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Kagan Criticism: I Smell Sneaky Sexism…

May 12, 2010

In light of President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to serve as a Supreme Court justice, New York Times columnist David Brooks gave us his thoughts on Obama’s pick. In his Monday op-ed, Brooks criticized Kagan’s personality and work style, comparing it to that of “Organization Kids” -- people who suppress the creative, risk-taking side of their mind for the sake of their grades, career, and fitting in to our society of meritocracy. Brooks cites the descriptions many have been making of Kagan being “prudential, deliberate and cautious" as a reason we should all be concerned about the future of the Supreme Court. He says it worries him that Kagan is not more of an intellectual risk-taker, and instead a cautious reasoner who avoids bringing her personal passions into her work. Hmmm. OK. Let’s take a step back for a minute. I wonder if Brooks holds other political and leadership figures to this same ideal. After all, he is an opinion writer, and entitled to his opinion and ideals. But I was curious to see if his ideals change depending on who he’s critiquing. When Barack Obama was becoming a big part of the national spotlight back in 2006, Brooks published a NYT op-ed entitled “Run Barack Run,” in which he praised Obama and listed the many reasons he should run for president in 2008. One main reason Brooks gave was Obama’s unique gift -- “ he has a compulsive tendency to see both sides of any issue.”  Brooks gives some examples, and then concludes that : “It is surely true that a president who brings a deliberative style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it” and “the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses.” Brooks, why does your “Organization Kids” critique apply to Elena Kagan but not to Barack Obama? I smell sneaky sexism.  Although we may not initially recognize it, we cannot ignore the blatant reality that, although we tell women to strive ahead and achieve success equal to their male counterparts, the media immediately criticizes them for failing to fulfill our expectations for a woman.  A woman is criticized for being “strategic” or “aggressive” while a man is praised for these qualities.  Though discreet and sneaky, our culturally-inherited sexist notions all too frequently warp our perceptions to hold women back from entering the conversation.  Even the most qualified women. It has always been my general impression that "intellectual risk-taking" has never been what the Supreme Court is about. Maybe that is what many of us idealize in our mind’s eye, but the reality is, Supreme Court justices are dealing with constitutional law...not writing poetry. And if Kagan’s worst mistake is being deliberate and cautious, well it sounds to me like she’s the one for the job. Despite whatever prejudiced critiques may be thrown at Elena Kagan, the fact remains that if confirmed, she will be the fourth woman to ever serve in the Supreme Court’s 220 year history.  And that compelling thought is definitely a welcome stride for social justice in our country’s usual male-dominated meritocracy.