Friday, July 31, 2009

Tempest in a Teapot: Boston Cop-Harvard Professor Drollery

Modern technology--24-7 news channels and the electronic gadgets that facilitate instant messages-- has contributed to the gigantic blowing up of a minor misunderstanding into a national incident of purported major significance.

A little perspective and a sense of humor all around could have had both policeman and professor laughing at a comedy of errors initiated by the good intentions of all involved -- the 9-11 caller, the cop doing his duty, and the professor getting through a recalcitrant door in his own home.

What followed is typical. Framed only by the barest of facts, people everywhere brought to bear interpretive patterns springing from their general world-views regarding race and cops and knew instantly what it all meant. From one side, "racial profiling," from the other defense of police doing their duty, often in the face of danger and amid insults from loud-mouthed offenders. Even our calm, cool, collected President blew off before all the facts blew in and spoke of police "stupidity," necessitating a retraction and a quickly planned beer party to save his own behind and to remedy a situation that threatened to get out of hand.

Of course, we need a serious dialogue about race, and this was perhaps a teachable moment. But what we usually get is two monologues in which each party recites its own preformed narrative non-stop without ever listening to the other and with no inclination to test habitual prejudices. Two monologues do not add up to one dialogue. Thank goodness for the few sane voices, e. g., Colin Powell, who urged us to enter into a willing suspension of preformed interpretive schemes and attend patiently to the all the particular details of this specific situation before drawing any conclusions.

Was "racial profiling" involved here or a conscientious cop doing his duty in response to an emergency call? Was the professor being done an injustice in his own home by a prejudiced policeman, or did he subject the officer to verbal abuse by his words, demeanor, and tone of voice beyond reasonable endurance? Or something simpler or more complex? We all should have keep quiet until all was known in full context with some sense of proportion.

I tentatively conclude at the moment subject to change that it was most likely a farce, a comedy of errors apparently precipitated by initially innocent parties doing what was reasonable under the circumstances, but both by not grasping quickly enough and fully enough exactly what was happening seemingly let it get out of hand, resulting in an unnecessary arrest provoked by perhaps too much gratuitous, incessant, persistent verbal noise from the arrestee and ending with the whole nation subjected to it for days on end without relief or surcease of repetition and with hardly any recognition of the drollery it actually was.

This headline in the August 3 Washington Post illustrates my point well:

"Gates Says He Can Joke about Arrest"

Hey, "Kip." if you and the cop could have had a sense of humor that night, you would not have been arrested. The cop would not have overreacted, and the two of you could have had a beer without Presidential assistance.

PS: My son Paul suggests this alternative title: "Brew-Ha-Ha in a Beer Mug"

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