Kathleen Parker’s ‘Mainstream’ Isn’t About the Ballet Shoes

“Elena Kagan Is Miles Away From Mainstream America” is the headline on Kathleen Parker‘s Washington Post column this morning (5/12/10). What exactly does that mean?

Well, on first blush, it seems to have to do with where she’s from: “Coincidentally, she shares the same home town as the other two women on the court. Assuming Kagan is confirmed, all three women will hail from New York.” And why does this matter? “Spending one’s formative years walking past the infamously crime-riddled Murder Hotel en route to school, as Kagan did–and, say, walking past the First Baptist Church to ballet class–are not the same cultural marinade.”

To which, as a proud adopted New Yorker, I say: Huh? The “Murder Hotel” was a dilapidated residential hotel on the Upper West Side block that got its tabloid nickname from a murder that occurred there; it’s not particularly infamous, but it was on the block that Kagan grew up on, and her dad helped shut it down.

But we also have ballet classes in New York City–actually, there are even famous ballet troupes based here–and, believe it or not, we also have Baptist churches here–249 of them, according to this church-locating service. I don’t know if Kagan ever took ballet class, but if she did, she could very easily have walked by the First Baptist Church on her way to them–it’s at Broadway and West 79th Street, about four blocks from her house.

But this fantasy that New York City is some kind of alien world, where ballet and Baptists are unknown, is the crux of Parker’s argument: “It seems remote to unlikely that a woman whose life has involved Baptist churches and ballet slippers would find herself on a track to today’s Supreme Court, though that ought not to be the case.”

Could it be that Parker’s argument is not really about dance class, or even about New York City? That is suggested by her examples of justices whose backgrounds, unlike Kagan’s, are a “help in claiming identity with ordinary people”: She cites Clarence Thomas (“from a rural Georgia backwater”) and Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito (each is a “the child of recently arrived immigrants”). Scalia, like Kagan, is a native of New York City, and yet, puzzlingly, he’s a poster child for fitting in with regular Americans. Could there be something else about Kagan that sets her apart from “mainstream” Americans?

Well, yes, there is something. “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.” Though, again, the Catholics Scalia and Alito are held up as exemplars of ordinariness, so their religion isn’t putting them outside that “mainstream”–you know, the one where people attend churches, Baptist or otherwise.

Conservatives have made a trope out of “San Francisco values”–a phrase that mainly serves to link Democrats to the most gay-identified city in hopes of attracting homophobic votes. When I hear conservative media figures going on about New York City, I hear the same thing–only with Jews instead of gays.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.