It’s not every day that I receive a request from a reader, asking me to weigh in on a specific topic. I did, though, this week: A reader wanted to know my take on the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
First, I should say, I appreciate the request. It prompted me to ask myself: Why haven’t I weighed in on this already?
Part of the reason I didn’t comment at first was that the basic facts of the case were unclear, and in dispute. I continued to hold off over the last week because I really try to avoid the kind of exhausting, mind-numbing verbal diarrhea that characterizes so much of our media coverage. (See, for instance, this report from Fox News: “Beer Enthusiasts Disappointed in Obama’s Choice of Beverage for Summit with Professor, Cop“; Obama drank Bud Light, now owned by a Belgian/Brazilian consortium.) Also, if I’m going to ask readers to take a few moments to read a blog post, I like to say something original, or at least present things from a slightly different vantage point. If you can read the same thing on Huffingtonpost, why come here?
For the record, here’s what I think: To the extent Gates became belligerent with the cops — black, white, or otherwise – it was wrong. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument for belligerence with authority figures.) Sgt. James Crowley was wrong for arresting – and humiliating — Professor Gates. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument that cops should let wounded feelings guide them when making arrests.) And President Obama was certainly wrong for saying the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” at his news conference last week on health care. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument that our president should make vague, off-the-cuff remarks on racially-charged issues when he doesn’t have all the facts.)
Obama quickly backed down, calling it a “teachable moment,” and inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer.
Yet all week long, I’ve been scratching my head: Beyond platitudes about racial progress and harmony, what, exactly, does Obama hope to teach us?
Flashforward to yesterday’s Beer Summit at the White House.
This is from the New York Times coverage:
“What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue,” a poised and smooth Sergeant Crowley said in a 15-minute news conference after the session. “We didn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past, and we decided to look forward.”
Professor Gates said in an interview, “I don’t think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together.”
The two men and their families first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours of the White House on Thursday afternoon.
“Nobody knew what to do,” Professor Gates said. “So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ That broke the awkwardness.”
Sergeant Crowley added that the families “had continued the tour as a group while the beer talk commenced.” He described the interaction between families as very cordial.
Professor Gates concurred, saying: “We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”
One of my all-time favorite Torah portions is Va-era, Exodus chapter 8. It’s the familiar Passover story of the second plauge. God tells Moses to tell Aaron to hold his rod over the river, and raise an infestation of frogs over all of Egypt. Pharoah’s magicans, though, counter the trick, doing the same with their spells. With frogs spreading out over the land, Pharoah is forced to beg Moses to plead with God to remove the frogs, promising in turn to let the Israelites go free.
What on earth does this have to do with the Beer Summit?
The Midrashic interpretation states: “Pharaoh’s magicians cannot remove the frogs; they can only create more frogs, making matters even worse. Trying to spite Moses, they make their own lot worse. It is easier to augment a plague (whether conflict, gossip, or greed) than to end one.”
This is about race relations, sure. But, more broadly, it’s about how we treat one another. Our families. Our friends. Our spouses and children. It’s about the seemingly intractable conflicts in our lives.
It’s a gift when one of our political leaders can admit a mistake, and show us — by example — how we might make our own tentative steps toward reconciliation and repair.