The Screaming Doctor and The Wise Latina

Posted on July 14, 2009

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Trust and know that Republican Senators will waste no time tomorrow hammering the “Wise Latina” angle–a strategy based on what should be an embarrassing reliance on a moment’s snippet of a ten minute speech. Though conventional wisdom would aver that such a strategy would gain little traction in an analysis of a multi-decade record that most agree is at worst, conservative, the Republicans will have a lot of help from our mainstream media. On CNN’s NewsRoom today, Rick Sanchez and Jeffrey Toobin boiled down the entire process to two mischaracterized topics of import:

SANCHEZ: What’s the biggest problem for her- is it the Ricci case, or the quote, Wise Latina woman…

TOOBIN: I think it’s a combination. It’s basically- it’s the Ricci case- the firefighters case, where she was overturned; it’s the ‘Wise Latina’ comment, where she suggested it was somehow better to be a Latina than a- than a white male…

Later today, Chris Matthews brought up the point again…

Despite the fact that the quote is easily contextualized when looking at the entire speech, and that even a cursory look at the immediate paragraphs preceeding and proceeding it give it a very different character [not anything like “its better to be a Latina”], mainstream media drones such as Matthews and Sanchez have chosen to take the racially charged quote at face value. Durbin seems to recognize the truth–that rather than fight the tide and explain how incredibly wrong Matthews has interpreted the remark, its wiser to admit that it “has been taken back” and apologized for. But even a few minutes of reading the speech show that there is nothing at all merit apology:

In our private conversations, Judge [Miriam] Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O’Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice [Benjamin] Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.

Though it would only take a minute or two to put the comment in context–which is specifically pertaining to issues where racial and gender discrimination are the focus–our media hacks balk. Given the legendary short American attention span, one might almost forgive them. But the repetition of this statement, shorn of any context or meaning in the most painfully obtuse ways, seems to have a direct line of descent. Corporate media had a similar fixation with a snippet from a Howard Dean speech–the so called “I have a Scream Speech”.

The given name of that controversy has nothing to do with that speech, of course, much like the “Wise Latina” speech is also an insulting ass-backwards misnomer.  Rather, Dean’s speech was a boilerplate get-up-and-go riff  following a disappointing and unexpected defeat in Iowa. Dean was speaking to the assembled crowd, who were cheering so loud he had to yell to hear himself over the noise. But the house mike which fed the various media at the venue didn’t catch the crowd, and only recorded Dean’s cracking voice. In any sane environment the clip would only be newsworthy because it showed that the depth of excitement continued even after Dean’s defeat;  instead, it became a focus of ridicule that mainstream media played nearly 700 times over the next few days according to some estimates, and which arguably ended Dean’s candidacy.

Corporate media outlets such as MSNBC, Fox and CNN, in fact, repeated the “I Have a Scream” cannard so many times that it created a new term to use to describe career-breaking moments that is still in use today–David Schuster, subbing for Matthews on Hardball on the July 3 resignation speech of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said:

Does it damage the campaing in the way one Republican said to me, this is like the Republican version of the “Howard Dean Scream”, I mean for people who were close to Howard Dean at the time they didn’t think that his scream the night of the Iowa Caucuses would be as horrible as it seemed to everybody else, but it proved to be fatal

That last part is especially rich, given that it was the dogged and repetitive playing and reporting on the “scream” by corporate media hacks like Schuster in the first place that convinced the viewing public by sheer force of repetition to perceive it as “horrible”. What’s most absurd is that the entirety of Palin’s speech really was, by any objective measurements of human cognition,  an embarrasing potential career-ender; while the “scream” moment of Dean’s otherwise unremarkable speech would have been completely unnoticed without  media repetition and amplification.

Hardball and other venues have moved on, of course, giving further ridiculous weighting to moments of little importance taken absurdly out of context. Now instead of providing in-depth examination of Sotomayor’s judicial record, they busy themselves slicing and dicing 10 seconds of dialogue that are meaningless without its context. That’s their job, apparently.

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