Acting Stupidly

I wasn’t there, so I have no way of knowing if, as President Obama claimed, the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, but I feel pretty safe in saying that Obama spoke stupidly in making this apparently off-the-cuff comment. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Prez seriously blow it in terms of both leadership and public relations, and while George Bush could and frequently did manage half a dozen bigger gaffes in the course of a 10 minute press briefing, Obama’s shoot-from-the-lip not only gave his opponents a valid talking point with which to lambaste him; it diverted precious time and attention from the far more vital matter of health care reform.

To his credit, the President apologized – well, almost – for speaking out of turn, and will probably, with his invitation to the police officer and the professor involved to meet him at the White House for a beer, end up turning the whole business to his and the nation’s advantage. Nonetheless, if I were Obama, I’d have apologized even more forthrightly, or, better yet, not made the remark in the first place. When asked about the controversy at his press conference, an appropriate answer would have been, “I honestly don’t know enough about the matter, and what’s more, Professor Gates is a friend of mine, so anything I did say would probably be biased.” He managed the second part all right, but totally blew it on the first.

I don’t personally know much about Professor Gates, either, but from what I’ve read, his behavior was a throwback to another time, almost another era, and while he may not have created the unhappy situation, his hostility and hauteur (that’s a fancy word for “Do you know who I am?” syndrome) almost certainly exacerbated it. Trying to turn a case of mistaken identity into a racial incident (or evidence that we are living “in a police state,” as one of the lefter-that-left whiteys on the Counterpunch site had it) would of course come naturally to someone whose entire career revolves around uncovering ubiquitous examples of structural racism, but it’s too bad the President had to buy into this 20th century sort of thinking.

Put it simply: anybody, even the most uneducated street bumpkin, should have enough common sense not to hurl verbal abuse at armed police officers, especially when they are there looking after your interests (stopping people from breaking into your home presumably being one such interest). When a Harvard professor, who leads a life far more privileged and comfortable than that of most Americans, regardless of race, behaves like such a bombastic blowhard, it’s not necessarily an arrestable offense – okay, not an arrestable offense at all – but it’s hard not to sympathize with the police officers, who lay their lives on the line for a fraction of the pay and benefits enjoyed by Professor Gates if they lost their patience with his foolishness.

Well, everyone involved now seems to be saying that this is a “learning opportunity,” a “teachable moment,” and I’d like to believe that, too. I’m not naive enough to think that racism has entirely vanished from our society just because we have a black President, but neither do we need to continue searching for racism under every rock the way a previous generation did with Communism. For Gates to try and turn his ill-tempered reaction and the police’s overreaction into a racial incident (for crying out loud, at least one of the “racist” officers was black) was both dishonest and counter-productive. I’m sorry the President bought into it, glad that he saw and corrected his error, and now can we move on and fix this accursed health care system?

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