Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Unreliability of Identity by Anthony McCarthy

Here is the entirely eccentric list with which David Shribman begins his tribute to Justice Souter:

SO WHO are the quintessential New Englanders of our time? Senator Edward M. Kennedy, as the living reminder of his family's legacy. Bill Russell, Carl Yastrzemski, and Tom Brady, as exemplars of hope and faith on the fields and in the arenas of our dreams. John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Stephen King, symbols of the literary strain. Paul Farmer, personification of science and service. Drew Gilpin Faust, named Harvard president and Pulitzer finalist in a two-year period.

All of them, plus one more: David Hackett Souter.

Nine men, one woman. So pretty shoddy work right there. And I’d debate some of these as being “New Englanders” never mind the quintessence of the imaginary breed. Faust’s bio hardly indicates that she’s a product of New England, other than a stint at Concord Academy. Her origins, education and professional expertise are more a Southern manifestation. Maybe Schribman’s out of touch with the region from his years in DC but there are actual women who have lived longer in New England and who have more significant accomplishments in public service than many in his list. It’s pretty insulting that he couldn’t find a few women of more note than Tom Brady, hardly a New Englander. And I’d really rather not be linked with John Updike and J.D. Salinger, even on the superficial level of regional association, thank you very much.

To give Shribman some credit, he does later mention my two senators, Collins and Snowe and the late New Hampshire Senator Susan McLane as exemplars of “moderate” Republicanism of a sort dead in the real world. As well as a host of other men. I’m not particularly impressed with “moderate” Republicanism or my senators. When you look at what they do, as opposed to what they say, on occasion, it’s not all that much different from the voting records of far-right Republicans. On many issues both of them have put party before principle, such as that might be. I’d very much like to see them both retired and have tired to help that effort whenever possible.

I was opposed to David Souter’s nomination to the Supreme Court, someone who was unfamilir with him, asked me why at the time. I said he was an “aparatchik of the Republican New Hampshire establishment”, which he had been up till that time. I wasn’t the only one to have noticed, his service to that establishment was the reason that John Sununu, Bush I’s Chief of Staff promoted his appointment to the court. In his earlier career Souter was a fully fledged part of a Republican Party that included Sununu, the repulsive Meldrim Thomson and overseen by the Manchester Union Leader run by the slimy paleo-fascist William Lobe. They ran New Hampshire in those years, they were as bigoted, irrational mean-spirited, corrupt and far right as the most extreme conservatives you will find anywhere today. If there was always a moderate inside David Souter back then, it was a moderate fully willing to make common cause with some of the most demented and rotten right wingers of the time.

I don’t know how to explain the transformation, nor do I think it’s necessary to explain it. His voting record on the Supreme Court was sufficiently moderate to make him a hated figure among the right wing of the Republican Party. Like Warren Berger, they see him as a traitor. This is more a revelation of the fundamentalist extremism of American conservatism than it is of the character of either of the Justices. It is a record that largely makes up for his earlier career, though not entirely. I don’t dislike David Souter now, in some ways he’s an appealing person. I have a hard time seeing him as one person but as two people separated by the fall line of his appointment to the Supreme Court.

There isn’t a ‘quintessential New Englander’, a romantic composite of Pepperidge Farm style PR, The Old Farmers’ Almanac and Yankee Magazine bilge. Having lived in and been formed by what I’ve know of New England culture my entire life, one of its more important features is an eclectic and unprejudiced adoption of ideas and ways from wherever they come. If there is anything about New England that is worthy of pride, it isn’t the self-centered, often anti-social, “rugged independence” that, after all, every region of the country is supposed to imagine sets them apart from any other. Thinking that is relatively free from social bias would tend to break down regional distinctions. The things that New Englanders do that makes me happiest are the progressive, at times even liberal acts that earn us the disdain of many in other places.

One of those things is certainly acknowledging the contributions of women from New England to the cultural life and welfare of the world. I have a slight feeling that Souter might include a few if he made a list.