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Posts Tagged ‘David Brooks’

The Kagan Kerfuffle is More than That

May 13th, 2010 No comments

“Elena Kagan, are you a lesbian?”

I can’t imagine that question being asked directly by any of the Senators at her confirmation hearing, but how would she respond if it were? In that context, of course, the only appropriate response would be something like:

“I don’t see how that’s relevant to my qualifications to sit on the Supreme Court.”

But does it matter? Over on my 365gay.com post today, I argue that it does, in a way:

“Bold” isn’t the first word that comes to mind in describing Kagan. Indeed, her stance on DADT – which stemmed as much from enforcing Harvard’s policy against discrimination as anything else – is notable precisely because it appears to be the only time she took a strong position on an important issue of the day….

How can someone have achieved success on this level while letting so little of herself, or her views be known? David Brooks, writing  in the Times, finds Kagan’s ultra-cautious path and “her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.”

So do I. In response to [a questionnaire she completed when under consideration for the Solicitor General job], Kagan stated that she didn’t recall ever discussing whether the Constitution should be read to confer a right to same-sex marriage. Do you believe that? Isn’t it likelier that she didn’t discuss it in a setting where it might come back at her?

This level of caution seems very odd. A person reaches her 50th birthday without coming out of a careful cage – one that may or may include a lesbian sexual orientation. (I have no inside information here, but there’s plenty of speculation flying around; more than usual in these kinds of cases.)

Why not be bolder, sooner? It seems that Kagan – tenured law professor at University of Chicago,  Dean of Harvard Law School, and now Solicitor General of the U.S. would have by now achieved enough to come out, in every sense of that word.

I had this very conversation with a friend last week, and we joked that she might have planned her entire life for the possibility of becoming a Supreme Court Justice. But now our joke isn’t funny: This profile of the nominee shows her wearing a judicial robe, and quoting Justice Felix Frankfurter, in her high school yearbook photo! It also states that at least one classmate recalls Kagan’s stating that becoming a Supreme Court Justice was her goal.

Now what? If she gets through the Kabuki-like nomination process, will she feel liberated enough to make bold, progressive decisions?…

Will she feel comfortable and secure enough to come out, if in fact she is a lesbian?

I have doubts on both counts. Having spent one’s whole life in a carefully crafted, protective bubble, it might be hard to leave its safe casing now. I hope I’m wrong.

In a way, then, I agree with Andrew Sullivan that the public is legitimately interested in a candidate’s emotional life. The law — especially constitutional law — isn’t math, and I, for one, am interested in learning how the candidate sees the world. Someone whose entire life has been guarded, both in terms of emotional and sexual affinity and in the legal context, raises some concern.

So Sullivan has the better of the exchange here. As he notes, when someone is heterosexual, the public part of that orientation is relentlessly on display, in a way so pervasive yet mundane that it becomes wallpaper. (And when it’s no longer boring, sparks fly: See, e.g., the Clarence Thomas hearings.) Yet it “doesn’t matter” when the candidate is gay? Translation: Keep it in the closet.

The back-and-forth between Sullivan Benjamin Sarlin of the Daily Beast did raise another issue, and here I think we might have the start of an interesting, productive and ultimately irresolvable debate about the role and responsibility of the blogger. Is it just to “think out loud,” and not “to report stories,” as Sullivan maintains? I think that’s a false dichotomy. Like it or not, Sullivan is so widely read and cited (he’s prolific, smart, and conveys a clear sense of self) that his thinking out loud, when it presents statements like “we have been told by many that she is gay”, is just more likely to make people think he has some inside information than such a statement would coming from, say, me.  It’s not presented as reporting, but might be taken that way. A short statement like, “I have no inside information” would be a helpful disclaimer in this kind of case, even though it’s kind of implied by the way the sentence is structured. (“We have been told” is different, in an important way, from “I have been told.”

I’m not sure what Kagan should do about this issue (if anything) at this point. Expect more thinking out loud on that issue, soon.

Does Marriage Make You Happy?

March 30th, 2010 No comments

Who knows? I’m starting to think that the way one answers the question is as close to a Rorschach test as there is in the social sciences. After David Brooks opined that social happiness is more important than material gain (after a certain level of subsistence is attained) and used the example of “successful” marriages to make his point, Andrew Sullivan agreed with him, and Bella DePaulo took exception to Brooks’s conclusions.

It may not have escaped you that reactions fell along predictable lines here. That’s not surprising, because trying to tease out the social benefit of marriage is especially difficult, so that everyone can feel some justification for their conclusions. Even if we try to correct for the selection bias (happier, more successful folks are the ones who tend to marry), in a sense the problem is intractable. We would need to study a control group of Doppelgangers who didn’t have marriage available as an option, and see whether their happiness mirrored that of their real-life counterparts (married and not married). This isn’t likely, except perhaps in a joint venture between the SciFi Network and some dreary public access cable station.

The weight of the social science evidence does suggest that marriage produces social good, but all I’m able to get from that is:

(1) To the extent that marriage leads to longer, happier lives, that’s likely true for gay and lesbian couples as well. (Maggie Gallagher mostly forgets to mention that her co-author on “The Case for Marriage” — Linda Waite, who, unlike Gallagher, is an actual social scientist — favors marriage equality.) We’ll soon have some preliminary data to support that conclusion, but we already know, from one study of couples in Vermont, that those who entered into civil unions stayed together longer than couples who didn’t.

(2) Legal and social support for marriage isn’t justified to the extent that it hoards all of the benefits for married couples and overlooks the needs of other families and living arrangements. Even if some gentle coercion in the direction of marriage is desirable social policy (a highly contestable proposition), that’s no excuse for the embarrassment of government-conferred benefits and riches (to an extent copied by the private sector, as in the case of health benefits) from which other couples are completely excluded.

As James Joyner points out, popularizing social science research may be fun for everyone concerned, but it’s risky business.

Tearing Down Robert P. George’s Scaffold (Part One)

December 23rd, 2009 9 comments

The puff piece on Robert P. George in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine was one of the more infuriating things I’ve passed my eyes over in some time. At many points I found myself wishing for the kind of critical perspective that a similar, personality-based piece would have gotten in, say, the New Yorker or the Atlantic. Instead, David Kirkpatrick’s article was a weird mixture of amanuensis-like reporting of George’s point of view and unexpected instances of the writer’s occasional, startling snarkiness at his subject. (Example: “I met George 20 years ago, when I was a Prince­ton student and he was praying for tenure.”) There was so much to dig into, but Kirkpatrick barely lifted a spade.

And surprisingly, still there’s been but little written in opposition to the positions that George put forward. (Here‘s one game effort at deconstructing his arguments, from Kathleen Reeves.) But there’s so much wrong with what he’s saying that I can’t sit by idly and let this go unanswered. It’s clear that George is providing an intellectual scaffold to prop up a host of right-wing views and talking points. But the support he provides is rickety.

So, as my last serious work before taking a short Christmas break, I’ll have a go at George’s views (with a focus on marriage) and their intellectual pedigree. This will require more than one post.

Let’s start with the purported distinction between Humeans and Aristotelians that George (via Kirkpatrick) describes, and that is vital to his world-view. After setting forth Hume’s view that the emotions are the seat of decision-making, and Aristotle’s preference for an objective moral order that  can be known through the rational mind, George casts himself as a neo-Aristotelian whose mission is to restore the primacy of reason to moral (and political) decision-making. For George, it’s one or the other: emotions or reason.

Unfortunately, this simple “either-or” disregards increasingly well-accepted findings from the field of neuroscience. If you’ve never read Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking yet accessible work, Descartes’ Error, promise yourself to correct this omission in 2010. Damasio’s work with brain-injured patients showed this: Those whose emotional capacities had been shut down could not make rational decisions. It turns out that we need emotions to bring our otherwise potentially endless ratiocination to some kind of conclusion — for us to get up and do something. The always-curious David Brooks further popularized this insight in a column last year:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

[P]eople seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

So this Aristotelian-Cartesian idea that truth can be known purely through reason is so yesterday.1 The purportedly syllogistic logic that leads George to his definition of marriage (one that — surprise! — ends up walling out same-sex couples) is driven by complex emotions that neither George nor sophisticated neuroscientists as yet fully understand.

This isn’t to give up the project of judging arguments grounded in logic and reason, but to provide context for them: The arguments we choose to make, and the ways we present them, aren’t the products of pure reason, because…there’s no such thing. And once we get into the specifics of George’s natural-law position on marriage — which by the way is nothing new — we can see how his complex construction is anchored in a biological, reductive model of humanity  that is hardly the product of “reason” at all. It’s an article of emotion or of faith; take your pick, because they amount to the same thing.

In my next post, I’ll pursue this natural law argument further.

Update: The second post on this topic, which will address Andrew Sullivan’s response to George as well as George’s natural law arguments, will be up early tomorrow.

  1. But  yesterday is, of course, where George proudly abides. From the Kirkpatrick piece: “George’s admirers say he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.”

Really Changing Health Care

September 9th, 2009 1 comment

It seems that my recent experiences with the wacky health care system — featuring poor communication, perverse incentives, and services over care — are finally being seen as endemic, and as big pieces of the reason for our nation’s fundamentally unsound health care structure. NY Times columnist David Brooks is at his best here, synthesizing a couple of sources (read the Atlantic essay by David Goldhill that he cites; it’s a very effective combination of the personal and the general) to make these same points about how our system just…doesn’t…work. Here’s his final paragraph, urging  Obama to do something big:

This is not the time to get incremental. It’s the time to get fundamental. Reform the incentives. Make consumers accountable for spending. Make price information transparent. Reward health care, not health services. Do what you set out to do. Bring change.

Yes. And thanks to TF, one of my regular readers, for bringing the Brooks piece to my attention (on the day it ran, I was undergoing surgery).

I’d like to close by inviting any reader who knows about reimbursement to fill me in on how much MDs and hospitals get paid for doing various things. I suspect that the actual numbers will be eye-popping.