Where Were You?

Above we have the video of one of the stranger questions/answers from the hearings concerning Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan.

The Question

Senator Lindsay Graham (R), US Senator from South Carolina since 2002, and a member of the Corinth Baptist Church. according to the bio on his Senate website, asked Elena Kagan, Supreme Court Nominee, where she was on Christmas Day 2009. (When the Christmas Bomber struck.)

No, I don’t believe he was asking for an alibi. Though his motivations are suspect. It’s hard to come up with a logical rationale to ask that question of a nominee. Possibilities.

1) Reminding everyone that she is Jewish.

Sen. Graham isn’t going to outright say “Hey everyone, she’s Jewish, don’t vote for her because of that.” He’s not stupid. However, there has been some commentary that with her selection, there would no longer be a White Anglo Saxon Protestant male on the court. Of course, due to her being chosen by a Democratic president, it is the Republicans who are coming up with reasons not to select her, and that puts them in an interesting position if they argue this is a problem. The conservative position is generally speaking that quotas are bad. That selecting someone just because they are this or that in order to create a ‘diverse’ atmosphere is equivalent to discrimination.

They were horrified at the suggestion that Sonia Sotomayor’s different perspective, because she was Hispanic, would be beneficial to the court. So it’s hard for them to argue that a Protestant Perspective is necessary. Are they really going to argue that we need a justice who can show empathy for the Protestant world view?

From the other side — I don’t believe I’m being hypocritical. I do believe diversity is helpful, but I don’t think religious diversity is necessary. Or at least, not the religious diversity under discussion. The differences between Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths — when looking at world perspective – are likely minor when compared to differences based on gender and ethnicity. However, if there were an alternative, equally qualified, who was an adherent to Hinduism, Buddhism, or a Native American faith, I would encourage their selection. They would, of course, need to be qualified for the position. But all other things being equal, a different perspective of that nature may well be beneficial to the Court.

2) A suggestion that she is Less American because she doesn’t observe Christmas

If he had asked her where she was on July 4, 2009, the implication wouldn’t be considered veiled. It would be construed as a direct accusation of lack of patriotism unless she was able to say she was celebrating Independence Day in some fashion.

Since he was tying the question in with the “Christmas Bomber” – did he intend to suggest she was less patriotic – perhaps even treasonous – because she didn’t observe Christmas?

3) An attempt to get Kagan to respond in an emotional manner. (see below.)

The Answer

Elena Kagan responded with an old quip that like most Jews, she was at a Chinese restaurant. The Jewish attraction to Chinese food is an oft-told Jewish joke that I think has its origins in New York City and its heavy immigrant populations. I do enjoy Asian food, though I prefer the spicier Thai dishes than the generally milder Chinese ones. For similar reasons I like Mexican and Indian foods. Some like it hotter than hot.

This led to some commentary that in case she didn’t get selected, she had a career on the Borscht Belt. As the Wikipedia article states, the Borscht Belt doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s about as old and as outdated as her joke.

But the comparison that came to my mind is the old mentality that the best response to racism in the workplace, for an African American, is to laugh, tell a joke, and dance a jig. Getting angry, and calling the person a bigot, doesn’t get you anywhere. Whether or not they are a bigot is irrelevant. Like when you’re in the presence of a wild animal, it’s best not to show fear, it’s best not to show anger.

And from that perspective, Elena Kagan responded to the situation perfectly.