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May 17, 2010

Taking Signals from the Birthers

We might as well admit that American politics is insane.  Where else could selection for the nation’s highest court involve debate over a photograph of the nominee playing softball?

Really incriminating, isn’t it?  Do we really want a Justice who bats right?  But wait: if justices, in the immortal words of Chief Justice Roberts, are supposed to call the balls and strikes, then Elena Kagan’s experience at the plate might prove to be an important–dare we say empathic?–resource when on the federal bench.  Jokes aside, this snapshot is being used to raise the question of Kagan’s sexual orientation.  Softball + short hair = lesbian; didn’t you know that?

The use of this image is indicative of how easily photographs can be coded strategically.  Were it a photo of a male nominee, for example, it could be a sign of his being an ordinary guy who has not lost touch with the common life.  Were Kagan married, it might have been used to show that she is a team player.  And keep in mind that millions of American women have participated in pickup softball games, often as part of teams organized at the office or at church picnics; in short, it really shouldn’t mean much at all.  Instead, and thanks to the Wall Street Journal, the picture has become the excuse for public discussion of Kagan’s sexuality.  A topic, one might add, that has about as much relevance as baseball to the job description of a Supreme Court Justice.

What strikes me about the controversy, however, is how it is part of a larger pattern of denial.  Consider how Kagan’s having to declare her sexual preferences is similar to demanding proof of President Obama’s citizenship.  A gay justice is almost as unthinkable as a black president, and so the question lurks.  Is she?  And it gets repeated regardless of the answer she has provided.  And the discussion of whether she looks gay is about as intelligent as asking whether Hawaii is a state, but there it is.

Regardless of Barack Obama’s manifest qualifications for the presidency, his election continues to be traumatic for those who want to insist that the first citizen has to be white.  (Since they can’t deny he is black–although that was tried–they have to deny that he is a citizen.)  Likewise, the selection to the Supreme Court of someone who might be gay is part of the sea change in American life that will never make sense to those who believe that heterosexuality is a principle of American national identity.  And so, despite her superb qualifications for the job, Elena Kagan is being asked to supply her sexual orientation certificate.

The good news is that, whatever is the case regarding Kagan’s private life–or that of the Senators who will be questioning her–America already has changed for the better.  (For example, a majority would support a gay nominee.)  The attempt to out Kagan or discredit her or continue to keep others outside the charmed circle of citizenship is becoming another lost cause.  To appreciate what that means, I’d recommend another photograph of the nominee.

Associated Press/Hunter High School

We don’t know her batting stance, but this is an image of youth at its best: bright, joyful, and full of promise, ambition, and hope.  Thus, it also is an image of the American Dream.

  • jonst

    I don’t a damn whether she is gay, or not. I DO give a damn if she is neo-liberal, Democratic Leadership Council type. You know, that kind that brought us the war.

  • bystander

    Softball + short hair = lesbian; didn’t you know that?

    You’re kidding. No. I did not know that. And, all the young women I coached in that sport seemed oblivious to it as well. Jayzus, but our political discourse is stupid.

    I cannot articulate how deeply I resent having to defend Kagan on the cultural signifiers (hair style, marital status, career choices, sport of choice) when I would prefer to oppose her on the political merits. May the Right die a deeply painful political death, and manage to do so without taking the rest of us with them.

  • C Wall

    This is a sad United States that we live in and stupid (in my opinion) when the few “small people” of this great USA show to all the world around us that we are still acting like children and are still throwing “sticks and stones” and “Name Calling”. Where in all of this is the “United” part of the United States. What part of this negative information has anything to do with her ability to be a Supreme Court Justice.

    I,like so many others would like to form an HONEST opinion on relevant facts, not on “Labels” or discredits that have nothing to do with the job qualifications,the knowledge that a person possesses,or the experiences that a person has achieved.

    “FOOD FOR THOUGHT” — for the ones of you who are tring to discredit Elena Kagan or any person for what you ‘think’ may be or may not be their personal sexual preferences, you need to step back and remember who it is in your life that is helping you to break one of God’s Commandments to us, by defaming another with your words.– It is the DEVIL himself and not the work of God in your life.— So how do YOU “JUSTIFY” what you have done and continue to do each time you use these kinds of tactics.

    I am a married heterosexual who truely believes that two wrongs do not make a right. What does it say about your morals when you are led by the devil to harm someones name for your satisfaction,.

  • cmac

    This picture elicits nothing but admiration from me – she looks strong and athletic and competent and happy. She looks good.

    I simply cannot fathom the idiocy that leads our ignorant reactionary hatriots to find anything at all threatening in this picture. The right wing has devolved into an ugly mob of stupid jerks.

    • gmoke

      Agreed. She looks like she’s having fun and knows how to hold a bat. Her shoulders are relaxed and I bet she’s got a good swing. This is the picture of someone who’s enjoying what she’s doing.

  • Megan

    In both pictures, her focus is entirely outward. I appreciate that she is not simultaneously presenting herself for the Gaze. Makes for a nice sense of authenticity.

    Although, one set of objections to her has been that she’s been politically preparing herself for this job her entire life, consciously stifling her opinions so they could never be quoted back to her in her confirmation hearings. Maybe these pictures (that show her looking authenticly involved with her surroundings) are supposed to be countering the ’she shows a closed and polished front’ storyline.

  • Michael Shaw

    I’m interested in Megan’s take. It makes me think about the photos of Kagan doing the rounds with Senators on Capitol Hill. One thing that characterizes them, for me, is a lack of self-consciousness on Kagan’s part. Sotomayor had a much more strategic and political feel to her as she made the rounds, as we would typically expect of any nominee in that situation. Kagan, on the other hand, seems to have more of a sense of wonder to her, which is all the more interesting because, at the same time, it doesn’t feel naive.

    • g

      True – now that you point it out, I realize that most of the video shown on TV shows her actively engaging others in conversation, laughing, speaking or changing her facial expression in response to the other person – she’s very “involved” with the interaction.

    • Duckrabbit Digital

      It’s interesting, because isn’t that something that we liked (like) about Obama? Perhaps we are starting to demand authenticity in our politicians.

  • Nina

    We have no idea from the image that it is a pick-up softball game. To me it is a photograph of a woman playing a man’s game and eager to do it. Politically the context is the “don’t ask don’t tell debate”. If confirmed, Kagan would certainly rule to allow gays to serve openly in the military if such a case came before the court. This is the real fear coming from the right and in my opinion is why Sotomayor, despite being unmarried and without children, wasn’t subjected to the same questioning of her sexual orientation, her early first marriage notwithstanding.

    • cmac

      Erm – a man’s game? Not so much. Women can earn college scholarships playing this “man’s” game!

  • T Wall


    If it were more than a pick up game she wouldn’t be wearing the watch or the ear rings and more than likely would be wearing a team shirt.

  • Molly

    I’m a little sad that only lesbians are seen as strong and determined women. /sarcasm

    Seriously, so what if she is homosexual? She is smart, empathetic, and ready to serve. Confirm her!

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