Sexual politics command passions in American political life far more powerful than those currently focused on Wall Street bankers or on BP. By conventional measures Elena Kagan should sail through her nomination by President Obama to one of the most influential jobs in America — a seat on the US Supreme court — in a walk. If Obama had nominated a liberal, the right wing would be gleefully hunkering down for a battle royal, charging that Obama was putting up a fellow-communist intent on trashing the US Constitution. But by any normal measure Kagan is not a liberal. She’s a right-winger cheered by Republicans through her nomination to her current job as Solicitor General.
As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan made 32 tenure-track appointments. 25 went to white men. Six went to white women, and one to an Asian woman. She didn’t hire a single black, Latino or Native American tenure track law professor. Several of her hires were prominent members of the right-wing Federalist Society.
The right is trying to raise dust about her running military recruiters off the Harvard Law School’s premises. Kagan did nothing of the sort. The recruiters were there, albeit without the School’s official imprimatur. Kagan objected to the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays (until it got judicial sanction, whereupon she gave an official imprimatur to the recruiters) — a nice insight into the relationship of sexual politics to the US war machine. “Don’t tell” has been Kagan’s consistent policy regarding her beliefs and preferences, at least since that first photo of the youngster in judge’s robes, smoking a cigar.
Before she went to Harvard she was Clinton’s deputy domestic policy advisor, in which capacity she oversaw, among other assignments, welfare “reform,” kicking poor women, many of them single mothers, off the welfare rolls.
From 2005 to 2008, she was a paid advisor for Goldman Sachs. In those same confirmation hearings for the Solicitor General’s job she took the hard Bush-Cheney line that the world is a “battlefield” and kidnapping America’s presumptive enemies is just fine. As Jeffrey St. Clair and I wrote in our newsletter, CounterPunch, recently, “There’s zero evidence that Kagan would do anything to redress the right-wing tilt of the Court and plenty that she might exacerbate it in the areas of executive power, civil liberties, and assertion of presidential war powers.”
But amid rumors that she might be gay, the Christian right is now saying that her true mission will be to swerve the US Supreme court into overturning California’s Prop 8 vote (that limits marriage to men paired with women) and into striking down constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in 31 states, most of which were the result of similar Prop 8-type votes. Her right-wing assailants don’t openly hang their onslaughts on her possible gay preference. They say piously, in the words of Michael McManus of Marriage Savers, “What matters is not her personal life but evidence that she has elevated her pro-gay ideology above the law of Congress.”
Is there any such evidence? No. In her confirmation hearings for the Solicitor General job she was asked flatly, Do you believe that there is a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage? Her answer: “There is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.”
Is there any evidence she’s gay, beyond being single at 50, with that heavyish set-to jaw and features that is a familiar characteristic of many middle-aged lesbians? I could cite a student at the Harvard Law School when Kagan was Dean who says her gay preference was taken for granted.
Last month CBS News’ website featured a columnist, Ben Domenech claiming that Kagan is gay. The White House — readying public announcement of Kagan’s nomination — went on red alert, lashing out at CBS’ “false charges” and telling the Washington Post that Kagan is not a lesbian.
Then on May 10 Andrew Sullivan, prominent gay commentator, posted an item on his “Daily Dish” blog, “So Is She Gay?”
“It would be bizarre,” Sullivan wrote, “to argue that a Justice's sexual orientation will not in some way affect his or her judgment of the issue, it is only logical that this question should be clarified. It's especially true with respect to Obama. He has, after all, told us that one of his criteria for a Supreme Court Justice is knowing what it feels like to be on the wrong side of legal discrimination. Well: does he view Kagan's possible life-experience as a gay woman relevant to this? … To put it another way: Is Obama actually going to use a Supreme Court nominee to advance the cause of the closet (as well as kill any court imposition of marriage equality)? And can we have a clear, factual statement as to the truth? In a free society in the 21st Century, it is not illegitimate to ask. And it is cowardly not to tell.”
So — diametrically opposite to the other right-wingers cited above — Sullivan is saying that Kagan may be a closet case, and like many closet cases may tilt towards a repressive legal posture on gay rights.
Now, the traditional position of militant gays is that closet gays in public life deserve to be “outed” if they are pushing an anti-gay political or legal agenda.
There’s a case to be made that Kagan may qualify for outing by that standard. But liberals are now rallying to Kagan simply because she’s under attack from the right — and even though her recorded political opinions are mostly terrible. The liberal Nation Magazine runs a headline this week, “Kagan is not gay.” I seized it up, thinking to find persuasive evidence of heterosexual conduct on the part of Kagan. What this might be is hard to imagine, since I doubt we’re in for a rerun of Lewinsky’s stained dress, the most famous piece of apparel in America for a couple of years back in the Nineties when life was fun.
But no, the (gay) author of the Nation article, Richard Kim, takes cover in a postmodern thicket: “Gay isn't some genetic or soulful essence; it's a name you call yourself — and Kagan has not done that. So in my book, case closed. Elena Kagan is not gay. Is she straight? I don't know, and again, I don't care. Why does she have to have a sexuality at all?”
Carried away by this theme, Kim added, “In a way, the mystery about her sexuality mirrors the mystery about her legal philosophy. We just don't know a whole lot.”
This is nonsense, since we actually know a lot about her legal philosophy including her support for the theory of the unitary executive (a position popular in the Clinton White House as well as Bush-Cheney’s). But liberals want to reinvent Kagan as a potential liberal martyr, as opposed to the chill neoliberal self-promoter she undoubtedly is. So where one could and should expect the liberal-left to be taking Kagan’s nomination as proof positive that Obama has destroyed the last-ditch rationale for voting any Democratic presidential ticket (“He’ll put a liberal on the Court”), we now see — a la Kim — a call to the disheartened progressives to rally round Kagan and Obama, against a right-wing witch-hunt against homosexuals.
Actually, these days the whole closet/anti-closet posture looks increasingly dated. One of America’s largest and most powerful labor unions — the Service Employees International — has just installed Mary Kay Henry as its new president, hailed by the Politico site as “the first woman, and the first openly gay leader to head one of America’s largest unions.” In fact, as Steve Early pointed out recently, both of these “historic firsts” have already been accomplished by Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, but the labor movement is scarcely on the cutting edge of sexual liberation, so the fact that being openly gay was not a problem for Henry is a sign of the times. (Henry was asked whether it is reasonable to demand disclosure of the sexual orientation of someone serving in a public office, and answered prudently, “I think we should allow people to individually decide that question and not speculate and call them out.”)
The US Supreme court is looking weirder by the year. About half of America’s 170 million Christians are Protestants, a quarter Catholic. On the US Supreme Court six of the nine are now Catholic. Jews were once reckoned to deserve one seat. Kagan’s Jewishness would have been an issue, as also would have been the fact that she’s a woman. Not any more. If Kagan is confirmed — and the betting is that she will be — the non-Catholics will be three Jews. There’ll be three women. The outgoing Stevens is the only Protestant, also the only one not to have gone to either Harvard or Yale. If Kagan gets Stevens’ seat, the US Supreme Court will be a total Harvard-Yale monopoly. Justice Anthony Kennedy (Catholic) is the only Westerner. There are no open gays. If Kagan makes it and is in fact a closet case, she will not be alone. There is another closet gay. Let’s leave Sullivan to figure out who it is and to issue a denunciation.
Footnote: a CounterPuncher emails:
“…vide the emotional display of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck when he appears on O'Reilly's show. I have never seen such nauseating licking of each other's chops of two grown men!”
AC — “I missed them, thank God. You think they're both closet cases?”
CounterPuncher: “NO DOUBT… If you are a proud subscriber to cable, you should see these two together on Fox (actually my fave comedy channel).”
Talking to Michael Pollan
Catch Pollan’s vivid interview in our latest CounterPunch newsletter, just out. A couple of samples:
Pollan: “We’ve adopted the reductive language of nutrition from the scientists: we all talk about saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup. It’s fascinating to listen to Americans talk about food today. They sound like a bunch of amateur scientists. They don’t talk about foods; they talk about nutrients….You’re either ruining your health or you’re improving your health with every meal. And that’s a kind of bizarre view of food. I mean, people eat for a great many other reasons. So, I think we’ve lost our sense of food.”
Pollan again: “The food movement has many faces to it: there’re people who are working on school lunch, people working on community food security in the inner city, and people working on changing the farm, and farm to hospital movements. It’s a very big, inchoate movement that is just starting to gel and be felt, I think, at the national level. It’s kind of where environmentalism was in the 60s, around the time of Earth Day.”
Also in the new newsletter is a wonderful story from the annals of classical espionage: the full story, by Igor Atamanenko, of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest triumphs — the saga of the Chrysostom bug and the extraordinary man who designed it — Leon Theremin, also inventor of the world’s first synthesizer and the only man we know of who preferred to return to the Soviet Union in 1938 rather than do battle with the IRS.
(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.)