Barack Obama nominated for his first opening on the Supreme Court Puerto Rican Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor. The appellate court judge has more judicial experience than anyone currently on the bench, and has a center-left record bolstered by the fact that her first judicial appointment came from Republican president George H.W. Bush. Still, you didn’t think that Republicans could let the first black president put the first Latina on the court without some drama, right?
In the wake of the hearings, paleo-conservative commentator Pat Buchanan appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and delivered a screed in defense of white male privilege, calling Sotomayor an “affirmative action baby” and arguing that even if Obama needed to nominate a woman, that this one simply wasn’t qualified. He offered no factual arguments other than Sotomayor’s own admission that she had gotten into college via affirmative action.
Petitions immediately popped up across the Internet to have him fired. While I have no qualms about Pat Buchanan’s financial situation and need for a job, and would probably be quite pleased if I never had to hear him popping up like the racist great-uncle you can’t argue with, these petitions struck me as a bit wrongheaded.
Petitioners see a chance to finally get rid of Buchanan, as if he’d just now stepped over some line instead of having been on the other side of it the whole time—and his position vis-a-vis that line hadn’t been the entire reason he has a job. Buchanan is not now nor has he ever been a journalist. He’s always been a political operator, whether he’s a candidate for office, an author, or now MSNBC contributor. His racism is not new—in 2000, when he was a third-party candidate for office, Buchanan even admitted that there must be something wrong with thousands of Florida ballots cast for him. Jewish voters, even Buchanan knew, would never support him.
Pushing Buchanan out is not going to make him less racist—in fact, it will provide him even more room for grievance if he can claim to be silenced by the “PC police.” Maddow’s response to Buchanan was exactly right: she invited him on her show, her turf, where her audience is largely on her side, and allowed him to say his piece. She did not fear it, she argued with it. Buchanan, for his part, is the perfect foil for Maddow: his utter lack of shame about his views, his contempt for what Ellen Willis called years ago the “genteel hypocrisy” that governs public discourse about race and gender, lets out into full view all of the nastiest bits of right-wing ideology that smiling senators struggle to deny.
Calling for the heads of speakers who cross some line has been a tool of the right for years, described as “flak” in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s seminal Manufacturing Consent. It is a way of working the refs to shape discourse into what you want to hear, and more importantly to shut out the views of those deemed threatening or unacceptable. The rise of the netroots, the liberal blogosphere, has provided its own form of flak that finally is able to compete with well-funded conservative think tanks that, in the years before the democratizing influence of the Internet, pressed so successfully to control the terms of debate that they created a world in which Buchanan is a legitimate commentator, while Noam Chomsky, an intellectual and media theorist respected the world over, is never seen on cable news.
It strikes me that instead of arguing for a smaller range of ideas considered legitimate debate, we should be arguing for more. Instead of pressuring MSNBC to fire Buchanan, we should be pressing this moment to gain more Rachel Maddows, more commentators who are unabashedly leftist, and who are unafraid to go toe to toe with the Pat Buchanans of the world.
I’ve always been of the opinion that the best cure for bad speech is more speech, and that narrowing the public discourse to some centrist view of acceptable speech is bad for all concerned, but especially bad for the left. After all, we have no comparable leftist version of Pat Buchanan on TV, arguing for the overthrow of the state and reparations for slavery. If the news business narrows its selection of commentators uncontroversial people who never receive complaints, we are far more likely to lose whichever leftist commentators we do have than gain more traction in the mainstream media.
The senators in the hearings after all did a rather good job of exposing their own racism—and it remains to be seen how that will play out. The constant harping on the “Wise Latina” comment, the obsession with white male grievance politics—“if I said what you said, I’d never get on the Court”—the “have some ‘splainin to do” all seemed like uncontrollable bubbling up of the repressed feelings of these powerful white men who should have nothing to be aggrieved about—rather like Buchanan. Claiming solidarity with the working-class firefighters Sotomayor supposedly discriminated against because of some purported racism is ludicrous for these power elites.
Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick noted in NPR’s “On the Media”, after host Bob Garfield made a reference to a Latino character while discussing Sotomayor, that the subconscious racial jokes and implicit condescension from the senators showed that while they couldn’t directly talk about race, they certainly wanted to. Senator Lindsay Graham did a complicated two-step around the issue, trying not to alienate his state’s growing Latino population while playing to the Republican white male base, and Senator Jeff Sessions asked Sotomayor why she didn’t vote with another Puerto Rican judge.
Still, Republicans have already come out in support of the obviously well-qualified Sotomayor, despite encouragement from Buchanan and others to continue harping on the race issue. Buchanan’s outburst did nothing to stop Sotomayor’s confirmation and perhaps helped speed it along—Republicans not wanting to be associated with Buchanan have an added incentive to vote for Obama’s nominee. But more importantly, the conversation that Maddow and Buchanan had, while distasteful, was a far more honest discussion of the views on race in American society than the perhaps more civilized conversation that went on in the confirmation hearings. We don’t need to fear and silence Buchanan’s views: we need to expose them and show America what racism really is.
It definitely isn’t putting a supremely qualified Latina on the Court.