I do not handle Kafkaesque situations well. My wife has on more occasions than I care to remember had to rescue me from self-destruction when tangled with authority that does not make sense.
One such occasion involved a Jeep and Washington’s Department of Motor Vehicles. This was your basic Jeep, direct descendent of the military kind, bulked up for the consumer market. At the time in question, some 25 years ago, one of the downsides of living in Washington was having to take your vehicle to the DMV annually to have it tested for roadworthiness.
Marion Barry was mayor, seemingly for life. He had yet to be filmed smoking crack cocaine with a woman other than his wife. Had Transparency International been around and ranking cities as well as countries, it would likely have put the American capital a rung below Zimbabwe. The city would have fared no better in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ratings.
I had bought the Jeep, secondhand but still relatively new, a year earlier. At that point it had sailed through its DMV inspection. Now, identical in every respect, it failed. The inspector said it needed a bumper. This was puzzling. The vehicle was no more bumpered or bumperless than at its previous test. I sought an explanation. The inspector simply repeated himself.
Okay, I said to myself, I will go out, get back in line and see if a different inspector will give a different ruling. Alas, fate allotted me the same inspector and the same result. I grew more heated in my demand for specific guidance on what I needed to fix the problem. None was forthcoming. So I headed home, rage beginning to tower, and called the dealer. He was equally nonplussed. He had no idea what the inspector was on about.
A sure symptom of madness, said Einstein, is doing the same failed experiment again and again in expectation of a different result. I returned to the DMV. Once again the mysterious bumper deficit caused the Jeep to fail its inspection. Stereotypes kicked in. Overwhelmed with loathing for the Barry administration and all its works, I went berserk, unleashing a torrent of racially-charged invective. Very luckily, my wife was with me. She intervened before I could be hauled off for violating the inspector’s civil rights.
I still feel deep shame at the memory. It is not something I take out and look at very often. But it came back to me as I tried to make sense of the strange July 16 encounter between superstar Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, constabulary, which has been Topic A in the US mediaverse for the past fortnight.
Gates, the doyen of African-American studies and a public intellectual of the first order, arrives home after a trip to China to find his front door jammed. He enlists the shoulder of his burly Moroccan cab driver to get it unjammed. A neighbor mistakes this for a possible break-in and calls the police. Crowley is in the area and responds.
Then, from Gates’ perspective, comes the Kafka moment. He’s safely home, tired, leaning on a cane and nursing a bronchial infection. Suddenly there’s this large cop at the door who’s acting as though he, Gates, is a burglary suspect.
He can’t believe what’s happening. He’s a pillar of the community. Just when he least expects it, a man used to being in control of the situation finds he isn’t. He defaults, as many of us do under such conditions, to anger and stereotypical thinking. This is a white cop. He’s harassing me. He must be a racist. The professor simultaneously turns irrational and cuttingly articulate, not a good combination.
Crowley, I imagine, is taken equally off balance. By all accounts, he’s the department’s sensitivity expert, the guy who trains fellow officers how to avoid the pitfalls of racial profiling. As far as he’s concerned there’s not a racist bone in his body and he’s worked hard to make it that way. Gates’ insinuations to the contrary stick in his craw. A spot of class resentment comes into play. Meanwhile, back-up is starting to arrive. He needs to look on top of things. So he too goes to default mode. Rather than cutting Gates some slack, he plays it by the book and takes him downtown.
President Obama has been criticised for calling Crowley’s action stupid. That’s the right adjective. The moral neutrality is appropriate. Having Gates and Crowley around to the White House for a beer last Thursday was a bit stagey, but, again, put things in proper perspective. Ultimately, the dynamics at play that July afternoon in Cambridge are not going to be resolved by “national conversations” mediated by TV talking heads, but by countless private conversations and introspective honesty.