I don’t think any of this has anything to do with racism, other than that racism formed Dr. Gates’ life experience. The incident made Gates seem irrational and the president seem racially tone deaf. The whole matter may well have set the cause of racial equality back years as, in spite of the president’s careful moonwalk back from his earlier statements, blacks around the country are still on the verge of chartering busses in support of a beloved figure to whom no racial injustice had been done. Phony outrage is one of the GOP’s and the religious right’s most potent weapons. It doesn’t look so good on us.

It was a slow news week.

The main story was the president’s push for health care reform, a similar quest which severely wounded an inexperienced Bill Clinton early into his first term. Having learned nothing from history (or, perhaps, having learned a great deal), President Barack Obama has likewise waded into the deep and badly polluted waters of what is perhaps the country’s biggest financial racket—health care. The corporate interests who grow fat off the misery of the poor are evil, are run by evil men and evil women. Much more evil than the insidiously evil men and women of the tobacco industry who knowingly profit off addicting children to their products. These are people who have lost their souls, and “evil” is not a word I throw around. It is, therefore, very right if not righteous that the president mount an assault on these devils, and that he do it at the height of his political clout. With a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House of Representatives, a 60% approval rating and enormous popularity abroad, there may never be a better time to go up against the medical behemoth. In fact, the only flaw in the president’s plan is the cowardice infesting his own team, the Democrats who are squandering his moment in history while plunging a knife into the side of their own president.

It never ceases to amaze me how politicians will, every single time, put their own interest ahead of the people they serve. Politicians are interested in only one thing: power. Oh, money for sure, but even money and sex translates into power. Power is perhaps the most addictive narcotic there is. And, rather than risk losing power, politicians will, every time, move in the direction that will help them win elections—even if they know, for a certainty, that their position is wrong.

As I’ve said many times, the Republican party’s enduring success is based on their exploitation of America’s naïveté. People are stupid. They believe what they see on TV. People are easily frightened. The Republicans’ main—heck, only—weapon is fear. All they do, I mean all they ever do, is run commercials of worried people accompanied by scary music in the background. They are depending on us to be stupid and easily frightened. And they’re right.

The other major thing Republicans do is get Democrats to behave like Republicans. Or get Democrats to respond to Republicans or respond to the fear the Republicans spread around. Democratic constituents become frightened by Republican TV commercials and Democrats become frightened of the constituents, allowing the president’s momentum on health care to dissipate and severely if not mortally wounding the president politically.

It is not the Republicans but the eternally spineless, meandering, wimp Democrats who are the president’s problem. The Democrats could run the tables on the Republicans, but they won’t. They keep checking in with the Republicans, with people who wrecked our economy and plunged us into two wars, to see if this is okay or if they need to compromise on that or what have you—hand-wringing the GOP never did when they were in power. Republicans simply ignored the Democrats and pushed the obscene, heinous Bush agenda through at every turn. They got Democrats—spineless, frightened children—to vote to authorize the Iraq war. And, last week, with all the power they could ever hope to have, Democrats folded on health care, dealing President Obama his first major political blow. And, while I would not count the president out, I believe the Democrats’ meandering has likely driven a stake through the heart of health care reform.

Brothers and sisters: these people are simply idiots.

Worse, they are well-paid idiots who themselves don’t need health care because they’re all on Medicare (yes, Medicare: federally elected officials are on the government’s health plan). They’re not struggling with choices between food and medicine. They are not putting off routine medical care which then becomes acute if not chronic care because they can’t afford it. The problem is a lack of empathy and certainly sympathy because few, if any, of the hand-wringers have a sick child they cannot afford care for. All these nitwits think about is getting themselves re-elected. Keeping their power.

In many good movies and more than a few bad ones, the hero dies in the end. The hero usually dies a heroic death doing some good work or saving the lives of others. That ought to be the ultimate goal of public service: to do a good work. Regardless of the risk, regardless of the cost to one’s self. The Democrats' nauseas display of cowardice and self-interest last week was certainly expected but was disappointing nonetheless. There is no such thing as “safe heroism.” People are worth saving. And any achievement that does not involve risk can hardly be considered heroic. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, grab a hose and run over there. Politicians will tend to first sit at their kitchen table and go over their water bills for the last quarter to calculate the overall cost of putting out their neighbor’s fire, then review their insurance rates and figure the liability, then call at least three people to get their opinion.

Everybody thinks I am a Democrat. I am not a Democrat. I am a registered independent. Democrats are disloyal, disorganized, spineless weasels who wouldn’t get on a bus if it stopped for them. They are morons, as are most politicians. Because only morons usually want to be politicians. The only thing worse than a Democrat is a Republican. I’m not surprised they punted on health care, virtually ensuring it will become the can kicked down the road for the rest of the president’s term. But I am saddened and deeply disappointed.

Which was why the news media was so eager to change the subject. Not much else to talk about, but, wait, here’s this little local story about a black Harvard scholar being racially profiled. At face value, it had a sexy, tabloid feel, good for TV ratings and selling a few papers. Anything that rouses the rabble—as I see little to no public good in this story—will likely hit the headlines on a slow news week. My main problem with Joe The Plumber (or Joe America) is our overall intellectual laziness. That we’ll glimpse the new headline—Black Scholar Arrested In His Own Home—and jump to all manner of conclusions. Next thing you know, Jesse is on a plane.

“The Cambridge police acted stupidly,” the president said, uttering words which will haunt him the remainder of his political life. A quote which, I promise you, will appear in Sarah Palin political ads come the 2012 election season. The president was wrong. In fact, it was not the Cambridge police but the president himself who “acted stupidly.” By reacting to a headline, commenting on a local matter without having all the facts, in a charged racial context, and doing so on a slow news week. The president had just been handed his hat on health care, not by Republicans but by his own spineless weasel Democratic team. The president then proceeded to virtually pour gasoline on a smoldering, dying campfire, igniting the entire forest. He acted stupidly. The week was no longer about health care, but about this nonsense. Nonsense that seems important without actually being important. That seems to be about race when it had nothing whatsoever to do with race. I mean, two men--black or otherwise==were ramming their shoulders against the front door of a rented home on the campus of Harvard University within days of another reported break-in. Note the black police officer in front of Gates in the above photo, and the Latino officer behind him.

First blush: Gates acted stupidly, making a mountain out of an ant hill, and giving Black America a black eye with his apparent overreaction to what seemed to be reasonable safety precautions and standard police procedure when a burglary has been reported. Did the sergeant have to arrest Gates? No, I'm certain he had digression whether or not to leave go of the incident. Gates had just completed a long journey back from China and was no doubt tired and cranky and irritated to discover the lock on his front door was jammed (due perhaps to an attempted break-in while he was away, Gates himself speculated). But, from my experience, when you verbally abuse a police officer and refuse to quit after being warned, you will likely be cited for disorderly conduct. Had supervising officer police Sergeant James Crowley known who Gates was, he might have conducted the entire affair a bit differently. Which really is kind of sad. Justice, and certainly law enforcement, should be conducted on an even basis, regardless of who you are. I'm actually glad the sergeant had no idea who Gates was. And I am grieved that Gates, a man I respect tremendously, has expended some quantity of his (and our collective) credibility on this nonsense. This was not racial profiling. This had nothing to do with racial profiling. This is about a tired guy who lost his temper and is, at this writing, not man enough to admit it. That Gates would rather brand Crowley a racist, ruining the officer's life, than to admit he, Gates, blew his cool makes Gates a very small man in my eyes, and typical of the sadly immature and chronically anti-Christian insipient Church Folk nonsense I rail against here every week. Of course, Crowley's arresting Gates for discon was just one of the tactics cops use to teach us a lesson if we loud-talk them. He didn't have to do it. Had he known who Gates was, it's unlikely that he would have. Which places some of the weight on Crowley. But my instinct is that, had Gates been a white guy insulting Crowley's mother, Crowley may have collared him anyway. Whatever fault we want to find with the Sergeant, I have a hard time finding racism here. I mean, I'm looking really hard. I'm trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Racism is evil. Racism is despicable. It's not a charge we should just throw at anybody. It's incredibly difficult for any of us to prove we are not racist. And now this man Crowley,. whom I am convinced was just doing his job, has this hung over his head for life because the Democrats were too cowardly to pass health care. So we have an irritated, tired and annoyed Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and, later, an irritated, tired and annoyed President Barrack Obama making, essentially, the same mistake, with neither man unequivocally repudiating a heinous charge against a guy who, a few days ago, was just minding his own business.

Friday, the president issued a sort-of retraction, after first calling Sergeant Crowley and inviting him to the White House. “Because this has been ratcheting up — and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up — I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately... gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley specifically,” the president said. “And I could've calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sergeant Crowley.”

“I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station,” the president added. ”I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.”

Personally, I’d have just taken the hit. I’d have simply apologized. Measured tip-toeing back from mistakes makes you look small. “I screwed up, I’m sorry,” which the president has said before, always cranks his numbers up: it makes him look human and flawed but also generous in spirit. While his measured response may have been more technically accurate, it was politically neutral—which, I’m sure, it was intended to be, as black America, still reading only the headlines, continues to wind up over this.

It troubles and annoys me when the black community pounces on every little thing and hollers “racism.” Look, I wasn’t there, I can’t say what took place or what was or was not racism. All I know are the details offered by Dr. Gates and Sgt. Crowley. Neither account accuses Crowley of specific racial remarks or acts, and Dr. Gates’ account of Crowley’s action places the sergeant firmly within established police protocol for most departments around the country. I am one of the worst cop wannabes you’ll ever likely meet. I can tell you, I was neither alarmed nor disturbed that the sergeant asked for Gates’ I.D. and/or asked Gates to step outside. This was for Gates’ own safety: the officer had no way of knowing if Gates was speaking under duress, if there were robbers in the house just out of his line of sight. It was his duty to check the house, and Gates overreacted.

The whole racial profiling thing doesn’t hold water, either. There had been at least one other break-in in the neighborhood. Neighbors saw two men, regardless of their color, breaking into Dr. Gates’ home. I would hope, sincerely, that if my neighbors saw two men breaking down my front door that a phone call would be made. And I would cooperate with an officer responding to protect my life and my property.

From my distance from it, I don’t think this was a racial issue. I do not know Dr. Gates and so can’t conjecture why he would interpret it as such. But once so prominent a figure begins shouting “fire!” in a crowded room, others cant help but react. Such prominent black leaders (including the president) must take the measure of things before popping off about racism. Why? Because, when they’re proven wrong, as I believe Gates was, it hurts all of us. It makes it that much harder for us to mount a case against actual racism. Only Dr. Gates can explain why a reasonable response to a break-in call translated into racial profiling for him. I’ll assume he’s had some experience with this in the past, but, based on Gates’ own account, weighted as much as I can by my own experiences with racial profiling—

—I can’t hang James Crowley. From what I can see, the sergeant did everything by the book and found himself caught up in the switches. The president, answering questions about health care, responded off the cuff and dug himself a nice hole while ruining his own message of the day, pushing health care out of the news, giving the Republicans a huge win, and making himself seem overly racially sensitive. The truth was, he was there to talk about health care and got sandbagged with the Gates arrest. The correct answer should have been, “Dr. Gates is a friend of mine, and I support him in all the good work he does. Having not heard all the facts, I trust the local authorities to make fair and reasonable inquiries into the matter.”

Had the president not been black, he’d likely not been asked the question. Had a white president been asked the question anyway, his answer—whatever it may have been—would likely not have polarized the country. In the final analysis, this was simply bad prep on the part of Obama’s team. That they didn’t see that question coming marks them as rookies. I mean, Ray Charles—who is both blind and dead—could have seen the question coming. The president should have had a better answer prepared.

In any case, I don’t think any of this has anything to do with racism, other than that racism formed Dr. Gates’ life experience. The incident made Gates, whom many whites were perhaps only peripherally aware of, seem irrational and ridiculous. It made the president seem tone deaf—quick to jump to the wrong conclusion in these matters. I think the whole matter set the cause of racial equality back perhaps years as, in spite of the president’s careful moonwalk back from his earlier statements, blacks around the country are still on the verge of chartering busses in support of a beloved figure to whom no racial injustice has been done. The entire thing was a gross overreaction on nearly everyone’s part (Sergeant Crowley’s “I didn’t vote for him” crack ruined an otherwise pristinely professional response to it all, placing him in a questionable light as someone who actually, willfully, voted to put Sarah Palin in the West Wing).

Phony outrage is one of the GOP’s and the religious right’s most potent weapons. It doesn’t look so good on us. Crying racism when it’s not is just as evil as perpetuating actual racism. Ruining Sergeant Crowley’s name and/or career when, I pray, at some point Dr. Gates calmed down and realized it was not the cop but he himself who was behaving like a jackass, is simply evil. Dr. Gates owes this man—who, potentially, would have put his life on the line to ensure Dr. Gates was safe in his home—an apology. As does she president. The little, sheepish half-measures diminish both men and score a major win for the intolerant among us. It also makes the cause for actual social justice that much harder.

Christopher J. Priest
26 July 2009

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