Kagan’s smile: negotiating difference in the American body politic

It’s lunch time at 100 Highland, and I am watching the confirmation hearings.

Russ Feingold is imploring Elena Kagan to be god-like as she exercises the powers with which she will be endowed as a (likely) member of the Supreme Court.

Feingold is solemn.  Kagan is watchful.

Then, quite suddenly, a small show a humor from Feingold as he acknowledges her origins

I also hope we will continue to see greater diversity on the court in other ways, including representation from MidWestern and Western states.  It’s important that all Americans feel that the court represents their life experiences and their values.

And here Kagan is suddenly all smiles (as pictured).

It’s one of those things that strikes a Canadian.  In the US, there are some differences that are considered non-provocative.  People will shout out passionately to declare their loyalty for a sport’s team, a university, or in this case a part of the country.  No one takes offense. More likely, they will shout "Go Wildcats" in support of their own team.

In this non provocative world, everyone, apparently, gets to shout their enthusiasms, and no one minds.  At the very worst, they will shout back with their own.  This part of the American body politic, body cultural, is entirely non zero-sum.  Your enthusiasm costs me not all.  These identity differences are, as they used to say during the English Reformation, things indifferent.  We can let them stand.  We don’t need to fight them out.

But only some enthusiasms are allowed.  Had Feingold and Kagan shared a broad smile over a shared political or gender identity, as in "Hey, let’s hear it for Heterosexuals," or "We are lawyers. Hear us roar," there would have been an explosive controversy and an abrupt end to Kagan’s judicial aspirations.

Which raises a possibility.  Could the US now so cruelly divided by provocative difference, ever be a place in which all differences, even gender and ideological ones, are things indifferent.  Isn’t this a crude measure of what we’re heading for: a world in which every identity differences is treated with this sense of largesse.

There are several anthropological and political science questions here.  What precisely is the difference between identity differences that are and are not provocative?  How do the things indifferent become things indifferent?  What would we need to do to move things different into the things indifferent category?  

A couple of posts ago, I was worried about the formation of an American body politic in which the phrase "You just don’t get it" is heard so often.  One place to go to work on this issue is to have a closer look at Kagan’s smile

One thought on “Kagan’s smile: negotiating difference in the American body politic”

  1. Sorry I got to this so long after it was posted, but this strikes me as a very astute observation. In fact, this kind of “inoffensive partisanship” is often deployed as a bonding experience or form of social reassurance: “You and I may have all kinds of serious conflicts, but we have in common an admittedly irrational loyalty to distinctive but not ideologically charged identities. We can be passionate in at least some of our differences without seeking one another’s destruction, because these differences are really a kind of symmetry.”

    On the other hand, if you go on sports blogs and look at the comment threads–especially for college football–people can get pretty nasty and almost ideological about which conference is better, which school has the better record overall, et.

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