July 31, 2009

Beer, Prejudice, and Politics

Eric, over at Barataria, writes about beer. I’m certain Eric didn’t know that beer is one of my favorite subjects… but it is, and Eric’s use of analogy created a “teachable moment” for ole Mule Breath. His message is about more than just beer... he uses the godly elixir as a means to make a point about diplomacy.

Eric posits that the ancient Sumerians were the first to discover the benefits of beer. He further suggests that some of that tribe, perhaps preferring the nomadic lifestyle to the sedentary required for farming, argued against putting in the grain crops that would be required as a base for the brew. Putting in crops meant staying in one spot until the crops could mature and be harvested. So perhaps there were differences of opinions resulting in arguments... until there was beer.

The more astute of you are probably seeing the direction Eric was travelling with this line of thought. It brings up a topic that I have not yet discussed on this blog, and reading Eric’s message made me understand why. To this point the foofarah in Cambridge between distinguished Professor Henry Lewis “Skip” Gates, and decorated police Sergeant James Crowley has been something about which I really would rather not speak, but Eric’s brief, simple discussion of beer brought it out.

My aversion to this discussion is rooted in the suspicion that the guy I wanted to be right… wasn’t. Dr. Gates likely mishandled the situation and carried it to ridiculous length, causing what should have been an inconsequential local dispute to escalate to a world media event. I can excuse him to some small degree, because the city in which this dust up happened, Cambridge, has a long, checkered history of racial tension, and the police department has had several high profile cases in which it was shown officers overreacted and overreached. A follower of the Harvard Crimson would know I speak the truth.

So, when the story first broke, my reaction was Reaganesque; There they go again.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had jumped to conclusions unsupported by fact. Even the photo of Dr. Gates being taken from the house in handcuffs showed him with a highly agitated expression, his mouth open wide as if shouting. It disappointed me to learn that Gates was likely the bad guy here. But I'm a big boy. I can overcome disapointment.

Mistakes were made. It looks like Professor Gates made the first by assuming a racial aspect to Sgt. Crowley’s investigation of a citizen call. Perhaps Sgt. Crowley isn’t racially 100% balanced, who knows, and who amongst us is, but his actions that day did not indicate any great degree of racism. Gates was wrong to make that assumption. I was wrong to make that assumption.

The next mistake was, however, Sgt. Crowley’s. The arrest should not have happened. Sgt. Crowley allowed the cop in him to override the reasonable man he is reputed to be. If Prof. Gates was being unruly, placing him in restraints was a good option, but carrying through with the arrest was a mistake. (At least he didn't Taze him)

Then it was my time to make a mistake. Almost immediately upon hearing of the event I assumed the worst of the police. This is my bias and I do not apologize for it. I have my reasons, and those are fact… not conjecture. From personal experience I expect cops to behave badly when confronting certain populations, and blacks fall into that assumption. My mistake in this case will likely not change my overall point of view. I have always admitted that the cops I dislike are part of a small element, and I've seen great stride toward improvement over recent years. Still, when something like this happens I expect to to worst. My mistake in this instance.

Now comes President Obama, giving every right wingnut all the reason in the world to point and shout, “See! We told you so.” And now Mr. Obama is the racist that idiots like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe have long predicted. Good job Mr. President. But good recovery as well.

So, back to the beer… and to the “teachable moment” that has been discussed by both Dr. Gates and President Obama. Far from inflaming racial tensions, Sgt. Crowley’s mistake may serve as the path to a bridge, if one can ever be found, Mr. Obama is wise enough to follow that path. Inviting the boys over to the White House for a beer was a means to make amends for bad choices and perhaps get things rolling in the direction of improved understanding. This could be a first step, and Sgt. Crowley may end up being the hero. I hope so.

“When this whole thing got way overblown in the media, the only sensible and civilized thing to do was to sit down and have a beer about it. Amazing things can happen when people give themselves up to the idea that no matter what your dispute is, downing a pint of your fave foam with someone is an act of contrition, brotherhood, or at the very least tolerance. We’re all just people, and we might agree to disagree on many things – but we can all enjoy a cold one.

In the end, the event was just another White House photo-op in many ways. But what it said to everyone is that there are ways of getting past all the terrible ghosts that have been haunting us since this nation first declared its independence.

We may not all agree on everything, but that’s not important. We’re all people. We know enough to be civil and decent to each other. If it takes some
time over a few beers to make that clear, then it’s time well spent. In fact, there’s no better use of time than to spend it getting to know someone you have a serious disagreement with because they might just change your mind on a thing or two. I’ll bet a lot of Sumerians were convinced of that after all that grain produced something as cool as beer.

Indeed I think they probably were, Eric. Thanks for a good message.

RECOMMENDED READING: Prof. Gates, Cambridge and Racial Politics, CBSNews.com


Anonymous said...

Thanks. I rank this one in your top ten. I'd be proud to share a cold one with you.

Mule Breath said...

The day may come, my friend. In fact, Labor Day weekend gets pretty interesting around here. Y'all ought to swing by for a brew and some charred flesh.

Anonymous said...

Pretty much stuck here in east-central Iowa. Should you ever go through this area, there's always a cold one and a stack of wood for the grill. . .

Mule Breath said...

And probably some good roasting ears too, eh?

Actually I know a bit about Iowa, since I did a year in West Burlington back when I was pre-teen. My pop had a job assignment in Speery so we just moved house for a year. I also have a good friend on the other side of the state who will likely be traveling here for the September party and again a couple months later for our November conference.