May 17, 2010

Taking Signals from the Birthers

We might as well admit that American politics is insane.  Where else could selection for the nation’s highest court involve debate over a photograph of the nominee playing softball?

Really incriminating, isn’t it?  Do we really want a Justice who bats right?  But wait: if justices, in the immortal words of Chief Justice Roberts, are supposed to call the balls and strikes, then Elena Kagan’s experience at the plate might prove to be an important–dare we say empathic?–resource when on the federal bench.  Jokes aside, this snapshot is being used to raise the question of Kagan’s sexual orientation.  Softball + short hair = lesbian; didn’t you know that?

The use of this image is indicative of how easily photographs can be coded strategically.  Were it a photo of a male nominee, for example, it could be a sign of his being an ordinary guy who has not lost touch with the common life.  Were Kagan married, it might have been used to show that she is a team player.  And keep in mind that millions of American women have participated in pickup softball games, often as part of teams organized at the office or at church picnics; in short, it really shouldn’t mean much at all.  Instead, and thanks to the Wall Street Journal, the picture has become the excuse for public discussion of Kagan’s sexuality.  A topic, one might add, that has about as much relevance as baseball to the job description of a Supreme Court Justice.

What strikes me about the controversy, however, is how it is part of a larger pattern of denial.  Consider how Kagan’s having to declare her sexual preferences is similar to demanding proof of President Obama’s citizenship.  A gay justice is almost as unthinkable as a black president, and so the question lurks.  Is she?  And it gets repeated regardless of the answer she has provided.  And the discussion of whether she looks gay is about as intelligent as asking whether Hawaii is a state, but there it is.

Regardless of Barack Obama’s manifest qualifications for the presidency, his election continues to be traumatic for those who want to insist that the first citizen has to be white.  (Since they can’t deny he is black–although that was tried–they have to deny that he is a citizen.)  Likewise, the selection to the Supreme Court of someone who might be gay is part of the sea change in American life that will never make sense to those who believe that heterosexuality is a principle of American national identity.  And so, despite her superb qualifications for the job, Elena Kagan is being asked to supply her sexual orientation certificate.

The good news is that, whatever is the case regarding Kagan’s private life–or that of the Senators who will be questioning her–America already has changed for the better.  (For example, a majority would support a gay nominee.)  The attempt to out Kagan or discredit her or continue to keep others outside the charmed circle of citizenship is becoming another lost cause.  To appreciate what that means, I’d recommend another photograph of the nominee.

Associated Press/Hunter High School

We don’t know her batting stance, but this is an image of youth at its best: bright, joyful, and full of promise, ambition, and hope.  Thus, it also is an image of the American Dream.

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Robert Hariman
See other posts by Robert here.

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