Wisdom and Experience
Without the preceding part of that speech, those words unambiguously reveal a person who believes that she, as a "Latina woman," can "reach a better decision" than any Caucasian man could, at least "more often than not."
Ambiguity arises, however, when more of what she actually said is revealed: at the very minimum, she noted that wise decisions had been made by white men, and she made no statement whatsoever that would set aside the scope of common law that had been constructed by the white men who have dominated indeed, controlled the arc of justice to this very day. For her to have done that would have been for her to repudiate the legal system upon which she and others of a progressive heart rely for that arc to become more inclusive, more broadly just, and better with each generation.
I support the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. I do not do so because hers is a particularly stellar legal mind; it is not. Neither do I support her because she is a woman and of color. While affirmative action is an altogether reasonable means by which employment opportunities can be opened in so many workplaces where the history of discrimination would otherwise ensure the perpetuation of that abominable practice, artificial guidelines that become as important as great merit in selecting among the qualified at the most powerful levels of society will lead to bad ends. I am hopeful that Sotomayor was nominated because the society, itself, has become so pluralized that her appointment is a natural reflection of the extraordinary diversity in the country: we are now (and, of course, always have been) one nation of many peoples, and the diversity of our ethnic landscape is so great, so compelling that the continued, uninterrupted selection of white males would be the obviously, unconscionably unreasonable path.
At the same time that I would defend Judge Sotomayor against the outrageous charge that what she said in the 2001 UC Berkley speech was somehow "racist," I am not entirely at comfort with it, and my dismay is, on one level, quite personal; but on another level, my concern is wider.
The citizens of the United States number about 300 million. The population of the world is perhaps 6.6 billion or so. The living probably outnumber the dead, and among the two groups those still alive and those who have passed on is an incomprehensible, almost entirely untold story, the story of the human experience.
We who are still among the living, and those of our kind now gone, have each gone through so much, seen so many things, learned an untellable amount, and felt such emotions that words cannot contain the scope of the unimaginably amazing story. Some might think that we now have, or someday will have, machines that can store just about everything, but that idea is just plain folly: to collect the lives of everyone who lives and has lived, to capture every detail, every emotion ever felt, every turn of symbolism in every dream, every fantasy, every love, every despair, every hope, every fear that is beyond any storage device that will ever be made.
For the remainder of this article, I address Sonia Sotomayor, herself, but I encourage readers to follow along, and if they are of a mind, to address me concerning what I am about to write. She will not read this, so it is for those who will that I set these thoughts to words, what I want to tell Sonia Sotomayor.
You do not know me, Ms. Sotomayor. Even if we were one day to cross paths, you would not. You have no idea what I seen, just like I have no idea what you have seen. To the same extent that I cannot judge the wisdom of any decision you make, particularly before you have made it, you cannot possibly judge the wisdom of any decision I would make, especially before I have made it.
To reduce me to a "white male" is grotesquely degrading. You have no idea what I have seen and how the life I have lived has intersected with the essential, enduring aspects of my inner self, where the world outside becomes distilled, interpreted, and used for what is to come.
"Wise decisions"? No, not for me; otherwise, I would make as much money as you, but instead I make about one-seventh what you make. I would have gone to a fabulous college and been one of the shove-and-bully types who gets the honors, the fancy diplomas with the Latin accolades, and the notice of the powerful. I would have gone up the ladder trampling people under me to make me do well, and I would have left the fate of family to the winds of someone else's decisions. I would have been one of those all-too-common, yet ever-curious case studies in people of mediocre mind who seem to keep percolating to this nation's pinnacles of power, including the presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, where their non-existent brilliance is too often lauded by those who should know better and usually denied by those who know only spite without reason.
But "richness of experience"? Spare me some moral superiority. It is not only what we see, but also and far more importantly how our experiences affect us. I shall put a few of my meager cards on the table.
Let me start with death. I have seen it, and I just hate it. I hate it viscerally because it has hurt me so much. Anymore, I cannot stand the sight even of an animal suffering before death. I just hate it, and I hate the disgusting advice that I should just "move on," "work through my grief," or somehow "come to grips with" mortality. No, I choose not to do any of those things that would bring false joy to the world of all things that must come to an end. Even worse for me, to use an old saying among veterans of the Civil War, "I seen the elephant." With no intention to redundancy, if you know what that means, you know what that means. I had no mind to buy the ticket, but somehow I did. I wish with all my heart, with all my soul, that I had not. But I did.
Now, let me speak to violence. I have seen that, too, and it is horrible. Hurting people is but one part of willful cruelty that has, in its very worst expression, the purpose of actually taking pleasure in the suffering of the living, human and otherwise. I have been beaten quite literally to within an inch of my life; and, yes, I have been beaten by women. "Duty to flee" was my personal excuse for not fighting back and destroying them with one blow. In fact, by the time in my life that I was in such ego-destroying, demeaning situations, I could not bring myself to do to them what I hated so much that they were doing to me. For that reason, I could not find within myself the will to reciprocate the emotional abuse that was even more common. For the rest of my life, I will not go anywhere near emotional proximity to or physical vulnerability with a woman. I have no desire to be hurt ever again, and I consider myself at least smart enough not to go where risk imagined has already been danger realized. How is that for decision-making from experience? I think it's pretty good: I haven't been hit in a long, long time.
Finally, before I conclude this article with a story, let me briefly describe fear. It is terrible to live large parts of one's life afraid. The powerful, the rich, the mean, the corrupt, the heartless: they rule, they dominate, they control. I am not among any of those classes of people, so I have to scurry through the shadows, hoping they will not take notice of me; if they do, I get hurt, and it happens every last time. You are among the powerful; all you can do is hurt me. That's how power works.
You are a living representative of the law, and the law is the more-or-less civilized expression of the fist by which the powerful organize the society to suit their needs and especially their proclaimed values that they, themselves, cannot abide for their own lives. The icon of Lady Justice need not remove her blindfold; by the very fact that you are a judge, it is you and your kind who will ensure that she knows to bring her sword down upon me and my kind. Judging from the incarceration rate in this country, you and Lady Justice work with the efficient fury of machine guns on cowering civilians.
If you ever have occasion to meet me, to get to know me, I am quite certain you will come rather quickly to dislike me. People of power are that way with me, and this is especially true with women of power. The impenetrable mystery to me is the question of why women who are in no position of official power be it corporate, academic, or otherwise react so fundamentally differently to me. That question aside, I am most glad that we will probably never meet. All you would see in me is a swaggering, self-assured, pompous ass who acts like he knows everything and seems to be just a little too ill-tempered for all but the stupidest of rednecks and the dumbest of gang-bangers to disrespect. All I would see in you is just another power-wielding, ill-tempered, unimaginative cog in the machine of repression that is our modern system of justice.
What you see, and the basis upon which you would judge me, would be an illusion, partly of your own making because you see a "white male," partly of my making because that is what I want you to see.
What I see, and the basis upon which I would judge you, would be an illusion, too, of course. At the very least, that is my hope; and it is upon that hope and only that hope that I wish you success in your aspiration to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
I shall now conclude this article with a story. From time to time, I write and publish personal stories, some meant to be humorous, like "A Hill People Story for Sunday Night," some quite painful, like "I Am Become Battle," "Remembering Shelby," and "The end of all things."
Long-time readers of my literature might remember the one I am reprinting below as part of a larger article I wrote a few years ago. The purpose tonight is to share with you a single example in a life with "richness of experience" that is, in your own words, a predicate to making wise decisions. Above, I disclaimed any ability to make wise decisions; I will leave wisdom to you and others. Below, and in conclusion, I offer you an opportunity to dismiss some of the certainty you might have that your life has been richer than mine.
Quite a long while back, I told the following story in a comment here at The Dark Wraith Forums; but while that comment was a rather vague and quite truncated version of how certain incidents went down a couple years ago, here I shall be far less circumspect and much more vivid in details.
My last gig at one of those religious colleges is instructive on several levels. If I were to tell you the name of the college, you might recognize it right away. It has been the beneficiary of large infusions of cash, pretty much all of which has been spent on a few buildings, including the chapel, a student union, and the administrators' offices. These places on campus are just gorgeous, and people see these in the college recruitment brochures and on the campus tours.
The building in which I taught and had my office wasn't in any brochure and never did get included in tours given to parents and their high school-aged kids. My office was in a room on the top floor. It had no heat, so it was unbearable to be in there during the cold months. My classroom on the bottom floor of that building had water pouring into it through the ceiling every time it rained outside. In the warm months, because there was no air conditioning, the entire building was so hot that teaching and learning were quite a challenge, but no one was allowed to open the windows because the hornets would come in from their nests that had been in the overhangs of the roof for so long they could be seen from the street.
This building wasn't the exception, either. One permanent professor there told me I was lucky to be in one of the "good" buildings, falling apart as it was but protected by its status as a landmark.
Now, let's talk about the students. A handful of religious zealots dominated the campus; everyone else just stayed out of their way. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, the voter registration table was in the cafe where a group of old alumni sat around with the young religious bullies loudly yelling vile, sometimes even sick, invectives against Democrats. This went on every day of the week, all to the tune of Fox News blaring on a big TV in the corner.
Aside from the howling religious nuts, most of the students I met wanted to be elsewhere. Many, many of the kids had become disillusioned within the first couple of years of schooling there; some within the first couple of months. They hated the place, and they knew what prospects awaited them on the outside with their degrees. Only those committed to life within a religious community were very much at peace with their educational progress, but the overriding sentiment felt by students was that they were trapped by financial and psychological dependence on their parents and others. I was surprised by how many grasped that they were not getting anything remotely like a genuine, academically challenging, liberal arts college education.
It took a very short amount of time for the student body to figure out that I was an aberration there, someone who had been picked up because both the institution and I were desperate.
Let me now get to the specifics of just how much I have my head in the sand about religious colleges.
The last significant incident in my mind about that place was trying to help a girl in her first semester hide the fact that she'd gotten knocked up by one of the football players. She was scared to death, and the pregnancy was making her a total physical wreck from the get-go. She was a small, mousy girl who could have passed for fourteen. She had little, puffy cheeks that framed large brown eyes she would raise up to me as she kept her head down out of some kind of deference to male authority figures. She trembled in even the slightest chill of autumn breezes. For this story, I shall call her "Ellie."
She was a stunningly good math student, at least at first. After about a month, though, she started missing more and more classes. Not too long after her absences had become a matter of concern to me, one of her friends in the class told me about the pregnancy. An older woman in the class whom I'll call "Janice" was right there at the time and explained to me that this had to stay a secret: Ellie would be expelled if the administration found out. Ellie's friends were covering for her as best they could. In fact, they were covering for more than a few girls. Janice, who lived in the area and picked up classes from time to time at this dump, explained that it was like this every year: girls getting knocked up and trying to hide it so their parents didn't find out and the school didn't hear about it.
Janice, herself, was bitter about the college. It seems that only a matter of weeks before the semester began, she had undergone a hysterectomy, only to realize that the classes she had already paid for would be a real challenge to attend. The college had no handicap access in the old buildings where most of the classes were held. The administration variously claimed the buildings were exempt from requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they're landmarks, or the whole school was exempt because it's a "private religious institution." Whatever. All Janice knew was that she had to have a couple of the big horse-type guys help her up the steep steps so she could get to classes, including mine.
Anyway, Ellie was being torn up by the pregnancy, and her emotional state was something almost indescribable. She came to class only rarely. She'd generally be there if one of her friends in the class told her I was going to do a "surprise" quiz. (I started violating my long-standing policy about not warning of impending quizzes just because I wanted Ellie to know when she simply had to show up at class.)
Meanwhile, Janicea tough broad who had been everything from a truck driver to an auxiliary law enforcement officerfinally got up the nerve to hint that she could get Ellie to an abortion clinic in the big city. I let her know in no uncertain terms that I would help. That meant I was going to stand ready to pay for the procedure.
My days at that school were numbered, even though I was still lying to myself by thinking that my great teaching would win the day. I had a religious lunatic for a department chairman: he would even sometimes stand outside the closed door to my classroom just so he could listen to my "unacceptable" use of language. In one instance that sent him into a hissy-fit, when I was about to pass back a test, a student asked me how they all did, and with a grin on my face I said, "Well, your tests sucked," to which the students laughed. All except for two, that is: young men with butch haircuts and a mission to tell the school authorities and their parents about every awful, horrible, un-Christian thing that happened at college. Both of those fellows, by the way, were failing my class miserably, and the other students hated their guts, in part because they squealed on everyone and in part because they were otherwise bizarrely withdrawn human beings. As one of them told me as he looked everywhere but into my eyes, "I am in this world, but not of it." (I replied to him with perhaps too much levity that he still had to study for my class and pass my tests or I would flunk his ass cold.)
Returning to the main story, Ellie's friends knew what we were planning, and several of them approached her with the way out of her mess. All I heard about that part was that she couldn't bring herself to reject the idea out of hand, but that she was simply horrified by the very idea of going even further into sin than she already had gotten. She wouldn't even tell anyone who, exactly, it was who got her pregnant; that part was left to one of the other girls at the party where it happened. (The young man, by the way, never suffered any punishment for his role in her pregnancy.)
If Ellie was going to get in even more trouble than she already was, she had no intention of taking anyone else with her. As November progressed, Ellie withdrew even further from those who wanted to help her. She missed the last term exam in my class, and no one volunteered any information about what was going on.
The last time I saw Ellie was in the cafe. The place was eerily empty despite upcoming finals. The TV wasn't even on. But there was Ellie. She was sitting in a chair with her legs pulled up to her; she was curled over in almost a ball. She had her back to the entrance, so she didn't know it was I who had come in until I was just behind her. She turned around and lifted those brown eyes up to me.
That smile across her pale, sunken face nearly made me choke. In her hand she was squeezing a bus ticket. She had nothing but the clothes on her back. Her light flannel hoodie was all that would keep the bitter December wind from her frail body.
I had nothing I could say to her. She'd been ratted out by one of the Christian psycho-bitch enforcers in her dorm. She was expelled, her parents were told about the outrage of it all, and everybody on campus knew she was the latest case study in the wages of sin.
She was so small that she vanished quite easily from that world of decent people.
And there I was. I could have done something about it, but I didn't. All I had was a pat solution that freaked her way too much. I could have put alternatives in front of her: adoption agencies, and not those Christian predators, either; friends who would have gladly taken her in and helped her ride it out if that was her choice. I could have offered her more than a mere cowardly professor's detached, meaningless gestures by proxy. I'd been going extra miles for years, but there I was, off my game, somehow fantasizing for too long that I could make a living for a few years by playing both sides against the middle in that dump. Ellie vanished from my sight while I was standing there flat-footed like every other useless non-player in the high-stakes game of life.
The next semester I got a gig at a regional community college. The first day of the semester, I was out in the smoking area when around the corner came three young men, all from that religious college. They'd had enough, so they were willing to drive more than an hour just to get something approximating a real education.
They all stopped dead in their tracks and stared at me with huge smiles. "Oh my fuckin' God!" one of them said.
I walked right up and shook hands with them, welcoming them to real academia. They were so macho-tough-excited-giddy-laughing-profane. They were so normal, and they were so glad to see a familiar face. I told them I was glad to see them, too; but I told them I was still going to kick their butts if they were unfortunate enough to end up in any of my classes.
They informed me that they were but three examples of a continuing leakage that religious college had of kids who manage to find a way to get out. Apparently, the community college, along with several other colleges and universities in the region, had long been the beneficiaries of that continuing stream of students escaping what would otherwise have been a miserable, pseudo-college experience leading nowhere. One of those young guys even mentioned the "bullshit" that happened to Ellie and how that's the kind of thing that makes students get out of there if they can. It's just that most can't.
There was yet another option I didn't think about in my bag of tricks for Ellie. That community college is dirt cheap, getting a surprisingly generous matrix of subsidies from all kinds of sources.
God Almighty! had I been off my game. What a dumb-ass I'd been through that whole messy experience at that religious Hell-hole.
Four years before, I was running a two-year school that trained paralegals and court reporters. It was in an urban ghetto, about as dangerous as a place could be just going to and from the parking lot after dark. The students were mostly female, mostly urban African-Americans along with low-income Whites. Every last day was a ride through rough terrain, and I was at the top of my game. I could solve any problem, I could get even some of the most hopeless cases through the curriculum and out into decent jobs. I swear, it seemed some days like I could have fixed the whole damned world one person at a time.
God! how far I had fallen by the time Ellie and others at that Christian college needed me.
Someday not too long from now, I'll leave this part of the country where so many churches dot the landscape. Too many people here love their god; they love their god more than they love the child-women and child-men stumbling and falling on the hard concrete of adulthood where they then look up with soulful eyes to see if anyone's there to help show them the way to their feet again.
Someday I'll go back to the streets that are mean in ways I handle better. I'll try to do a lot of good and little harm, and I'll finish this life trying not to think about the awful failures on my conscience. I don't think I'll do too well at forgetting, though, since I'll be seeing Ellie in every class, on every street, and in every bus station where some kid is looking up hoping someone has a good reason that one-way ticket to the end of the line isn't the only choice left.
I'm finished writing for the evening, now.
Wrote Moody Blue:
Wrote Moody Blue:
Wrote Moody Blue:
Wrote Faraway Eyes:
Wrote Lisa Ranger:
Become a Registered Commenter