Wednesday, July 22, 2009

HENRY LOUIS GATES AND HISTORY

I had a flashback reading the papers today. And yesterday.

The noted black Harvard historian, Henry Louis Gates, joined by a large assortment of commentators, is raising holy hell because he was arrested outside of his own house in bosky Cambridge.

Suddenly it’s 35 years ago. A black man is accusing the local police of racism – although, mercifully, not brutality – after an encounter with them. Many commentators, black and white, individual and organizational, are joining in the alarums, the jeremiads, the sermons and the lectures, the threats.

The story is here. The commentary is here and here and here.

So far so familiar.

But you ask yourself: can it really be? In America – in Cambridge, Massachusetts! – in the Year of Grace Two Thousand and Nine, is it possible that there exists a police sergeant so racist that he would actually try to pull stuff last seen in the Standard-Procedure Manuals of the Birmingham, Alabama Police and the Mississippi Highway Patrol during the Administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson?

As best can be made out the incident was this: Gates was returning from a trip abroad. He and apparently his driver were having trouble getting the front door to Gates’s house to open. In the broad light of day one or both of them shouldered the door in order to force it open. Somewhere right in here a passer-by saw them and notified the police of a possible break-in.

A police officer arrived – although it is unclear as far as I can see whether he arrived before or after Gates had effected entry into the premises.

At that point, stories diverge. The officer asked to see some identification, which is not unreasonable.

Gates, however, took umbrage and began to exchange words, apparently including a demand that the officer reveal his name and badge number (was the officer not in uniform to which both nametag and badge are clearly attached?)

At some point in the middle of this, a police sergeant arrived – either because he was near the call and also responded, or because the officer had radioed for ‘a supervisor’, standard and prudent procedure when a lowly patrolman is faced with an obstreperous citizen asking “Do you know who I am?” "Do you know who you're messing with?"

As a result of whatever transpired, the sergeant apparently made the decision to arrest Gates for disorderly conduct. Certainly, Gates is focusing his outrage at the sergeant in his comments to the media.

The sergeant is white.

The handcuffs were duly installed.

Gates, according to the police, was shouting. Gates claims that he had laryngitis or bronchitis and couldn’t speak loudly.

Today, the ‘Boston Globe’ runs a second front-page story. There is a photograph (on the continuation of the story on page A6). This photo itself is curious: papers don’t have roaming photographers any more, and it’s hard to believe that a photographer freelance or otherwise would have picked up on a possible break-in call in the middle of the day, let alone have been able to drive through Boston traffic in time to get there while the scene was still ‘active’. But here is a photo with an attribution line (“Bill Carter/Demotix Images”) so the efforts by the police to resolve the situation must have gone on for a while – Gates could simply have been whisked away in a squad car or ‘the wagon’ would have been summoned forthwith.

One officer, apparently white although he is standing in shadow, is standing behind Gates with his right hand extended on Gates’s right forearm, as minimal a form of restraint as one is likely to see in an arrest. A second officer is standing to Gates’s left, with one hand, palm down, raised to the level of his waist as if to say ‘Calm down, willya?’.

Gates, reportedly voiceless, is standing straight up, with his mouth wide open in the form of an ‘O’. Which is an odd thing to see in a man who cannot speak above a whisper. An observer even modestly familiar with human physiology would imagine instantly that Gates was shouting something loudly.

Standing in front of Gates, at the bottom of the porch steps, with his back to Gates and arms on his hips, is a police sergeant. He is looking off to his own right, with a look that could well indicate ‘God, do I have to stand here through this?’.

The sergeant is black.

One can only wonder what Gates was saying to his race-brother. Or rather, yelling. (You cannot physically whisper or even speak normally with your mouth wide open in the form of a perfect ‘O’.)

The entire thrust of the story, however, is that Gates was being subjected – wait for it – to police harassment and brutality for being black, being a black male, being a black male in the daytime, and many other such things.

Under normal circumstances, such a dust-up should not detain minds facing a national situation fraught with numerous problems and incalculable consequences.

But I see in this whole thing evidence of something far larger than a dust-up. In this I suppose I am in concurrence with Al Sharpton, the President of Harvard, the local ACLU, and a further cast of thousands.

But what I see is somewhat different.

First, this is a ‘story-line’ or ‘spin’ that has now become familiar by reason of being played out by the media for the past half-century. And while in the first few years of that half-century the Birmingham Police and the Mississippi Highway Patrol and numerous other law enforcement agencies were doing that voodoo that they did so well, in the past thirty-five years such has not been the case.

So it occurs to me that I am seeing played out yet again something that has been playing for decades, a ‘script’ that is thirty-five and more years old. Black man – innocent assaulted needlessly and gratuitously by cops – brutal and racist. It didn’t really work in the Watts setting, and only modestly so 27 years later in Los Angeles.

But here it is again. All I can think of is MacArthur’s dim eyes suddenly lighting up as he is informed that the North Koreans have invaded South Korea, just as his career was winding down and he was feeling, like Alexander, that there would be no more wars for him to fight and win. (Patton had been spared that by getting himself killed in an avoidable traffic accident a few months after Germany surrendered and his own great ‘war’ was over.)

I also think of a comment of Ben-Gurion’s in response to criticism about sending a secret team to Argentina to grab Eichmann and spirit him back to Israel for a fair trial in 1960: there is a new generation that doesn’t remember the war and needs to be reminded.

Such are the psychologies of old war horses and keeping a Cause alive.

The strategies associated with the fresh new race-relations of the Sixties are here given a new lease on life. There is still ‘racism’ in the country. All the old cast are eagerly heading to the studio to get their face in front of the adoring cameras. “We’re ready for you now, Miss Desmond.”

Well, if those old strategies haven’t succeeded in almost forty years and after billions have been expended, then is it unfair to ask if they shouldn’t be re-evaluated?

Or is it unfair to ask if the government back then – eagerly going into Vietnam for a quick and easy win, planning simultaneously to walk on the moon while also exercising the ‘leadership of the Free World’ – wasn’t a bit over-the-top in deciding that it would, by the by, also eliminate ‘racism’? (And, within a few years, adding ‘genderism’ to the target-list?)

And before We even get to those questions, perhaps asking if what happened at Gates’s house wasn’t actually something else altogether – perhaps a person who was of such a character and attitude as to say to a beat-cop “Do you know who I am?”

Apparently social and personal maturity isn’t a requirement for a super-professorship at an elite world-class university. And perhaps with reason: such judgments are soooo ‘subjective’. And where would the world be these days if its ‘elites’ were required to be socially and personally mature? One thinks of Peter’s guilelessly revealing question to Christ: If those are the requirements, “Lord, then who can stand?” Who indeed?

Mind you, I am not implying here that only black elites should exercise social and personal maturity. What might have been if there had been a bit more maturity and character among the Wasp elites surrounding Ike, or the whiz-kid elites inhabiting Camelot (the D.C. version, not King Arthur’s) – one thinks of Robert MacNamara, that paragon. And the greasy-glowing elites such as Gingrich and the Congressional Class of 1994, and … one could go on.

The whole country, this once-great Republic, and the world that is has helped to form and deform, could all have used a lot more maturity in its elites.

But it’s all gone, baby, gone.

And like a creatively bankrupt Hollywood, the suits are hoping to get back on top with replays and re-makes. So, in Cambridge, it’s back to 1973 or thereabouts, and see if things will still work they way they did back in that brash, thoughtless day.

As if We don’t have enough problems with the world of 2009, burdened as it is with the immaturities – white, black, polyglot, and omniglot – of all the earlier eras.

Gates now claims that ‘this’ isn’t about him (or, shrewdly, what he did and how much or how little maturity he displayed); no, “this is really about justice for the least among us”.

I fail to see how.

If I were a Cambridge homeowner, I’d be very thankful to know that passers-by were alert and decent enough to call the police if they thought my house were being broken into.

And while nowadays there’s always more than a little anxiety when confronting police anywhere in these post-Patriot Act days, I’d realize that the cop is just doing the job he’s supposed to do, and pull out my identification to show that I really lived there. And all would be well that ends well.

But – like the Beltway elites who passed the Patriot Act and all the other ‘Acts’ that have engorged the nation’s police powers – Gates glides majestically through his days in the sure and certain belief that he is ‘elite’ and not subject to the same complexities – and laws – as ‘the others’. Perhaps though, he is at least religious enough to give thanks to God that he is not like other men.

Me, I think that in this case those cops did a decent job, black and white. And maybe what’s in the eyes of that black sergeant at the foot of the stairs is just plain embarrassment that he has to have his guys subjected to the wide-open mouthings of a black man who thinks he is too good and too ‘elite’ for this world.

Perhaps Gates is too elite for this world; he can shuttle between Hahvahd and other bosky Wonderlands on the Ivy university circuit.

It’s all those oh-so-Correct Mad Hatter’s tea parties – on university campuses, in Beltway gardens, in Wall Street boardrooms – that have made this country and this world a tougher place for the non-elite to conduct a decent life.

Alice, Alice, We hardly knew ye. You figured out pretty damned quick that the Mad Hatter was truly mad and that the Red Queen was a nasty, self-absorbed, dangerous loon – elite though they were, there in Wonderland.

ADDENDUM - 24 July

There is some question as to whether the neighborhood had experienced a number of break-ins and attempts recently, and committed – as is so often sadly the case – by black males observed by passers-by. In which case the initial police response – several units and a supervisor – would have been quite justified.

Further, I want to say again that this is 2009, and that the civil-rights and racism matters have now been on the front-burner for almost half a century. A lot of other developments have happened in that half century and so it seems more than a little un-enlightened to be running the same old script (innocent black man beset by racist white police) as if this were still 1959.
In those 50 years: A) the very fabric of the black community, especially in urban settings, has been shredded by the effects of a sustained anti-religious, anti-family and even anti-male politics waged – with Congressional and media support – by certain elements of radical feminism; at this point, even in the Metro Boston area which is covered by the ‘Boston Globe’, armed assaults, with serious wounding and even killing, are an almost nightly occurrence even within the precincts of the black community; to consider that such assaults are merely the results of ‘racism’ – as if it were still 1959 – is either imbecilic and incompetent or treacherously intentional.

And B) the economy has now collapsed in ways that utterly undermine any hopes the black community has for participating in the national success (which has now evaporated); consequently, under-parented and certainly under-fathered (see Obama and Bill Cosby and Chris Rock on that) black males are even more liable to succumb to the temptations of violence and crime, even against members of the black community. Again, to espouse an analysis of this that blames ‘racism’ and nothing else since, is either gravely incompetent or cynically treacherous in its selectivity.

ADDENDUM – 25 July

It now appears that Obama has invited both Gates and the sergeant to D.C. for a beer. Time, as the saying goes, for ‘healing’, and for a bipartisan admission the mistakes were made all around.

But there is also the interesting fact that the police have mentioned that they have a tape of all the radio calls made from the scene, and that you can hear Gates shouting some very nasty things in the background as the police officer is transmitting.

This, of course, changes everything – as the Beltway playbook goes.

If they’ve actually caught you on tape doing what you loudly and victimly claim not to have done, then you’ve got to move fast (Teddy Kennedy wrote the book on this, forty years ago this week). Time to stop letting anybody think about what actually happened, and move things immediately to the ‘let’s just forget it’ phase.

And you especially want to go for the ‘mistakes were made on both sides – and I’m big enough to move on’ pose. So that anybody who still wants to linger in the fact-finding mode can be tarred as ‘hateful’ and ‘refusing to let go of this’ and ‘muckraker’ and what-have-you. Meanwhile, you – being a man (or woman) who is big-souled and future-oriented – can stand up on the high-ground you’ve spun for yourself and claim to be both victim and too big-souled to ‘stay in the mud’.

Yah.

Nixon wound up in this situation, but the press wouldn’t let him pull such a scam, much as he must have wanted to.

But since the ‘press’ nowadays is into ‘advocacy’, and since they’ve been ‘advocating’ for half-a-century, then they’re not looking to puncture the balloon they’ve helped to build, and We can expect to be seeing the Beltway playbook followed pretty much to the letter.

Going to D.C. will be set up as an ambush. The decent cop can’t refuse to go without leaving himself open to the ‘stuck in the mud’ charge. If he goes, he can’t point out the facts without being open to the ‘ungracious guest’ charge – and here he’s the President’s guest!

So Obama, fresh from his stint as mailman for Teddy Kennedy to the Pope of Rome, will now become enforcer to clean up Henry Louis Gates’s repugnant little mess. But with a smile – and a manly face-to-face over brewskis.

It is a truly unlovely picture.

But then, Gates appears to have a very unlovely side.

As does this whole ‘innocent black man – racist white cop’ gambit.

Fifty years gone now – and a lot else – and there are a lot more factors in play than there were in 1959.

We are going to see – if this thing comes off – the equivalent of D.C. driving an Edsel down the street and calling it ‘progress’. In the Year of Grace Two Thousand and Nine, and of the Independence of the United States the Two-Hundred-and-Thirty-Third.

Phooey.

This sergeant deserves better.

And so do We.

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