Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Miss Elizabeth Deserves an Affirmative Action Pass

I have revised my opinion of Elizabeth Warren, the U.S. Senate candidate challenging Scott Brown here in Massachusetts. I have thought she was a phony. Now I have decided that she is an eccentric Southern Belle with a racial inferiority complex.

The light-bulb moment was during the second debate when she insisted on being called Miss Elizabeth rather than Professor Warren. What phony business was that about, I first thought. And then I realized it all made sense after all.

A little background. Miss Elizabeth was born in 1949, earlier than you probably thought because she is older than she looks. She grew up in Oklahoma, in conditions she describes as the ragged edge of the middle class.

I always think of Oklahoma as the Midwestern/Southwestern border state that connects Missouri to New Mexico. But it is also by virtue of its borders with Texas and Arkansas a Southern state, a state that permitted slavery when it was an Indian Territory up through the Civil War, a place where the conditions of servitude continued for quite a bit afterwards.

To be born of reputed mixed-race parentage in Oklahoma five years before Brown v. Board of Education and a decade or so before the civil rights marches of the 1960s is to be born into a different world than we live in here in Massachusetts today. Here's how Miss Elizabeth explains it:

"As a kid I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about her Native American heritage. What kid would? But I knew my father's family didn't like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware. So my parents had to elope."
That sounded a little melodramatic at first hearing. And what kind of person paints their grandparents as racists in order to get elected?

But hers was the childhood of The Searchers, where John Wayne spends years tracking his captured niece who he would would rather see dead than living as an Indian (in the end he relents and lets her live). Hers was the era of the aristocratic Stella Dubois debasing herself in marrying the pollack Stanley Kowalski.

Her own life resembles a Carson McCullers novel - father forced to cut back his janitor work hours after a heart attack left him with a stack of medical bills, mother working in the catalog-order department at Sears, Miss Elizabeth waitressing as a teenager to help the family make ends meet, the family car going back to the bank when the ends finally didn't meet.

That brings us to Miss Elizabeth's Southern Belle eccentricities: the proud way she speaks of her bothers' military service, the porch swing she installed in her office to talk to students as a young law prof, the well-appointed plantation atmosphere of her Cambridge home in many of her video ads, the schoolmarmish manner. She's a bit odd but she's all right.

Now it's being alleged that her progressive pedigree is not so pure either. It turns out that as a lawyer she didn't just play the victim card on behalf of public interest group clients. She also represented some real companies including banks, insurance companies, and chemical companies. Is that hypocritical, or good to hear?

Let's cut to the chase here. Affirmative action in academic hiring is a politically correct joke. The colleges and universities hire who they want to hire, then send out their PR flacks to talk up whatever diversity they are able to divine from the faculty directories. And who can blame them, with the permanent agitation corps always on their flanks. Can Miss Elizabeth be called completely undeserving just because she gets her blue eyes from her father and her blonde hair from a bottle?

I don't blame Scott Brown for not seeing this. No one, including Miss Elizabeth, has bothered to explain it to him. Scott was born here in Massachusetts a decade later in 1959, a different place and time. His parents divorced when he was one and he grew up on an even more ragged edge, featuring physical abuse from stepfathers, sexual abuse from summer camp counselors, and teenage delinquency tending toward petty theft. He probably deserved affirmative action too.

That leaves open the question of who would be the best champion for Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Scott Brown did well not to tie himself to the national tea party movement, who very much wanted him as their hero. Miss Elizabeth would likewise do well to set aside the national progressive hero worship to focus on what she can do for the state. Because Massachusetts should come first, party and ideology a second and third.

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