Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Justice Souter, the Last Yankee

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 5/28/09

Much has been made about the retirement of David Souter from the Supreme Court a few weeks back and a great deal more about the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor. He was considered odd by mainstream because he didn’t do lunch or watch TV; because he drove a reasonable car if he drove at all; because he lived in a modest shack up in the hills which would have suited Henry David Thoreau. Although The New York Times found him quaint.

Souter was not a Puerto Rican, not Jew, not black or Catholic, not a woman nor a member of any other group vying for recognition. These and so many other possibilities are today prerequisite for a seat on the high court. When will we have the Chinese or Indian Justice? How come no Native Americans? No Buddhists?

Souter was not identified by theme or tribe but by the place where he lived. The personality traits of Souter were not characteristics of a tribe or ethnicity which had found a political constituency, they were characteristics of a kind of character which grew out of the earth proper here in northern New England and proudly proclaimed itself. Souter was the last Yankee to serve on the Supreme Court or anywhere else in the government.

Of course, they were most all Yankees at one time. The difference is, although Yankee in today’s approximation is a generic white man, that Souter and all Yankees were what they were because of the rough and beautiful place they lived in and the spare personality characteristics which developed in coping with that harsh region. We were at that one time a nation of places; citizens of places which had their own distinct characteristics which formed us.

Today we are a nation of tribes or pseudo-tribes. We are no longer from places, we are from economic zones. We are no longer really citizens there but consumers of things and even ideas in a “marketplace of ideas.” We identify instead of place with intellectual themes (economic justice), blood (black), generation (Clinton), condition (gay), religion carried over from the old country (Catholic) and any number of other things.

That will hold us until we get though it, but in time that will not be enough. Because people without places are only partial as place enriches character as the New Hampshire mountains enriched Justice Souter.

There are still Yankees up here. Some of them are stunningly handsome and intelligent. You see them doing common work like building roads and landscaping and with their Jersey cows at country fair. When I grew up up here I was impressed that the Yankees either did big work; went to Yale and to Wall St. or common work; worked on the boats or in the fields. There was no middle.

Any number of commentators this week have referred to Sotomayor’s “journey.” We are all on a journey; life is a journey, but eventually we will get to where we are going and in the mythology of the journey it is a timeless and immortal place; the Great Valley, the Land Before Time. It is then when the journey ends that we become whole. It is then that we get the sense of place and begin to experience our fuller nature. On the journey itself we are willful, striving and survivalist with only the narrow view of the trail ahead.

It has to be said that very few Americans have a sense of place anymore. Some Texans still do. Most all Alaskans do. Their sudden presence in our midst causes toxic shock. (Do we have a Texan on the Supreme Court?).

It is inherent in the American condition since spaces opened in the west, that things change interminably. Tribes change and dissipate. The participation mystique will turn Catholic to Buddhist and Dearborn Muslim into a Red Wings fan every time within three generations.

Possibly only one group has become fully formed on their journey through our continent, found its place and remained intact and still grows stronger and stronger by the generation: Mormons. Mitt Romney take note. Jon Huntsman, Jr. as well. This may be the only group that the participation mystique did not gobble up.

Joseph Smith’s journey started in Vermont about ten miles from where I live. Mormons are Yankees who left home; they are the Yankee brother on the other side. Is there a Mormon on the Supreme Court? When there is maybe we will begin again, this time starting on the other side of the continent.