Very different people

Jonah Goldberg on Sotomayor: just when you thought the debate could sink no further.

One more time with the Sotomayor speech, I’m afraid. Conservatives repeat instrumentally irrational Southern Strategy talking points so regularly that noting each time they do it is a waste of time. But academic standards are academic standards. And it pains me that Jonah Goldberg cannot read.

Goldberg in today’s L.A. Times refers to

Sotomayor’s now infamous line that she would hope a wise Latina would make better decisions than a wise white man. In the same speech, she somewhat favorably considers the possibility that there are “physiological or cultural differences” between races or genders that make some people better at some things (like judging) than others.

[I]f a white judge ever said anything similar, his career would be over.

I’m not sure why Goldberg thinks a white judge’s career would be over if he expressed hope that wise Latinas would make better decisions than he would. But I was even more struck by the claim that Sotomayor had said that physiological or cultural difference made some people judge better than others. I’d read the speech and several fine commentaries on it (e.g. Brad DeLong’s), and thought I would have remembered such a claim had Sotomayor made it.

Of course, she didn’t. What she said was:

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.

Sotomayor could have said that these differences make some people “better” at “judging” than others, had she meant to. Instead, she said that these variations will “make a difference,” and later in the speech she said what difference it makes: gender and culture affect “the facts that judges choose to see”�precisely not their ultimate judgments but their view of what’s factually salient.

Now then. The physiological difference alluded to here is, clearly, sex (not “gender,” I’d unfashionably claim, where physiological differences are concerned). And the “cultural differences” alluded to concern national origin. (Sotomayor can write: she keeps her references parallel.)

So there are two possibilities. Goldberg believes either

(1) That there are no physiological differences between men and women, nor cultural differences between people from New Guinea and people from Sweden, or

(2) That it’s offensive to think that sex differences or cultural differences have any impact whatsoever on how people think or the decisions they make.

If Goldberg believes (1), he’s a few cards short. If he believes (2), he’s a sort of egalitarian rationalist�but surely no cultural conservative. For being one of those presumably requires believing that sex differences, not cultural or social forces, explain traditional gender roles (some might go as far as to claim that “essential femaleness” and “maleness” explain why little boys fantasize about weapons and girls about makeup) and that the deficiencies of African-Americans’ culture, rather than, say, segregation-derived differences in wealth, or societal discrimination, explain racial inequality.

I submit that Goldberg believes neither (1) nor (2). I don’t think he’s lying, either. I think he doesn’t particularly know or care whether what he said is related to Sotomayor’s actual arguments or not�the stereotype having long since displaced the text among the sources he reads. He probably hasn’t even read the speech.

If a progressive female Latina columnist in a racially-charged context ever wrote with similar fecklessness, her career would be over.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.