David Brooks' column today really helped crystallize for me my qualms about Elena Kagan. Her life, so far as one can tell, is her career, and her career has been built by avoiding any tough or difficult political or moral positions, eschewing any rigorous intellectual debate in which she takes a clear stand one way or the other, pleasing every single authority figure she has encountered, and reveling in the approval of the First Class Car Acela Corridor elite. The NYT profile - which is superb apart from its editorial decision to excise any account of any non-trivial private life (she smokes cigars!) since high school - is chilling in its assessment of a human soul in steady, determined pursuit of approval and power.
Name one risk she has taken with her career. I can't.
And when you notice that she intended to be a Supreme Court Justice from her childhood, and when you see how the hearings process shifted after Bork toward favoring the blander, less substantive, less controversial liberal avatars who now sit on the court, her strategy makes total sense. But where has she experienced the brunt of the law on ordinary people, as the president has described one of his criteria for the court? I guess if you regard Larry Tribe and Charles Ogletree as victims of the world, you could make a case for her empathy. But apart from that? Not much that I can see.
Where is the struggle in her life story that could possibly equate with Sotomayor's? The NYT is very keen to let us know that the Upper West Side where she grew up was not as tony as it is today. Er, that's about it. Michael Waldman hilariously cites her real world experience as part of the Clinton domestic policy apparatus. Not a single anecdote in her life-story would be out of place in a Rhodes Scholar application - and I mean that as damning. Every one is just quirky enough - but equally framed to show she represents no conceivable threat to any conceivable liberal interest or authority.
Kagan strikes me as the Democratic elite's elitist: free of any conviction that is not caged in a web of Clintonian caution, punctiliously diligent in every aspect of her career, motivated by a desire never to offend those with power, and rewarded in turn by the protection and praise of these elites. Here is Walter Dellinger's almost comically balanced, well-polished, piece of bullshit:
“Her open-mindedness may disappoint some who want a sure liberal vote on almost every issue. Her pragmatism may disappoint those who believe that mechanical logic can decide all cases. And her progressive personal values will not endear her to the hard right. But that is exactly the combination the president was seeking.”
Notice how every single virtue - open-mindedness, pragmatism, "progressive personal values" whatever that means) - is framed as naturally meeting resistance from those outside the sequestered liberal judicial elite. And this opposition merely confirms - how could it not? - the broad beneficence of one of their own, leavened with the necessary sprinkling of inoffensive anecdotage. Even her youthful smoking - what a rebel! - is balanced by her attempt to regulate tobacco in her later years, and, in case anyone might think of her as a puritan, the cigar anecdote is thrown in for good measure.
It's all so comfy, isn't it? Those poker parties. Those committee meetings. No wonder Jeffrey Rosen and Jeffrey Toobin validate her. But at least they have offered an opinion or two from time to time on issues every thinking person would discuss. She hasn't. And remember that we are told that her early family life was a cauldron of debate and discussion. In a way, talking about the closet of sexual orientation is beside the point. Her entire life seems to have been a closet - in the pursuit of a career.
David Brooks calls this generational elite pattern - which is far broader and wider than Kagan's lone example - "disturbing." I find it depressing. And none of us has any clue whatsoever what kind of justice she would be - and that's fine with those in the elites who need only their private knowledge and web of social networks to give one of their own so much power over so many, without ruffling her composure one little bit.