Sonia Sotomayor Hearings

Before this past week I had never watched a congressional hearing. In the ten years I’ve been living back and forth between Sydney and NYC I never found time to spend a few hours watching this variety of Washington theatre. I’m glad I did. In the course of several hours of listening to senators question Sonia Sotomayor to find out if she’s qualified to be a Supreme Court justice I learned a bit more about the political process in the US and that Sotomayor is one of the calmest, most patient, smart and rational people on the planet. She was amazing.

But it turns out these hearings weren’t really about her.

The hearings were about a handful of white male senators grandstanding to the people they think are their constituents. And what were they grandstanding about? Frank Rich nails it:

The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.

If I put men like those in any of my novels I would be accused of stereotyping. Very few people would believe in characters who don’t listen to anything that’s said to them, who insist that anyone who isn’t exactly like them—white, male, old—is biased. That, in fact, being white, male and old renders them, not only neutral, but the only real people in the world.

All their attacks on Sotomayor, because they weren’t questions, were just an oft repeated refrain on how dare Sotomayor think that being a Latina qualified her for anything. (Um, hello, she doesn’t think that, she thinks her long and distinguished record qualifies her.) Pat Buchanan put it even more nakedly on Rachel Maddow’s show this week when he declared that white men made America.

To which you can only stare and gape. Buchanan does not know much about his own country’s history. He does not seem to know that the early white settlers would have starved without the help of the indigenous peoples. He does not know that slavery was the economic making of the country, that the White House was built by slaves, and the railroads were built by indentured Chinese labour and that without the contributions of people who weren’t white or male this country would not be what it is.

Why, does Buchanan feel the need to say something so preposterous in his analysis of Sotomayor’s qualifications for the Supreme Court? Because he and those senators see the inclusion of anyone who isn’t like them as an attack on them. When a Latina makes it onto the Supreme Court that is an attack on their white male power. Their “we” doesn’t even include all white men, just the ones who think like them, of which, mercifully, there are fewer and fewer.

I’ll give a white man, Stephen Colbert, the last word:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Neutral Man’s Burden
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Jeff Goldblum


  1. London on #

    Thanks for posting this, Justine! Your posts always make me feel better about the world, even when you’re posting about something as awful and absurd as Pat Buchanan’s views of America, because *you* have so much common sense & good judgment. Hooray for common sense!

  2. stacy on #

    I just watched the Buchanan/Maddow clip on another friend’s blog and you described my reaction pretty well — all I could do was just let my jaw drop. And I thought of the same people you did who built this country literally by their hard labor, the Chinese and the slaves and the former Mexicans who became USians simply by the change of borders, and the poor white farmers and indentured servants (who I’m sure weren’t part of Buchanan’s “white people” because he’s thinking of people who could afford Yale apparently), and the immigrants from all over the world, who all made this place the melting pot (or stew, or whatever) that it is.

    We were all in this together from the beginning, though we’re still getting over the animosity.

  3. AliceB on #

    Thank you! I completely agree with you. And the Colbert clip is excellent. I kept thinking all week that the main problem folks opposed to her nomination have had, is that she’s a brown woman. And I wasn’t sure whether it was the brown part or the woman part that bothered them more.

  4. Diana Peterfreund on #

    The whole thing (and the public’s reaction to it) kinda reminded me of that scene at the end of 12 Angry Men. Very meta.

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