Daily Howler logo
THE THIRTY-TWO WORDS! A cult is trumpeting 32 words. How should smart people respond? // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 28, 2009

What is a valedictorian: If you read one newspaper piece today, we’ll suggest that you read Scott Shane’s profile of Celina Sotomayor, Sonia Sotomayor’s mother—a registered nurse and a pillar of strength. In the late 1960s, Co-Op City rose up alongside I-95 in the Bronx as a bit of an analog to Brasilia. (Gigantic complex, bureaucratic name.) This morning, Shane lets us enter the large, sprawling complex. We’ll clip from near the end of his piece, but we recommend the whole thing:

SHANE (5/28/09): Despite the demands on her as a single mother, recalled Dinorah Tirado, a friend and Co-Op City neighbor for many years, Mrs. Sotomayor never complained. ''Never, never,'' Mrs. Tirado said. ''She never said, 'It's hard,' or 'I can't make ends meet.' ''

At the sprawling apartment building, she became unofficial medical consultant, Mrs. Tirado said. When another neighbor had cancer, Mrs. Sotomayor would rise early each day before work to make and deliver her breakfast. Friends turned to her with every ailment.

''Whoever was sick rang the doorbell,'' Mrs. Tirado said. Mrs. Sotomayor, she recalled, even “removed my cat's stitches.”

Shane’s profile is well worth reading. We’ll judge that Sotomayor’s mother earned the right to have her name pronounced correctly.

Meanwhile, was Celina Sotomayor’s daughter valedictorian of that first coed class at Cardinal Spellman? It may all depend on what the meaning of “valedictorian” is.

We offered a caveat yesterday for a reason: On Tuesday, The official White House press release struck us as perhaps a bit Ceci Connolly-esque on this particular point. (Text below.) Yesterday, on Morning Edition, Mike Pesca interviewed Angela Longerew, a high school classmate of Sotomayor’s. (To hear the whole segment, click here.) If the facts recorded here are accurate, who was the valedictorian?

PESCA (5/27/09): One manifestation that Longerew remembers is that the speaker slot at graduation went to someone other than the student with the highest grade-point average.

LONGEREW: Well, they offered the opportunity to make the speech to people who were willing to try out. And in this way, even if you did not rank first you had an opportunity to make the valedictory address.

PESCA: And so who did wind up making the valedictory?

LONGEREW: Sonia Sotomayor.

PESCA: And who ranked first? Angela Longerew, who's put the graduation speech issue behind her. Though it is funny, she says, that yesterday all of her old friends got in touch to joke, if only they had let you speak, you'd be on the Supreme Court.

But the more serious point, Longerew says, is that Sotomayor embodies exactly the experiment an institution like Cardinal Spellman High School was engaged in. She took advantage of all her opportunities, and Longerew says she never doubted that her former classmate would get far in life.

If these facts are accurate, Longerew had the highest GPA; Sotomayor gave the “valedictory address.” As you’ll recall, the Post’s Amy Goldstein found a nice middle ground. She reported that Sotomayor rose all the way to Spellman’s student senate.

If those facts are accurate, who was valedictorian? We’re not sure, but the White House seemed perhaps a bit Ceci-esque in its official release: “Sotomayor graduated as valedictorian of her class at Blessed Sacrament and at Cardinal Spellman High School in New York.”

Ceci-esque? Maybe not. But as we’ve said: When professional communicators seem to smudge a fact, we’ve learned to wonder about that.

THE THIRTY-TWO WORDS: The adepts of a potent cult have swung into furious action this week. That cult is The Cult of the Offhand Comment, a powerful force in recent American life. In his latest brush with irrelevance, Dana Milbank outlines the cult’s latest frenzy:

MILBANK (5/28/09):In her years on the bench, Sonia Sotomayor has produced millions of words. Opponents of her Supreme Court nomination are particularly interested in 32 of them:

"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," she said in a 2001 speech.

Can you learn a lot about a person from 32 words—out of millions produced? Probably not. But this powerful cult lives for such explorations. In 1999, its adepts took only sixteen words from a White House contender, then whittled them down and improved them a bit, producing the clownish statement they loved. (Al Gore said he invented the Internet!) Earlier, they had done the same thing to a statement only two people had even heard, producing another clownish paraphrase. (Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!)

In that case, the two people who’d actually heard what Gore actually said rejected the cult’s interpretation. (Karen Tumulty, Richard Berke.) But so what? This cult wreaked havoc in 1999 and 2000, changing the shape of American history. This week, the cult is back. This raises a serious question:

Is our society capable of intelligent discourse? Or are we dumb now beyond all recall?

In the current case, this question will be answered by the performance of the mainstream press—and by the performance of liberals and Dems. As the Cult of the Offhand Comment advances, are journalists and liberals even capable of shaping intelligent discourse?

It’s hard to answer that question. But here are a few basic thoughts about the best way to deal with this cult:

Ask for an explanation: When someone makes a murky or slightly odd-sounding statement, there is a correct and decent reaction: You ask them what they meant! In yesterday’s Post, Ruth Marcus wrote a sensible column in which she displayed this sensible instinct concerning those 32 words:

MARCUS (5/27/09): I'm skeptical of the initial critiques of Sotomayor—with a few caveats. One involves the New Haven, Conn., firefighters case...

I'd also like to hear more from Sotomayor herself about some out-of-court statements—for instance, this from a 2001 speech: "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." A bit of hyperbole in the service of diversity (my guess) or a disturbing bit of identity politics (as the National Journal's Stuart Taylor sees it).

For ourselves, we’d make a third guess about that statement—and we’ve now read Sotomayor’s whole speech, which Marcus may not have had a chance to do (link below). But the right thing to do in such matters is clear: You ask the person what she meant. Her answer may seem unsatisfactory in some way or other. But for decent folk, that’s where it starts.

Insist on decency from the cult’s adepts: Most likely, Sotomayor won’t be asked what she meant until her Senate hearing occurs. In the meantime, intelligent people should insist that adepts of the cult avoid their standard, dim-witted practice: They should refrain from adopting the most unflattering possible account of what she must have meant. Of course, many adepts have already taken this tack; they currently thunder about the land, “explaining” Sotomayor’s comment. This is a very familiar practice. If we want to have an intelligent society, we should use this as an opportunity to reject this gong-show practice—and the high priests who adore it. We should help fellow citizens see this gong-show practice from the dim-witted thing that it is.

Unfortunately, we liberals may not be good at these approaches. We ourselves have shown an occasional tendency to sign up with this dim-witted cult. John McCain said he wants a hundred-year war! We had some fun with that gong-show claim until we learned an unfortunate fact: When we talk sh*t about Saint McCain, the mainstream press corps won’t go along! But we’ve already seen some liberals on TV explaining what Sotomayor meant; their explanations aren’t necessarily all that convincing, however dogmatic they’re willing to be.

Example: Last night, on The Ed Show, Laura Flanders tried to bluster her way past a polite but disturbed Michael Medved:

FLANDERS (5/27/09): Michael, I really hope that you tomorrow on your radio show play the entire speech, not just a few sentences from it.

MEDVED: I have. I’ve done that.

FLANDERS: We want to hear the whole thing. And it wasn’t—Sam [Stein] is absolutely right. When Condoleezza Rice was up for confirmation, when Elaine Chao was up for confirmation, they all told their stories. They all said it enriched their expertise, enriched their expertise. That’s nothing more or less than what Sotomayor is saying.

MEDVED: It is something very different.

Earlier, Stein had said that Sotomayor made her statement “in a poorly formed rhetorical way.” We might be inclined to agree with that—but we’d be disinclined to say exactly what Sotomayor meant. We’d rather let Sotomayor speak for herself—reminding the public that Sotomayor is a plainly decent person whose outstanding public career can’t be captured in 32 words. For ourselves, we think Sotomayor was saying a bit more than Rice or Chao—though we’d prefer to let her explain it.

We’d also advise the public of an obvious fact: The cult is discussing those 32 words because they don’t really have a bunch of court cases in which Sotomayor has acted like the demon they’re like to pretend she is. As Marcus noted, Sotomayor will be asked to explain the New Haven firefighters case. But have you noticed how few such cases the cult is screaming about? That’s because, in all those millions of words, Sotomayor has served with reserve and distinction. It’s time to help the public see the way this tiresome cult behaves—the way they scrounge for some offhand comment through which we can all be ginned up and misled.

A powerful cult changed our history in 1999 and 2000. Liberals ran and hid in the woods; we rarely discuss that period today. But that famous cult is back this week (albeit in reduced numbers); this time, they’re working with 32 words, up from their prior sixteen. They will paraphrase those 32 words in the most goonish was they can manage; they’ll insist there’s no other way you can read them.

And uh-oh! We currently live in a very dumb world. On TV, journalists will do a very poor job of placing their claims in some sort of perspective. They’ve played the fool for a long time. For many of our biggest players, analytical skills simply don’t exist. Only the gong-show remains.

This cult is alive for an obvious reason. In the last decade, we didn’t help the public see how they make their gong-shows work. (Hiding in the woods was easier.) They made us look at Gore’s sixteen words because his overall record was strong. Today, they’re having a fit over 32 words because Sotomayor has a good record too. While waiting to hear from Sotomayor herself, this might be an excellent time to start taking this stupid cult down.

Meanwhile, to read the judge’s full speech, just click here. We think her discussion went beyond the things Rice or Chao may have said. But then, she also said that she tries very hard not to judge based on her own outlooks. “I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives,” she carefully said—“ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires.”

So spake Sotomayor, going beyond the words a silly cult treasures. But uh-oh! Given the culture we’ve helped create, TV stars will often be too dumb to cite the rest of her words.