Are you a "mainstream" American? Probably not, according to The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker. In a column today criticizing President Obama's pick of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, Parker writes that Kagan just isn't mainstream enough:
Certainly New York City dwellers would argue that they struggle with ordinary concerns, just in a more dense environment. But New York, like other urban areas, tends to be more liberal than the vast rest of the country. More than half the country also happens to be Protestant, yet with Kagan, the court will feature three Jews, six Catholics and nary a Protestant. Fewer than one-fourth of Americans are Catholic, and 1.7 percent are Jewish.
One does not have to be from a rural Georgia backwater (Clarence Thomas), or the child of recently arrived immigrants (Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito), to qualify as a justice, though it might help in claiming identity with ordinary people. One could even argue that it matters only that one regard the law with utter neutrality.
But the president adheres to the ordinary-people principle, and so the question must be asked: Does Kagan meet the standard? She may have other qualifications, including her willingness at Harvard to invite conservative scholars to her faculty. But a New York City girl who attended a prep school, Ivy League colleges and law school -- who once barred military recruiters from Harvard's recruitment office and was an adviser to Goldman Sachs -- can't be characterized as anything close to mainstream America.
Tell me, why is it that being from a small rural town in Georgia is "mainstream," but being from New York isn't? The 2000 census found that 21 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, while 58 percent of Americans lived in cities of over 200,000. This year's census will probably find even fewer people living in rural areas. So wouldn't that mean that being from a big city like New York is far more "mainstream" than being from a small town? Why is it that someone who comes from a "rural Georgia backwater" has an easier time "claiming identity with ordinary people" than someone from New York? That only makes sense if you think people from "backwaters" are real and ordinary, while people from New York are exotic or unreal in some way. But going by the numbers, it would seem that the folks in the backwaters are the ones who aren't "mainstream."
Or perhaps we could think about it another way: There is no such thing as a representative place to be from. One of the things that makes America interesting is that no two places are exactly alike. That means that there is no hometown whose natives could claim that they are representative of the whole country. Parker asserts that Kagan is not mainstream because "New York, like other urban areas, tends to be more liberal than the vast rest of the country." Do you think that if Kagan was from a small town in Nebraska, say, that Parker would complain that she wasn't mainstream because her hometown was more conservative than the "vast rest of the country"? Of course not -- she'd be hailing the nominee for coming from the "real" America, where "real" people go to their "real" jobs, eat their "real" food, and worship their "real" God.
-- Paul Waldman