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Terrance Heath Headshot

Sotomayor and the Vulcan Standard

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I was probably an annoying person to have around if you were watching the Sotomayor confirmation hearings. I was so frustrated listening to them that I couldn't help ... um ... talking back to the television. There is, after all, only so much the mind can take before it explodes.

At least, that's true of my mind. As for the minds of some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last week was like a crash course of what I've often referred to as "self-evasion of the mind."

It was some time before I recognized “self evasion of the mind” as the act of contorting the mind so as not to have to see or acknowledge what is obvious to anyone who simply looks.

It's a phrase I learned from an admired college professor, and I've since expanded my understand of it to include contorting the mind in order that one may continue to hold conflicting views or beliefs, or engage in behavior that is diametrically opposed to your stated beliefs.

SUPREME COURT NOMINEE

Basically, it's amounts to working very hard at not having a clue. Or, in the case of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, working overtime at not having a clue.

To say they have not clothed themselves in glory is an understatement. Exhibit A is their utter obliviousness to the reality that they were — every single one of them, but some more egregiously than others — engaging in the very same thing they were attempting to (a) accuse her of doing and (b) trying to establish as something forbidden to justices.

The "Vulcan Standard," so named because of the characteristics of the alien species of the "Star Trek" series.

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Vulcans, as a matter of custom and policy, suppress or think past all emotional influence by living lives of rigid emotional self-control through meditative techniques and training of mental discipline. Vulcans are not depicted as having no emotions; although they themselves make this claim, Vulcans are a very emotional people. They developed techniques to suppress their emotions precisely because of the damage they can cause if unchecked.

Of course, there are no Vulcans on the court and none in the Senate, either. But you wouldn't know it to hear the Republican Senators.

To hear them tell it, white males are supremely (pun intended) skilled at objectivity because they do not have to divorce themselves from their ethnic identity or cultural background, because one doesn't need to divorce oneself from or divest oneself of what one doesn't have (or have to have). Men like Jeff Sessions, Lindsey Graham, and Tom Coburn aren't "ethnic" in the sense that they have an ethnic identity other than American, whereas someone like Sonia Sotomayor is ethnic. They don't have a separate and distinct culture because theirs is the dominant culture. They are the baseline that she must not stray too far beyond, if she wants to join them at the center of power. It is the admission price she and others like her must pay in order to join their club.

This means several things. It means they are qualified to determine whether Sotomayor is ethnically biased against people like them, who don't actually have an identity distinct from the dominant culture, ironically enough. It means that they are qualified to lecture Judge Sotomayor on not letting her background and experience as a Latina "distort" her judgment or decisions in the cases she would review, even as they are guilty of the same thing — or would be if only they had an ethnic identity or background distinct from the dominant culture. (But more on that later.)

Exhibit B would have to be their apparent-though-unarticulated assertion of this authority, in the face of quite contrary evidence that in their own party — in particular among the base for whom they continually played to the camera, repeating the same allegations and going over the same ground again and again — "race problem" runs deep, that their own party is no more "colorblind" than they like to pretend they are or justice is, and it goes back far beyond Obama's election victory, farther back than Reagan, and even Nixon.

Thus, Exhibit B is so large that it would take an eternity to present to the court. So it must be limited in scope, but even with that limitation it makes a pretty strong impression. I know I've dragged this collection of videos out before, given out subject, it bears repeating, if only to get a long look at the base that the McCain/Palin campaign courted the most, and that still holds a strong influence over the party.

Build your own custom video playlist at embedr.com

The sentiments expressed by the GOP supporters in those videos aren't still simmering below the surface. They're bubbling right on top of surface. Occasionally the boil over, most recently on the conservative online community Free Republic, where — in an incident that suggests why the Obamas take care to shelter their daughters from politics and the media — pictures of Malia Obama wearing a peace symbol t-shirt received comments laden with racial slurs from the site's users.

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"A typical street whore." "A bunch of ghetto thugs." "Ghetto street trash." "Wonder when she will get her first abortion."

These are a small selection of some of the racially-charged comments posted to the conservative 'Free Republic' blog Thursday, aimed at U.S. President Barack Obama's 11-year-old daughter Malia after she was photographed wearing a t-shirt with a peace sign on the front.

The thread was accompanied by a photo of Michelle Obama speaking to Malia that featured the caption, "To entertain her daughter, Michelle Obama loves to make monkey sounds."

Though this may sound like the sort of thing one might read on an Aryan Nation or white power website, they actually appeared on what is commonly considered one of the prime online locations for U.S. conservative grassroots political discussion and organizing -- and for a short time, the comments seemed to have the okay of site administrators.

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One shudders to think what the Freepers' reaction might have been if young Miss Obama had been photographed in any of the unfortunate circumstances that the Bush twins found themselves in — or, at least one of them — when the camera happened to turn on them. If she'd been falling down drunk, or caught trying to buy a drink while underage, conservatives would almost certainly have howled for DCS to raid the White House, for the Obama's to be investigated for child neglect, and even for Obama to follow Sarah Palin's selfless example and resign for the sake of his family.

And they would have howled as nearly as loudly that the children of politicians ought to be "off limits" as they did went the Bush twins were charged with underage drinking (Jenna's second charge), and when Bristol Palin became the newest face of unwed teenage motherhood. But at least they didn't do it while wearing t-shirts with peace symbols on them. Unfortunately, it's too early for Miss Obama to be rehabbed by writing a children's book and getting married, since she's, like, eleven.

The thread was left up by site administrators until a writer doing research on the conservative movement lodged a complaint, removed, then re-posted, placed under review following criticism from other blogs, reposted with the original complaint included and the writer's email address revealed, and finally removed again.

However, it is not lost. It can be seen via this screen capture.

But it's not just the base. As the timeline below suggests, it's also the leadership, both in the party and in the conservative movement itself.

(Note: I know this timeline is by no means comprehensive. Incidents were left out in the interest of publishing this post sooner. But I will continue to update it, and re-post it one of the other posts in this series.)

The most recent example took place just as Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings began, when Audra Shay handily won the election to chair the Young Republicans, after a Facebook flap involving "Mad Coons."

Note to Republicans: Racist “humor,” the Internet, and political ambitions don’t mix. Audra Shay, vice chairman of the Young Republicans and the leading candidate to be elected its chairman on Saturday, is now the latest in a growing list of GOP officials learning this lesson the hard way, based on pictures of a now-deleted Facebook page obtained by The Daily Beast.

On Wednesday, Shay—a 38-year-old Army veteran, mother, and event planner from Louisiana who has been endorsed by her governor, Bobby Jindal—was holding court on her Facebook page, initiating a political conversation by posting that “WalMart just signed a death warrant” by “endorsing Obama’s healthcare plan.” At 1:52, a friend named listed as Eric S. Piker, but whose personal page says his actual name is Eric Pike, wrote “It’s the government making us commies… can’t even smoke in my damn car… whats next they going to issue toilet paper once a month… tell us how to wipe our asses…”

Two minutes later, Piker posted again saying “Obama Bin Lauden [sic] is the new terrorist… Muslim is on there side [sic]… need to take this country back from all of these mad coons… and illegals.”

Eight minutes after that, at 2:02, Shay weighed in on Piker’s comments: “You tell em Eric! lol.”

A screenshot of the Facebook page (before scrubbing) is available here.

Shay admonished commenters (once the comments went public), but it appeared to do little good.

For her part, Shay responded to the flap — weakly, though — saying that she'd been responding to Piker's earlier comments. But as John Avlon noted, that Shays response came just 8 minutes after Piker's "mad coons" comment "strains the credibility of this defense. After all, why would Shay response to Piker's earlier comment on a completely different thread? And why, if that's the case, wouldn't she quote the earlier response, so people would know what she was responding to?

Perhaps she doesn't know how to use Facebook. That at least would fit in with the apparent ineptitude of conservatives who air their racism via email and social networks — they just made a stupid mistake, and sent the email to the "wrong" list (though that doesn't answer which list is the right one to send a picture of president Obama as a "spook" or a White House lawn transformed into a watermelon patch), or commented on the "wrong" thread.

Not only did Shay's Facebook friends ratchet up the racism, but Shay unfriended some who dared to criticize her. And then there was the way she won the election.

Perhaps less remarkable than the outcome–new Young Republicans Chairman Audra Shay bragged on her Facebook page that she had pledges from the majority of delegate going in–was how the vote played out.

Yesterday’s election was closed to members of the press, but The Daily Beast has pulled together an account of the vote, and the runup to it, and the details are shocking. Some highlights:

  • Shay’s opponent, Rachel Hoff, was the subject of an ugly sexual innuendo whisper campaign that questioned her reasons for supporting civil unions.
  • Shay’s electoral slate, dubbed Team Renewal, battled desperately — some likened it to intimidation — and ultimately, successfully to block a motion that would have allowed delegates to cast their votes by secret ballot, for fear they’d lose.
  • Near-fistfights on the floor, and finally something of a boycott, as some of Hoff’s slate of candidates lower on the ticket chose to remove their names from the ballot after her defeat.

“They just took a vote that may have set the party back 30 years,” said the co-founder of HipHopRepublican.com, Lenny McAllister, speaking from the floor of the Hyatt convention hall. “They just voted for a candidate who has a demonstrated tolerance for racial intolerance. She has joked about lynching and then claimed to be a victim. As a black man, I still don’t see what’s funny about that.”

Lenny McAllister's words may be more prescient than Shays and her supporters — or many Republicans — know or care to know.

I'm reminded of Trent Lott's remarks that America would have been better off had then-Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond been elected president. Listening to his apology, I chuckled and wondered to myself if the man just didn't realize the mic was on. Most likely, he didn't think his words would leave the room, where he was among friends who "knew what he meant" and didn't object anyway. I didn't wonder, though, that he said — and meant to say — just what it sounded like he said.

Nor do I doubt that Republicans like Audra Shay know how to use Facebook, or even email, and thus expose to the world attitudes that sounds racist because...well, they are.

Growing up in the South, after the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, I was only called "nigger" to my face once or twice. But I knew there was a less explicit racism just under the surface. It broke through sometimes, like when word spread that some of the boys at my school had formed a gang called the "Potash Klan." And one day taunted the black boys in the locker room with an erie, singsong chant of "Kuuuuuuuuuuunta!" (i.e. Kunta Kente). I knew that there were things said when no people of color were "in the room" that I'd never actually hear.

Now, it's 2009, and people are discovering that now we are very much "in the room." Thanks to the ubiquity of blogs, online community, mobile and online video, etc., the mic is always on, and almost no on is every entirely "behind closed doors." Now we can hear what was always said behind closed doors, and the excuses sound pretty much like, "Oh, we didn't know you were listening."

Well, times have changed. We are "in the room" and can now hear the things they used to say when we weren't around; when they were no longer in "mixed company" and it was "safe" to say what they really thought. But that's part of what's driving some conservatives crazy.

And it's what drove Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to distraction. So much that they apparently forgot the mics were on and that we — via C-SPAN, CNN, YouTube, blogs, and online communities — were "in the room."

Else why would they put their ethnic bias, and their blindness to it, on such explicit display?

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