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Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.

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the noise The Noise (2009, July--September)
articles on non-musical topics: general interest, political and social unrest, and possible amusement

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Don’t Take Your Car to Champaign Auto Sales and Repair
posted September 5, 2009

The following describes my adventure getting my car repaired (or trying to) at Champaign Auto Sales and Repair and why you definitely don’t want to take your car there. People who don’t live in the Champaign area can simply nod their heads in sympathy, remembering similar misadventures in car repair.

It was a Saturday afternoon. Kristen was about to run off to the grocery store, and I had a dress rehearsal to get to. Suddenly she was back in the house, asking if I would try the key. It wouldn’t turn in the ignition. I ended up walking to the rehearsal (about 2 miles) and Kristen got a tow truck to take the car somewhere to get it fixed.

That somewhere turned out to be a really bad idea. We didn’t know it at the time, though. We were new to that side of town and our friends hadn’t been able to recommend any shops nearby when we asked, so Kristen picked an ad in the Yellow Pages that looked big. If you are looking for a life lesson, here is one. Ignore the size of the ad. All that means is they shelled out on the advertising. Another hint: the word ‘repair’ is tacked on at the end. Sales are much more important to these folks. That’s assuming they do a better job with that end of the firm, but really, I have no personal experience with it.

Their mechanic got me on the phone the next day and said he’d get it fixed by the end of the day. I asked him to also check out a coolant leak I’d been noticing get progressively worse. When he got back to me with the estimate, the coolant leak turned out to be a busted head gasket that was leaking into the antifreeze. Everyone I’ve ever repeated that to has said ‘Oooh!’ as if they’d been hit with a bucket of dead fish guts. So if you’re wondering, that's not good. In fact, the repair was more than the car was worth.

I decided to forego the repair. When I picked up the car the next day, the mechanic said the car was on borrowed time and if I didn’t get the repair the engine would die. He said I would be driving somewhere and hear a horrible sound from the engine and that’s how I would know. He recommended I not drive the car.

Over the next week Kristen and I talked about buying a new car. Ours is 12 years old, but it only had just under 100,000 miles on it. The reason being that we live in a town that’s about five miles end to end, and I often bike to work and Kristen either bikes or takes the bus to school and we rarely go anyplace that isn’t a few miles away. So considering the fact that it would take probably another four years to put 50,000 more miles on it, we did a 180 and decided we could stretch the car out a few years if we sprang for the repair. The car is paid off now, and a few months of equivalent car payments might still be an economic good idea if we can put off another car for a while.

I called the mechanic and scheduled an appointment for the following Monday. During that week I had driven the car maybe about 15 miles. The engine sounded fine and there was no sign of anything bad. I assumed I had gotten things taken care of in time.

I’m telling you this to be as fair to the mechanic as possible, and in the knowledge that nothing I say from this point on will be remotely flattering to him.

The first problem is that he didn’t show up at 8am on Monday, the time and day he had told me over the phone was when I should drop off the car. Not only was he not there, the entire shop was closed. I called the number on the door and the owner of the shop apologized and said he was sending a driver to get me home. The reason for this was that the shop advertised on their website a free ride home for their customers, and although I often do not take advantage of offers like this, it wasn’t as if I had begged for a ride. It was part of their service. The regular driver wasn’t available, however.

The substitute driver was a real piece of work. Apparently the owner had awakened him out of a sound sleep, and he let me know about it. All the way home he was complaining that ‘I don’t know why some people can’t take the damn bus! It would get you there a lot faster." Meanwhile he was flooring it up the narrow street. Surely, I thought, I will get home faster this way, if I get home at all.

At that point I still thought things were amusing. Notwithstanding the driver’s complete lack of tact, I had no idea that everybody else in the shop had a similar idea of customer service. When I called the next morning, on the supposition that my car had been fixed, a familiar pattern began. The mechanic had stepped out to get a part, I was told. They’d take a message. And no, the car wasn’t ready yet, even though it had been promised to me by the end of the day yesterday.

I called the next day and got a similar excuse. And the next, at which point I was told the mechanic was sick. Overwork, and stress, I was told. He had the flu. But they’d take a message and he’d call me. He was encountering some problems with the car.

Those problems turned out to be the engine. It took another week and a half to find this out, however. When the car had been in the shop nearly two weeks past due and I was tired of getting rained on walking to work, bumming rides, canceling appointments, even mowing with a dull blade because I couldn’t take my mower across town to get it fixed, I told the shop owner, "Every time I call you (and it is always me calling you because if I don’t I never hear from you) you take a message and promise he’ll call and he never does. So if he doesn’t call me back within the next half-hour, I’m going to call you again—and again-- -until I get to speak to him. I’m tired of this nonsense!"

It is sad that this is the only thing that will make some people take notice of you. The mechanic called me half an hour later and I actually got to speak to him. He said the engine was shot, something I still find really odd given that it seemed fine when I took it up there. He said he’d tried to get it to work, taking it apart and putting it back together three times. He tried to sound really dedicated and really overworked. I decided I was going to have to junk this car after all. Then he rang up my bill—full price.

"For what?" I asked. "You didn’t fix anything!" "I did the [original] job [like you asked me]. I just spent six hours of work. I don’t work for free!" I tried to explain there was a little space between free and full price. He wouldn’t budge. Finally, he said he’d check with the owner at lunch, and they did budge—with what I thought was a pretty unattractive counterproposal. The new deal was that they’d chop the bill for labor (apparently the entire bill was now for labor!) in half if I’d have them get a new engine as well. This struck me like those offers where someone is selling magazines and they want you to buy a three-year subscription instead of one because it is the ‘best offer!’ I wasn’t at all sure getting in deeper with this guy was going to solve my problems. But there wasn’t that much choice, either. Could I just take my car home, now? No. Right now, he said, the car is not drivable. It is even hazardous. If I wanted it to take home he’d have to put it back together (and charge me for it? I wondered).

That week I talked to a lawyer I know about whether I would have to pay a bill for something that resulted in an inoperable car. I tried to figure out how, if the engine worked fine when I brought it in and shut off the engine, the mechanic could maintain it was my fault it no longer worked. Had he wrecked the engine in the process of making the other repair? If he’d started it up and it worked fine until after the gasket job was done and THEN was making obnoxious noises, then it didn’t look good for him. If he started it up and it sounded funny already, then why did he go ahead with the original repair? He should have known better, since there would be no point in fixing a gasket with a kaput engine. Either way, he never got around to telling me what was going on for two weeks, and only then because I pestered him.

I was in full ‘MacGyver’ mode by the time we went to see him. I asked him whether the car was working when he’d started it. Since I’d parked left it on the far side of the lot in what actually looked like it belonged to the adjoining grocery store I figured he would have had to bring it into the repair bay, and either answer was problematic for him. But I got a surprise. It turns out he hadn’t started the car at all, had just repaired it in the lot and left it there for the whole three weeks it was in his shop. He didn’t get why I was confused about this, and thought I was angry that he had chosen a parking lot to make a repair. "I can fix it wherever I want to!" he said, angrily, not having a clue why I was bringing this up. It reminded my of my cat, who also misses the point regularly. I mean that, if you are pointing at something, he looks at the end of your finger. "Look! A bug! No, not my finger! The bug. Get it!" No luck.

Maybe the mechanic wasn’t being shifty or dishonest, maybe he just wasn’t that bright. We gave him another chance, to, as he put it "make it right." It was a long four weeks.

He might have been confused as to why I was angry when we met, but I think he had it clearly by the end. He gave me his own cell phone number, explaining that the lack of return calls was caused by his "boss" never giving him any of my messages. I told him that I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of putting in a new engine, for, among other reasons, the first repair having taken so long, I really needed my car back, and didn’t want this repair to take that much longer. He outlined a timetable and said he’d make it a priority, which he did—if you consider that he eventually fixed every other car in the shop except mine (see below).

Whether he did that because he had gotten in over his head and had no idea how to fix my car, or because he was angry with me for being angry with him and was childishly refusing to fix it, or was actually feeling guilty for what he was planning to do, I don’t know for sure.

What was this strange plan? Well, he told me the cheapest engine he could get was for $1,600. Because he was ‘trying to make things right’ he was going to ‘eat the cost’ to the tune of $700 which, in addition to knocking off $300 from the original job, meant that the total out the door cost would be a mere $1,500. But he didn’t get the engine for $1,600. Maybe because he shopped around until after the date he’d said he would have the job finished, he got it for $550. I know this because one of his colleagues let it slip after he had left town. This would have netted him a nice profit, if he’d gotten the car fixed.

All I knew at the time was that a few days after the date I was supposed to get the car back (I was laying low and not calling the shop at this point) I got a call from him telling me the engine was in and he was going to start work immediately. I left a message thanking him for calling me and looking forward to the result. I didn’t hear from him for another week. That Wednesday I called him and got another promise. He was leaving town Saturday, but would definitely have the car fixed by Friday afternoon.

On Friday evening, I gave him a call. He was just getting to it. Could he call me when it was done? Well, it would probably be midnight or 1am. Poor guy! He was working so late on my car…the one that he spent six hours on during a two week period over a month earlier. What dedication! It was going to be the last thing he did before he left town. Why did that make me feel uncomfortable?

I felt I owed somebody a phone call. When I called the shop earlier, having premonitions that our fearless mechanic had left town with the job undone, and wondering how long he was going to be gone, I got a new receptionist who told me that he was working on the car. When I heard from the mechanic that he hadn’t started on it yet, I called her back. I don’t recall ever using the phrase ‘full of shit’ in a conversation before, but I’ve always wanted to try it. "I don’t appreciate being lied to. I knew you were full of shit when you told me the mechanic was working on my car earlier, and now the mechanic has confirmed it. You ought to actually check with the mechanic and not make up lies to just get customers off the phone as fast as you can. You ought to actually care about your job."

She didn’t take it well. Like all people who are actually full of shit, she turned the attack on me, saying she did not appreciate my saying what I did and that what she had actually said was that the mechanic was going to get around to it soon. I might have bought it if she hadn’t been so theatrical earlier. Here’s what actually happened the first time:

me: Hi, I’m calling to see if my car’s been fixed yet.

her: Oh. What color is it?

me: It’s a blue Malibu.

her: Oh yes, I can see him working on it right now.

The reason I knew she was lying was that you can’t see either the repair shop or the parking spot where I left the car from the front desk. Also, the mechanic then confirmed on the phone that he hadn’t started working on the car yet. Obviously she was not from the school of ‘Let me go talk to the mechanic so I can bring you truthful information instead of lying my butt off,’ she was from the school of ‘I just want to get you off the phone as fast as I can so I can call my boyfriend.' At least I’m guessing that’s who she was trying to get ahold of when she called me 20 minutes later asking for some dude whose name I can’t remember. I told her she had the wrong number and left it at that. She called me a couple more times that weekend asking for the same guy.

Meanwhile, I had asked the mechanic to make sure that the people he left behind would actually be able to locate the bill and let me have the car the next day in his absence. The reason for this being that the sales and repair parts of the shop did not seem to communicate very well—earlier in the sequence, when I’d asked for a copy of the bill, they couldn’t give me one. Only the mechanic knows how to do that, I was told. I didn’t want this to happen again. Oh no, it won’t, was the assurance. And they’ll be open?, I asked, remembering the time, six weeks earlier, when I’d dropped off the car. Oh, definitely.

Anybody want to guess what happened the next day? Did you guess they were closed?

I left less-than-thrilled messages with the shop and the mechanic, neither of which answered their phones. My messages weren’t returned until the next day, and then only one of them. The father of the owner called me at the airport where I had rented a car to pick up my wife from a trip east. He also worked there, and he wanted to fix things. I told him about the mechanic and our deal. It turns out this fellow had been called up by the National Guard. I guess he was dragging his heels until our car was no longer his problem. I say that because this new guy told me that he had fixed all the other cars in the shop, but hadn’t somehow gotten around to ours. I’ll refer to this fellow by name—Richard-- because he didn’t lie to me—much.

Richard had a problem, which was that their only mechanic was going to be gone for two weeks. So he had the car towed to another repair shop. This must have been what the store’s owner was referring to when I complained two weeks into the process that if the mechanic was that overworked they should get somebody else on the job and he said "I don’t like to take jobs away from mechanics and give them to somebody else." At this point it was late June, and the trip we’d been planning for months was going to be a real problem if we didn’t have a car. I got the number of the mechanic who had taken over the job and asked him over the phone to please do the job quickly. "It’s been in this other shop for over six weeks already and I really need it soon or we aren’t going to be able to take our vacation." He promised the car by the weekend, four days away.

And suddenly, just like that, on a Thursday afternoon, during a piano lesson, I got a call that the car was ready, before it was promised. No kidding! There are people who work like that. No six broken promises and endless hard-to-get-ahold-ofs. It was just finished, and I could pick it up the next day.

I went to see Richard. Bless him, he thinks out loud. I found out, as he was adding the bill, what the actual cost of the motor was, and what the other mechanic had charged for labor (which turned out to be a discount he thought he was giving because the car was to be sold retail as part of the shop’s sales division—sneaky Richard). I asked him if he thought it was fair that, after nearly seven weeks, their shop should send the job elsewhere and then add a $300 markup. If it were me, I’d be taking a loss, I said. But I’m not even asking for that. That $300 difference is what the mechanic was supposed to make for fixing the car, which he never actually did. Richard said he’d negotiate. We did. We met in the middle, after we couldn’t get ahold of the second mechanic to ask whether he thought the first one had done anything worth paying for. Later, when I spoke to him, it turned out the first guy hadn’t finished the original gasket job, either.

The reason I found this out was that after Richard and I had spent about an hour talking about integrity and customer service skills and other things that I felt I needed to get off my chest about the whole sorry episode, I went out to the car and discover that the key wouldn’t turn in the ignition (very artistic; in the end as in the beginning). Oh, did I mention that it was a new key?

Right. The first mechanic had taken the key with him, or lost it. They had to make a new one, so they drove out to our house to get Kristen’s key to duplicate. I can’t remember if this was before or after the negotiations over the warranty. I didn’t want to put in a new engine only to have it die three months from now, and the part was only covered for 30 days! The first mechanic said they’d cover it for a year, but Richard wasn’t comfortable with that and split the cost with us on a private warranty program that covers the engine and transmission for five years, and the best part is you can take it to any shop in America. Woohoo! No more dealing with these guys!

So anyway, back to the key. It turned out that unlike the originals it will only open one way; of course, the trunk and door only open when it is flipped the opposite way, to make life fun. I will always think warm thoughts about our mechanic whenever it takes me three or four tries to get the key to work each and every time I try to start the car these days. Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

The second time I left the establishment I discovered that the gas gauge needle was hanging on the wrong side of the bumper. Evidently, said mechanic, and I use the term loosely, had shorted out the instrument panel whilst fiddling around with whatever he was fiddling with. I had to take the car back to the second dealer (at first under the impression that it maybe was his fault; he assured me it wasn’t) and spent a couple of hours in the hot sun watching a very generous man fix my car on the spot. It took a while because there were several screws that hold the instrument panel in place missing and he had to send an assistant to the store to get replacements. During that time I got to hear him being harangued by his aunt who wanted him to fix her car air conditioner right away and also some things in her house and why didn’t he call her, etc. etc.

At least there was some comic relief. I got home that afternoon having spent another large part of my day dealing with the car issue. I am quite certain that I spent more time on it than our trusty mechanic ever did. You spent more time reading this article than he spent working on our car, most likely. And anyhow, competence counts for something too.

Life likes to display an odd sense of humor for those who notice. I have, in whatever rash of kindness, managed to get through the entire article not only without raining down curses on the mechanic in question, but without even naming him. But I will drop a hint. His first name means ‘excellence.’



Nazdar, Y'all!
posted August 18, 2009

Near the end of the June, my wife and I traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, site of the Quadrennial National Sokol Slet. Should I unpack that for you?

Sokol is an organization founded in Czechoslovakia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1862 by two fellows who were interested in the health and vitality of the Czeck people. It includes physical exercise of all kinds—mainly through calisthenic routines, but also includes gymnastics, volleyball, and pissing off the Fuhrer. Sokol was a very nationalist organization in an era in which national pride was at high tide, so when Hitler took Czechoslovakia as his prize in 1938, and attended a Sokol Slet, the participants in the parade of athletes refused to look at him as they marched passed. Or so the story goes. Anyhow, I digress.

Every six years the ‘mother ship’ holds a massive event, or ‘Slet’ in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and folks from all over the world come to participate in the festival, whose signature event is a mass callisthenic event held in a stadium, choreographed to music. I’ve taken to describing it sort of like a marching band without instruments, but that isn’t quite right. You really have to see it to understand.

Every four years, the various Sokol chapters in America—for they have now grown to include branches in many cities in many countries wherever there were Czecks to start them—every four years, they gather someplace to have a national Slet of their own. This year’s mainly took place at the convention center in Fort Worth. It was a little bit like going to the Olympic games, only—it was smaller, the quality of the competitions was not so high, and the security, while administered as only elderly ladies from the old country can provide it, wasn’t as tight--although my wife may disagree.

We arrived on a Tuesday evening, which meant that we missed the opening ceremonies, which, I am told, included hardly a speech, and a lot of gymnastic routines in their place. Makes you sorry you missed it. But we saw many more such routines in the days ahead. One group from California was particularly good, and a group from Venezuela was especially amusing. No, we didn’t annex Venezuela during the Bush administration. It is still another country with another disturbing leader. But the theme was unity, and the organization had invited groups from all over the Americas to fill out the ranks. Some folks came from Canada, too.

We stayed at the new Omni hotel, which is right across the street from the convention center, and made going to see the events quite easy. This meant that we also got limited exposure to the 104 degree weather. The hotel was quite stylish, but there is a learning curve to being the new behemoth on the block, and the hotel and its inhabitants were still working out the details. Among them, a toilet in our room that kept backing up all week (it appears now that the former guests had attempted to flush their room key down the toilet in protest), a restaurant that didn’t serve our food for over an hour (but when they finally did, they apologized and we got it free) and countless botchings of our reservations including leaving some of our family members off the role and assorted mishaps. Also overcharging for certain services that were to have been provided at a group discount.

On Wednesday morning we were rudely interrupted by a fire alarm. A female voice informed us ‘A fire has been reported.’ It hadn’t really—the sprinkler system had been called into action by accident, but I’ll get to that in a minute—nonetheless, we gathered up our laptops and cell phones and headed for the stairs. Having exited the shower only half-an-hour previously (I believe I was still having breakfast) I was a bit unprepared. It was rather an adventure navigating our way to the great outdoors. On the third floor the stairs stopped on our end of the building and you had to walk through a twisting maze of unfinished hallways to get to their continuation. While I went on ahead, exploring the passageways to be sure we could trade the horizontal for the vertical at some time in the foreseeable future, Kristen scooped up a three-year old boy whose weary grandmother had journeyed from the 11th floor and carried him the rest of the way. The boy could see fire around every corner.

Once we had exited the building we were immediately told we could re-enter it. There were firemen in the lobby and trucks flashing out front. The folks who had exited in the front of the hotel were not told they could gain re-entry for a while. After a bit, we sauntered back up to our rooms.

That afternoon felt like something out of a Seinfeld episode. I mean in the sense that, whatever major event affects all the citizens of New York, it can usually be traced back to Kramer. Or George. Or maybe Elaine. One of Jerry’s three friends will somehow have been involved in every news making event that happens in the city of New York. Jerry will just shrug his shoulders and figure life is just that way.

It turns out that our uncle was the one who started the fire alarm—by accident. He was hanging his clothes on a sprinkler head in the bathroom, and in the act of pulling his shirt down, the head broke off. That alerted the system to begin spraying the room with water, which told the hotel that there must be a fire. Which caused every single person in that several-hundred-room hotel to have to leave. It also caused the hotel to spend the rest of the week trying to pump out and then air out his room. They were sorry—I don’t know how much of his stuff was ruined by the deluge of dirty water.

Later we attended a gymnastics event. This is not too different from what you see on television during the Olympics. There were four events—uneven bars, vault, balance beam, and floor routine. The difference was that there were many more competitors, and while some of them were pretty good, others were decidedly not. One poor little girl ran up to the vault and got stuck on it. Tears. Her attempt at the balance beam was also disastrous. More tears. The aim here is to learn physical fitness and have fun in a group you can belong to. It is not tryouts for an elite squad. They take everybody.

Some were fairly proficient, of course, and were fun to watch. That evening we saw some of the high-end gymnasts from various parts of the country, and world, do their thing in a special gala event. One of my favorites was a trio from Chicago who sported giant hamster exercise wheels, though they used them to far more effect than my hamsters ever did. The Venezuelan group had a couple of comedic mascots with them—oversize blow-up clowns, as it were. A group from California did a really nice and well-coordinated routine.

During the days, we saw some more competitions. There were several volleyball tournaments going on—men, women and co-ed, and a kind of group marching competition, which admittedly was one of the stranger things I saw at the Slet. I am not so big on group conformity as this organization seems to be—on the other hand, they were very prone to hospitality and inclusion, which was very pleasing to be around. There were also some group exhibitions going on during the day, which included a quartet of older ladies doing a sort of comedic routine with attitude, and bannered batons. They were clearly having fun—that’s all I’ll say about it. I understand they practice about an hour a week.

There was plenty of commerce at the event—booths from one end of an exhibition area to the other. The Forth Worth Convention center is large, and houses many mansions. (Would I lie?) Our Slet had taken over them all. While one of the exhibition halls was like wandering through a carnival sans dart games and dunking booths, another was given over to the history of the organization, and included pins, photographs, statuary and other art, and record books aplenty. The older Czechs are proud of their history, and the organization they have maintained all of their lives. Out in the hall was a 100-foot replica of a cartoon history of the Czech people with, as it claimed ‘other insignificant world events’ thrown in. It was entertaining.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed the luxuries as well as the kinks. We got to use the hotel pool to go swimming for what must have been my first time in a couple of years. While there was a plentiful supply of older folks at the happening, there were plenty of young people—mostly little girls. At one point we got up a game of Marco Polo (I kept wanting to apologize to poet laureate Billy Collins, who recently wrote a very funny poem about a women with a migraine having to listen to kids playing a game of Marco Polo nearby). Although it was 102 most days, by 10pm it actually got a bit cool on the third floor roof, so we had recourse to the hot tub a couple of times.

We saw a bit of Forth Worth as well—the Stockyards, where once the cattle roamed, now the home to tourists. They don’t treat them as they once did the cattle; they simply take their money, on the theory that it is a renewable resource. The steaks now have to be imported from elsewhere.

There is also a wonderful water sculpture garden near the hotel, designed by two famed architects, which is quite an experience. The pieces are interactive. One protrudes far above ground and one can climb to its dizzying summit; another takes you some 40 feet below the surface, and gives you vertigo walking the maze of concrete surrounded by rushing water. A third pool features several intricately connected fountains. There is a quiet pool that specializes in the kind of serenity that only still waters can provide.

I found our week in Texas to be fairly serene. It was also, admittedly, surreal. But we were surrounded by family! How could it be otherwise? Our trip incorporated a family reunion, several meals together, and assorted insanity. We also palled around in small groups, and had some quiet time. Not having an agenda of my own made it easier to negotiate the hodgepodge with good cheer; it was certainly not boring.

All in all, the week was an interesting combination of pageantry, competition, history, good times and cheer, and festival friendliness. The word Nazdar is a Czech word that basically means ‘on to victory’. The slogan for this Slet, which adorned many T-shirts, seemed to be a fun-loving collision of the desire to keep to the things of the past, the old country, and reverence for the history of each city’s club—all things Czech; and yet adapt all of that to the local attitude, the local slang, and the local hospitality, the welcome of Texas. And it is a good motto for each of us as we wrestle with life: Nazdar, y’all!



Just Having a Beer
posted August 12, 2009

It's been more than a week since the media sensation created by the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was brought to a most  interesting denoument by a president and a few beers. Being a far too reflective (and busy) sort for the hurried, clash-seeking newsgathering we like to do in this country, I imagine that before this post is old we will have moved on to the next chance to bloodlet our collective vituperation on one another and continue our endless struggles about class and race and dignity and power using a new set of symbols-who-were-once-people to make the same angry points. But I want to pause for a moment and discuss last week's Beer Summit, even if it is yesterday's news.

It really was an odd way to damp down a controversy, wasn't it? Back in 4th grade, I suppose such a strategy would have been really popular. We were all being heavily influenced by our mothers at that point, and the idea that two people who are having a conflict ought to sit down and talk about it would just seem like a smart thing to do. We wouldn't have realized that in the real world you aren't supposed to do things like that because there are too many important people with too much money to lose or you might say something that could get you sued or looped on CNN for a few days or simply taken out of context and used by the opposition for propagandistic purposes, so it really is just better to stay in your own corner and build up your own sense of justification with other like-minded people so that you don't have to take a chance on being wrong about anything, and worse, feeling like you have to apologize for it. Our mothers would force us to make peace, and we would do it grudgingly. I guess our mothers felt that peaceful accord was more important than self-justification, and that both parties were probably wrong to some degree. But what did they know? The best part about actually being a grown up in that respect is that you don't really have to act like one anymore. Your teachers, too, were always telling you to go apologize to your opponent, but once you became teenagers you knew that the best part about being an adult was that you wouldn't have to listen to anybody anymore. And you were right, apparently. Welcome to the society of adults!

Mr. Obama has, as all conservatives know, a bit of naiveté about him, and he thought it might be worth trying this weird bit of actually talking to your adversary. The reason for this rather odd turn of events was that the President did something he absolutely is not supposed to do, which is that he said something. This is also something that children and Hollywood movies complain about periodically; the idea that politicians always hide behind bland sound bites and meaningless rhetoric and never just come out and say something. Well, Obama said something. He gave an opinion about the whole affair, and it got a bunch of people really mad at him. In the movies everybody would be on their feet clapping but, oh well.

I wasn't a tremendous fan of what he said, either, but I like to be a radical and listen to it anyway. I figured, regardless of where he stood on the issue, there were two things that would get him points with my tiny constituency. One was to admit that he didn't know all the facts and model a certain amount of open-mindedness about the issue, and the other was to suggest that he did know all the facts and then go on to present a compelling case for why I ought to share his opinion. He chose the first, at least through the first clause, and then decided to do what everyone else in America was doing, which was to express his leanings one way or the other ('I don't really know, but it seems like..."). I thought he was allowed, but my allowances weren't based on any working knowledge of the actual political universe, just the Bill of Rights.

The next thing that happened was that everybody was expressing their indignation at the President, which was, in retrospect, smart thing number one, since it took some heat off the situation itself and put it onto a third party. This was followed by smart thing number two, which was that the same guy who reminded us once again that we don't act like adults in matters of race, was inviting the antagonists to sit down together and talk about the whole thing. Without preconditions, presumably. We didn't see that coming!

But we didn't like it much. The opinion polls I saw were all negative, and the articles I read were as well. But then the whole controversy simmered down a little, which is not at all a bad thing. For all his pie-in-the-skyism, the president knows that sometimes the best you can do with a situation is to get people to calm down and not do anything stupid. Long hot summers in America have been witness to a lot of ugly proofs of what happens when a critical mass of ignorant morons decides to prove they are ignorant morons by destroying lives and property (often their own).

Although the internet has been ablaze with commentary from folks who don't think they need no spelling but can sort the good guys from the bad guys with ease (they're color coded!) I have been pleasantly surprised to find some people who are thoughtful enough to have considered, as the situation was developing, that either things might in fact be a bit complicated, or at least that it would help to have some facts before anybody screamed either racism or race-baiting. I was hoping to model that attitude myself in the long and tortured article below, trying to turn the situation into a 'teachable moment' before our president got in on the act.

I suppose that is a bit presumptuous of me, thinking any of you have anything new to learn about controversies like this. I learned something, at least. I hope you gave me a little forbearance. Unfortunately, the ones out there who have their minds made up before during and after any fight and aren't willing to extend any forbearance in anyone else's direction are usually the loudest voices. And might I suggest that that is what prejudice is made of, after all?

Still, after keeping an open mind for as long as possible, trying to think through my own prejudices and considering how the same morsels of fact could lend themselves to multiple interpretations, I am still left wondering how a man could have done something that warranted his getting arrested outside of his own home. Not being there, not being a witness to his behavior, it seems to me that it would have to be pretty 'tumultuous' to justify a police officer not simply apologizing for the confusion and walking away. I can't know whether the officer was being a racist, because he wasn't obvious about it, there being just enough to possibly justify the professor's arrest--maybe, though it seems less likely the longer I think about it. Much racism these days isn't obvious, but once in a while it does announce itself quite loudly, as in the case of one of Crowley's colleague on the Boston Police, who said Gates was behaving like a 'jungle monkey.' If Crowley himself had written that, I'd know exactly what his motives were, because no matter how incensed you are that a colleague is under attack, you don't use words like that to slur somebody unless you have no regard for their status as a person--again the essence of racism. If Crowley had said that, I would have blasted him with both barrels. As it is, of course, I have my suspicions. So, beer or no beer, is it possible to really get him to see the other side of the situation, the other person with his point of view, his own dignity on the line? What about Gates? Is he as nice a guy as he seems lately, or just a smooth operator? Even some of his friends were blogging uncertainty about his part in the affair.

Obama may have thought a couple of beers would go some of the way toward the empathy that the principles in 'newsworthy' situations seem to lack. Then again, he may have simply been trying to put out the fire. Saying anything honestly about a hot button issue like this provokes quick, angry responses from all sorts of people, and most of it is not very constructive. And Obama is used to that. Evidently, on Fox News they were even castigating him for choosing a foreign beer! Note to Fox News: I know it's hard not to find anything and everything you can to try to go after Obama (being Fair and Balanced and all) no matter how strange it is, but try to stay on topic. Focus.

Back during the campaign Obama challenged us to have a constructive dialogue about race. Some of us are actually having one, it turns out. Too many of us are various shades of defensive and scared, with a sliver of open-mindedness that is too quickly shut by reflex action every time a controversy comes along. And then there are the ones who are still behaving like little kids, calling names like Sergeant Crowley's colleague on the force. He thinks using a term like 'jungle monkey' is ok as long as he does it just to his friends, or anonymously to the Boston Globe, and, when called on it, explains that Gates was only behaving like one, not that he actually was one. Uhuh. Your mother wouldn't buy that baloney. And since your method of treating  the people you are supposed to protect and serve is about as sophisticated as a pouting four-year old's, I have a phrase you might understand regarding your 'jungle monkey' comment.

It takes one to know one.


What Really Happened?
posted July 27, 2009

This article was written on July 24th and 25th, in real time as the events described herein were 'breaking' on the cable news:

Oh boy. Here I go again:

It seems like every time I write about an issue of race or class the article turns out to be very long and not nearly as well executed as I would like. This one promise to be no exception. I can hardly expect you to want to read on after a ringing endorsement like that, but I do defend my efforts on the grounds that situations like this, to my mind, are complicated. They need some thought. I just wish other people thought so.

Here’s the situation. Or at least, a bit of it:

A fellow named Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested on July 16th in front of his home. He is now thinking about suing the police for making the arrest. His reason is that he was discriminated against based on his race.

I’ll give you a few more facts in a minute, but I’m curious how many of you already think you know which side justice should be on in this case. You’ve probably already guessed correctly that Mr. Gates is black, and assumed the arresting officers to be white. Or decided the race of the officers doesn’t matter. I don’t know the race of the officers yet, so I’ll get back to you. The reason this case came to my attention is that several people posted links to this article on Facebook. They seem to be uniformly angry about the arrest and assume, as Mr. Gates does, that it is a product of racism, pure and simple.

Well, it might be. But I want us to take a second and do some more research and see if we still think so by the end of my spiel. Unfortunately there are some people in this world for whom this stance makes me one step from a Klan member, but I think we owe ourselves more than a handful of who-saids before we decide. As I write these lines I have not formed a conclusion myself. I am, however, guided by one notion. Racism in this country is never going to go away until we learn to communicate better.

Here are the rest of the facts that were in the early links. Mr. Gates is a Harvard scholar. Personally I don’t think that will have anything to do with how we judge this case, but I do imagine it will have a lot to do with how the participants act. The reason is that it goes to ‘class’ which is just as much a powder keg as race, though it is less often discussed. A little less.

The next ‘fact’ might shake up things a little. Mr. Gates, when confronted by police, was evidently trying to break into his own home. The reason being, I suppose, that he couldn’t find his keys or something.

Now if I were a police officer and I saw someone trying to break into a house, I might consider that an arrestable offense. But our investigation is far from over.

How did the police find out about this? Someone called them. In one of the two articles I have open she is ‘a woman’ (which I thought meant a neighbor at first), in another she is ‘a passerby.’ You’ll note how I already jumped to a different conclusion based on the way she was described in the articles, and we haven’t even begun.

This is all the information that I got out of the articles linked to on Facebook, but I want to pause on the landing to mention something else. The first article, from a source called ‘Mother Jones’ which promised ‘smart, fearless journalism’ begins with the words ‘apparently…[he] was arrested trying to get into his own house’ which seems both a laudable way to start an article if you don’t feel you have reason to be an authority on the news you are relaying (we probably should be using that word ‘apparently’ more often, particularly on the internet). The rest of the sentence is potentially inflammatory because it tells us that after all, he was merely trying to get into his own house, which is kind of a major sacred cow in America (personal private property). How dare someone interfere with it, yes? But it goes on to quote what seems to be a news article (without telling us the source). The source goes on to say the police "ordered the man to identify himself and Gates refused. According to a police report, Gates then called the officer a racist and said, ‘This is what happens to black men in America.’"

Now what I want to know is this: is failing to identify yourself when you appear to be breaking into a house justification for an arrest? Did Gates basically assume as soon as he saw the police coming that he was about to be a victim of racism and by his behavior turn things into a self-fulfilling prophecy? How soon did those words come tumbling out of his mouth? Did he do anything else that would justify being arrested? Did the policeman try to figure out what was really going on, or was he too busy being a bully? Or did that comment about his being a racist rob him of the ability to see straight? How many of us wouldn’t lose a bit of control if somebody came at us with that accusation? Did Gates attempt an explanation or did he simply lash out at the officer? Was he actually trying to break in when the officer approached or was he just behaving himself on the front stoop? And what about that witness?

You think I am asking too many questions? I hope somebody is. I hope the people involved are trying to figure this out. I wish we were too. We need to talk about race in this country in the worst way and shouting at each other doesn’t count. Racism is tribalism—it is us vs. themism, and what we are all too likely to do in this an every case that comes down the pike is to assume we know who is wrong and who is right before the evidence even starts to trickle out.


Now I’ve been leaving the door open on this verdict and I can tell it is making some people uncomfortable because as long as I do that there is the possibility that I’m going to decide the officers are off the hook and most of my liberal friends have posted comments to the effect that they are clearly in the wrong. I don’t know that. We do not live in a ‘post-racial’ society. I don’t think we ever will. Blacks do not need to simply ‘get over it’: that’s bull. But I know this: racism is part reality and part perception. It exists because people treat each other like garbage and that isn’t limited to color but extends to creed, ethnicity, class, and a hundred other things I can’t even think of. It is a depressing part of the way we humans think. It is entirely possible that the witness saw a black man on the front porch trying to get into a home and assumed he was a criminal because he is black. It is entirely possible that the police officer thought the same thing. It is also quite possible that Gates assumed he was going to get railroaded as soon as he saw the policeman simply because he was black and kind of forgot that he was seen trying to break into a home and that the officer didn’t know it was his own. It is quite possible that persons reading about the incident are given to assume that all police officers are racists or that everybody who cries racism is full of baloney. Since most of my facebook friends are liberals you might imagine I’ve mostly from the first part of that last sentence. But a comment on one of the articles had the usual bit about ‘whiners’ playing the ‘race card’ so I got a little ‘balance’ from the we-use-partial-truths-to-cover-our-racism division of the conservative side.

Now what if we stepped back a little from our assumptions and tried to find out the truth, whether or not it confirms our default bias? What if, for instance, Gates had tried to explain why he was trying to get into the house in his unorthodox way? Would the entire incident have been prevented?

We won’t know that. But we can find out whether Gates’s behavior trended in that direction. If he was feeling victimized or rather full of himself (how can they not recognize eminent scholar me? for instance) he might have made it rather difficult for the officer to give him the benefit of any doubt. Still, even if he called the officer a racist, is that enough to get arrested? It sounds belligerent, but that usually isn’t illegal, even if it isn’t particularly a good idea when dealing with police. Was the officer’s response overkill?

I’ve had a few experiences involving members of law enforcement and I nearly always come away feeling like they could make a hang-nail seem like a felony. Fortunately it’s never been anything more serious that a speeding ticket but I always get the sense that they think I am a criminal and any attempt to protest my innocence will be met with cynicism and possibly get me in more trouble. In at least one case the officer hadn’t actually witnessed the violation which I’ve heard somewhere means it is isn’t legal for him to write a ticket, but I got one anyway. Since I actually was breaking the law (ie, going 10mph over the speed limit) I didn’t make a federal case out of those instances but I always got the impression that I was in the presence of power coupled with complete lack of sympathy. I’ve known others who have gone a lot faster and have gotten warnings but I’ve never been so lucky. I’m a white guy, but I wonder: if I were black would I assume I was being targeted because of race? Or would I have been treated far worse?

Since I know police officers I’ve heard the other side of the argument justifying tactics and a lot of it makes sense when you consider what they are up against—frequent encounters with less than model citizenry and the problem of the unknown in potentially violent situations—but my personal experiences have left me with a bad taste in my mouth. But they clear the way for another possibility in my mind; that Gates’s experience was not necessarily racism but simple bullying. How that would change things I don’t know yet.

I think it’s time to gather some evidence. I have in mind to find four or five news stories on the matter and then see if I can find the actual police report, all or part. Before I do that it has occurred to me I may be being unfair to some of the people who brought this to my attention—I am assuming that they are not better informed than I am. They may well be, in which case I plead for patience and can only hope that this real-time appraisal of the situation will be interesting simply because it records my changing attitudes as I am being progressively enlightened. The two stories that I had seen so far—before I decided to begin writing this article, purposely before I did my homework on this so I could detail my thought process and lay bare as many preconceptions as I could think of before I dove into the unknown—are pretty short on actual facts and longer on editorializing. This one, from the Boston Globe, entitled "Racial profiling is alive and well" begins with this paragraph: "THE ARREST of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. after he was confronted by police while trying to open the front door to his home is the latest reminder that racism is alive and well even in the most wealthy and progressive enclaves of Massachusetts. Although the criminal charges against Gates were dropped yesterday, the incident is the latest clue - for those who need one - that we’re a long way from being a "post-racial’’ society in Massachusetts." It is disturbing to me because it tells us all what we are supposed to think before we have a chance to find out what actually happened. On the other hand, it is pitifully obvious. Racism isn’t dead? Really? You don’t say! Sentiments like these are justified, however, because some people are really out there spreading lies like that. Extremism in one form calls it forth in the other. But the question isn’t whether the philosophy is sound, it is whether it applies in this situation. So here goes:

That was apparently a ‘commentary.’ Let’s look for a news story. I found one--I think this one is from the metro desk of the Boston Globe:

"Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's pre-eminent African-American scholars, was arrested Thursday afternoon at his home by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in. The incident raised concerns among some Harvard faculty that Gates was a victim of racial profiling.

"Police arrived at Gates’s Ware Street home near Harvard Square at 12:44 p.m. to question him. Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, had trouble unlocking his door after it became jammed.

"He was booked for disorderly conduct after "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior," according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had "no idea who he was messing with,'' the report said.


Ok, let’s stop here. We know the faculty is worried Gates was targeted because of his race, but then they are likely to say that in support of their colleague, aren’t they? It would be impolitic not to. What do we know about what happened? Well, according to the police report, Gates was being ‘loud and tumultuous’ (I’ll bet there are some people at Harvard who are surprised the police can spell that word). That’s what they say anyway. They also suggest that Gates pulled the Professor card. As in, I am too important to mess with. That, again, is what the police say. This would be really unfortunate if true because it not only makes Gates look like sort of a jerk, it is also irrelevant to the issue of whether justice was done in his case. Would it be less horrific if he were not a professor at Harvard? Does it make the cops more racist because they went after somebody important rather than some nobody who wasn’t eminent or professorial? Some of the articles I’ve been reading seem to think this detail will make the whole sordid affair more sordid. Maybe a little ‘well if it can happen to him it can happen to anybody’ In any case, it sounds like our arrestee was trying to throw his weight around. A little bullying on his part.

That’s assuming the police have recorded the situation truthfully. As it happens, while I was delving into the article above, CNN, which is getting ready to air their series ‘Black in America’ did an interview with Mr. Gates so we could hear his side of the story. Here is, as best I can remember, what he said happened.

He said that the door was jammed, and that he and his driver had to try to force the door open. He had gotten it open and was already in the house when a police officer arrived and asked him to step outside. He refused. The office followed him into the kitchen without saying anything, then asked him once again to come outside. The officer seemed anxious, though Gates didn’t know why. When Gates finally stepped outside he was cuffed.

Was he angry at the neighbor (apparently it was a neighbor after all who’d called police)? No, he said. He hoped if somebody was seen breaking into his home she’d do it again. It was the police’s fault, though he was ready for an apology and an explanation. He seemed pretty calm and reasonable about the whole thing, ready to forgive if given the opportunity, already magnanimous.

Some part of me was saying, well, sure, he is. He’s a professor, so he’s used to stage presence and presenting his thoughts well. And he’s had most of a week to cool off. Also, he’s far from stupid. He wants to be the reasonable, humble, beneficent fellow we can all get on board with. Make the cops seem like the ones who, with no provocation, just went off like screwballs.

Well, he’s human, so he’s capable of lying. He’s just as capable of not lying, though. All we really know is that his account and the police account are radically different. If I were a court of law I would be praying for corroborating evidence—somebody besides the principle characters who could tell us what was really going on.

Enter—the President of the United States. I wanted to make sure I was getting some of those details right from the interview (it’s a couple of hours later as I type this) so I tried to dial up CNN. They have an article quoting the Obama press conference from earlier this evening. The headline reads: "Obama: police who arrested professor ‘acted stupidly’" Somehow this made my heart sink; the idea that Obama got sucked into the ‘politically correct’ thing to say these days before he really knew what to think, either. It turns out, though, that that headline is the standard media practice of taking the most one-sided and possibly controversial thing in a speech and making it stand for the rest. I read the article. Here is what Obama really said.

"I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played….But I think it's fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, No. 3 ... that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

I knew there was a reason I like the guy. He is actually willing to consider the facts before he assumes too much--at least about the racial component. Now some people are going to think, man, that guy never commits to anything, but if he wants to wait until he has something conclusive I think he is doing us all a favor. We would all be better off if we focused on the incidents of clear injustice, of which there are more than plenty, and took a pass on some of our wilder imaginings, or waited until everybody had gotten a chance to tell their story.

Notice that Obama doesn’t say racism has gone away. He is sympathetic to Gates, and reminded us, by encapsulating some of our sad history, that there is a reason Gates introduced a racial component into the case. I say that, by the way, because, even by Gates’s own account, he is the one who introduced into the ‘record’ that he was being mistreated because he was black. By the professor’s own account the officer didn’t say anything in response to this. Not that racists are likely to say ‘Hi! We’re racists!" or ‘you’re quite right—we’re mistreating you because you are black. Remind us to put that in our report!"

Still, there are other things in that CNN article that bother me. Obama mentions that Gates did manage to prove that he was in his own home. The articles that were posted on Facebook earlier didn’t say this. The Mother Jones blurb simply said that Gates refused to give identification. I had been wondering what was so awful about having a policeman ask for your identification, particularly since it looked like you had just broken into somebody’s home. According to the CNN article farther down, "The [police] report said Gates initially refused to show the officer identification, but eventually produced a Harvard identification card, prompting Crowley to radio for Harvard University Police."

Well that changes things a little, doesn’t it? If he actually produced identification then the police should have known that he wasn’t some two-bit punk making trouble. It gets weirder from here:

"While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me," [police sergeant]Crowley said, according to the report.

"Gates was arrested for "loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space" and was released from police custody after spending four hours at the police station."

Now at this point I am wondering what on earth the charge was. Even if he was being ‘loud and tumultuous’ he was in his own home, wasn’t he? Until the police asked him to step outside so they could arrest him. This is looking pretty lame for the police.

Of course, I am arriving at my conclusions by combining the quoted portions of the police report with Gates’s recollections from the interview. This is so natural and effortless that we often forget we are doing it. They may not be capable of such conflation. Besides, it is still possible that Gates was behaving in a way that had reason to disturb the police officer. When did he pull out that racially charged comment? Did he follow it with anything that either threatened the officer or worried him that there was a potentially dangerous situation? Let’s take a look at that police report. I am tired of getting little bits of it; I want to see the document itself. I have an advanced degree, and that’s what we academes do!

What are the chances that I’m going to be able to find it on the internet? Do you want to lay odds?


Nope. At first it looked like I was going to find it right away. Then I discovered it had been posted by a couple of news organizations and then taken down. It hasn’t yielded to any attempts to find it so far, just a lot of dead links. Media filters it is!

Meanwhile, I’ve learned a few more things about the situation. There is plenty of commentary (one fellow blogs that Gates likes to allege racism at the drop of a hat but doesn’t back up his assertion; another says that "Gates is an eminent scholar and I have no reason to mistrust his side of the story" as if scholars cannot lie; few hold to the possibility that the police acted reasonably; some bloggers are just plain racists, but there are more attempts at seeing the incident as two-sided and not an open and shut case than I would have thought (hurray!). Lots of people are reminding us that ‘there are two sides to every story.’ If I had written that right off it would have save me a lot of typing! But it isn’t the commentary I’m after, it is something that will lead in the direction of evidence.

The next morning I’m back at my keyboard, feeling the weight of this story getting heavier. Overnight two things are standing out in my mind: Gates’s motives and the police reaction. You’ll notice that at one point I referred to Gates’s statement that ‘This is what happens to a black man in America’ as racially charged. One of the articles had a different take on it: there it was called ‘speaking truth to power.’ I think they may have forgotten that, as powerful as the police are in that situation, power is not all on their side. Besides being a visible, highly regard professor at a prestigious university, Mr. Gates has some powerful allies. Any lawyer he wants, probably, not to mention groups like the NAACP and the ACLU. It is a standard-issue narrative to fashion the idea that a poor, lonely man stood up to a corrupt system with all the bravery in his soul and told ‘the truth’ and got martyred for the cause. But it isn’t true. Gates has a lot of power too, and maybe quite a bit to gain if he can cause a ruckus. He’s been championing African-American rights all his life—what better purpose and crowning achievement than to speak for the whole black community’s sense of grievance and persecution? It will get him out of the university and into the realm of Public Figure. Let’s see if there is a book deal and a lecture circuit in his future.

Fine, he has ego-driven motives. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a good cause to speak for. It just means that, as usual, the heads of the great movements in history are self promoters. That’s nothing new. And there’s no guarantee Gates will get very far. When Jeremiah Wright tried to use the sudden spotlight to champion the cause of all black folks everywhere in America, Obama cut him off and media coverage fizzled. Gates yesterday tried to do the same thing. It wasn’t about him, he said, it was about every black in America. That’s generous of him to share the attention, and, coincidentally, draw it all to himself as the new leader of said movement. Something he said afterward (which I’ve unfortunately forgotten) had the whole crowd cheering, and I thought, there is at least a whiff of demagoguery about this man. He knows what to do with a crowd.

The question is, was any of that in his mind during the incident? Did he basically egg the police on so they would arrest him? Both of them surely knew which way the political winds blow these days. It is a much better direction than the days in which you could string up a black man from the nearest tree and law enforcement would look the other way when they weren't actively involved. These days, the police don’t get the benefit of much doubt. You’ll note that in that regard, I have something in common with my African American friends—I don’t assume the police report is telling the truth. But where we may diverge is that for me the issue is not that I don’t trust the police as a whole, it is that I don’t know whether I ought to trust the police officer in this situation. But, justice aside, anybody with some sense knows that when an incident like this hits the media there will be heck to pay. Maybe the reason the officer seemed troubled (by both men’s accounts) was that he was thinking ‘If I don’t get this situation handled correctly my career is in the toilet." It might be, too. We’ll have to see what happens to that officer. Meantime, he seems to have come to the conclusion that it was better to arrest Gates than to not arrest him, that he would be in more trouble if he did not back up his presence with an official action rather than mere ‘harassment.’ If that conclusion seems odd to you, have a police officer explain it to you.

Unless Gates just got under his skin and he snapped; or kept making a nuisance of himself until the officer felt he had no choice. I’m still having trouble figuring out how the police could have arrested a guy for yelling at them, but I wasn’t there. Gates is a smart guy and he has been dealing with racial issues all his life. He probably knows how to push buttons. But supposing he wasn’t? Calling the cop a racist is far from polite but it is not arrestable that I know of. And I have not seen that he was beligerent physically. Maybe the cops were out of line after all. Once his identity had been established (and it was, eventually) couldn’t they just leave?

The immediate result of this affair is that the mayor apologized, the cops released Gates after four hours in the cooler, and they are not getting good press. That doesn’t tell me much except that in the current political climate that is what anybody who doesn’t live on a cave on Mars would expect to happen. Now we’ll have an investigation and a lot of people will be waiting to see that their favorite answer gets supported by the weight of time and maybe facts.

There will be a lot of posturing by well-knowns, and a lot of political mustering of troops. And we’ll go on and have another story like this in a month or two. And the same national discussion. I suppose I ought to envy those of you who had already figured out who was right and who was wrong. For you this must seem like a six page exercise in futility.

But I keep thinking that what really makes this whole thing stink—what makes racism what it is—is how rooted it is in standard human behavior; how prejudice is so much easier than trying to arrive at the truth. And it is not about great causes and blanket perceptions. It is about doing the right thing in a given situation. Justice is not glamorous. It does not pit great groups against one another in a national tug-of-war to see whose rights can and can’t be protected and how much force we can assemble to protect them. Justice in this case is about one man in Cambridge. Justice does not care if he is a professor or a plumber. It is about a police officer. It is about whether he acted reasonably or infringed on another man’s rights. If it turns out that Mr. Gates was behaving in a way that legally sanctioned his arrest, it does not mean racism has gone away and we can all go back to sleep. If the police officer was wrong to do what he did it does not mean that every black man in America has been personally wronged and can use this to buttress a narrative that says it is ok that he didn’t achieve what he could have in life because white guys are in his way. Justice is supposed to be blind. It should also have a short memory.

Having said that I have, potentially, some empathy for why the professor chose to make this about race. I don’t know his motive for doing so. But I can understand the psychological forces that would make that come out of his mouth. Obama has made a few attempts to get people to understand this too, but so far there are a lot of deaf ears out there.

Maybe I lack the facility for being able to decide a case from hundreds of miles away without knowing the participants. But I want to make one last, wild attempt to paint a picture of justice here. Beyond groupism, beyond the prejudice that infects all of us despite our best, or our meager attempts to defeat it, what it would be like if we put down our swords and tried to get the best situation for everybody. Maybe it is a mixture of justice and mercy.

Justice would say, if it were a black man who saw a policeman coming, that it should find out why before deciding that the officer was trying to give him trouble for being black. Justice would say, if it were a police officer who had to deal with a bellicose individual who was angry because he was suspected of a crime he hadn’t committed, that maybe there needed to be a good reason for his continued presence and for ultimately making an arrest. This, a thousand miles away in another world, is what justice might look like. I don’t think we’ll ever get it on earth. There is too much to lose for our egos.

Two egos may have in fact collided here. Maybe if either or both of them had handled things differently this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe one or both of them wanted this to happen. I’m still not sure. I hope that the people close to this case are able to do the right thing. It is going to make some powerful interests unhappy. That ought to be just too damn bad. But that isn’t how it’s going to be. We’re going to slug it out around the water cooler and on television and the internet for a while, and, if we’re lucky, more evidence will come out of what really happened and who is at fault and to what extent. If we are really, really lucky, our national dialogue will include some white folks listening to why black folks, even professors, feel a deep sense of grievance and anger when they feel, with and without good reason, that society is stacked against them and that institutional enforcers who abuse power frequently abuse them. It will mean some black folks come to realize that the police are not always their worst enemy and that they have a tough job. They’ll understand some of the frustration white folks feel (not to mention guilt) when they hear the complaints and the incriminations from minorities who don’t seem to mind laying it on with a trowel, and not caring which civilians get hurt. It will mean we have a little more empathy for people on the other side of the divide even if we are thinking they might be out to lunch.

Do you think we will find out what really happened?


aricles researched during the writing of this one: 

Update (7/29/09) I've found the police report along with an article from The Root (a newspaper for which Gates serves as editor-in-chief; home turf if there ever was any) which gives an account by Gates that predates the CNN interview mentioned above, and is more confrontational.  Naturally the first of these makes it look bad for the professor, and the second seems no better; I am clearly not in the target demographic here: to me it seems self-serving and harsh.  But for another stab at the other side of the issue, we can try the 'clueless white guy' approach, similar to my own description of colorblind justice above, and argue, as Christopher Hitchens does in this article, that Gates didn't need to bring race into it at all, since he has the constitutional right not to be arrested in his own home when he has committed no crime. Anybody feel like a beer? Here is one more article from the Root that I particularly like. The author suggests that the stubbornness of that 'racial narrative' that plays in all of our heads (blacks have one version, whites another) keeps us from trying to find out the facts in this or an other case, preferring to assume what we think we already know, and that same blinding racial narrative may have gotten those two men into this confrontation in the first place. This is in large part what I was trying to say above, less successfully.


Get Reel!
posted July 21, 2009

I’ve become sort of an apologist for reel mowers. These are lawn mowers that you have to push yourself, and they have no other power than your own exertion. They were big in the 1800s, probably. They haven’t exactly been at the top of the charts in this century, though, with so many louder, gas guzzling, and time saving alternatives. I was out walking one evening last week and noticed somebody else in our neighborhood using one. That’s the first time this novel occurrence has happened to me. Before that I was sure I was the only one in town using one of these things, but this shocking experience caused me to recalibrate my thinking. Now I know there are twice as many people using them in Champaign as I thought there were before—him and me.

My wife, whose favorite color is green, and whose philosophy is of similar hue, prevailed upon me to purchase one of these items last summer when we bought our house. It hasn’t been easy. It takes about three times as long to mow the yard as it would with a gas mower—that’s assuming you don’t have to rake up the clippings and go again in some parts of the yard—and you get plenty of exercise, which is only welcome to about 80 degrees. After that it gets to feel like work. When the grass gets too long you are in for a struggle, and once the blade gets dull you are in for an epic struggle. Fortunately, I recently found out that sharpening the blade improves things tremendously. I’d have done it six weeks sooner, but there was this problem with a mechanic—but rather than stop and rain down curses here, I’ll write about that experience some other time.

There is one place in town you can go to get reel mower blades sharpened, and that is at the very opposite end of Champaign-Urbana, the place where the cornfield resumes on the other side of civilization’s rudeness, about 20 minutes away (which is as far as anything can ever be around here). It takes about a week for the resident blade sharpening specialist to return with the result (for $25).

Having dispensed with all the attractive features of getting a reel mower in the beginning, I should probably mention that you have the satisfaction of not polluting the environment, not having to buy gas, and not having your ears blown out with the noise. Our neighbor across the street has a riding mower which can do 0 to 60 in 5 seconds, apparently, and he zips around in that thing in a way that would make Dale Jr. proud. It takes about five minutes for him to get his lawn done, but he has to do it with a pair of large headphones strapped to his ears to drown out the noise because his machine is so loud that deaf people in Canada have cause to complain.

Several of our neighbors have riding mowers for yards about a fifth the size of ours, which allow you all the joy of sitting on your can and making a loud noise. One evening, in an attempt to make me feel better, my wife had me know that a reel mower was more manly than the other kinds. I told her that ironically, I judged the neighbors probably thought of it as more of a wimp alternative, since the instrument is less loud and powerful than theirs by a long shot. In reality, though, it takes some muscle to operate our wimpy mower, whereas the behemoth riding mowers can be ridden by any reasonably skilled primate, particularly ones who have had too many burgers.

Such schadenfreude does not become me, of course, but I have found myself, since becoming a member of the reel mower’s club, involved in two battles. One is against myself, trying to hang on despite the hours I could have spent doing something else, fighting the occasional battles against tall grass and heat. Most days it is a fairly pleasant experience though, and once I get an IPOD it will be even better—but for now the sounds of nature and of the neighborhood will do, sounds I am by no means drowning. It is just occasionally that the great struggles come. I usually take things a yard at a time—those days I have seen fit to mow the front, side, and back yards of our corner lot all in one morning are days I am too tired to do much else.

The other battle is against the prejudices of people who see the mower and ask incredulously what that thing is and why I would want to use one. Until recently, the only people who stopped and inquired about it were uniformly negative. Even a kid the other day (sauntering across my driveway) said ‘isn’t that really old-fashioned?’ I replied that not everything new is better than everything old—I wonder what the chances are that that idea will germinate in his mind.

But tonight some more kids from the neighborhood passed through and one child, who was holding a large water gun, said it looked really cool and could he try it? I let him, and he found it was harder than it looked. His chum tried it, and had even less success. At which point, the first wondered if he could mow my lawn sometime. I told him in a couple of years maybe we’ll have children and I’ll be too busy to mow and he could mow it for me then, buying some time while he gets a little more size on him. Who knows? It is a lonely struggle against lethargy, the ubiquity of ‘modern’ gadgets, and the overpowering desire of mankind to burn up all its dinosaurs and take sun-tanning to a new level, but at least somebody thought it was ‘cool.’ If you need a little exercise, the chance to hear the birds singing to the accompaniment of a pleasant whir, and the chance to say ‘don’t blame me if we all kill ourselves by wrecking our climate’ a reel mower might be for you. They only cost around 80 bucks.

older articles  (2009, Jan-Jun)

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