For anyone who wants a more sober analysis of the Gates fiasco, check out Harvey Silverglate here. It’s not a short piece, and he talks at length about the First Amendment, but based on some of the commentary I’ve seen (from the Left, the Right and the middle) a lot of people could use a refresher course. Here is the thrust of his well-articulated contention:
This gets us to the heart of the matter. Under well-established First Amendment jurisprudence, what Gates said to Crowley–even assuming the worst–is fully constitutionally protected. After all, even “offensive” speech is covered by the First Amendment’s very broad umbrella. Think about it: We wouldn’t even need a First Amendment if everyone restricted himself or herself to soothing platitudes. I’ve been doing First Amendment law for a long time and I’ve never had to represent someone for praising a police officer or other public official. It is those who burn the flag, not those who wave it, who need protection.
And Eugene Robinson has a typically salient take here.
Conflagrations like the one with Gates and Crowley are certain to inspire discussion, which is never a bad thing. Inevitably, these situations also provide opportunistic armchair punditry, of which we’ve had plenty in recent days. None of this is new; in fact, it’s because this is such a third-rail (and legitimate, historical) problem that each time an event like this erupts, old scabs are peeled back. Hopefully Obama and the two gents can turn this mess into an opportunity (I won’t call it a “teaching moment” because that manages to sound both condescending and sanitizing).
As always, comedians usually do the best job of taking painful topics and poking fun in ways that underscore the stakes more effectively than any essay or network news lecture. Some samples from the last four decades are below:
Richard Pryor, live in ’79:
Robin Harris (aka Pops) from House Party:
Chris Rock (from The Chris Rock Show):
Of course, and this is not meant in any way to diminish the very legitimate gripe (on racial as well as constitutional grounds) that Gates has, the very real issue of police impunity extends to people of all races. Most individuals have a story or two they could offer: I do, and so do you. (Yet, it must be said, most honest people can count the number of positive police stories based on their experiences, and they far outweigh the negative ones.) And let’s be real: whenever a honky whines about being hassled by the man, it sounds rather hysterical. Face it, you didn’t have the cop’s attention unless you’d already done something to get his or her attention. But cops are people too. And if you surveyed virtually any profession, you’d see a healthy representation of folks with chips on their shoulders. But the thing is, cops are the only ones who can do damage (legally) if, for whatever reason, they feel they have some skulls to crack, (sometimes literally). Christopher Hitchens offers a few anecdotes from his not inconsiderable experience.
The whole piece is recommended and well worth quoting in full, but here’s a key passage that echoes Siverglate’s unassailable argument:
Moreover, whatever he said to the cop was in the privacy of his own home. It is monstrous in the extreme that he should in that home be handcuffed, and then taken downtown, after it had been plainly established that he was indeed the householder. The president should certainly have kept his mouth closed about the whole business—he is a senior law officer with a duty of impartiality, not the micro-manager of our domestic disputes—but once he had said that the police conduct was “stupid,” he ought to have stuck to it, quite regardless of the rainbow of shades that was so pathetically and opportunistically deployed by the Cambridge Police Department. It is the U.S. Constitution, and not some competitive agglomeration of communities or constituencies, that makes a citizen the sovereign of his own home and privacy. There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right. And such rights cannot be negotiated away over beer.
What he said.
Postscript: As always, Frank Rich has the definitive take on the matter here.
That reaction is merely the latest example of how the inexorable transformation of America into a white-minority country in some 30 years — by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate — is causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments.
Ground zero for this hysteria is Fox News, where Brit Hume last Sunday lamented how insulting it is “to be labeled a racist” in “contemporary” America. “That fact has placed into the hands of certain people a weapon,” he said, as he condemned Gates for hurling that weapon at a police officer. Gates may well have been unjust — we don’t know that Crowley is a racist — but the professor was provoked by being confronted like a suspect in the privacy of his own home.
What about those far more famous leaders in Hume’s own camp who insistently cry “racist” — and in public forums — without any credible justification whatsoever? These are the “certain people” Hume conspicuously didn’t mention. They include Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, both of whom labeled Sonia Sotomayor a racist. Their ranks were joined last week by Glenn Beck, who on Fox News inexplicably labeled Obama a racist with “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” presumably including his own mother.
What provokes their angry and nonsensical cries of racism is sheer desperation: an entire country is changing faster than these white guys bargained for.