As yesterday's speculation about whether Elena Kagan is gay reached a fever pitch, it was striking how little interest those who were most enthusiastically pushing the story seemed to have in the fact that the White House has already answered the question.
Last month, conservative blogger/plagiarist Ben Domenech wrote in a column that appeared on CBSNews.com that Kagan is gay. In response, the White House indicated that she is not. As the Huffington Post's Sam Stein reported “The White House reacted strongly to the assertion, relaying that Kagan is, in fact, straight.” The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz added:
An administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing personal matters, said Kagan is not a lesbian....A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said he complained to CBS because the column “made false charges.”
So, that's pretty unambiguous. As Solicitor General, Elena Kagan was then, as now, a senior Obama administration official, so the White House aides who explicitly said Kagan is not gay were presumably speaking with her sanction. Absent any convincing evidence to the contrary -- and no, rumors and rumors about rumors don't count as convincing evidence -- the unambiguous statements of White House officials should put the speculation to rest.
But some people really enjoy speculating.
The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, for example, headlined a post yesterday “So Is She Gay?” and complained “no one will ask directly if this is true and no one in the administration will tell us definitively.” Sullivan must have forgotten that the White House actually did tell “us” definitively just last month. Oddly, Slate's Jack Shafer endorsed Sullivan's post, writing that it gets to “the heart of the matter” -- the unwillingness of the White House to “speak definitively about Kagan's orientation.”
Mediaite managing editor Colby Hall wrote several hundred words about Kagan, touching on her relationship with Goldman Sachs, her service in the Clinton administration, and her past statements about reproductive rights, judicial activism, the death penalty, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But Hall's real interest was clearly Kagan's personal life:
Her Personal Life. There have already been published reports about rumors that Kagan is a lesbian, but the most notable report (published by CBS News) has since been retracted. Kagan is a 50 year-old single woman, and would not be the only unmarried Justice to serve on the Supreme Court. In fact, David Souter was never married, but faced much less scrutiny as much of his term was served in a pre-blog era.
Though that brief passage accounted for only 75 words out of more than 500, it was reflected in Hall's awkward headline: “Elena Kagan's Personal Life To Enter Media Spotlight.” (A more accurate headline would be: “Media To Shine Spotlight On Elena Kagan's Personal Life.” Or “I Shine Spotlight On Elena Kagan's Personal Life.” ) Hall's focus on Kagan's personal life is further illustrated by the fact that the Mediaite page is titled “Elena Kagan Husband - Elena Kagan Bio.” Kagan does not have a husband, making “Elena Kagan Husband” an odd title for what is purportedly an overview of “some talking points one can expect to hear in the coming day.”
Anyway: Hall didn't get around to mentioning that the White House has said Kagan is not gay. He simply wrote that “the most notable report” that she is “has since been retracted,” which doesn't even come close to explaining the situation.
Later in the day, Mediaite columnist Michael Triplett followed up with a post headlined “Is The Mainstream Media Prepared To Discuss The Kagan Lesbian Rumors?” Triplett's column is a remarkable piece of contorted argumentation, in which “Kagan's sexual orientation is out there and it hasn't been spread by a right-wing cabal” and Media Matters is guilty of “furthering the rumor by denying it.”
First, rumors about Kagan most certainly have been spread by right-wingers. Ben Domenech is one example. Here's another. Perhaps Triplett meant that right-wingers are not the only people who have spread such rumors? Or perhaps he simply doesn't know what he's talking about. Either way, Mediaite needs some quality control.
Triplett's contention that Media Matters has been “furthering the rumor by denying it” is simply absurd. First, Media Matters isn't in a position to deny it; it can only note that those who are in such a position have done so. Second, the “denying the rumor only furthers it” construct is a classic bit of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't game-playing. You could just as easily say “failing to address the rumors encourages speculation.” This isn't a situation in which the rumors have not yet surfaced widely; they have appeared on CBSNews.com, the Washington Post, and in countless other outlets. They are not likely to get more attention because anyone denies them. Finally, if Triplett thinks Media Matters is furthering the rumors by debunking them, what exactly does he think he and Hall are doing by treating them as an open question?
(New York magazine's Chris Rovzar made a similarly flawed argument last month, writing that the White House was “giving this story line credit” by saying it wasn't true. Up is down. Black is white. Denying rumors enhances their credibility.)
Triplett then repeated a claim that has been common since Domenech's post last month:
[T]here's something unseemly about the White House issuing statements denying that someone is gay because it would be politically problematic.
Similarly, Rovzar wrote last month: “it's unattractive of the White House to react to someone calling Kagan gay the way they would if someone had said she did something illegal or amoral.” And Gawker's Alex Pareene wrote:
Why is the White House treating lesbian rumors like allegations of vampiric necrophilia? When CBS republished a column repeating the rumor that possible Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is a lesbian, the White House responded furiously. Because lesbians are terrible?...If she isn't gay, they still shouldn't be forcefully demanding corrections like something incredibly untoward and terrible was suggested. Wouldn't it be much nicer and more progressive to politely ask for a correction and say it's no biggie?
(Last part first: the White House did try politely asking for a correction; CBS blew them off. That's when they blasted CBS's lousy journalism. Pareene should know that; he linked to a Washington Post article that made it clear.)
This is all quite ridiculous. The White House simply and clearly said the report was false and that Kagan is not gay. That isn't reacting “the way they would if someone had said she did something illegal or amoral” or treating the rumors “like allegations of vampiric necrophilia.” It's a simple denial. It's not like the White House said “Ew, yuck, no, she isn't gay” or “Of course Kagan isn't gay; she's a fine, upstanding person of solid character.” Those would have been inappropriate responses.
But even aside from the hyperbolic descriptions of the White House's reaction, these denunciations are quite unfair. They suggest that it is inappropriate -- “unseemly” in Triplett's words -- for someone to deny being gay, because that denial could be construed as implying that there's something wrong with being gay. But this stance requires that people who have been the subject of false claims allow those false claims to stand. That's an unreasonable requirement -- and one that amounts to piling on. No one should be precluded from correcting false claims about herself. Nor should they have to append a self-conscious Seinfeld-style "...not that there's anything wrong with that" to the end of every such correction.
These complaints of “unseemly” denials are reminiscent of hand-wringing during the 2008 presidential campaign about whether it was appropriate to refer to the false claims that Barack Obama is Muslim as “smears.” There is nothing wrong with being Muslim -- but of course those were smears. For one thing, they were false. For another, they falsely portrayed Obama as a liar. That's enough to qualify as a “smear” right there. But you also have to consider the intent, and likely effect, of the claims. Those alleging Obama to be Muslim certainly meant to harm him, and it isn't hard to imagine that they did so. Calling that a smear, then seems perfectly reasonable -- indeed, the claims smeared Muslims, too, as they implied that being Muslim is bad.
Likewise, you don't have to think there's anything bad about being gay in order to think that Elena Kagan is being smeared. Noting that “People who know Kagan very well say she is not gay,” The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder explained last month that the subjects of baseless gay rumors are “victims, not because being gay labeled ... falsely or otherwise, is shameful, but because the intention behind the labeling is often nefarious and stereotypical.” And, contra Triplett, it is clear that many conservatives are spreading rumors about Kagan for nefarious purposes. In doing so, they are smearing her -- as well as people who are gay.
It's bad enough that so many in the media seem obsessed with Elena Kagan's personal life. What's worse is that many seem to think the media should endlessly peddle baseless rumors -- and that if the White House denies the rumors, or anyone notes the White House's denial, they are behaving inappropriately.