Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's the Race Narrative, Stupid!

Until now I have refrained from commenting on the Prof. Gates/Sgt. Crowley kerfuffle. I did not want to follow the president's bad example and jump into a dispute without knowing the facts.

As I now see, this means that I failed to understand that facts don't really matter. What matters is the dissemination of a narrative.

I should have known. I had forgotten that elite intellectuals have fallen prey to a Neo-Platonic delirium called critical theory.

For those who are not fully versed in critical theory, it can be summed up in two dogmas. First, all facts are fiction. Second, fiction reveals a higher truth.

Critical theorists hold that what we call facts are a fiction promulgated by the ruling capitalist imperialist patriarchal warmongers who want their predations and oppression to be beyond question. Thus, they create self-justifying fictions are pass them off as facts.

Critical theorists also hold that when fictions overcome the banal requirement of corresponding to reality they are freed to reveal higher truths, which are stories that involve the rebellion of the oppressed classes against their oppressors.

But, enough academic mumbo jumbo. We do not need to know what really happened in the momentous encounter of Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley. Let's look at what might have happened.

You arrive home one day and discover that you cannot get into your house. Perhaps the door is jammed; perhaps all the doors are jammed; perhaps the lock is broken; perhaps all the locks are broken; perhaps you forgot your keys; perhaps you lost your keys.

Would you:
A. Whip out your Iphone, access the proper app, and call a locksmith.
B. Knock on your neighbor's door and ask to hang out until you can figure out what to do.
C. Take out your American Express card and try to jimmy the lock.
D. Take a crowbar and break into your house.

Of course, these alternatives provide a slightly different perspective on the situation.

Next action. A neighbor sees two African-American men breaking into your house. She calls the police.

There were other possibilities.
A. The neighbor might have ignored the situation.
B. She might have seen two white men prying open your back door with a crowbar, and done nothing.
C. She might have recognized the distinguished Harvard professor wielding the crowbar and shouted greetings.

Obviously, ignoring the situation would have been un-neighborly and unethical. Remember: love thy neighbor as thyself.

Beyond that, we must assume that the neighbor did not recognize the eminent professor. Perhaps they never met. Perhaps she does not watch PBS.

The next incident is in dispute. Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department arrives, knocks on the door, and seeks to verify that the man answering the door is not a burglar.

Evidently, Sgt. Crowley does not watch PBS either.

Prof. Gates, who makes a living writing about race narratives, instantly believed that a race narrative was staring him in the face.

Apparently, if you immerse yourself completely in narrative fiction you sometimes fail to recognize reality when you see it.

The police were trying to protect Prof. Gates' home. Prof. Gates thought they were acting as stereotypical agents of oppression refusing to believe that an African-American might be living in a nice neighborhood.

By all appearances Prof. Gates was less than cooperative and courteous. In a situation where a polite response would have allayed suspicion, Prof. Gates chose to be belligerent.

It seems that he took the opportunity to express his outrage over racial profiling and institutional American racism.

Surely, it is correct to say that America, to its shame, has known far too much racial profiling and institutional racism. But that does not mean that every encounter between a white police officer and an African-American professor falls within this narrative.

Meantime, Prof. Gates produced his Harvard ID. In Cambridge this is called pulling rank.He thought that that should have cleared up any questions of whether or not he belonged. Yet, as Law Professor Ann Althouse has suggested, some faculty IDs, like hers, do not contain a home address.

Sgt. Crowley might have let the whole thing drop. He might have noted that Prof. Gates was jet-lagged. He could have cut him some slack. From the outside it does not appear that he needed to handcuff the eminent professor and submit him to the indignity of a mug shot and a stay in the local jail. Perhaps he was overreacting to the condescension which academics have traditionally thrown at the police.

Had Sgt. Crowley let it drop, the incident would not have become a race narrative. It would not have been elevated into an instance of American racist oppression of African-Americans. We would not have had to suffer the indignity of hearing what Rev. Al Sharpton thinks about it.

Now, we want to know whether an incident that does not appear to involve racism can be transformed into an instance that proves that even where racism does not exist, it exists anyway.

An event became a story, but then the story rose to the status of mythic moment when President Obama made the mistake of chiming in and maligning Sgt. Crowley as stupid.

Obama said it effortlessly because he believes another element of the oppression narrative. Namely, that the people who enforce the law that keeps the capitalist imperialist patriarchal warmongers in power are ignorant dupes.

Since Sgt. Crowley did not learn this at Harvard Prof. Gates and Pres. Obama have kindly offered him some free instruction.

Of course, this is elitist, condescending and offensive. Sgt. Crowley refused to accept the characterization, and refused to apologize. Policemen all over the country rushed to his defense.

Pres. Obama was not content to leave well enough alone. Wanting to show the world that he was more celebrity than leader, he appeared at a White House press briefing to announce that he had perhaps misspoken, and that people were reacting to the story, not because he had misspoken, but because we do not all believe the race narrative.

So, as many commentators have noted, a president who has been traveling the world apologizing for America, and especially for its capitalist imperialist patriarchal warmongering ways, could not bring himself to admit that perhaps he had made a mistake by wading into a dispute where he did not even know all the facts.

Then Obama announced that he had invited Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley to the White House for some couples counseling.

Thus, he ensured that this unfortunate incident would remain in the public mind. In the meantime, he has thrown his hopes for health care reform under the proverbial bus.

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