That awkward “lesbian question”

Andrew Sullivan isn’t winning a lot of friends by challenging Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on her sexual orientation

Andrew Sullivan isn’t winning a lot of friends by challenging Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on her sexual orientation. If all you see is headlines like “Answer the lesbian question, Ms. Legal Eagle”, you’re likely to write this new crusade off as evidence of the brain-porridgification Sullivan exhibited during his earlier “Show us the afterbirth, Madam Vice-Presidential Candidate” campaign. Not (quite) so fast!

…the White House reiterated last week that questions about sexual orientation “have no place” in judging a nominee (but her gender most certainly does). Quite how you defend this argument—from a president whose own criterion for nominees is a real experience of how law can affect ordinary people—is beyond me. It is also beyond most ordinary people out there.

The Obama administration embraced identity politics with the appointment of the “wise Latina” Sotomayor; now, with Elena Kagan, it is putting forward a Supreme Court candidate who appears to have almost no relevant public identity of any kind at all. It would be one thing if she had a long and detailed record of legal philosophizing or judicial rationes, but it appears that even Kagan’s friends aren’t too clear on her principles or on the fine details of her personal life. It’s a little weird; we not only don’t know whether or not the Republic is getting a “wise lesbian”, we don’t know what her basic ideas about the rule of law or the Constitution might be. (It’s only weird because it is happening south of the 49th parallel, of course. Up here senior appellate judges tend to explode instantly into being out of an impenetrable biographical void.)

This is naturally frustrating for Sullivan, who doesn’t, deep down, appear to believe there is any kind of politics other than identity politics. He is serving, and not for the first time, as the wild-eyed radical who takes a popular idea to its logical conclusion and tests it to destruction and beyond. Americans, by and large, probably don’t want a system in which a candidate for the Supreme Court is quizzed on the most intimate details of her life and personality. “Madam Solicitor-General, have you ever allowed a biologically male person to fumble awkwardly with the clasp of your brassiere, and if so for how long and on what dates?”

But Sully’s on board! Having faced odious intrusions into his own privacy, he is willing, even eager to extend to everybody the rules under which he has hitherto been forced to live.

And, ultimately, he has a point: if we accept the premise of identity politics, then we are going to need honest, detailed information about the identities of those who propose to rule—about the “life experiences” that they “bring to the table”, to use the childish liberal argot. Sotomayor was a fountain of such dreck until she came, unprepared, to the attention of an audience skeptical of identity politics—an audience, that is, who sees the “wise Latina” stuff not as a harmless toasty-warm piety, but as a tendency that would, if unopposed, turn government into an irrational contest of identity groups, an exercise in token-counting.

Sullivan’s Palin issues make more sense once you see him as an identitarian ultra-radical. He was unwilling to take Palin at her word concerning matters in which there was no really good evidence of lying and no convincing natural explanation for lies. He smelled a specific rat that almost no one else has yet detected. Why, even granting appropriate leeway to his editorial intuition, would he react so strongly to the sort of distasteful childmongering we’ve accepted from politicians for a hundred years or more?

Simple: if identity is to be everything in politics, then lying about one’s identity, adding artificial “richness” to one’s experiences, is the gravest sin. It makes the golden ticket of victimhood/otherhood available for a dangerously small price to brazen liars. The scrutiny to which we subject candidates for office—especially if they have no objective way of demonstrating their talent, intellect, or seriousness—must correspondingly be very intense, in a Sullivan World.