Whether she is active in the Church, the Church is active in her because in Latin culture, the Church is carried not only through its institutional manifestations but through the culture and especially through the family.

It doesn’t take very long to recognize when I am in a Catholic country and it has nothing to do with the number of church steeples. When I was seven or eight, my family was in Puerto Rico for New Year’s Eve. Back in Connecticut, we children would be fast asleep by midnight but here all the children, even the infants, were present for the party. I have come to learn in my subsequent times visiting la Isla del Encanta that Puerto Ricans never have an "adults only" party. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, at all these celebrations, the entire family comes, from the youngest to the oldest. When attending my first funeral in Puerto Rico I was horrified that the funeral Mass was conducted at a barren chapel at the funeral parlor, not at the parish church. But, my Puerto Rican friends couldn’t care about the architecture – so long as the whole family was there, that was what mattered.

Can identity politics go too far? Of course. Truth, including constitutional verities, is not all up for grabs. But, different perspectives often yield important additions to human knowledge, including the knowledge that comes from the heart. I am sure that Justice Scalia can read the original text of the Constitution and conclude that the Founders were wrong to keep slavery. (I leave it for him to infer what this means for his "original intent" orthodoxy but me thinks reports of his genius are over-cooked.) Perhaps, it is more difficult for him to measure the persistent cultural cost of the Founders' failure.

Mr. Will and others may yet learn something else from Judge Sotomayor, whose parents have been described as immigrants in countless news articles despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and therefore not immigrants. They may learn that one of the limits of identity politics is that there is diversity within a given group, that all Latinos are not alike, that Puerto Ricans are citizens not immigrants, and that such status causes tensions with other Latinos, that many Cubans went to Puerto Rico not to Miami, etc. One thing these conservatives will learn for sure: The more they want to be the party of conservative white men, the more likely they are to keep losing elections.


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9 years 4 months ago
People ask me if Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro are Catholic, and I answer they're Latin American.  The Church is active in them because it's active in Latin culture.  What rubbish!  Just because someone was raised in a Catholic culture doesn't mean that Catholicism is a driving force for them - witness the vitriolic anti-Clericalism of a number of former Catholics.  Does that apply to Sotomayor?  Certainly there are no signs that it does, but it does expose the absurdity of assuming that Catholicism plays a strong role in someone's thinking because it once did. You don't seem to understand either the point or the content of originalist jurisprudence when you try to dismiss Scalia because the founding fathers owned slaves.  Does that mean we should constantly reinterpret laws?  Does that mean that Scalia is inconsistent in holding to the 13th amendment?
9 years 4 months ago
Just briefly: aren't you falling trap to essentialism here? Aren't you suggesting that because most of x people do y, and Sotomayor is an x, then she would do a y, regardless if it is because of Catholicism or inculturation? Aren't you caricaturing her identity? Isn't that worse than caricaturing her identity politics?
9 years 4 months ago
Judge Sotomayor may prove to be a fourth middle Justice on moral issues, with Roberts, Kennedy and Alito.  I doubt she will adopt the Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer line.  Adopting the Scalia line is as unlikely. It is almost disheartening to see the treatment of Sotomayor as a symbol for Republican unity, with the object being her personal destruction.  It is one thing to oppose her for a reason of her own making (and a misunderstood interview tag line is not such a reason) - it is quite another to make defeating her a cause for unity or worse for fundraising.  It is the kind of Jack Abramoff racketeering that has cost the party two elections in a row.  If they don't get off of this track there won't be any party left to run candidates in 2010, let alone 2012.
9 years 4 months ago
I think you misread Will's column.  I don't think he (I can't speak for Buchanan, as I turn him off when i see him) was arguing that SHE was nominated solely because she is Latina (but, at the same time, if you're committed to affirmative action, can you rule that out as a cause of her nomination? I think not.)  I think Will's larger exception is to the role of identity politics in contemporary liberalism, the sine qua non of which is the Ricci decision that she authored.  Forget abortion or same sex marriage, that opinion is what concerns me about her nomination.  She upheld the right of the government to deny promotions to firemen who had excelled on a performance test (presumably testing, what, fireman-like knowledge and skills) on the basis of their race.  They happened to be white/Hispanic/Latino; no African-Americans received passing grades.  Somehow New Haven argued the test itself was inherently biased (go figure on that one; I didn't realize that inanimate objects can exhibit human tendencies).  I think what conservatives object to is this insipient notion in liberalism that "minorities" still need protection & the rest of us are bigots who have to be "force-fed" at the trough of diversity.  The world has moved on, so should they.
9 years 4 months ago
All this business about identity misses the point. What Sotomayor brings to the court is New York City. She brings the moods of the city, the hurly-burley, the subway, busses, pretzels on the corner, the toughness and gentleness. She brings in-your-face, Broadway, off and off off Broadway. She lives near the Cherry Lane, Bleecker St. Scalia has forgotten New York. She won't
9 years 4 months ago
All this focus on Sotomayor's biography is the doing of Mr. Obama himself. He chose to emphasize those points first. The focus on her judicial temperment is her own doing, making ill-advised remarks even though she said she new "this is on tape." The New Haven decision makes even affirmative-action supporters like me scratch our heads. Is she Catholic? I don't even know what that means anymore. The Democrats have the votes. The only thing that could sink her nomination is a sloppy tax return or the revelation that she payed an illegal alien under the table to clean her house or take care of her kids.


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