One of the biggest questions Jewish groups and feminists have debated since the nomination of Elena Kagan is whether it’s possible to effect genuine but incremental change from within or more desirable to work outside the system. This kind of insider/outsider anxiety is particularly potent for contemporary Jews, who are mindful of our historical status as outsiders but fascinated when one of us gets a place in the halls of power (See the excitement over David Axelrod.) From her bat mitzvah onward, Kagan has never presented herself as someone who stood at the gates and demanded revolution. Instead, she’s someone who has marched through the gates, climbed the ladder inside, and been pragmatic once she got there.
As a result, she’s made a lot of compromises. Her roots, her much-debated senior thesis and a few hints suggest to many that she’s “one of us” — that is, a liberal, intellectual Jew with high-minded ideals. And yet the endless shroud of mystery over her genuine political passions and her reputation as a compromiser has led to lots of suspicion from the progressive Jews and feminists who have, in their own lives, taken the risk of putting their strong, sometimes unpopular beliefs on display. As
Amanda Marcotte noted recently that Kagan seems far too eager to immediately jump on the bandwagon of conciliation.
My sense is that Kagan is a political animal. Why? Take this story, for example. Kagan also urged President Clinton to support sentencing laws that treat the possession of crack cocaine as more serious than the possession of powder cocaine, even though it’s the same drug. The only real difference between the drugs is a class difference, and the result of these sentencing laws is functionally racist. There’s really no question that the sentencing laws are deeply unjust, but Kagan advised Clinton to support them anyway to send a signal that he was tough on crime.
These types of stories make me nervous. It’s not that I don’t respect Kagan’s path. In fact, I recognize it. I’m someone who has always vacillated between journalism and activism, between being the token feminist at mainstream media organizations and being a member of a group that protests those organizations. And I’ve found through experience that the agitators on the outside need sympathetic ears on the inside and vice versa. It’s also true that when you’re implanted in the mainstream, it’s impossible to fully follow your gut convictions and still get things done. Compromise is essential.
But the worry with Kagan is that — as I sometimes fear about her boss — compromise itself is her ideal rather than the end result of a hard-contested battle. And that makes her more “one of them” than “one of us.”