To reduce her full Berkley [sic] remarks to an inoffensive paean to experience and the limits of impartiality strikes me less as a fair-minded reading than an exercise in wishful thinking. ~Jim Antle

Jim must be one of the few who has looked at her full remarks and still concluded that there was something deeply wrong with them. Rod came to quite a different conclusion after reading the entire speech, but no matter. Readers can judge for themselves whether they think the speech is an exercise in “racialist and separatist” rhetoric, or whether it is something rather more benign. In any case, Jim wants to stress not so much what she said, but where she said it and to whom. That’s fine as far as it goes, but if the tables were turned my guess is that conservatives would see this not so much as contextualization as an attempt to prove guilt by association.

I would go farther and say that I think she wasn’t just making an “inoffensive paean to experience.” Horror of horrors, she was expressing pride in her particular identity, much as many conservatives claim they wish they could do more freely with respect to theirs without being called racist or racialist or some other derisive label. What is their solution? To call Sotomayor by a name that they usually regard as a bludgeon unfairly used against them all the time. Not only will this gambit fail in the immediate confirmation battle, but it will ensure that the limits of expression become even more constricting and stifling. This is what I don’t understand: why would conservatives want to make it easier to categorize innocuous statements as racist and/or racialist? There is virtually no social policy debate in which matters of race are not involved to some degree, and many, if not most, conservative social policy views already have to meet a rather exacting standard to avoid such charges. Why make that standard even more demanding and impossible to meet? Why water down the definition of racialist such that it seems to include any and all acknowledgment of the significance of these differences? How well do you suppose conservative arguments in various policy debates will fare in the future if even Sotomayor’s unremarkable Berkeley speech must be described as racialist? Instead of giving more benefit of the doubt to all and loosening the conventional strictures on expression, we hear instead the call to clamp down even more obsessively on everyone. This is the most hare-brained application of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” I think I have ever seen.

The most significant part of her speech from eight years ago has scarcely been discussed at all, which is her acknowledgment that neutrality and objectivity do not exist. One should strive to minimize the role of bias, but it is ineradicable. More than that, it sometimes serves a valuable social function–surely, students of Burke can understand this. The people who actually find this shocking or dangerous reveal themselves as believers in pleasant fictions left over from the 18th and 19th centuries. Those who understand that everyone is from somewhere specific, that everyone is part of a particular tradition, heir to a certain background and shaped by the places where he has lived and the experiences in those places, and that universal Man does not exist anywhere in the world, are not troubled by this. For us, it is a simple restatement of the obvious. The idea that where we come from matters deeply and defines who we are is hardly one that conservatives should find outrageous.

Update: Matthew Miller has an interesting response:

Larison is undoubtedly right that we can’t ever be entirely separated from our background; but if there’s any sphere of government where we simply must try, the judiciary is it. Sonia Sotamayor isn’t a racist. She simply doesn’t understand that she’s meant to be a bulwark against the tyranny of caprice, not an advocate for it. That is reason enough to oppose her confirmation without dredging up the racism charge. After all, to paraphrase John Adams, we ought to be a nation of laws and not of wise latina women.

Second Update: Jim adds in a follow-up post:

One other point about Sotomayor’s comment: it illustrates the extent to which the logic of racial/ethnic identity politics can cause people to say or think things they would clearly recognize as racist in other contexts. If changing the words “Latina” and “white man” around would change your view of the sentence, then perhaps it is time to examine some of your assumptions.

I suppose it would be, but then the point here surely ought to be that the statement is not racist no matter which way you phrase it. It might be any number of things, not all of them necessarily good, but it isn’t that. In this case, reversing the terms doesn’t change this about the sentence, so why are conservatives reading it as they assume (perhaps wrongly) that Sotomayor would read the reverse? Indeed, wouldn’t they say that she would be wrong to read the reverse in the way that they are currently reading her statement? Doesn’t that drive home how futile and ridiculous this line of attack is?