Thursday, July 30, 2009

Drink it Dowwwwwn Zulu Warrior, Drink it Dowwwwwn Commander-in-Chief! Chief! Chief!

beerObama Tonight, President Obama hosts Pint Night at the White House, where Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sergeant James Crowley, and he will sit down over some beers and talk. The idea for pint night is Crowley’s, who answered President Obama’s telephone call in a Boston-area bar and suggested that all the parties in Gates-gate  should just have a beer to seal the end of their personal investments in the controversy.

While these men will presumably reconcile their differences, the media ramping it back up, this time by recasting the entire event in ostensible less racialized terms and one that is, in fact, much more palatable to the dominant white majority. The new hypothesis goes like this: Gates is to blame because he is a classist liberal elite.

Consider the comments of Lennard J. Davis1, a Marxist literary critic and disability-studies scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago, Obama’s home turf2:

If we make the assumption that racism was in play in this event, but that Crowley was not necessarily a racist, we might also assume that class and social status were at play as well. Professor Gates is probably one of the highest paid academics in the world. He is a superstar famous not only among scholars but known by the general public as well. As a black man, he might well be upset at his treatment [by Sgt. Crowley], but as a member of the power elite (Barack counts him as a friend, as does Oprah, Cornell West, and a host of other powerful people), he might well have been outraged to be treated just like another American citizen facing the indignity and affront of a police questioning.

Likewise, consider two op-ed pieces, the first from today’s Washington Post and syndicated nationwide:

In the conflict between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and police Sgt. James Crowley over Gates' arrest at his own home, all parties in the national conversation believe they should be the teachers. The theme is, "No, you listen to me!"

Everybody seems to want to teach the need for respect: the respect owed by white police officers to black men, and the respect Harvard professors ought to show to cops doing their jobs.

Since everybody seems to turn autobiographical during these "teachable moments," I will exercise my right to do so, too. From the time I was in college in the late 1960s and early '70s, I have been incensed at the elitism so often shown by privileged liberals toward the white working class. And I felt this as someone on the left. (E.J. Dionne)

and the second from the Denver Post:

As the story unfolded, it became clear to fair-minded observers that Gates, not Crowley, was the antagonist in this affair.

Sure, Crowley could have stoically sucked up Gates' verbal abuse rather than arrest him for disorderly conduct. That's a discretionary call by an officer at the scene when an out- of-control citizen is acting in "contempt of cop." But Crowley's role was dwarfed by Gates' performance. And I do mean "performance." His reaction to Crowley from the outset ranged from irrational to hysterical to bizarre, including his childish slur about Crowley's mother. (Mike Rosen)

Consider Dionne. First, Dionne is very much a part of the class he reviles—a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar, he teaches at Georgetown and writes for The Washington Post. Second, he decontextualizes the event in order to make his argument. Much has been made about a history of allegedly racist acts committed by members of the Cambridge PD who are white; therefore, in that context, Gates was not responding to an isolated incident but to another node in what is presumed to be a system of oppression.Third, well, I’ll get to the third point in a minute because it is what binds Davis, Dionne, and Rosen together so completely, and it is what is so dangerous in the current cultural imaginary that their pieces acknowledge, support, and disseminate.

Consider Rosen. Rosen is an “"advocate for generally right-center, mainstream conservative ideas” on the Denver-based 850 KOA talk-radio station. To give you an idea of how he imagines “right-center,” you might be interested to know that Rosen has filled Limbaugh’s seat on The Rush Limbaugh Show. Prior to lighting up your radio dial, this army veteran used his MBA as a corporate finance executive for Samsonite and Beatrice Foods.

Rosen’s op-ed piece should be of great use to composition and rhetoric teachers throughout the land, as it relies on fallacious argument throughout in order to try to make his points. First, it is not clear at all who was the antagonist in the Gates-Crowley situation—being verbally abusive is aggressive, but so is repeatedly demanding information from someone who has done nothing wrong even after he has provided identification. Moreover, Rosen suggests that anyone who does not see the situation in the same light he does is not “fair-minded,” which is right-wing radiospeak for “reverse racist” or simply “irrational,” a word that the right uses like Westmoreland used napalm3. What also strikes me is the default setting of the analysis: reconstruct the scene as a narrative with narratalogical conventions, meaning there must be a clearly defined protagonist, antagonist, conflict, etc. But what is most compelling about this incident are the clear-cut failures in certain aspects but the sweeping ambiguities in others.4 As Rosen argues that “Crowley could have stoically sucked up Gates' verbal abuse rather than arrest him for disorderly conduct,” he is already passing a judgment and making claims—a police officer is never the cause of the verbal outrage, that someone who bears a weapon in front of you should not be perceived as a threat or a possible form of abuse, and (most terrifying of all) that a citizen cannot exercise his or her rights of free speech. Granted, I wish the world (especially the United States) observed more decorous speech and treated its members with dignity, but in America you have the inalienable right to be distasteful, hateful, bigoted, and crass. U-S-A! U-S-A! Had Gates been any of those things, he would have, I believe, been within his rights.5 As far as Rosen’s sneering mention of “contempt of cop,” one should remember that Rosen is white, and as a white male he has never been the object of institutional racism or sexism. Therefore, his personal experiences with authority figures has never been negatively-impacted by them.

What ties these three figures together—the Marxist, the left-center journalist, and the conservative radio talk show host—is this: placing the yoke of classist elitism squarely on the shoulders of the left-leaning intellectuals. As if right-leaning intellectuals and professors—yes, they exist and in greater numbers than the right would have you believe, because if you knew then the “liberal universities” straw-man fallacy wouldn’t work anymore—aren’t as capable of elitism as anyone else. I know something about this. I am a left-leaning professor, and I, too, have shaken my head at colleagues who laugh at my Pittsburgh Steelers fanaticism even as they go glossy-eyed over obscure early-modern manuscripts. The difference is, I go glossy-eyed over that stuff, too. And many of my colleagues love sports. And we drink beer. And when we recreate, we get dirty. But sometimes we also go to the theater or attend a symphony because the theater is pretty cool and symphonic music can be beautiful—if you don’t believe me, just ask Metallica.

What all three of these articles miss is that class (i.e. money) trumps variable x, no matter what the profession, ideology, or any other consideration. If you are a classist, it doesn’t matter if you swing a hammer for a living or type a blog or teach a college class or run a conservative think tank—what matters is that you use your socio-economic status to devalue those who earn less, you valorize your aesthetic choices while you diminish theirs, and you look to those who earn more with desire that you often articulate outwardly as scorn because you need to validate where you’re at now.

Moreover, have we forgotten how closely connected racism and classism are?6 That ethnic and racial minorities are often considered to be lower-class, that a conventionally “successful” person who is a minority is often considered an anomaly and that he or she can still be—even in “post-racial America”—reduced to the color of his or her skin by a bigoted police officer, politician, bus driver, or anyone else in a position of authority? (Sorry, Rosen, but power does matter in these formulations, and if you’re black or white and unarmed while an armed police officer stands before you in your home, you do not have power and the line between “duty” and “oppression” becomes razor thin, which makes a police officer’s job extremely difficult.)

Before we turn Gates into the villain, here, let’s acknowledge that he cussed out Crowley’s “mama,” which is very unprofessional and rude, but let’s also acknowledge that Crowley’s arrest had so little justification that the CPD dropped the charges.7 Yeah, both actions are “bad,” but which one is worse, and by “worse” I mean “probably unconstitutional”?

So, when the triumvirate belly up to the White House picnic table with their families, they are inadvertently bringing all this with them. Cheers.

Please enjoy this hilarious excerpt from The Root responsibly, and check out the entire article:

The Recap

If Crowley has a sense of humor, he’ll bring Gates a six pack of Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale with a bow tied around it. Crowley doesn’t sound like much of a racist, but he at least has to ‘fess up: The real beef against Gates was “contempt of cop,” not the made-up “disorderly conduct.”

The Takeaway

If Gates has a sense of humor, he’ll bring a six pack of Rogue Brutal Bitter Ale in honor of his favorite “rogue” policeman. Sure, he had every right to fuss Crowley out in his own home, but Skip might also want to be that dude—every crew has one—the guy you hate to roll with to the club because you know you might have to throw fists on a humbug.

The Guest List

Gates reportedly drinks Beck’s—professor-speak for “Garçon, bring me a Cabernet, immediately.” Crowley likes Blue Moon—a girl beer. And Obama drinks Budweiser—the beer equivalent of wearing a flag pin. It’s apparent that these guys aren’t actually beer drinkers, so if Obama doesn’t want this to be a limp sausage fest, he needs some tapas, a lady DJ, a later start, a keg of Dogfish Head Raison D'êtres and a few more guests….

[Ed. Note: How “working class” is a beer that is served with an orange slice? Even my far-left-leaning-professorial-self rejects fruit in my beer.]

1Full disclosure: I find Davis’ scholarship compelling. His studies on the history of the novel, the conventions of characterization, geographic description, and plot are tremendous tools to help think about the ideological work of the novel, and his term “dismodernism” may be a useful one for describing a system of thought that accepts bodily difference into its concept of normativity. Davis, though, is consistently strategic in his opinion making—whatever is dominant is to be refuted. Now, there is validity in doing what Michel Foucault called “negative work” when confronted with received wisdom; however, many scholars know that a fast track to publication is to be both intelligent and openly contrary. Contrariness, then, has become an intellectual gimmick (maybe it always has been), and Davis is a master of the strategy.

2Sorry, birthers.

3Gratuitous rhetorical flourish. See how annoying it is?

4Like life. Which is glossed over as we busily tag some as “evildoers” and others as “heroes.”

5These are the same laws that keep the Limbaugh’s and Rosen’s on the airwaves instead of being arrested for hate speech some of the time.

6It wasn’t that long ago that television pundits marveled that then-Senator Obama was “articulate,” even though every other candidate for nomination was also articulate.

7For those of you saying, the CPD didn’t have the time or resources to fight the legal battle, I’d like to remind you that you’re, in effect, justifying the police NOT enforcing the law, thereby arguing that the enforcement of law is subjective, not absolute, and therefore making your opposition’s argument w/r/t Crowley’s actions toward Gates in the first place.

Special thanks to my rugby-playing friends for teaching me the “Drink it Down” song lyric used and abused in the title, and another special thanks to a good friend in law enforcement who keeps this issue interesting in new ways in our correspondence.