Sonia Sotomayor & the Art of Population Control – Nicholas Little

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In May of this year, Barack Obama named federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor as the country’s first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. With this nomination, Sotomayor began the tedious process leading to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. If successful, Sotomayor would be the Supreme Court’s 111th Justice, yet only the third female Justice and the first of Hispanic background.

In July of this year, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan appeared as a guest on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show to discuss Sotomayor’s appointment. Buchanan opposes Sotomayor’s nomination, claiming it is “an affirmative action appointment by the President of the United States”.



When Maddow asks Buchanan why 108 of the 110 Supreme Court Justices have been white if white privilege isn’t at play, Buchanan replies:

White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks, who were 90% of the nation in 1960 when I was growing up and the other 10% were African-Americans who had been discriminated against. That’s why.

Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post sarcastically responds to Buchanan’s argument by imploring all Americans to remember that white people not only built this city — THEY BUILT THIS CITY ON ROCK AND ROLL! (Though they stole that from black people too…)

But the part of this unproductively-polarizing Maddow-Buchanan spar that actually interests me is the way in which Buchanan maneuvers for viewers’ sympathy by sentimentally invoking the names of individual white, working-class Americans whose dreams, he claims, were cruelly thwarted by affirmative action policies that privilege unnamed yet uniformly unqualified people of colour:

Affirmative action is to increase diversity by discriminating against white males. As Allan Bakke was discriminated against at the University of California Davis, as Brian Weber – that worker in Louisiana – was discriminated against, as Frank Ricci and those firefighters were discriminated against, as Jennifer Gratz was discriminated against and kept out of the University of Michigan – which she set her heart on – even though her grades were far higher than people who were allowed in there.

…They are victims of this evil affirmative action policy, which says in effect that everybody’s covered by the 14th amendment in the civil rights laws unless you’re a white male and your parents and ancestors came from Europe — then we can discriminate against you. That’s what I am against.

Buchanan argues to correct this injustice and protect individual victims of affirmative action:

They ought to defend the legitimate rights of white, working-class folks who are the victims of discrimination because that’s the right thing to do and because it’s the politically right thing to do. …Standing up for Frank Ricci — we saw the face of a victim of these policies. …Rachel, you never look at these guys who are working-class guys with their own dreams. Do you think Frank Ricci and those guys were treated justly when they were denied that promotion because they were white?

Frank Ricci. Allan Bakke. Brian Weber. Jennifer Gratz.

Individuals with their own names and particular dreams–faces that Buchanan urges us to look at, presumably so that we might see their humanity and feel compelled to respond compassionately.

* * * * * * * * *

The Globe & Mail [1] recently reported that better HIV treatments or a possible vaccine may one day be developed by exploring a curious phenomenon occurring among chimps, monkeys and apes. The story itself isn’t my focus here so I’ll review the details quickly:

• HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) has a parallel in the primate world: SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus);
• SIV is causing deaths among wild chimps, yet most monkeys and apes that have it show no symptoms or illness;
• Chimps are man’s closest relative among primates; and
• “If we could figure out why the monkeys don’t get sick, perhaps we could apply that to people,” says Beatrice Hahn, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

My interest in the story lies in people’s response to it. Admittedly, online reader comments are about as measured and profound as letters to the editor in the National Enquirer, but what they lack in substance and diplomacy they make up for in uncensored insight about what everyday people truly believe. Below are some of the reader comments to the Globe & Mail story about HIV and SIV:

“…mother nature seems to have a way to create dead ends and regulate over population…”

“Why do the unfortunates deserve to be fortunate?”

“I for one care more about a potentially extinct highly evolved other species than a few million more humans of which we have billions extra on this planet and of which saving their lives will forestall producing a few billion extra to suffer and die next decade rather than this.”

“i feel bad for the people who suffer everyday with hiv/aids, but if we found a cure, wouldn’t their [sic] be a problem with the population?”

South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys said: “In the old South Africa we killed people. Now we’re just letting them die.” In 2007, an estimated 14,561 Americans died of AIDS while the total number of AIDS-related deaths in all of Africa was 1,500,000. That’s a ratio of about 1:100. The total estimated population of the African continent is only about 3 times that of the total estimated American population.

Those numbers, however, can lead to an erroneous vision of what it is to live with HIV and die of AIDS. Raymond A. Smith writes for The Body:

Throughout the epidemic, views of AIDS have often taken two diametrically opposite perspectives — the highly personalized form of individual stories and memoirs and works of art versus the highly impersonal form of charts and graphs and statistical tables.

Clearly, the Globe & Mail reader comments are evidence of the “highly impersonal” latter. Imagine a candlelight vigil for loved ones lost to AIDS that includes the stirring benediction: “and may we all leave this place knowing that these 1,500,000 epi-stats have not sacrificed themselves solely for the sake of this gorgeous pie chart in the PowerPoint slide to my left, but also for the glorious goal of population control. May they rest in peace in the UNAIDS archives forever. Amen.”

Those reader comments – tacky, heartless, stingy, and offensive – should not be dismissed merely as the oddball ramblings of anti-social loners everywhere. They demonstrate a view that is widely-held but only sometimes articulated, wherein vague understandings of natural selection are mutated for political purposes. Ironically, this view is most often espoused by folks like Pat Buchanan–and his religious, conservative supporters–despite the fact that they deride Darwinian theories in all other contexts. The view goes something like this:

It’s a crying shame if AIDS kills people off by the millions but at the same time, this is how nature controls over-population within all species, right? No one likes to admit it but we all know healthy evolution demands the survival of the fittest. And who says the unfortunates deserve to be fortunate anyway – what’s the basis for this bleeding heart belief that interferes with nature?

In 1983, when the AIDS epidemic first broke onto the national scene (though still four years before the U.S. President would utter the word “AIDS”), Pat Buchanan wrote:

The poor homosexuals. They have declared war against nature, and nature is exacting an awful retribution.

There is nothing scientific about this claim–it is all politics and religious dogma. According to this view, nature smites down one American with AIDS for every 100 Africans with AIDS. The obvious questions for both religious conservatives like Buchanan and secular conservatives like many Globe & Mail readers are: If AIDS is nature’s awful retribution for those who commit crimes against it, what is it that Africans have done to merit a punishment 100 times more harsh than Americans? And if AIDS is nature’s means of population control, why do African populations need to be controlled 100 times more than the American population? Are you truly suggesting that Americans are naturally 100 times more fit for survival?

This is also the core of Rachel Maddow’s question about why 108 of the 110 Supreme Court justices have been white. Are white people truly more fit for the job 98% of the time? And if not, why do we resist naming the dynamic at play here?

The conservative critique of affirmative action asks us to look deep into the faces of Frank Ricci and other white men like him. It asks us to name them and fight for their dreams to be realized. Simultaneously, it dismisses the deaths of “a few million more humans of which we have billions extra on this planet”. We affirm the innate and inalienable humanity of white men so that we might feel compelled to respond to their needs compassionately; we purposely undermine the humanity of others by representing them as morbidity statistics–unfortunate casualties of nature’s progress. In asking us to actively affirm the humanity of Frank Ricci, Buchanan is calling for the very measure he allegedly opposes: affirmative action.

But this isn’t the first time he’s dabbled in such hypocrisy. Despite his claims that affirmative action is “evil”, Buchanan has argued in favour of it in the past. In 1971, he urged President Nixon not to abolish affirmative action, but rather to use it to appoint Supreme Court justices from particular religions:

Instead of sending out the orders to all our agencies — hire blacks and women — the order should go out — hire ethnic Catholics, preferable [sic] women for visible posts. One example: Italian Americans, unlike blacks, have never had a Supreme Court member… Give those fellows the ‘Jewish seat’ or ‘black seat’ on the Court when it becomes available.

* * * * * * * * *

Faces, names and dreams.

Charts, graphs and tables.

The Constitution. The Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Supreme Court.

Sonya Sotomayor and Rachel Maddow.

Pat Buchanan and Charles Darwin.

Frank Ricci. Henry Louis Gates.

Gettysburg. Normandy.

Monkeys, apes and chimps.

Straight people writing off blatant homophobia as simply a misunderstanding or an isolated incident or the work of a few bad apples.

White people refusing to acknowledge that something — even if we have yet to reach consensus about what it is — is askew when 98% of all Supreme Court Justices have been white, in a land that has only been predominantly white for a few hundred of its thousands-of-years history.

The deaths of millions of poor folks, trans folks, people of colour — whole communities– written off as a lamentable but indirectly fortuitous solution to over-population.

Public professionals of belief who believe in a pyramid hierarchy wherein the names, faces and dreams of the privileged are valued more than “highly evolved primates”, who in turn are valued more than the masses of epidemiological statistics who would have stolen our jobs anyway had they lived long enough to reap the rewards of evil affirmative action.

* * * * * * * * *

Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. Half-baked conclusions drawn by the paranoid mind of someone who’s been stewing in their own resentments for far too long and begins to imagine the whole world is out to get them. Fundamentally, no different than Pat Buchanan,just on the other end of the spectrum.

I’m not drawing a conclusion here; I’m trying to work out a hole in my heart. I’m not imploring you to do something or to think something; I’m seeking a new way to see the world myself.

On a good day, I can rationalize that I have different rights and freedoms than others around me by depersonalizing my experience and trying to see myself not as an individual, rooted here in the present, but as simply one among billions in the long continuum of time over which things are supposed to improve.

On a bad day, the desire for my own face, my own name, my own dreams to be recognized – and those, too, of my community – squelches my optimism and births rage and repugnant martyr fantasies of self-sabotage.

I’m seeking fewer position statements from myself and more incantations. Conjurations for more magic, which, as I see it, is the best we have to hold on to, much of the time. The only alchemic elixir that can sustain the dreams of the unnamed: hope.



References:

[1] Borenstein, Seth, “Scientists find HIV’s ‘missing link’ in chimps.” Globe & Mail, July 22 2009.

Nicholas Little is an Anglo-Albertan who decamped to Montreal sometime in the late nineties “to learn French and be gay”. He then moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where he worked as an HIV outreach worker in bathhouses, bars and online chat rooms for several years. In 2008 Nicholas helped found POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), an organization of current and former sex workers advocating for recognition of their labour, Charter and human rights. In September 2009 Nicholas moved again, this time to the UK to pursue further studies. You can follow his blog at http://ickaprick.blogspot.com