Having failed in their previous wars—the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on anything not right wing crazy, the Rethugs have launched a new one—the war on empathy. The rallying point is, of course, President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court. The gauntlet was thrown down by Obama when he announced that he considers, as an essential ingredient for in his selection of a Supreme Court justice:
…that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles…
Naturally, appealing to something so radical as a cognitive function selected by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years sent the wingnuts into a frenzy. The complex neurological networking of the brain’s prefrontal cortex that enables us to mirror another’s state of mind, to feel what they’re feeling (be it aggression, fear, or openness) has obvious survival value, both for the individual and the larger societal tribe to which he or she belongs.
The inability to reduce this essential part of the human experience into a handy sound bite caused our intellectually challenged media to focus instead on the histrionics of wingers like Karl Rove, who in a WSJ op-ed last week claimed that empathy is just code for “liberal activism.”
Having participated in the selection of justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, Rove should know something about “activist judges.” A study published by Yale Law School Professor Paul Gewirtz in 2005, before Alito and Roberts were even seated, shows the conservative wing of the court overturned Congressional laws far more often than their “liberal” counterparts.
Empathy comes from life experience, and Sotomayor, like Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito before her, acknowledges that her personal background as a bootstrapping Latina is a factor in how she approaches her job. For the wingers, however, life experience is a good thing only when it serves their survival of the fittest, social darwinist political agenda.
As a student at Princeton University (where she won the Pyne Prize, the university’s top undergraduate academic award in 1976) Sotomayor was very active in trying to bring more diversity to the faculty there, which at the time had no members of either Puerto Rican or Mexican descent. She also spoke out against gay discrimination and police abuse.
No doubt these activities will be cited by the wingers as proof that she’s a dangerous radical and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the Supreme Court, notwithstanding that her prodigious judicial record shows no sign of her advancing a “racist” agenda, as the doughy white boy duo of Rush Limpbot and Newt Gingrich have alleged.
Glenn Beck had also made the same charge early last week but walked it back. Former Rethug congressman Tom Tancredo raised the ante by comparing her membership in the largest Hispanic advocacy group, the four decade old La Raza, to being a member of the KKK. Meanwhile, radio talk show host and convicted felon G.Gordon Liddy cited the dangers of her deciding cases while she’s– wait for it– menstruating.
What I think the wingers really fear is Sotomayer’s ability to persuade her fellow justices, particularly Anthony Kennedy, to see things from a different perspective as Thurgood Marshall did with Sandra Day O’Connor, as recounted last week in the NY Times by Linda Greenhouse:
After Justice Thurgood Marshall retired in 1991, Justice O’Connor published a tribute describing him as the embodiment of “moral truth” and recounting the experience of listening to his stories during the decade that they served together, stories that “would, by and by, perhaps change the way I see the world.”
That was a striking statement from a justice who was on the opposite side from Thurgood Marshall in nearly every civil rights case and whose jurisprudence appeared unmarked by his influence. But it turned out to be Justice O’Connor who wrote the majority opinion in 2003 that upheld affirmative action in admission to the University of Michigan Law School. The way she saw the world in the interval had clearly changed, whatever the cause.
As for the role that empathy plays in the rendering of justice, it would be nice to see the media cover it as if it weren’t part of a false dichotomy– impartiality and empathy are not mutually exclusive. Laws that once permitted slavery and discrimination were “impartially” applied for decades. But I have to believe that it was empathy for the victims’ suffering that contributed to the Supreme Court’s decision to ultimately strike such laws down as unjust.
As above, so below.
The High Commissioners begin their service on the planets as race commissioners. In this capacity they interpret the viewpoints and portray the needs of the various human races. They are supremely devoted to the welfare of the mortal races whose spokesmen they are, ever seeking to obtain for them mercy, justice, and fair treatment in all relationships with other peoples. Race commissioners function in an endless series of planetary crises and serve as the articulate expression of whole groups of struggling mortals. -The Urantia Book
Update 1: Gingrich recants calling Sotomayer a racist:
My initial reaction was strong and direct — perhaps too strong and too direct. The sentiment struck me as racist and I said so….The word “racist” should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable…