The City Intellectuals Take Over

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What does it mean to say that Elena Kagan is Barack Obama's Barack Obama? Is this an allusion to her educational pedigree? Her get-along, go-along style? A self-conscious intellectual who molds opinions like silly putty through charm and suasion? A brilliant sphinx? An Ivy League lawyer, just like Obama -- Princeton to Harvard to adviser to Goldman Sachs?

The preoccupation with labeling tells us a lot about the labelers. Those who worry that Kagan will be viewed as an Ivy League lawyer (and that this feeds the stereotype that Democrats are not looking out for the average American) are probably anxious about their own Ivy League pedigrees.

A more interesting observation is that Obama's penchant for Kagan's habits of mind code both as city folk. This isn't the same coding that marks Obama as a member of the South Side Democratic Machine, which carries a tinge of racial bigotry. (Indeed, Obama was as often at odds with the machine as we was a benefit of it, later in life. His first mentor, Judson Miner, was the machine's worst enemy.)

But Obama is a man of the city. He grew up in an apartment in Hawaii, in a small house in the city of Jakarta, went to school in New York City, began his professional career in Chicago, went to Harvard law school, went back to Chicago, became a state senator from the South Side, was elected to the U.S. Senate and now lives in the middle of a city on the East Coast. Whatever his worldview is, it is not orientationally suburban.

When Obama was forced to spend time outside of a major city, he hated it. David Remnick said he found Springfield, Illinois boring and vapid. Suburban legislators looked down their noses at Chicago, and Obama reciprocated.

This isn't racial: for a majority of blacks, Hispanics and Asians,  the American experience is now a suburban one. Whites, interestingly enough, seem to be clustering more in cities and rural areas, but a majority of midterm voters are probably suburban.

There is plenty of ideological diversity within urban communities, though it would be a stretch to claim there is less space between rural New York State and New York City than between urban Honolulu and urban Chicago, much less Jakarta.

But both of Obama's Supreme Court picks bear the unselfconscious marks of city life: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan have wonderful accents. One grew up in the Bronx; the other, a few miles away on the Upper West Side. All three enjoy the exuberance and unpredictability of city life. They embrace difference. The intellectual journeys of all three were shaped by a type of empathy to suffering that is unique to living in a crowded place where many people conspicuously lack what others have, and where government services, more so than charity, fill the gap. They defy categories; Kagan is giving plenty of people trouble because she is unmarried, childless, not stereotypically feminine, and obsessed with her work.

Our last two presidents were most definitely not urban creatures. George W. Bush and his political team went out of their way to mock city-dwellers (as if a majority of people in Texas didn't live in cities). There are many Americans who associate cities of all types with bad things: heterogenity, the lack of land and breathing space, disease, sexual immorality, irreligiousity, whatever.

It has been a while since an American president celebrated the virtues of city life, and rewarded the diversity of city experiences with two Supreme Court picks.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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