Plenty of Stupidity to Go Around in Arrest of Gates

APTOPIX Harvard Scholar DisorderlyIt took President Obama five days to speak out critically about the brutal suppression in Iran.  He said he didn’t want to be “seen as meddling.”  Law enforcement officials around the country are no doubt wishing today that the president had shown the same courtesy to the Cambridge Police Department.

Strictly on the basis of factual accuracy, I think Obama was correct in saying that the cops there “acted stupidly” when they arrested prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

But after examining the incident through the prism of a personal incident from three decades ago, I’ve concluded that there’s no shortage of stupidity here.  Other people who acted stupidly include Mr. Gates… and Mr. Obama.

Is it understandable that Professor Gates, who is black, would be offended that a white police officer was investigating him for breaking and entering at his own home?  Of course.  But the idea that this was simply “racial profiling” doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Pretend for a moment that Gates is white.  Now read this uncontested account (with emphasis added) of how the incident began:

This much is known for sure: The 58-year-old professor had returned from a trip to China last Thursday and found the front door of his home jammed shut. Gates entered the back door, forced open the front door with help from a car service driver, and was on the phone with the Harvard leasing company when a white police sergeant arrived.

Obviously, somebody had called in a report of what appeared to be suspicious behavior.  Whether the professor is black, white or green, that’s more than enough reason for the police to show up asking questions.  This isn’t a “driving while black” incident, where a cop pulls over a black man just because he’s driving a nice car.

Gates on some level should have realized that the cop was there to protect the property rights of the homeowner… not knowing that the homeowner was Gates.  Thus far, at the time the cop knocks on the door, nothing stupid or racist has occurred.

Let’s pause for a flashback: Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I was looking out my window early one evening when I saw a man walk by a university-owned apartment across the street — an apartment that I knew was the residence of  a female assistant dean.  The man paused at a window for a moment, reached up and appeared to rattle it briefly, then walked around the corner of the building and out of sight.

After a brief internal debate about whether I was overreacting, I called the campus security office and said it looked like someone had just “tried the window” at Dean So-and-So’s apartment.  Security proctors were dispatched, and as they later explained to me, they determined the man in question was a friend of the assistant dean, arriving for dinner.  When he saw her while walking past her window, the guest tapped on it by way of greeting.

You may have guessed by now that the dinner guest was black and the assistant dean was white.  I know in my heart that I’m not a racist, but forever after I’ve been haunted by the question of whether I would have made the same phone call if the man had been white.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand.  My point is that in both cases, the public safety officials were acting entirely properly when they responded to the scene.

So why do I agree with Obama that the cops “acted stupidly”?  Let’s let an ex-cop explain:

I was an auxiliary police officer for 20 years, 11 in Michigan where a wise chief told us never, under any circumstances, were we to arrest someone for disorderly conduct. He said that if we couldn’t find a more serious charge it was up to us to calm the person down. Otherwise he told us that using this charge was just an easy way to end a situation with a disruptive citizen without using the skill we were supposed to have to de-escalate.

Works for me.  By all accounts, the responding officer in Cambridge quickly determined that Gates was the owner of the house.  At that point he needs to say “I’m sorry for the inconvenience” (not: I apologize for doing my job while white) and leave the scene — ignoring the homeowner’s taunts if necessary.

Another wise police chief explained to me once, after noting that people can be jailed for “contempt of court,” that sometimes people get arrested for “contempt of cop.”  He added, “the problem is, there’s no such crime as contempt of cop.”

Accounts vary, but it seems pretty clear that Professor Gates was essentially arrested for contempt of cop.  So why did I open by saying he also had acted stupidly?  Note that I’m not saying the professor’s actions were moral or immoral, justified or unjustified.  What I’m saying is that whatever reason he may have had for being angry, it’s just stupid to get into an obstreperous argument with a man carrying a gun.

Which brings us to the real, potentially more consequential stupidity, by a man who should know better, and who doesn’t have the excuse of talking in the heat of the moment.  When asked about the incident at yesterday’s news conference about health care, President Obama started his response by saying:

Well, I should say at the outset that “Skip” Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts.

In the words of Bob Parks, a black commentator who speaks more harshly of Obama than I do, “This is where the president should have stopped and minded his own business, but the all-about-me man just couldn’t contain himself. … President Obama admits he didn’t know much about the case, and yet slams a police department on national television. Is this stupid or what?”

It’s stupid on several levels, and lashing out at law enforcement is only one of them.  As Megan McArdle notes, Obama’s statement is stupid because he’s undermining his own agenda: “The Gates story is sucking up the public’s very limited attention span for health care.”

Most importantly, I think, it was stupid because of the hard work Obama has done for years to differentiate himself, successfully, from the racial grievance industry.  Obama at his worst is a better man than Al Sharpton at his best… but ask yourself if this passage from the press conference transcript doesn’t sound like Sharpton impersonating a reasonable observer:

Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.

Yes, Mr. President, there is a long history — and everybody is already aware of it. You have not made America more aware of it by taking sides in an ambiguous incident.  All you have done is provided protective cover for Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others who make their livings by fanning the embers of racial resentment.

(The snapshot of Gates in handcuffs, said to have been taken by a neighbor, is widely available on the internet)

Al "Thug" Sharpton Takes His Incendiary Show on the Road

Al Sharpton, and the logos of some of his extortion victims

It is POSSIBLE, of course, to construe the NY Post “chimp” cartoon as a racist slam at President Obama — even though neither Obama nor his administration “wrote” the porkulus bill. That’s why I said in my previous post that the cartoon was “stupid” — in a city with a history of racial tension, the paper has no business comparing ANYBODY with a lower primate.

But to insist, in the face of the cartoonist’s denials, and in the face of the actual factual basis for the cartoon, that the cartoon was aimed at Obama is to believe that a long-time cartoonist at one of the largest newspapers in the country is consciously trafficking in the most contemptible kind of racial imagery. It is, quite literally, unbelievable.

A responsible black leader would acknowledge the Post’s apology and move on. In fact, a responsible black leader did exactly that. I would have preferred if Governor Paterson had explicitly criticized Sharpton, but his description of the Post apology as “very honorable” is a strong implicit slap at Sharpton. President Obama, who understandably had to cultivate Sharpton while establishing himself in politics, should repudiate Sharpton’s comments as well. (Click photos for sources)

These thoughts all are sparked by a comment “ockraz” made about my prior post. He first heard about the cartoon via NPR, which offered no explanation OTHER THAN racism. As ockraz said,

People who heard Sharpton (or NPR) first will probably be more responsive to that interpretation. It’s like holding up a Rorschach test and saying, “am I the only one who sees a bat?”

Exactly right.

It’s not possible to completely unring the bell, and because of Sharpton’s spin, some people will be saying for years that the Post called Obama a monkey. And that’s why Sharpton’s long history of racial demagoguery is so contemptible.

Whatever else he may be, Al Sharpton is not unaware of the effects his agitation can cause. He has used that knowledge to make a lucrative living for years, shaking down some of the largest and most well-lawyered corporations in America.

Sharpton HAS to understand that the cartoon was ill-advised rather than bigoted. He HAS to know that his incitements to riot can lead to riots. He HAS to know that he has blood on his hands from previous episodes of race-baiting.

I generally avoid expressing contempt for people on this blog, even if they are public figures. I’ve criticized President Obama’s actions and policies and I proudly voted for John McCain, but I will not express contempt for my President — and if he is not YOUR President, then you are not my countryman. The most derisive thing I’ve ever said about Obama as a person is to call him “The One” — and Oprah did it first.

I make exceptions to the no-contempt policy for people with a long history of reprehensible behavior. Sharpton has qualified as a “thug” (no, it’s NOT racial code) at least since 1987, when he was one of the architects of the Tawana Brawley hoax, and continued to endanger the life of Steven Pagones by branding him a racist, long after a grand jury refused to indict Pagones. Even Salon, a left-liberal bastion, has recognized that Pagones was “the Brawley case’s true victim.”

A black man has now been elected to the world’s most powerful position, leaving Sharpton desperately trying to protect his race-baiting industry. Instead of moving on, Sharpton has ramped up his condemnation of the Post and has started to peddle it in new venues. Today he repeated his phony charges in Syracuse, as part of what a local TV station called “a drive to boost membership in a local chapter of his National Alliance Network.”

As of yet there are no reports of rioting by the good citizens of Syracuse, so perhaps Sharpton is losing his mojo. One can only hope.

(Am I too hard on Sharpton here? If so, please comment to tell me how — I promise I will not bite or bark at you. If it is possible to make a thoughtful defense of Sharpton, I would really like to see it. I would especially welcome comments, pro or con, from black readers.)

How NOT To Talk About Race

This week brings two reminders of the fact that it is possible to make statements that are both a) intellectually defensible, and b) really, really stupid.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether Americans focus too much on race, or not enough. Attorney General Eric Holder believes that to make progress in race relations, “we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”

OTOH, Jonah Goldberg argues today that:

Holder is wrong. America talks about race incessantly, in classrooms, lecture halls, movies, oped pages, books, magazines, talk shows, just about every third PBS documentary by my count, blogs, diversity training sessions and, yes, even mandatory Black History Month events. 

I lean toward Goldberg’s view, but Holder’s belief that we need more frank conversations about race certainly is intellectually defensible. The really, really stupid part occurs, of course, when Holder says the lack of such discussions means that America is “a nation of cowards.”

The statement is stupid because it undercuts the outcome Holder advocates. Now that one of the highest-ranking black people in America has said that Americans are cowards on racial issues, would you expect that I as an American and a white person would be a) more likely, or b) less likely to feel comfortable discussing racial issues with black people? (I suppose one could argue “more” on the evidence of this blog post, given that the blog has black readers, and that I would not likely be posting on racial issues today in the absence of Holder’s speech. But the answer I’m looking for is “less.”)

The other reason the statement is stupid is it undercuts Holder’s own boss — you know, America’s first black president, who appointed the first black attorney general. The guy whose election vividly demonstrates how far America has come from the days of his early childhood, when Barack Obama would have been forbidden to use certain public drinking fountains. The guy who admirably seeks to position himself not as a black president, but as America’s president.

This week’s other example of intellectually defensible but really, really stupid statements comes from the New York Post, in the form of the cartoon below:

(If you’re reading this from an RSS feed, the cartoon depicts a cop who has just shot a chimpanzee as saying, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”)

This is intellectually defensible as a criticism of the stimulus bill, and as anyone who followed the debate knows, President Obama did not “write” the bill — Congressional Democrats did. But in an environment where race-neutral terms like “socialist” and “inexperienced” have been described as racial code, it’s really, really stupid to compare anybody to a lower primate.

Perhaps the worst thing about the Post cartoon is that it has temporarily interrupted Al Sharpton’s descent into the obscurity he so richly deserves. Chris Muir sums it up more eloquently than I can in his cartoon today:

(Holder photo from Fox News)

Next Up: Obama Derangement Syndrome

As I was writing yesterday about Bush Derangement Syndrome, Pajamas Media was preparing to post an article by Neo-neocon entitled “Avoiding the Clutches of Obama Derangement Syndrome.” Sage advice, as usual:

Yes, there are reasons to fear that Obama has a far left agenda, based on his history, some of his own statements, and his associations. There are even reasons to believe that whether he does or doesn’t have such an agenda himself, he will lack the inclination (or perhaps the backbone) to stop the far left agenda of those with the power to pass bills — in other words, the hugely Democratic Congress and its leaders Reid and Pelosi.

But I suggest that everyone stand back, take a deep breath, and wait. Wait, and observe. It will become clear enough as Obama chooses a Cabinet and advisers. And then it will become even more clear as he takes office and begins the work of government. More clarity will come as he handles the inevitable crises and tests that will occur on his watch.

Her column makes me feel like the cybergods are smiling at me. [Self-absorbed? Moi?] I briefly considered calling my blog “Neo-neo-neocon,” but I thought it might sound derivative. Now we’ve written about similar topics at the same time. As an added bonus, she links to the Wikipedia definition of BDS, where I find that the term originally was coined by… Charles Krauthammer, whom I quote often enough that he has his own tag on my blog.

Neo describes how the deployment of derangement can backfire:

Once again, I want to emphasize that we are not talking about mere policy disagreements here. We’re talking about demonizing and trashing a person, ascribing to him the worst motivations possible and imagining conspiracy theories everywhere.

I think this happened to a certain segment of the right with Bill Clinton. It was never anywhere near as widespread as BDS later was, but CDS existed and was a slow poison that may have contributed to the later development of BDS on the other side.

Criticism, even harsh criticism, has a valid role in a political system that draws strength from the clash of ideas. I try to avoid the temptation to lapse into name-calling, although sometimes I succumb when it comes to targets on the political margins, such as Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and Obama’s unholy trinity of Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko.

But the Presidency is different. Like it or not, an American President is a symbol of our country, and demonizing him diminishes all of us. I’m all in favor of expressing criticism in strong terms, but I have nothing but scorn for the kind of mentality that leads someone to say, “Bush [Obama] is not my President.” Actually, he is.

A McCain Voter Finds Silver Linings

Differences on policy issues should not, on this day, obscure the marvel that has occurred. A man who in his early childhood could not use certain public restrooms has just been elected to the most powerful office in the world.

The 109-year-old daughter of a slave lived long enough to help elect a black president.

There will always be toxic individuals, but it’s now permissible to hope that we may have seen “The End of Racism” as a potent force in our society.

I’ve read a lot of conservative commentary in the past few hours, some of it cranky and bitter, more of it gracious and respectful. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite, from Mike Potemra in The Corner:

I voted for John McCain because I admire him immensely as a person, and agree with him on many more issues than I do with Senator Obama. And I ask a rhetorical question: Can we McCain voters, without embarrassment, shed a tear of patriotic joy about the historic significance of what just happened? And I offer a short, rhetorical answer.

Yes, we can.

As Peggy Noonan said earlier, “this means a great deal.”

It also means a great deal that America’s first black President is not a grievance monger like Jesse Jackson or a race-baiting thug like Al Sharpton. Obama is an archetypal family man who exudes a sense of calm leadership and stresses personal responsibility, and who built a winning coalition by earning the support of millions of people of all races. Jackson, who as recently as 2006 was named America’s “most important black leader,” will never wear that mantle again, and America will be the better for it.

More silver linings (and no, dammit, the silver lining metaphor is NOT racial code):

  • As I’ve written before, it’s probably too late to surrender in Iraq — even though Obama’s support for doing so helped him win the Democratic nomination. Enough progress has been made that once it becomes Mr. Obama’s war, 76 days from now, he will not want to be the President who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • Obama’s election will, at least temporarily, dramatically improve America’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. (I consider this to be similar to the redemptive benefit of electing a black President. It’s not reason enough for me to vote for Obama in a time of war, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be pleased by that part of the package.) When the time comes to respond to the next terrorist assault, President Obama will be more free of the phony unilateralist label than President McCain could ever hope to be.
  • Despite holding the Presidency and both houses of Congress, the Democrats will be constrained in their ability to increase the size of government by the financial crisis that will take at least a year or two to unwind. The Obama Administration may well turn out, against its instincts, to be more financially conservative than the Bush Administration. Not a high hurdle, I admit.

I’ll close this tour of silver linings by returning to the theme of the first post I wrote about Obama: I Prefer the Chicago Politician to the Obamessiah. Obama is an extraordinarily charismatic and talented politician. To quote The Corner again:

The manner of this political victory is important, as well. This was not some prize bestowed upon him, and Barack Obama didn’t just buy a winning lottery ticket; he out-smarted and out-worked both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. It is healthy that the American political system gathers the energies and talents of those who feel excluded into the nation to change it, rather than pushing them away from the nation to oppose it.

“Politics” is often considered a dirty word, but politics is the craft of government, and America has elected a master craftsman. He is a man comfortable in his own skin. Even while taking full electoral advantage of the cult-like following he inspired, he remained self-aware enough to jokingly deny rumors that he was “born in a manger.”

Although I’ve written at length about his occasional appalling choices in associates, to me that always seemed much more of a blot on his judgment than on his own moral character. No person is without flaws, and no successful politician can always take the high road. But I believe President-Elect Obama — like the man he defeated — is fundamentally a good and decent human being with the capacity to be an inspirational leader. The fact that our political system gave us a choice of two such candidates may be the greatest silver lining of all.