Shake That Grove Thing

June 22nd, 2009 in Bohemian Grove, Breaking News

Sonia Sotomayor is a member of a highly unrestricted club: the club of people who deny the obvious about reverse discrimination. The club itself does not discriminate. It has members of every race, religion and sexual orientation. They include virtually all politicians and a majority of the Supreme Court.

By now you probably know the story. President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee is a member of an all-women’s club called the Belizean Grove. Its main activity is an annual retreat, usually in Belize, where a self-described “constellation of influential women” gathers to practice the folk rituals of 21st-century big shots and wannabes of both genders, such as bonding and mentoring. This club is a response to theBohemian Grove, a similar annual gathering in Northern California. The Bohemian Grove has struggled against the tide of history for years in its attempt to remain all male, and so far it has succeeded with only a few concessions. One famous argument was that the presence of women would prevent members from urinating on trees — another treasured folk ritual in those circles, apparently.

If Obama had nominated a man who was a member of the Bohemian Grove, that would be a big issue and probably a fatal one. So how is it different if Sotomayor is a member of a club set up specifically to be the female equivalent? Rather than try to answer this question honestly, Sotomayor chose to make the preposterous argument that the BelizeanGrove isn’t a women’s club. It’s just that no men have ever applied for membership, you see. White clubs used to explain the absence of black members the same way. It’s a laughable argument — a brazen whopper — and an insult to the citizenry and the Senate that must confirm her.

The true answer is that we tolerate discrimination in favor of traditionally oppressed groups more than we tolerate discrimination against them. It’s not symmetrical. And, if you believe in affirmative action — as Sotomayor proudly does, as I do — it can’t be. An all-women’s club is okay even though an all-men’s club is not. A corporation’s minority recruitment program or a university’s minority scholarships are considered admirable, while similar programs reserved for white people would be regarded as horrific.

Sotomayor will feel right at home on the Supreme Court, where justices have made heroic efforts to pretend that affirmative action is one thing and that reverse discrimination is another. In the Bakke case of 1978, reaffirmed six years ago, the court insisted that there is a big difference between explicit favoritism for minorities and implicit favoritism through a mushy process of weighing various factors — even if the result is the same.

But this familiar debate misses the point about Sotomayor. The obnoxious form of discrimination practiced by institutions like the BelizeanGrove isn’t discrimination against men. It’s discrimination against ordinary women who aren’t successful, or powerful or connected, who haven’t risen through the meritocracy. It’s not that many of them want to join; most have never even heard of the BelizeanGrove . (I’d never heard of it until this week.) It’s that the openly expressed purpose of this organization is to create a female elite just like the male elite represented by theBohemian Grove in all respects except one.

Feminists, like all liberation movements, face the question: Do we want to change society to make it more egalitarian? Or do we just want in on current arrangements? Judge Sotomayor, like others before and since, has apparently decided that her own presence among the elite is revolution enough. Well, okay, if that’s what she wants. She’s certainly entitled. Her rise from poverty via Princeton and Yale to the highest reaches of clubbability is a testament to her and to America.

On the other hand, this Belizean Grove thing sounds like an especially self-conscious and farcical attempt to create a unnecessary meritocratic hurdle. You don’t have to be a radical leveler to think that allowing theBohemian Grove to fade into inconsequence would be better for equality than setting up a female imitation. It would have been nice if Sotomayor, with all her accomplishments, had been secure enough to laugh at the invitation to join this parody of elitism. But not many people who have risen so far so fast are so secure. Republicans ought to find that reassuring.