Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor, Empathy, and Intellect

I watched today as President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for the United States Supreme Court. Official America, yes, is changing, and better reflecting what real America has been for years. I believe Judge Sotomayor is excellently qualified for the highest court, not because she’s Latina, not because she’s a woman, but because she possesses an intelligent, incisive legal mind. What struck me were the comments in the media that perhaps Sotomayor didn’t have the “intellectual gravitas” or “judicial temperament” to be a Supreme Court judge. When will accomplished Latinos get their due? Perhaps it’s time again to kick down these walls of prejudice, to expose glaring double standards for Latinos. Let me tell you some of my stories.

You can have a handful of Ivy League degrees, you can have books published by wonderful presses, and you can even be somebody’s boss, yet that somebody may still stereotype you, for their advantage. That’s what happened to me when I served on the board of directors of a literary organization for many years. A few tidbits. I pointed out financial mismanagement when other board members did not bother to study financial reports. I was labeled a troublemaker, a loose cannon. Or I questioned the cozy management practices of cronyism, practices that cost our organization valuable dollars needed for our survival. I was a hot-headed Latino.

After many years of struggle, I won this war, as my nemesis finally left and we hired a terrific, open-minded leader for our organization. But what struck me as I analyzed the many battles I had fought and the scars I lived with, was how often polite niceness, even if it was prejudiced, and the glad-handling of fake smiles won over passionate arguments and blunt, to-the-heart criticisms. My lesson: lie, speak in half-truths, and even stab people in the back, and you can get away with it for years as long as you don’t yell or ever frown. I instead wore my heart on my sleeve. If I saw something wrong, if I caught a contradiction, if I smelled a power play, I would say something about it. After board meetings, in whispers, this righteous attitude was too often turned against me.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve does not mean you are not thinking. Quite the contrary, what you are thinking is Aristotlean. That is to say, what you are thinking is that if you don’t do anything and you know it’s wrong, then you will denigrate what thinking is. Thinking is about doing. Thinking is assessing the situation and doing something about it. Thinking something is wrong, and doing nothing about it, is thinking as a cop-out, as an escape into the head (Plato), what polite society does every day. I am not polite.

When Sotomayor is criticized for not having the right judicial temperament, is she being criticized for being outraged when she sees someone being shafted? In the Bronx, I’m sure she learned to be Aristotlean. Being calm or even pleasant when you see an injustice is not a sign of a good temperament. It’s an indication of a coldness to humanity and human suffering. It’s a sign of using your intellect to escape from the world, to avoid changing it. The worst atrocities in the world have been justified with such a temperament.

When Sotomayor is criticized for not having intellectual gravitas, is she being criticized because she doesn’t argue calmly, because she’s blunt? Being serious, evasive, and mathematically abstract is not a sign of intellectual gravitas. It’s a sign of an intellectualism that lives by itself, that pleases itself, that thinks the human being as only an abstract idea. Our Founding Fathers knew better; that’s why they set up a series of checks and balances with the separation of powers in government.

A Puertoriqueña from the projects and the South Bronx. Summa cum laude at Princeton. Yale Law School. Editor of the Yale Law Journal. Appellate court judge for over a decade. That’s the kind of Aristotlean intellect-in-action we should have in the Supreme Court.