Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer on Rosen

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer have written strongly-worded posts on the Sotomayor controversy. We’ve quickly gone from the notion that Rosen is enabling racism to wife-beating analogies! And rather belatedly, I understand that I made a bad call.

I think I’m guilty of a profound blogging fallacy, a fact made very clear by Rosen’s own mea culpa.

If the piece had a less provocative headline, perhaps it would have been clearer that that I wasn’t presuming to make a definitive judgment, but to encourage the White House to weigh considerations of temperament against the many other factors they’ll be considering. Sotomayor is an able candidate—at least as able as some of the current Supreme Court justices—and if Obama is convinced she is the best candidate on his short list, he should pick her. For the next Supreme Court seat, the president needs to be sure that the nominee’s temperament and abilities are not merely impressive but absolutely stellar. She—and the next justice should indeed be a she—must be ready to challenge the conservatives and persuade her fellow liberals from the very beginning. I look forward to exploring some of the other names on the short list soon.

Basically, I know Jeff Rosen and I think he’s sensitive to the concerns a lot of us share about invidious stereotyping. One of my central failings — I have many — is an undue emphasis on personal loyalty. Because I know Rosen is a mensch, I’m inclined to interpret anything he says or writes in the best possible light. I think Rosen’s postscript suggests that this is the right thing to do. But I also recognize, like Rosen, that the original piece was pretty badly flawed.

I have another bias that informed my reaction. In the war on “political correctness,” people tend to forget that “political correctness” is a pretty pervasive phenomenon, not least in right-of-center politics. For conservatives, there is a very powerful obligation to frame any policy arguments in terms of, “well, this would truly conservative” or Reaganite or what-have-you. And I think this can be totally stultifying. As a result, I am very sensitive to the danger of self-policing, and, perhaps foolishly, I worry about self-policing more than I worry about the airing of hurtful and damaging remarks. This is not in keeping with how I try to wade in on public conversations. I think it’s possible to make frank and forthright arguments without resorting to innuendo, etc.

TNC writes:

If all it takes to occupy the “respectable intellectual center” is to know more than your average commenter, than there isn’t much respectable or intellectual about the center. Perhaps that’s the point.

I think this is exactly right. I don’t lend much credence to quick takes on the temperament of Sotomayor or John Bolton or anyone else. I’m also far more likely to object to shutter-uppers than to screamers, if only because screamers can be more effectively countered.

More broadly, I have a profoundly unrepresentative sense of how ethno-somatic difference is experienced in American life. My own experience was of growing up in a very diverse environment, and my friends and I tended to navigate our differences through a near-constant stream of appalling ethnic jokes. For whatever reason, this built up a lot of trust across “racial” lines. I decided early on that the really horrible thing was to say one thing to one ethnic audience — this is what I say to my Bengali friends — and another to another ethnic audience — this is what I say to my Dominican friends. So it does matter to me that I sincerely believe that Rosen would have said pretty much the same things about an analogous Asian American judge. Yet of course the weight of these remarks varies across groups, depending on historical perceptions, etc.

The heatedness of this whole exchange is a good reminder of why I prefer to stick to dry subjects.

On the humility point, I have to say: I don’t think humility is, as TNC suggests, a floor at all. Given the extremely high levels of self-satisfaction I encounter in the universe of opinion journalism all the time, I actually think humility is pretty rare. But that’s an honest disagreement.