The empathy card

By Michelle Chen May 27, 2009

Following Obama’s pointed references to "compassion" when explaining his views on the Supreme Court, it only took a few minutes for conservative opponents to declare their official war on "empathy," replete with veiled race and gender-based attacks. So you’d imagine that this quote, circulated on eminent liberal blogs like Glenn Greenwald’s, would hand the right a smoking gun, just as Sonia Sotomayor’s Berkeley lecture has sparked the demonization of "identity politics." Read with a critical eye:

I don’t come from an affluent background or a privileged background. My parents were both quite poor when they were growing up. And I know about their experiences and I didn’t experience those things. I don’t take credit for anything that they did or anything that they overcame. But I think that children learn a lot from their parents and they learn from what the parents say. But I think they learn a lot more from what the parents do and from what they take from the stories of their parents lives. And that’s why I went into that in my opening statement. Because when a case comes before me involving, let’s say, someone who is an immigrant — and we get an awful lot of immigration cases and naturalization cases — I can’t help but think of my own ancestors, because it wasn’t that long ago when they were in that position. And so it’s my job to apply the law. It’s not my job to change the law or to bend the law to achieve any result. But when I look at those cases, I have to say to myself, and I do say to myself, "You know, this could be your grandfather, this could be your grandmother. They were not citizens at one time, and they were people who came to this country."

Humble beginnings, overcoming hardship, struggling with issues of discrimination and identity. To conservatives, the words are dripping with the kind of bleeding-heart political correctness that taints liberal jurisprudence and undermines rule of law. These views threaten the very foundations of America’s social hierarchies and must be stopped at any cost… Unless, maybe, you’re an an Italian-American male, whose appointment to the Supreme Court is expected to further entrench conservative policies on immigration and the death penalty. In that case, it’s okay to have feelings. If you play your cards right, the media might even hype the way your record "defies stereotyping." The speaker was Judge, now Justice, Samuel Alito, Jr. at his Senate confirmation hearing in 2006, just before he took a seat on the conservative side of the bench (incidentally, with a track record that is in other respects not so different from the current nominee’s). Some observers note that in the brewing ideological battle over Sonia Sotomayor, "empathy" has been tied to womanhood, and that recognizing and acting on shared experiences could be derided as intellectually soft. Yet this rhetorical lens falls unequally on different groups, depending on who can afford to empathize and who faces pressure to suppress empathy in deference to the status quo. Which is just one reason why we could use more of it. Image: