On the Skip Gates Controversy

Count me among those who spend the better part of each day trying to avoid conversations like these.

Why? Well, because discussions involving race are extraordinarily difficult to have. To the degree to which they’re open, honest, and direct, they hurt people.

For some, their worst nightmare is that they’ll be regarded as racist for something they’ve said or done. For others, it’s the sinking feeling that, once again, indignity and injustice is being overlooked, justified, or even supported.

In order to avoid such risks, conversations on race typically try (sometimes very hard) to “play it safe.” This, however, invariably disappoints, as it does little more than recite platitudes which to little to advance understanding.

Invariably, people who take race seriously leave discussions like these feeling important dimensions of the topic are left out, ignored, or just not addressed. Another chance to get somebody to see what’s eating you – what’s not to easy to say or point to – and another chance lost.

Life is nothing, it seems, if not a constant series of reminders that there’s another side to existence besides the warm and rosy. Things that happen that infuriate, perplex, and, left unaddressed, have the potential to crystallize into a prison of hatred or despair.

Most of you are familiar with the broad details of the controversy. Just over a week ago, Skip Gates, professor and head of African American studies at Harvard, was arrested at his home after trying to break into it with the help of another African American who happened to be his driver.

Not surprisingly, accounts of the incident differ wildly among the participants. The arresting officer has one account, Skip has another.

What doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that Gates is an old man who walks with the assistance of a cane. It also appears to be the case that at some time during the encounter Gates produced evidence that he was the owner of the home.

What may be more contestable (but not controversial, from my point of view) is the notion that the police officer is the one in charge of the situation, and that this power differential confers upon her (or him) numerous advantages as well as enormous responsibilities.

My question is this: was there really and truly no chance at all for the presiding officer, with all his training and experience, to de-escalate the situation? Even in the case of someone belligerent prior to the officers’ arrival, was there no way at all to turn the heat down? Or did egos really have to clash in such a schoolyard manner?

I think the President was right, last night, to call the actions of the police officer stupid. Not the officer, the actions; if a man owns a home, he shouldn’t end up being arrested for trying to break into it, even if he wants to be.

The President was equally righ this afternoon, in my view, to question on what basis an elderly gentleman needs to be led away from his home in handcuffs.

On right-wing talk radio the next day, the arresting officer repeatedly referred to Gates’ “belligerence” in justifying the arrest. He went on to scold Gates, saying he didn’t expect such behavior from someone “of his caliber.”

This raises the issue of what Skip’s crime was. Raising your voice to a police officer? Asking for a name and a badge?

Protesting a perceived injustice? Irritating an impatient police officer?

Being an uppity brown person who doesn’t know his place?

Doing any or all of these things on your property, or inside your own home?

It’s not the cop’s job to retaliate for a perceived insult, it’s her job to insure the public safety. And is the interest of public safety really advanced by humiliating a black man before his neighbors and community? There’s no way we can ever know this with certainty, but could some portion of the intent have been to send a message to dissuade other people of color from talking back to edgy police officers?

I read with amusement the articles supporting the officer in the local paper. One details how he tried to save the life of a noted African American basketball player by administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Another is a statement from the attorney representing his union, saying the President “will come to regret his remarks.”

More schoolyard taunts, except this time threatening the President of the United States. This gentleman is sure to be a hero now, among his fellow birthers and tea partiers. Look for him to be the next darling of the GOP talk circuit.

And while I support the President in his remarks, I do think it would have been better if he’d given some attention to the challenges police officers of all races face on a daily basis. If they’re not always the nicest people in the world, or don’t always have the best manners, I think we can understand some of that as the result of serving on the front lines of a war.

All the more reason, in my view, for officers to receive more and better training in race relations.

This leads me to my closing thought: I wonder how often things like this would happen if we, as a nation, took the history of race relations in this country seriously enough to teach it to every child.

As seriously as, let’s say, the ability to add, subtract, or divide.

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Learning to Love Imperfection

My three-year-old daughter gave me a gift the other day.

She handed me a motorized toy with gears and spinning wheels, the very first one I’d ever bought her, and still one of her favorites. “Here, Daddy,” she said. “This is for you.”

“Oh, thank you, sweetie,” I said. “Is this for me to keep?”

“No, Daddy, it’s for you to fix.” Cuteness incarnate.

“All right, then, let me see…looks like it might need fresh batteries.” I quickly retrieved a fresh pair, along with one of those all-in-one screwdrivers, and immediately sat down to work. With my trusty assistant by my side, of course.

Time passed and effort was expended without the desired result. “Sweetie, I think it’s broken.”

Then, without missing a beat, she scooped it up and held the hulking mass to her chest. From behind the toy, she spoke in a tone just as sweet and beautiful as her initial request. “That’s OK, Daddy, I love it anyway.” Then she carried it back to her play kitchen, where it has occupied a place of prominence ever since.

After I wiped away a tear, I got to thinking.

What if we could learn to cultivate such a loving, happy, and carefree relationship with imperfection? How would we treat the imperfections in the world, our circumstances, each other, and ourselves differently if we could only say, with a sigh of affectionate acceptance, “that’s OK, I love you anyway?”

On the 60s

Lately, I’ve been hearing the term “60s” used rather dismissive and derisively. For example, in discussions about an author, text, movie, work of art, or piece of clothing, I so often hear, “oh, that is so 60’s.”

Now far be it for me to question anyone’s right to form judgments or express them. I am, nevertheless, curious about a couple of things.

How is it that people come to look down their nose on an entire decade and its products so easily? Was the entire decade really a wash, or were some parts of it redeemable, even exceptional?

What gives us the authority to say we, simply by virtue of living four decades later, have something right that others got wrong?

Is it instead possible that something like the opposite is true: that they had some things right that we’re missing, forgot, or even have entirely wrong?

For example, is it possible that in the 1960s there were people with the ability to access certain kinds of texts who no longer exist? That is to say, were there minds back then capable of making critical judgments about things like society and culture that are just not around anymore?

Last but not least, if you define human subjectivity in terms of a capacity for critique (of oneself, one’s life, history, world, etc.), what’s the possibility that human subjects existed in the 1960s, and that only zombies exist today?

You know zombies. Back in the day we used to call them squares, or people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

There are zombies in every age, but in this one they’re the creatures who simply parrot the opinions of others (or mindlessly dismiss them). That is to say, without analyzing, interrogating, digesting, or otherwise engaging them on any but the most superficial levels.

Listen to me, I’m 42 and I’m already scolding the young ‘uns. Anyone who takes offense to the tone and/or content of this message is probably not a zombie, btw.

Zombies criticize without critiquing, coating everything with a fine veneer of disdain, because complexity is just too much to deal with. And because, at the end of the day, it’s just not “cool” to feel much of anything at all.

If one would be truly revolutionary today (I know, how passé!) one would be a romantic (ugh, even more so!) because those guys and gals knew something.

They knew how to accord to passion the philosophical, moral, and aesthetic status it deserves.

Anyway, more later. I’m still fuming over the reaction to the Sotomayor hearings, so I’ll probably have something up on that soon.