Saturday, July 25, 2009

Commiserating with President Obama

Boy, have I been there! Not quite as earth-shakingly, as in the "stupid" heard round the world a few days ago, but definitely in my own way.

It's hard to get used to the idea, whether you are a politician or another kind of public figure (like a minister), that your words, your careless, angry, delighted, public words, have a great deal of power. Not the kind of power you might want, either, but the kind of power that gets you in hot water.

Years ago in a parish far far away, my congregation was voting on a matter of some controversy. I had advised one particular path but how much support I had for that position among members---well, it wasn't enough to get me past the faux pas of audibly saying "YES!" with a both-thumbs-up when the vote approved my recommendation.

Dissidents felt immediately angry with me; supporters felt embarrassed by my lapse; I felt defiant initially, then embarrassed, then humbled enough to offer an apology.

Rookie ministers have this huge lesson to learn: the power of our words, even when nobody seems to be paying attention and they've all fallen asleep in the pews, is far greater than we expect it to be. Say something snarky, say something politically incorrect, say something stupid, say something too revealing, say something anyone can misinterpret----you will be on the hot seat. You don't have to be in the pulpit to say stupid things; you can be at a potluck or just talking to a staff member or teaching a class. You might just be in the grocery line and there isn't a parishioner in sight----if somebody knows you're a minister, you're ON and don't you forget it!

So I sympathize with President Obama. He shot from the hip and scattered a lot of buckshot around, some of it hitting him in places he didn't intend. In fact, he probably didn't intend any of it. This is a guy who has been trying, for God's sake and that of the American people, to get some movement on health care reform; he's been tactfulizing his words for weeks now.

Losing it in public and using a naughty word like "stupid" is not too surprising, after what he's been working on and with whom he's been working. "Stupid" probably actually refers to some of the roadblocks that have been thrown up by his opponents, but Sgt. Crowley, poor guy, took it in the shorts. Neither Crowley nor Gates had any extra tact going on themselves, Gates just home from a trip and Crowley trying to do his job.

One thing that has struck me in all this is that a neighbor apparently turned Gates in. A neighbor? Didn't the neighbor recognize the guy? What kind of a neighborhood is this where people don't recognize the folks who live across the street or next door? No wonder Crowley was suspicious. And no wonder Gates was peeved.

17 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

"Rookie ministers have this huge lesson to learn: the power of our words, even when nobody seems to be paying attention and they've all fallen asleep in the pews, is far greater than we expect it to be."

It's not just rookie ministers who have to learn that lesson Ms. Kitty. In fact rookie ministers may well be more careful about what they say ion public or in private than veteran aka well *established* ministers. . . Do you think that prominent U*U ministers and even UUA Presidents haven't said snarky, politically incorrect, stupid things that anyone of moderate intelligence and sensitivity can *correctly* interpret as being highly questionable?

"So I sympathize with President Obama. He shot from the hip and scattered a lot of buckshot around, some of it hitting him in places he didn't intend."

Like his U*U perhaps? ;-)

"One thing that has struck me in all this is that a neighbor apparently turned Gates in. A neighbor? Didn't the neighbor recognize the guy? What kind of a neighborhood is this where people don't recognize the folks who live across the street or next door? No wonder Crowley was suspicious. And no wonder Gates was peeved."

The key word here being *apparently*. It seems that the woman who made the 911 call may not have been an actual neighbor of Gates. Youn are makin g the same mistake as President Obama now Ms. Kitty, speaking out without *knowing* the actual facts, which is most ironic in the context of this post about being careful what you say. . .

"What kind of a neighborhood is this where people don't recognize the folks who live across the street or next door?"

The kind of neighborhood that is found all over the U.S.A. and Canada to say nothing of large chunks of the rest of the world. Right Ms. Kitty?

"No wonder Crowley was suspicious."

Police officers cannot be expected to know everyone in the neighborhoods they patrol. Sgt. Crowley was *cautious* because he had received a call about two black men breaking into Gates' house. When he arrived on the scene lo and behold there was a black man inside the house. That is why Crowley asked Gates to step out on the porch where he could clearly see him and ensure that he was not armed. . . Sgt. James Crowley has a "beautiful wife" and kids that he wanted to be able to go home to.

"And no wonder Gates was peeved."

Unfortunately, a free and *responsible* search for the truth and meaning behind Henry Louis Gates' uncooperative and even combative response to Sgt. Crowley's attempt to investigate the alleged break-in will reveal that his being "peeved", to say nothing of going ballistic. . . had a lot to do with his own internalized prejudice and suspicion of whites and/or white police officers. But don't take my word for it Ms. Kitty. Take Henry Louis Gates' word for it. . .

Joel said...

I can sympathize with the president, too. If you or I shoot from the lip, it doesn't get picked apart all over the country. And to his credit, he apologized like a gent.

You notice what Professor Gates didn't say? "Thank you." He never thanked the officers for risking their lives to protect his property. Instead he railed at them for failing to recognize him immediately as their social better.

(Maybe a fair compromise would be if the Cambridge police promise never to respond to a call at his house again. Reckon he'd prefer that?)

As for the neighbor, she called the police because she saw two men (Gates and a cabbie) trying to break in, when she knew that only the one lived there. I'll bet he didn't thank her, either.

I'm sorry, but I don't have any sympathy for him at all. I know he was tired from a trip, but any fool knows that mouthing off at cops is a bad idea, let alone yelling at them and threatening them. That applies to wealthy, well-educated men as much as to us proletarians. If I had acted toward the police as he did, I'd have been hauled in, too. And they don't come much whiter than me.

At least Gates could have apologized afterward, when he had a chance to calm down. That he didn't says a lot.

Joel said...

By way of balance, there's a good perspective from an actual cop her and here.

Robin Edgar said...

I largely agree with you Joel but I do not consider President Barack Obama's "diplomatic" backtracking to be an actual apology. Unless I missed something President Barack Obama still owes Sgt. James Crowley, the Cambridge police, if not police officers across the nation an proper *apology*.

"I want to make clear that in my choice of words I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department and Sergeant [James M.] Crowley specifically. I could have calibrated those words differently."

Is an admission that he had "misspoken" but not a proper apology, or at best a lame one that fails to acknowledge any real regret for how his poorly chosen words impacted on Sgt. Crowley, the Cambridge police force and, from the look of things, police and other first responders across the nation.

Joel said...

Maybe so, Robin, but a politician has to be careful how he words his apologies. And honestly, if you were in his position, wouldn't you be careful how you phrased things after sticking your foot in it like that? An outright mea culpa could backfire as well.

Lord knows I'm an unlikely defender of Barack Obama, but I think the way he phrased it was the right thing to do. He could easily have stuck to his black-man-as-perpetual-victim stance and not alienated most of his supporters.

Bill Baar said...

If your preface your remarks with I don't know the facts and then proceed to call someone stupid, you've flunked senior exec 101. In fact you've flunked mail-room clerk 101.

This was clumsy beyond belief.

Robin Edgar said...

Joel I believe Obama took a step in the right direction with his non-apology apology which is better than some sorry excuses for an apology I have seen but I believe that he needs to take another step or two, perhaps not immediately and issue a proper apology. He might want to do so in consultation with Sgt. Crowley and/or the Cambridge police force, and the police unions.

Robin Edgar said...

I hereby formally and profusely apologize in advance to Ms. Kitty for the following waggish comment -

:This was clumsy beyond belief.

Are you talking about how President Barack Obama acted stupidly in asserting that the Cambridge police acted stupidly or *this* somewhat clumsy blog post by Ms. Kitty Bill? ;-)

Robin Edgar said...

Thanks for being a good sport Ms. Kitty. That comment was all in good fine while making a point and I hope that you got a bit of a chuckle out of it yourself.

Bon nuit,

Robin Edgar

ms. kitty said...

Bon nuit yourself, Robin. Thanks for your thoughts.

Diggitt said...

Today's -- Monday's -- NY Times has a very long article on the whole business, which explodes a lot of the myths being floated. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/us/27gates.html

Miss Kitty's right, but most of the commenters I have read are missing one point or another.

Miss Kitty said...

Great post, Ms. K.

Had it been Obama's immediate successor who called the policeman's actions "stupid," would there have been a firestorm? I can't help wondering.

And my word verification is DUCKS. :-)

Robin Edgar said...

:One thing that has struck me in all this is that a neighbor apparently turned Gates in. A neighbor? Didn't the neighbor recognize the guy? What kind of a neighborhood is this where people don't recognize the folks who live across the street or next door? No wonder Crowley was suspicious. And no wonder Gates was peeved.

"Turned Gates in" was a highly misleading overstatement even *before* the 911 call recording had been released. The "neighbor" who made the 911 call was not a real "neighbor" but someone from another town on her way to work at Harvard Library. It is clear from the recording that she could not see the "suspects" well enough to identify them. Interestingly enough Ms. Whalen apparently made the call to help an actual neighbor of Gates, an "elder woman", who was concerned by the apparent break in. If Ms. Whalen could not see the "suspects" well enough to determine their race perhaps the elderly "concerned neighbor" could not do so either.

What is clear from the 911 recordings is that no racial profiling is occurring because the race of the "suspects" is indeterminate. Ms. Whalen comes across as an honest concerned citizen trying to help the woman who was originally concerned about the apparent break-in but obviously id not have a cell phone. Ms. Whalen makes it clear that she is not certain that an actual break-in is occurring and even considers the possibility that it is a case of a locked out home-owner trying to gain entry to their home. Sgt. Crowley comes across as calm, cool, and collected and no more "suspicious" than *any* police officer would be when confronted with a similar situation. He even refers to Henry Gates as "the gentleman" at the 4:28-30 segment he 4:28-31 mark of this YouTube video of some of the police recordings that the Cambridge Chronicle has posted to the internet. when reporting that Gates "will not cooperate". Referring to an uncooperative African American "suspect" as a "gentleman" is hardly the kind of description that one would expect from the kind of racist "rogue policeman" that Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has publicly, and indeed *nationally*, slandered Sgt James Crowley as being. . . Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. may be a scholar but he's no *gentleman*, at least he was not one during the initial confrontation that he is all but exclusively responsible for creating and escalating.

kim said...

We were discussing that last night. Apparently, the more expensive the houses the less likely that you know your neighbors. Interesting....
but, also, I heard that the lady across the street didn't live there, she worked there; it's a mixed neighborhood with offices and dwellings.
plus, I agree that Obama shouldn't have said it, but he was right. The incident wasn't (mostly) about racism, it was about arrogance (on both sides) and the inability to back down. Authoritarianism. Read what Brad Hicks wrote about it:
http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/432862.html

ms. kitty said...

It's gotten clearer as the information has come out, just what the situation actually was. I'm glad about that. Thanks, Kim, for adding to it. And all of you who have offered your thoughts.

Robin Edgar said...

:but, also, I heard that the lady across the street didn't live there, she worked there; it's a mixed neighborhood with offices and dwellings.

The caller worked at Harvard Magazine whose offices are reportedly about 100 yards away but she made the 911 call on behalf of an actual neighbor who was concerned about the apparent break-in apparently an "elder(ly) woman". The person who called could not see the "suspects" well enough to clearly identify their race, although she did say that one might be Latino when the 911 dispatcher asked her what race they were. So there was little or no racial profiling involved in the 911 call itself.

:plus, I agree that Obama shouldn't have said it, but he was right.

Was he? I am not so sure. He could just as easily have said that his good friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. "acted stupidly" in this matter but did not do so. AFA*I*AC President Obama "acted stupidly" in asserting that the police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates, had he been a little more diplomatic he could have calibrated his words differently and say that the police acted questionably. I doubt that quite the same media "firestorm" would have resulted had he done so. That being said, in light of the fact that he was not fully apprised of the facts he should have refrained from criticizing the police at all until he knew more about the situation. As it is he managed to should himself in the foot with the verbal equivalent of a police issue .45 caliber bullet, or at least a .38. It sure wasn't a diminutive 2mm Kolibri Car Pistol kind of shooting oneself in the foot.

:The incident wasn't (mostly) about racism,

Actually it is about racism, albeit not racial profiling, Henry Louis Gates Jr. made sure that it was and is about racism. There is little evidence that Sgt. James Crowley is a racist but Henry Louis Gates rapidly decided that he was a racist, apparently within seconds of Sgt. Crowley asking him to step onto the porch and certainly within the first few minutes of their encounter. . .

:it was about arrogance (on both sides) and the inability to back down.

Well I emailed the Stone Brewing Co. the other day to suggest that they might want to send a complimentary case of their Arrogant Bastard Ale to the White House for the occasion of the meeting of President Barack Obama with Sgt. Crowley and Henry Louis Gates. Hopefully Gates won't cry wolf in his beer during the meeting but I am not holding my breath.

Interestingly enough the WVC for this comment is - bartie

Robin Edgar said...

Obviously I meant to say "shoot himself in the foot". I am still trying to figure out if "should himself in the foot" is some kind of Freudian slip. Who knows? Maybe the Secret Service are too. ;-)