Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Gatesgate test

The Gatesgate affair may be mercifully behind us once the principals have enjoyed a beer together at the whitehouse, but it's been an instructive little summer newstorm. Your reaction to it may be taken as a pretty definitive test of your politcal leanings. Try to think back to when you first heard the story. If your reaction was sympathy for the policeman, you are an authoritarian, with a reflexive tendency to submit to authority and a desire for others to do the same. If your sympathy was with Gates, then you are a (small-l) libertarian, inclined to distrust authority and favor the individual in contests with state power. Note that this has little to do with the facts of the case. The ambiguity of the event makes it a nice litmus test.

Obama is neither of these, and I believe his unfortunate remark that the "police acted stupidly" may be explained as an interaction of these competing frames. His sympathy for the underdog (Gates) in this particular case competes with his effective role as Chief of Police (or, executive officer of the most powerful government in the world). He has no desire to delegitimize state power, but in this case the results were undesireable so it was applied "stupidly".

Of course simple racism also affects what side one falls in, but racists tend to be authoritarians, who would like nothing better for the inferior races to adopt their former subservient stance. To such people the very existence of someone like Dr. Gates is an affront.

17 comments:

Palahalli said...

I'm a Hindu from India and happened to trip over your website. I am also a regular reader of Auster's website.

At the outset, the thing I find different about the two of you is the fact that Auster would adopt a stance and explain why he thinks it. On the other hand you would like your readers to accept your adopted stance as "point made" already.

So it's clear to me who the authoritarian really is.

But again, if I am wrong, please do point to a place where you have argued your stance with your readers. I'd be interested.

Michael said...

You write "His [Obama's] sympathy for the underdog (Gates) in this particular case..."

How is Gates "the underdog"? He is a tenured professor at Harvard, the country's oldest, most prestigious, and best-endowed university. Not only that, but he is one of its 'star' faculty, whose books and articles command an audience outside purely academic confines. He has regularly appeared on national television and was personally known to the president of the United States long before this most recent incident. I would be very much surprised if Gates's annual income were not well into six figures, and his net worth into seven. He is in every aspect the Cambridge police Sgt. Crowley's social and economic superior.

I have some sympathy for Prof. Gates, because I once found myself locked out of my own house when the bit of my key broke off in the lock. It was a frustrating experience and did not leave me in a happy mood. There are also too many cases of boneheaded, trigger-happy, or crooked policemen for me to view every cop as a hero sans peur & sans reproche. One has to examine the circumstances of any given case to form an opinion of it, which is what Obama ought to have done before saying anything.

Yet I cannot help but remember when, long ago, I first learnt how to drive a car, someone - either the driving instructor or my father - advised me how to conduct myself should I ever be stopped by a highway patrolman. The advice was, basically, to respond politely to his questions, always to address him as 'sir,' to produce my driver's license immediately when told to do so, and above all never to argue with him. This is simple practicality when dealing with a man who has a pistol on his hip, and has nothing to do with 'authoritarian' or 'racist' sympathies.

I suspect if Prof. Gates had behaved in this manner, he would not have had his moment of embarrassment, while Sgt. Crowley would never have had his 'fifteen minutes of fame.'

mtraven said...

Palahalli: what stance are you talking about? I've argued all sorts of them; but this post was not about taking a particular stance.

mtraven said...

Michael: perhaps "underdog" was the wrong word; you may substitute "suspect" and probably the original post will make more sense.

Of course Gates is not an underdog in the broader social scene, but anybody can become an underdog in a confrontation with the police, which is sort of the point. Thousands of people suffer the sort of thing Gates went through every day, few of them get to have their problems bumped up to the level of the White House and national media.

Palahalli said...

If this post was not about taking a particular stance then I must be reading a reporter's rendering of news.

Please read your own article carefully and let me know if your not taking a stance already.

The link to Auster's website makes this even more clear.

And here's the thing I spoke about. The mere mention of Auster is supposed to invoke some kind of disgust in your reader's minds but I don't see you arguing his points wrt this particular issue.

Am I wrong?

mtraven said...

Palahalli: I don't know what you are talking about.

It's obvious that Auster is more of an authoritarian than a libertaraian. I don't think he would dispute it. I don't share those values but I'm not arguing them here. It's also indisputable that people like Gates are an affront to his sensibilities.

I wrote about Auster at greater length here. I'm not interested in arguing about his "points"; we have entirely different value systems.

What would a Hindu see in Auster, anyway?

Palahalli said...

Auster is a Traditionalist. Like Auster, I am one too.

How does a Traditionalist disconnect himself from his Society? Therefore he cannot be a Libertarian. This even though the stress on limited or small government seems shared. Auster's focus is clearly *Society*.

As far as being "Authoritarian" goes, I don't look at Auster's position that way.

Any traditional society is as Auster puts it in his article. More so the Hindu.

There might be some differences wrt how religion is viewed and practiced (you will see a lot of that within Sanatana Dharma) but society still remains traditional. I note Auster’s conception of order in society sounds much like home. Sometimes I think he’s a Hindu too 

Why would not a Hindu find common ground with Auster?

I’ve witnessed the ravages of "Individual Rights" all around me and within my own family. It would be extremely polite to call it "radical". I don't ever see espousers of individual rights take any responsibility for the disastrous consequences of their ideas. Except of course say, "that's not my problem".

I read your write up on Auster too. It's pretty brief and I don't see much fireworks in it.

On your charge that Auster is racist, Auster himself denies it. He makes some very good arguments wrt his position and I'd be interested to see you debate him on those.

All in all, your case against Auster is not visible. But if *this* is the extent of your case, then it's simply not convincing to me.

Like I said, I tripped onto your website but I appreciate you hearing me out. I'd like to stay and observe.

Btw, Michael is VERY good. I’ve learnt a lot the past couple of days.

mtraven said...

Auster is clearly an authoritarian and just as clearly a racist. Racism drips from practically every post. I can't believe he would deny it, I would think he'd embrace the term. But he's also a lunatic who denies evolution and believes in demonic posession, so I don't expect consistency from him.

I was pretty amused by a string of posts that came out awhile back where he would post pictures of black women (including Michelle Obama, I think) and get all indignant about the arrogance or other unsuitable qualities he would detect in their faces. No, not racist at all.

I guess I am not surprised that there are Hindu "Traditionalists", but I don't know anything about them, and it is not immediately obvious what they would have in common with Christian traditionalists. But what you and Auster call "traditionalism" is really just anti-modernism and anti-liberalism, so I suppose it makes sense for you to be united by shared fears.

I'm really not interested in debating Auster. Feel free to stick around though, especially if you can address the actual topic of the post.

Palahalli said...

I don't think I'm straying from the topic. Your perception of Auster is clearly part of it.

Yes, Auster denies the charge of racism. Try him and be convinced.

I find common ground with him because of shared realities and not fears. But this is the point at which liberals start shedding responsibility; so I understand that.

Possibly the only thing that would bother Hindu traditionalists about Christianity is it's evangelists.

Would it surprise you to know that Auster is not one?

On the pictures themselves Auster seems repelled by any masculine aura around a woman. Any woman. Black or White. It's not race related.

Michelle Obama doesn't seem to have helped her case much though.

Pardon me but I note that your hatred of Auster is blind and worse, personal.

That's another reason you don't seem to speak to his arguments.

Perhaps you can show me how I'm wrong.

mtraven said...

This "let's you and him fight" routine is getting old. If you want to argue Auster's positions here, feel free, I'll probably respond, but so far you haven't said much.

Auster wrestles with the concept of racism here. Basically he just wants to avoid the label because of its negatve status in today's society. That's his problem, not mine.

Pardon me but I note that your hatred of Auster is blind and worse, personal.

Pardon me, but I have no idea what you are talking about. I've criticized his views, not his person.

Palahalli said...

Oh you'll find me disagreeing with Auster on some issues but they are not the ones on the table now.

Your link to the "racism" thread again bears out the point I keep making.

Your not speaking to his argument. You have this perception that Auster is a racist.

In the thread itself Auster clearly says why being a racist is wrong - because it is a morally wrong position to take.

Please read the first paragraph again.

Michael said...

"Suspect"? I think not. The obvious source of Obama's remark was racial solidarity. His instinct was to take the side of his fellow black man without bothering to examine the facts. This, I suggest, is what he really means when he talks about "empathy." It is just his code word for racial solidarity.

Any encounter with a policeman acting in the line of his duty is necessarily an encounter with authority. Thousands of people have such encounters every day, to be sure; and few of them get attention from the President. However, there are surely at least some of them in which the initial tension involved in such an encounter is relaxed because the person involved behaves calmly and prudently, so that the policeman understands he is not a threat. Had Gates acted so, as I've previously suggested, he would not have had his moment of embarrassment, nor would the policeman have had his fifteen minutes of fame.

The reason that Gates is a star member of Harvard's faculty is that he plays the themes of racial identity and grievance like Pagannini played the fiddle. And - as best I could tell from the news reports of this event - it is such second nature to him to do so, that on being confronted by a policeman, instead of producing his identification when asked and politely explaining his situation, Gates raised a fuss about being racially profiled and told the cop "you don't know who you're messing with." Now just who is jumping to conclusions and acting on prejudice here?

The reports I have read indicate that Sgt. Crowley was responding to a call from one of Prof. Gates's neighbors who had seen two men attempting to break into a house. There was apparently no reference to their race. There was a reasonable concern that a crime was being committed. Instead of resenting the policeman's presence as an episode of racial profiling, perhaps Prof. Gates might have used his highly educated and presumably superior intellect to realize that Sgt. Crowley was, after all, acting to protect Gates's property from persons who were unknown to him or to the citizen who called in the complaint, and who might have had criminal intentions.

mtraven said...

Thanks for perfectly illustrating my point for me.

Although now that I think about it, my formulation left race out of it, so it's probably inadequate.

Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker invited readers to imagine the reactions if a similar situation had occured with, say, Henry Kissinger or Larry Summers breaking into his own home and acting obnoxiously to a black cop who showed up to investigate, and whe decided to arrest someone for disorderly conduct in his own home.

Palahalli said...

Hmm, why imagine?

Don't you guys have *any* instance of such a thing happening or are you saying a White man (never)behaved obnoxiously in similar situations or a Black cop (always) bowed out in the face of obnoxious White behavior?

Something's not falling in place here.

I've never been in the US but these are pretty academic deductions that can be arrived at from Hendrik's poser.

Don't you think?

Michael said...

I can easily imagine a black cop - indeed, any cop - arresting someone, white or black, who behaved in a disorderly fashion.

I was stopped in traffic by a policeman, about a year and a half ago. I saw the flashing blue lights and pulled over to the side as one is supposed to do, though I was quite mystified, since I wasn't speeding and had not to my knowledge violated any law. He followed the usual procedure of demanding to see my license and proof of insurance. After I showed him these, he said, "Your left tail light is out. You ought to get it fixed." With that he let me go on my way.

What do you suppose would have happened if, instead of keeping my mouth shut, showing him my license, etc., I had told him, "what do you mean by stopping me - do you know who I am? Do you know that I pay enough property taxes in this county to cover your salary and have some left over?" I can't imagine the result would have been very pleasant for me.

Policemen rank rather lower in the socioeconomic scale than do Prof. Gates, Henry Kissinger, Larry Summers, or even yours truly. It is not only prudent, but also gentlemanly, to use courtesy in dealing with one's social inferiors, whereas an attempt to throw one's weight around invites resentment. A policeman is ideally equipped in such a situation to retaliate.

I believe this is what happened to Prof. Gates. He was looking at the issue through the lens of race, as he is disposed to do in every situation he can. From the reports I have read, the case is at least not proven that Sgt. Crowley's actions had anything to do with racist sentiment.

The one thing we can say with any confidence about Hertzberg's proposed scenario is that if a Kissinger or a Summers had been arrested in such a situation, Obama would not have commented about it in the way he did about Gates's arrest. As leftists go, Hertzberg has never seemed very perceptive to me. Thomas Frank, on the other hand, occasionally has an unpredictabe insight, and he had one about this episode. He wrote in his weekly Wall Street Journal column that the left viewed the issue as one of race, whereas the right saw it as one of class - and correctly so. I believe there is merit in what he said, and what made your formulation inadequate was not its failure to include race, but its failure to reckon on the respective status in society of a Harvard faculty member and a beat patrolman.

mtraven said...

I can easily imagine a black cop - indeed, any cop - arresting someone, white or black, who behaved in a disorderly fashion.

I see you have missed the entire point of this discussion, which was not about who arrested whom or if it was justified, but about the reactions to the affair.

Since the accounts of Crowley and Gates differ and the tapes available do not recognizably reproduce whatever Gates said, it is impossible to judge if Gates was actually "disorderly" enough to warrant his arrest. So people are reacting based largely on their pre-existing biases. That's all I was saying.

Michael said...

Well, of course I have addressed the reactions. I noted, supra, that had a cop (white or black) arrested a Kissinger or Summers, Obama would assuredly not have commented on it in the way he did about Gates's arrest by Crowley, seeing the issue through the lens of racial victimology, and Gates as the stereotyped black victim. The first and most important public reaction to the incident was, of course, Obama's

I also noted Frank's insightful comment that while the left viewed the incident in terms of race, the right did in terms of class - the distinction between a Harvard professor and a beat patrolman. How is this not about "the reactions to the affair"? Do you even bother to read what I have written before attempting to rebut it?

As for 'disorderly behavior' - it is likely to be considered disorderly behavior by a policeman if your answers to his questions are not polite, and your responses to his demands, as, e.g., for identification, immediate and compliant. That's true whether you are white, black, or whatever. It has nothing to do with racism or authoritarianism, merely with prudent and courteous behavior towards someone who has very effective ability to make your life miserable if you behave otherwise. Don't like it? That's too bad, because it isn't going to change.