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.