Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Friday, July 17, 2009


Now that the Sotomayor confirmation hearings have limped to a close [about as exciting as watching toxic waste dry], it might be time to stand back and try to get some perspective on the sorry spectacle. Nothing happened, of course. Going in, Sotomayor was a lock to be confirmed, and coming out, she still is. So, what was all of that patently racist obsession with her innocuous remark about a wise Latina? And why have senators and rightwing commentators alike represented the prospect of Sotomayor's inevitable confirmation as the Untergang des Abendlandes?

As always, Frank Rich has nailed the subject [see today's SUNDAY NY TIMES Op Ed page], but there are a few thoughts I would like to add.

First things first. The replacement of Souter by Sotomayor will have no discernible effect on the ideological lineup of the court. [Full disclosure: Fifty years ago, David Souter was my philosophy tutee at Harvard. He wrote a very nice paper on C. I. Lewis' Mind and the World Order, and went on to win a Rhodes, with a letter from me, among others.] It has been suggested that the Republicans were laying down a marker, to dissuade Obama from next time appointing a liberal judge, should he get the chance, but that is nonsense. Nothing that Sessions and his scrimy crew did will have the slightest effect on Obama's next pick for the Supremes.

Neither Sessions, nor Hatch, nor Graham, nor Cornyn is a plausible contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and hence in need of placating the hysterical base of the party. Nor does any of them face a potential primary challenge from a farther right wannebe [if indeed there is room to the right of any of them without falling off the edge of the earth].

The Commentariat believes, and I agree, that the performance of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee cannot possibly help the party with the rapidly growing Hispanic voting population, and is almost certain to hurt.

So what on earth is going on? What has driven Pat Buchanan to come out from behind his faux-Irish bonhomie and announce with alarm that the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor is nothing less than an assault on the lives, the sacred honor of white males?

It will help to remind ourselves of a little history, and to reflect, as I so often like to do, on an old movie -- this one the 1967 classic starring the incomparable Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.

So long as persons of African descent were legally consigned, by the institution of slavery, to a permanently inferior legal status in the United States, Whites were free to play with them, live cheek by jowl with them, offer their babies for suckling to them, forcibly procreate with them, and even, as did the esteemed Thomas Jefferson, enter into quasi-consensual long term sexual relationships with them. No Southern white slave owning family would think of traveling by train without at least one slave close at hand to bring them a cup of water, adjust a pillow, or provide a ready victim should they feel the need to beat someone. A novel legal theory ginned up in contradiction to long-established traditions of English Common Law [partus sequitur ventrem] guaranteed that the children born to slave women raped by their white owners would follow the legal status of their mothers, thus saving polite society from an onslaught of dark-hued offspring whose names began with "Fitz."

But with the end of slavery, it became obsessively important to whites not only to devise ways to retain the labor services of their former chattels, but also to maintain rigid social barriers mimicking the legal differentiations of the slave era. Suddenly, the mere touch of a Black man's hand came to be felt by anxious Whites as a stain that could only be removed by violence. Whites who had, not much earlier on, felt easy in joking relations with their slaves [convinced, often mistakenly, that they got the joke] now searched the faces, the dress, the body language of persons of color for the slightest hint of a lack of deference. Failure to step quickly enough out of the way of an approaching White person on a city street could threaten a Black man with lynching. Suddenly, White women who had grown up being dressed by slaves could not stomach the taint of being served by Black women in a dress shop. White men who had been bathed as children by Black women now found it unthinkable to drink from a water fountain that had been used by a person of color.

As the era of legally enforced Jim Crow segregation ended, it came to be less and less socially and politically acceptable for Whites to express openly these obsessions, revulsions, and status anxieties. In their place, there appeared new modes of deference and social submission, disguised as standards of polite behavior. It was made clear to Black men and women that the price of their grudging acceptance by Whites was their willingness to adopt modes of behavior that signaled their promise not to challenge the superiority of Whites.

Enter my old movie. As those who have seen it will recall, the daughter of an impeccably liberal White couple [Tracy and Hepburn] announces that she is bringing to dinner her new fiance. Enter an impeccably dressed, manifestly superbly educated Sidney Poitier. At the end of an hour and a half, during which time Tracy struggles with his feelings, and finds common ground with Poitier's father, who is not at all persuaded that the proposed marriage is a good thing, the [presumed White] audience is permitted to congratulate itself on its open-mindedness

The movie is designed to allow White viewers to congratulate themselves on having rid themselves of the last vestiges of racism, but in fact it demonstrates their continuing presumption of racial superiority precisely by requiring of Poitier that he demonstrate his readiness to conform himself to whatever signals of deference Whites may demand.

This, after all, was the meaning of the Black is Beautiful movement, of the afros, of the slang use of "bad" to mean "good." [what Nietzsche, in another context, might have called the transvaluation of values.]

Which brings us back to Sonia Sotomayor. Now, the simple fact is that she has, throughout the course of her life, walked the Sidney Poitier path. But as barrier after barrier has fallen, as more and more Black and Hispanic men and women have simply foresworn the habit of signaling submission, a sizable population of White men have become hysterically frightened by the loss of their accustomed deference. It is, in a pathologically morbid way, fascinating that even White men who have ascended to the highest levels of power and status in American society can be terrified into incoherence by the mere presence of a woman of Hispanic ancestry who suggests that she might have something to contribute to the judicial process that they cannot.

As the hysteria builds, euphemisms fall by the wayside, and troglydytes like Buchanan say what even relatively unreconstructed throwbacks like Sessions have the sense not to mouth in polite company. I think we may allow ourselves a satisfied smirk or two at the discomfiture of the Grahams and Sessions. Call this one of the lesser benefits of the Obama victory.

No comments: