Sotomayor, Palin and the Politics of Not Making Sense

By Wendy Kaminer

     Listening to Republican attacks on Sonia Sotomayor's alleged biases and the undue influence of her "personal experiences" on her judgment, you could be forgiven for inferring that, just like a woman, Sotomayor thinks with her heart, not with her head.  You might also infer that she has a rather post-modern take on justice - one that denies both the possibility and the virtue of relatively objective decision-making, in the belief that facts are mere perceptions.  But pondering this vision of presumptively left-wing, emotive, feminine relativism, you might find yourself thinking less about Sonia Sotomayor than Sarah Palin.

     Palin embodies a post-modern ideal that conservatives have delighted in deriding. Self-referential, unembarrassed by solipsism and un-tethered by logic or facts she doesn't argue; she declares.  Declining to engage in reasoned argument, she can't be defeated by it.  You can measure the success of her tactics, or instincts, by the frustration of her reality based critics who persist in trying to make facts matter.

     Palin doesn't need to traffic in facts or truths; she recites her refrigerator magnet nostrums, affirms her self-esteem, (like a right-wing Stuart Smalley) and offers "feeling realities," which resonate with the feelings of her fans:  Pointing out that ethics investigations did not cost Alaska millions of dollars as she has claimed is, for example, non-responsive -- irrelevant -- to Palin's emotional insistence that she has been unfairly targeted by liberal elitists and the politics as usual gang, at great cost to the state of Alaska as well as her family.  From this perspective, fidelity to facts is partisan nitpicking, at best.  Insensitivity to Palin's "feeling realities" is a form of abuse.  Criticism, or satire of her adolescent ramblings is "hate speech:"  As a letter to the Boston Globe  complained in response to an op ed: "The recent humor piece (mocking Sarah Palin) follows the worst tradition of liberal media hate speech.  Just like the pieces on "Saturday Night Live," and on Jon Stewart's and Bill Maher's show ..."

     Sonia Sotomayor would understand the constitutional protections extended to presumptively hateful liberal or conservative "media speech" (she has recognized the First Amendment right to engage in racist, anti-Semetic diatribes.)  But, as a liberal media ironist might note, the expansive notion of hate speech that Palin supporters sometimes invoke was popularized by the liberalism they decry (which Sotomayor allegedly represents.)  Indeed, anyone familiar with pop therapeutic notions of victimization and abuse, the concomitant rise of campus speech codes and mandatory sensitivity training, and the elevation of feelings or the moral authority of experience over reason and verifiable facts will recognize the debt Palin owes to social, political and intellectual movements that right wing pundits have long denounced as left-wing pathologies.  If Palin represents much of what's wrong with America, as her most vehement liberal and progressive critics assert, she also indicates what's wrong with the culture that popular liberalism helped shape. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2009/07/sotomayor-palin-and-the-politics-of-not-making-sense/21053/