Read Slate's complete coverage of Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.
Every few years, history throws us a fresh, new Supreme Court nominee who—both by design and temperament—is completely unknowable. This forces the country into a brief round of political speed-dating, wherein we try to fall in love with a nominee just as that nominee attempts to float in the ether above us. And as is often the case when you are speed-dating someone who will not speak, the only option is to spend most of the time talking about yourself. So, "Is Kagan an Ivy League elitist" may actually mean "Am I an Ivy League elitist?" "Is Kagan a soulless careerist?" may be read as "Am I a soulless careerist?" and "Hey! Why isn't Kagan married?" starts to sound an awful lot like "Hey! Why am I not married?"
Now you'd think that with the dumping last night of tens of thousands of pages of Kagan's professional writings, we would be able to lay aside this game of dressing her up as the Choose-Your-Own-Anxiety Barbie. Yet we remain fixated on Kagan's looks, her sexuality, her gender, her single-ness, her hotness, her not-ness, and her personal ambition. Who cares what she really thinks about the merits of the exclusionary rule? This is not the stuff of which TV talk shows are made.
Since we can't spend these few weeks before the confirmation hearings getting to actually know the nominee—indeed we will find ourselves knowing slightly less about her every day if the White House manages things properly—we instead take the opportunity to get to know ourselves a little better. How much does race still matter in America? Here's what I think Kagan's minority hiring record tells us! Does religion still divide us? Here's what I think Kagan's religion tells us! As social commentators, we expand to fill the enormous space the nominee has left vacant.
Let's begin where we inevitably must: with the fact that Kagan is unmarried. Maureen Dowd, having just skewered the White House for painting Kagan as a Girls Gone Wild party girl, is certain that Kagan's single-ness has been spun by the White House as pathetic spinsterish loneliness. Really? I haven't seen much evidence of the White House spinning Kagan as lonely or too hardworking to marry. Maybe I just get the wrong press releases. It seems to me that a few of Kagan's friends talked about how she dated when she was younger but just didn't get hitched, and the choice to freak out about her unmarried status was ours. This was a proxy for the awkward conversation we're having about (or really around) sexual orientation. But it's also a proxy for how being unmarried still freaks Americans right out.
What I see in the national obsession over Kagan's unmarried status is precisely the same thing I saw in the national obsession over David Souter's: We want Supreme Court nominees who are diverse and interesting, but as soon as we get one, we treat their unique qualities like hideous communicable diseases. Sonia Sotomayor was the first Latina. So we called her a racist. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a feminist legal pioneer. So we called her a radical. And we thought David Souter (mother, farmhouse, perennially unplugged TV) was just so much tragic marital roadkill.
Is there a double standard when it comes to unmarried women versus unmarried men and the Supreme Court? I really don't think so. I think we're so in love with marriage in this country that we refuse to accept that not everybody does it. We prefer a four-times-married William O. Douglas to a celibate David Souter. *