David Brooks misses the point

While perusing Ed Whelan’s apology to publius and his further explanation of that apology (context), I learned that David Brooks thinks Sonia Sotomayor has bad timing:

Sonia Sotomayor had bad timing. If she?d entered college in the late-1950s or early-1960s, she would have been surrounded by an ethos that encouraged smart young ethnic kids to assimilate. If she?d entered Princeton and Yale in the 1980s, her ethnicity and gender would have been mildly interesting traits among the many she might possibly possess.

But she happened to attend Princeton and then Yale Law School in the 1970s.

From there, Brooks goes with one of his typically interminable essays, in which small observations Brooks made get turned into rigid rules about the universe. Sotomayor has commented on her race and gender a few times, so she must be “a radical activist who is just using the judicial system as a vehicle for her social crusade.” When confronted with contrary evidence, he concocts an elaborate cultural shadowplay to explain why Sotomayor, a woman of Puerto Rican descent, would be especially interested in the importance of ethnic and gender diversity.

He somehow manages to miss a nontrivial point in those opening paragraphs. While she could have gone to college somewhere in the 1950s or ’60s, she could not have gone to Princeton. Princeton did not accept any women as students until 1969, and Sotomayor started there only couple years later. As Politico notes, quoting Michelle Obama, Princeton was also “infamous for being racially the most conservative of the Ivy League universities.”

Sounds like Sotomayor had great timing. Had she been born a decade or so earlier, she couldn’t have attended Princeton, not as a woman, and she couldn’t have been comfortable because of her race. Even when she was there, her ethnic background was a source of tension. A group called Concerned Princeton Alumni was founded the year she entered Princeton, a group averse to female admissions, non-white admissions, and anti-war activism. An editor of the group’s newsletter wrote that Princeton was going downhill in part because of 11 percent of the student body in 1985 consisted of “Blacks and Hispanics.”

For what it’s worth, Justice Alito was a member of that group in that same year, and prominently cited his membership as he applied for a job at the Reagan Justice Department. Senate Republicans found it irrelevant. They seem surprisingly agitated, (concerned, if you will) by Sotomayor’s inescapable role in making those Princeton alumni so concerned.

Given her background, it would have been impossible for Sotomayor not to have been aware of the role race, ethnicity, and gender play in society, and of the importance of diversity in intellectual communities. Far from the insipid cultural faddishness that Brooks tries to construct, Sotomayor was influenced by being at the center of a massive cultural shift, and her influence helped guide that shift in a productive, peaceful, and moderate direction. She’s unquestionably qualified for her seat on the Supreme Court, and no one can doubt that she would bring valuable experience and insights to their deliberations.

In contrast, I do not know what David Brooks brings to our intellectual culture. How you can write a few hundred words about the cultural milieu of a woman going to Princeton in the ’70s without even mentioning that she was among the first few women admitted to the school? How can you ignore the anti-Hispanic prejudice that wafted through the school throughout her time there, and long after she left? And if you can ignore those salient points, what actual contributions are you making to your readers’ knowledge?


  1. #1 The Ridger
    June 9, 2009

    Brooks? Making contributions to his readers’ knowledge?

    I don’t think so, Tim…

  2. #2 Rev Matt
    June 9, 2009

    Brooks has no interest in contributing to the knowledge of his readers. His job is to articulate reasonable sounding arguments for ideologues to repeat without having any idea what they are talking about, as with all pundits.

  3. #3 Matt Platte
    June 9, 2009

    (Aww, geez… I came here to re-state the obvious but I see I’m late to the party.)

    Elsewhere on Sb today I read the term ‘category error’ and it’s become my hammer of the day. As my predecessors here affirm, BoBo’s interest is in making his readurs dumb and dummer, to keep pulling the lever for Dear Leader.

  4. #4 llewelly
    June 9, 2009

    In contrast, I do not know what David Brooks brings to our intellectual culture.

    Long stretches of soporific boredom punctuated by brief shocks of extreme revulsion or brief outbursts of stunned laughter.

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 11, 2009

    Brooks is neither stupid nor foolish. What he is, is a liar and propagandist for far-right-wing oligarchy.

  6. #6 Bill
    June 11, 2009

    I’m not sure which David Brooks column you’re referring to; but I think it’s the one I read in Wednesday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch since it begins with the paragraph you quote.

    I sure didn’t recognize any of the rest from your description, though. Mostly, Brooks reports the facts about how Sotomayor relies on precedent and sticks close to the law.

    Sure, Brooks wants very much to say something bad about her; but the worst he can come up with is that she’s “unspectacular” and “unimaginative.” It pegged my irony meter when I realized that his complaint seemed to be about her failure to “legislate from the bench.” 8-)

  7. #7 Ktesibios
    June 12, 2009

    Definition of a pundit: a person who makes a business out of not knowing what he’s talking about.

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