Sunday, July 26, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well: Obama, Gates, Crowley

Talk about not wasting a good crisis: by inviting Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. James M. Crowley over to the White House for a beer, Obama not only turned this into a "teachable moment," he made everybody, including himself, into a good guy.

One bad thing about a situation like this is that it's incredibly easy for everyone to be right, and therefore to see the other guy as wrong. One good thing about a situation like this is that it's incredibly easy for everyone to be wrong, and therefore to prove the other guy as right. It's easy to question why a man would be handcuffed in his own house; it's just as easy to question why that man would raise his voice to a cop.

One problem may have been that egos and respect were working on monumentally different time scales. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor at Harvard, has worked very hard for his entire life to establish himself as an eminent scholar of African-American studies, and is therefore both personally and professionally heavily invested in the idea of raising the profile of African Americans. In terms of respect, particularly from a representative of mainstream society like a cop, he thinks in terms of years, lifetimes, generations, centuries.

But Sgt. James M. Crowley is thinking in terms of minutes and seconds. When something goes wrong on a cop's beat, there is an implicit possibility that he or she has failed in their duty to protect the neighborhood. For most people, the difference between when they make a mistake at their job and when they are held accountable for it may be hours, days, or weeks. For a cop on the beat, it may be instant.

These perspectives intersected and clashed partially because each of them was caught in the other's timeframe: the professor, thinking in terms of lifetimes, was caught up in an instant; the cop, acting at a moment's notice, ended up arresting one man who suddenly represented millions.

Obama was caught in the crossfire because he is expected to exist in both worlds, and think in terms of both moments and generations, often at the same time. He has to react as fast as the cop to a question posed at a press conference; he has think in terms as grand as the professor while doing so.

Fortunately for all of us, Obama realized that this wasn't just a zero-sum game; it was potentially a negative-sum game. It could have easily turned into constant recrimination, blame, and charges of racism and elitism. The setting was perversely perfect for partisan inflammation, taking place as it did in Cambridge, ground zero for conservatives' claims of liberal elitism. By refusing to blame either, Obama gave each of them something only he could do: permission for both of them to be right. The decision to invite them over for a beer has a nice symbolic value: alcohol is, after all, a mind-altering substance, a symbol of male bonding, and a great way to relax. Let's hope Obama buys a six-pack of the most famous beer from Boston: Sam Adams.

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