Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gates-gate and "Democratic values"

I've gotten involved in a back-and-forth with Bob Somerby about the Gates incident. According to the police report by arresting officer Crowley, Gates was continually verbally abusive to the officer and all his carrying on about how unfairly he was being treated is what got him arrested for disturbing the peace.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote a column wherein he stated that more was involved here than just racial bias:
If race were the only issue, there would be much less hyperventilation about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s unpleasant run-in with the criminal justice system. After all, it would hardly be the first time a black man had unjustly been hauled to jail by a white police officer. The debate -- really more of a shouting match -- is also about power and entitlement.

Somerby found something odd about Robinson's theory:

Apparently, there was something Crowley couldn't abide, Robinson comically says. (Gee! What could it possibly have been, we’re apparently supposed to wonder.) But then too, we see Robinson tossing in the word “uppity,” thus slipping in the slick/slippery point he wasn’t man enough to stand up and state in plain language. In this passage, Robinson lets us know that Crowley has a racial problem (“apparently”). And he suggests that only this could possibly explain the “overheated commentary” he has heard from all those “conservatives.” As he ends, he still hasn’t managed to voice a complaint about the repellent conduct and attitudes of his imagined professor.

Sorry. Other people will be offended by the hypothetical conduct Robinson describes. They may not think it should lead to arrest. But they will be offended and appalled by such conduct, the kind of conduct which has long been directed at blacks by arrogant, officious, offensive white people—white people with “serious power.” Long ago, In the Heat of the Night presented a thrilling divergence from form because it showed an officious white person with serious power expecting to get away with such condescension—and then being challenged by Poitier/Stieger. Trust us: In 1967, that was a thrilling moment. Today, a chuckling pundit describes similar conduct with barely the bat of an eye.

That’s the way Harvard professors roll, the chuckling pundit seems to say. To his inner ear, those who find this hypothetical conduct offensive have engaged in “overheated commentary”—in “hyperventilation.”

In this way, upper-end liberals do just what they’ve always done—they throw away votes, in droves. Working-class voters see them speak and reject their values, their puzzling moral instincts.

Puzzling moral instincts? It's "morally puzzling" to point out that the police should not be arresting people for yelling at them? I responded thusly:

Once again, Gates' conduct is profoundly irrelevant. The issue is not whether Gates' conduct was offensive; the issue is whether Crowley's arrest of Gates showed racial bias. Personally I think it's pretty clear that it did.

That got me an email from Somerby (always nice to get a response!) accusing me of not being concerned with whether policemen should be accorded respect. Today's Daily Howler expanded on that theme:

But the only thing the mailer finds relevant is the way the policeman behaved. He doesn’t care about how the (imagined) professor behaved; indeed, he thinks it’s “profoundly irrelevant,” even if the cop got totally sassed and trashed. It doesn’t occur to him that he might care about how each of these people behaved. He cares about how the citizen was treated—not about the cop.

Two things can be true at one time: 1) The arrest may have been unwise, and 2) The cop may have been treated like an ass.

Why couldn’t both things be “relevant?”

A guess: Most American voters will have a different reaction to this event. They will care about how the cop was treated. As we said: For decades, liberals have signaled to American voters that we don’t care very much about cops—or about a range of other working-class people (examples below). When voters see that attitude on the part of liberals, they may vote the other way.

So here's what I have to say to that:

Here's why I say Gates' conduct was irrelevant: there was no chance that Gates would arrest Crowley and put him in jail, while Crowley is explicitly given the authority to arrest people and put them in jail. That power imbalance is why we hold the police to a much higher standard when it comes to dealing with mere citizens.
I understand where Somerby is coming from. He thinks that by accusing the police of racial and/or class bias in this case, liberals (and therefore Democrats) are driving away the votes of people who do care about how the cop was treated. To which I say, good riddance! Those people don't understand that what we're dealing with here isn't a question of respect and propriety; when the police are involved, it's a question of the application of state power against individuals; and in that situation, the ONLY power the police are given is to uphold the law. The law doesn't say, you can arrest people who mouth off to you. That's why, as Robinson said, the Gates matter is about more than just race; it's also about power. Crowley had the power, Gates didn't. Gates mouthed off, and Crowley sent him to jail. Crowley's action was not only stupid, it was unjustified, and Gates was quickly released.

Robinson was correct, and Somerby is engaging in what is known as "concern-trolling" when he says it will cost liberals votes. Standing up for individual rights is part of the liberal platform; if you think the police should be empowered to enforce codes of conduct towards the state, to demand submission and deference on threat of being jailed, you're not a liberal.