Thursday, July 23, 2009

Around and Around

Three not entirely related points, concerning something that we should be seriously dealing with, yet is quickly becoming lost in a teapot tempest.

Point One

The public dialog surrounding (but rarely actually touching) the arrest of Professor Henry Gates is essentially broken. The cause of its near total dysfunction is a simple idea that is deeply ingrained in the American psyche - that issues like this are, if you'll excuse the expression, black and white. Unlike other areas of our lives where we are better able to recognize that things break down because of failures and faults that build upon each other until the system collapses, when high-profile interpersonal conflicts like this one (and, let's face it, this was little more than a highly public pissing match between two aggrieved Alpha males) break out, we tend to see one person as the sole aggressor, and the other as a victim. I live near Seattle, and although we here are literally a continent away from the events in question, people have determined that their understanding of events is perfect enough that they may safely choose the person they most wish to identify with and make them a saint, while the other becomes an egregious sinner. This sort of willful oversimplification, more than being starkly inaccurate, is actively toxic, doing little more than harden hearts and minds.

Both sides of the story are actively shaping the narrative to suit their purposes, and cover their own contributions to the poor outcome. Pretending that either of them is above such things does a disservice all around.

Point Two

Many people have commented on the fact that it’s unwise to be visibly angry in the presence of a police officer. It’s not uncommon to hear people say that it’s sometimes not enough to even be respectful – an irritated police officer will often find grounds to arrest those they perceive as merely insufficiently deferential. Or that officers will arrest those they fear may lodge complaints against them, hoping to proactively tarnish their credibility.

The answer, we are told, is a simple one – be sufficiently deferential. But this is unsatisfying to many, and it smacks of a tendency that is common to many oppressed people: the idea that injustice is far preferable to injury. Had this tolerance for injustice been with Americans from that start, “Let freedom ring” would never have replaced “God save the Queen.” Sometimes we forget that the American Revolution was sparked over what today we would consider fairly minor grievances, and that a lot of people died for it.

Point Three

It is easy to gloss over the fact that Gates is African-American, and nearly sixty years old. While this may not matter to some, for a very large part of their history, African-Americans tolerated quite a lot of what we now consider heinous injustice. It was hardly a rousing success. And people of Gates’ generation are much closer to the history of lynching than younger people are. For many of us the dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, was a throwback to ancient history. For those in Gates’ cohort it was a reminder of a time that they lived through when being murdered for the color of one’s skin was a very real, if very remote, possibility. Gates is also old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement, where simply being arrested for being insufficiently deferential to police officers was often an outcome to be prayed for.

We too readily accept that things that didn’t happen in a time and place that makes them matter for us shouldn’t matter to anyone else, either.

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