Why Young People Don't Care About Kagan's Personal Life


Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan has a thin record of colorful ideological stridency, so the analysis about her has been decidedly about her. Is she gay, secretly? Is she mean, sometimes? Doesn't she cross her legs, ever? Of course it's stupid and petty and probably sexist. The interesting thing, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick writes, is that young people don't seem to care.

Every time I've been on a radio show on the subject of Kagan's wardrobe/softball playing/marital status, some twentysomething caller has taken me to school. It turns out, they invariably tell me, that twentysomethings just don't care if their Supreme Court justices are black, white, Jewish, Protestant, gay, or straight. Every day someone under the age of 30 either sends me an e-mail or tweet or a Facebook post reminding me that those of us making a huge big fat media deal about the nominee's race, religion, sexual preferences or marital status are quickly becoming cultural dinosaurs.

Now, twentysomething callers on a political radio show are outliers, because they're listening to, and calling in to, radio shows. Still, one hopes that this live-and-let-live attitude extends beyond NPR buffs to the entire generation. A Pew Study confirms it: Gen-Yers are more liberal and more accepting of racial and sexual diversity than other generations.

Besides the common young-and-liberal ethos, there are at least two more reasons to expect twentysomethings to shrug off, or even chortle at, the Kagan rumor stories. Lithwick hits one:

These open-hearted twenty somethings are proof that integrated schools and affirmative action and gay rights have created a more tolerant nation. But what today's twentysomethings should know--and what one hopes Kagan will remember--is that that this tolerance is partially their own choice, and partially an inheritance they need to fight to protect.

Other pet theory of mine is that social media -- from Facebook profiles to blogs to Twitter streams -- creates what you might call information inflation. In typical inflation, so much money in the system causes the value of each dollar note to fall. In information inflation, so much private speculation, rumor and even semi-scandalous details about our lives flowing through social media tubes and news channels depreciates the value of each revelation. The 24/7 news cycle certainly helps the process by flushing out information with an impressive metabolism. One of the upsides (I hope) of sharing more of our personal thoughts and proclivities online is personal information loses some of its titillating aura.* Stated another way, the rampant publicity of personal information makes the revelation or rumor of somebody's personal information surprisingly, well, mundane.

*The ongoing success of rumor magazines might not support this theory, but I suppose there's a difference between morbidly loving the idea that celebrities are flawed and actually caring that they're gay or sometimes drink too much.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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