Another One on Professor Gates

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Over the weekend I wrote about Henry Louis Gates. I shouldn't be, given that I did just hear a US Senator do a Ricky Ricardo impression during the confirmation hearings of the first Hispanic ever nominated for the US Supreme Court, but I've been surprised by the degree of apologizing that seemingly moderate thinking people are doing for the behavior of the police. Hell, apologizing is too weak - I just heard Chicago attorney Lester Munson on Dan LeBatard's Miami radio show essentially say that Gates was uppity.

He had met Gates; Gates had that "Harvard arrogance" and he could see a scenario where that arrogance could have manifested into arrest being reasonable in this circumstances.

Honestly - and this tells you how far I am from the current "everyone's a little at fault" view that we've settled on as a society about this - if Gates had cut a full on Rocky III promo, said that he would find the cop's wife and show her what a real man was like, that still wouldn't give rise to an arrest in a free society (note, that's different than saying people aren't arrested in circumstances like Gates - although prominent white people aren't - and it's different than saying disorderly conduct doesn't provide legal cover for the actions of that cop and cops all over this country - I'm talking about a free society, not the United States of America in 2009 which jails its citizens at a rate higher than any industrialized nation in the history of mankind).

I'm not sure, absent an actual threat, if there's any pure speech that should give rise to being arrested in this factual circumstance. Students of mine want to go the other way - I keep hearing the same refrain "you shouldn't talk back to a cop - what do you expect the cop to do?"

Which is good practical advice - but what does that have to do with law?

I find myself in the curious position of agreeing with, of all people, Tucker Carlson (except for his version of the uppity black guy slur that starts this quote) from today's Washington Post:

So I wasn't surprised by what happened in Cambridge. Yes, Gates is a self-righteous whiner who probably cries racism every time he gets the wrong order at Starbucks. What happened to him likely had little to do with race, but it's still appalling. His crime? Failing to be polite to a policeman. Except that's not a crime, or shouldn't be, and the rest of us ought to do all we can to make sure it doesn't become one.

The police are not law. They serve the public. We deify power in this country - to "talk back" to authority - even if you're a Harvard professor (maybe especially if you are a Harvard professor) means you are stepping out of line. Stepping out of place. Carlson is right - you don't have to be nice to the police.

You don't have to be nice to anyone.

Maybe you should be. Maybe it's wise or decent or will keep your train running on time.

But the penalty for rudeness is not arrest. You should not be arrested for yelling "do you know who I am" to a cop. This is not a police state. This is the United States of America. We don't pull people out of their homes in handcuffs for saying unkind things to police.

Has everyone gone mad?

Next we'll have the government reading our emails and listening to our phone calls and holding suspects for years without charge and torturing prisoners and...


Authoritarianism is our civic religion.

War - torture - the death penalty - domestic surveilance - abuse of police power -

How much of our civic discussion is really a discussion about power - about authority - about bowing down before the man? How much of the political stances taken by people can be cleaved into muscular terms?

I learned as a very young person that to be pro gay rights meant I'd be labeled as unmanly, as soft - saying "gays are people too" in 1986 would get you looked at as if you were weak, soft.

The same reaction, literally, exactly so - was how my anti-death penalty stance, was my anti police abuse stance - my anti-war stance - was framed.

Liberal positions have been put in this box as insufficiently tough - from torture to animal rights, from Iraq to Cambridge - you either line up with the powerful, either line up with principles of muscularity or you are labeled as feminine, as insufficiently hard minded, as fragile, as effete.

I don't know what to do with that; if our love of authoritarianism is a symbol of patriarchy and/or how much of that, how much of that is our attempt to grab some control in our "lives of quiet desparation" to quote Thoreau. I don't know how much of that patriarchy relates to the version of Christianity, the "my god is bigger than your god" version that holds so much sway in the US (as opposed to the sandal wearing, prince of peace version - I can't tell you which reading is superior, that's inside baseball stuff and I don't play on that field).

But I do know that throughout my life I have felt the same sort of "what are you, a fag" response whether I was opposing the death penalty or opposing beating dogs or in favor of the exclusionary rule or the equal rights amendment. There is an authoritarianism strain in American civic life on which I'm just never going to sign off.

I don't know what role race played in Professor Gates's getting taken off his front porch in handcuffs, but this need to worship at the altar of authority certainly plays a role in our reaction to it.

(Tuesday, Glenn Beck said that Obama's reaction to Gates demonstrates his "deep seated hatred of white people".  My reaction to Gates is stronger than is Obama's.  Does that mean I have a deep seated hatred of white people?  And why aren't we talking about how the Republicans - considering Sotamayor, considering the birther movement - are playing the race card?  When it's Johnny Cochran defending OJ Simpson, we derisively throw the phrase race card around.  When it's a black activist like Al Sharpton weighing in on an issue - we say he's injecting race into another issue again.  But Glenn Beck just said the President of the United States hates white people and....and what?)

No comments

Blogger Template created by Just Blog It