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"Soporific" and "Kind of Disturbing"

These are words that David Brooks (who, let's face it, when he's good is brilliant) uses to describe Elena Kagan's writing and, also, her general attitude toward politics, her career, and the advancement of ideas.  Kagan's record of almost painful carefulness does not inspire--though it does seem to impress a certain kind of political actor.  Brooks reminds us that these are the "Organization Kids"--this soul type that Brooks nails as "kind of disturbing." 

Brooks does not really elaborate upon why he finds this ability to suppress the soul to be so disturbing, but he hints at a possible explanation when he notes her deadly-boring style of scholarship--with its cold, hard, lack of any poetical quality.  I think I know what he means and I share his distaste for such prose.  (The prospect of reading opinions authored by Elena Kagan makes it hard to regret not taking up Constitutional Law as a specialty . . .)  But then, too, this attitude he describes is sometimes couched in poetical, even seductive language . . . think of President Obama's many speeches employing the "false choice" rhetoric and appearing--on the surface--to build bridges.  There is something false in them . . . but it is not the choice he speaks of.

So I'd be careful of allowing distaste alone to color my explanation of what's disturbing in these "Organization Kids."  There is something deeper to it, in my view.  If a soul can suppress itself to this degree, is it not reasonable to assume that this same soul would have little problem with the methodical, cock-sure and robot-like suppression of the souls of others?  If it pleased her teachers and her benefactors, I suppose she might be pleased to do it . . .
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Discussions - 11 Comments

Perhaps, Mr. Brooks, but it has been my observation that "Organization Kids" usually have perfectly creased pants, so there is that...

Touché!

God love ya Julie, but that which I find "soporific" and "kind of disturbing" is David Brooks. Once again the man allows style to trump substance when he judges. Before it was a silver tongue, coupled with well-creased pants that beguiled him. Now, it's the prudential at the expense of the poetic that works its magic in the opposite direction.

For heaven's sake, to be prudential at almost any college today means to be a liberal. Period! Dot! Is there any doubt that Kagan is a doctinaire liberal for which the constitution is really little more than a broad outline of national goals that are constraining except when they're not and I'll let you know which is which when I feel like it, and, oh, by ythe way, that can change? Really, is there any doubt? THAT is the reason to oppose her nomination, as it was also the reason to oppose Obama's election.

Whew! Glad to get that off my chest.

Yes, oh Sage . . . but whether Brooks realizes it or not, he has described exactly what you lament in his poetic portrait of Kagan. Hers appears to be the soul of the patient and plodding and unemotional tyrant. She is efficient and, seemingly, reasonable. So she's not the Queen of Hearts sort who will order "Off with your head!" when it strikes her fancy . . . she's the bureaucratic genius who up her chess game as needed to make you wish to off your own or submit.

One or both of us is confused. It sounds to me like you're making essentially the same stylistic assessment of Kagan as Brooks. As for me, whether she impetuously or deliberately reaches her conclusions matters not a wit. Her conclusions will be the same nevertheless. And those conclusions will not be constrained by either the letter or the spirit of the law. The constitution means whatever she thinks it means. Cheers.

I'm not here to defend Brooks but I do find his description of Kagan to be insightful-- though I admit that it may be for reasons different from the ones Brooks intended.

All I am saying is that I think Brooks--in noting her amazing capacity to cork her views in her writing--exposes Kagan as being in possession of a tyrannical soul, whether that was his intention or not. It is not a kind of noble self-restraint or prudence that he describes, but an ruthless culling of sentiment and opinion from one's expression. It is a kind of tyranny over one's own soul and in the service of ambition.

Because she is so often described as "reasonable" and "conciliatory" this insight sounds contrary to the evidence and the testimony about her amazing "temperament," at first. How could someone so genteel and gracious (she invited conservatives to lunch at Harvard!--*heavy snark*) be described as impulsively tyrannical? I agree that it would sound silly (and it certainly is rhetorically ineffective as well as unfair) to compare her to, say, Caligula . . . but, because I also agree with what you say about her judicial inclinations, I think her "temperament" actually makes her more dangerous. It is not persuasive--in the sense of being an appeal to reason. It is manipulative and seductive. She--as are all who view the Constitution in the way she views it--is cock-sure of her own capacity to tell what the Constitution "ought" to say regardless of whether the consent of the sovereign (i.e., the people) supports her wish. She is, after all, the master of her own universe operating according to rules of her own making . . . whether genteel or not, poetic or not, apparently "moderate" or not, open-minded (ha!) or not, she determines the end result and it moves remarkably according to the direction of her chosen ideology and in support of her own particular ambition.

Brooks (again, whether meaning to or not) shows why Kagan's lack of poetry and passion may, in fact, be an indication of this tyrannical impulse (in addition to being soporific). Contra Brooks, I argue that lack of poetry by itself is not enough to "out" an "Organization Kid"--because some "O.K.s" are quite poetic. So the absence of "poetry" may point to the problem . . . but its presence can also obscure it. And vice versa.

So I am not arguing for a stylistic understanding of Elena Kagan . . . in fact, I am arguing against it. The stylistic understanding (or poetic understanding, if you prefer) is actually the one offered by the President.

Thanks Julie. Now, I think, I both understand and take your point. Well said. If she's that careful by nature or practice, however, I doubt she can be forced to show her cards at the hearing. But, again, does it matter? As I said, she's still a liberal or Obama wouldn't have nominated her. However persuasive she may be, I doubt she'll fool Scalia, Thomas, or the other conservatives on the Court. I KNOW she won't fool me, or you. All the best.

Not that I want any liberal activist judges on the court, but is this not unfair? D**ned if they do, d**ned if they don't!

Not sure I follow the Owl's question . . . do you mean the use of poetical language? Or something else?

Kagan is good at getting along with people and showing respect. Combined with her ability to refrain from controversial writing, it suggests a person who had SCOTUS or comparable ambitions. Once she was appointed dean of HLS, she knew she was a contender for SCOTUS in a Democratic administration. She behaved accordingly, knowing that conservatives would be so grateful to be treated like human beings that they would cooperate in her nomination if it occurred. She was quite right, it appears.

The object of the hearings ought to be to draw a clear distinction between her (and Obama's) approach to the Constitution and an approach that takes the Constitution (and, therefore, the idea of government by consent of the governed) more seriously. If anyone were asking me, I'd seek to highlight the ways in which the approach of the more "liberal" judges are actually illiberal--that is, they seek to impose an interpretation of the Constitution that permits an end-run around the need for consent. Although this may seem an old and tired argument to those who have been following the debate for decades (at least since the Bork hearings) the time may be more ripe for it to gain a toe-hold in the popular imagination just now. There is already a vast and growing suspicion on the part of many ordinary Americans now that so-called "liberals" and "Progressives" seek to impose their own ideas about what is best for them upon the people without their consent. Our job is to show them how their railroading of the judiciary has and is helping in that process. I doubt very much that Kagan's confirmation can be stopped . . . and, further, I doubt whether stopping it would mean getting someone substantially better in her place. But I do think this exercise throughout the summer could help to frame the public debate for November and beyond. I do think that--whatever happens--it will play a part in framing it. It is, therefore, imperative that the GOP show up to play ball and that they play the first string. We need to marshal all of our best arguments now and put them to wise and prudent use.

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