American Authoritarian Tradition

For most of the population it is hard to get a sense of the cultural upheavals of the late sixties. They’re too young. They weren’t there. That’s ancient history – odd doings in Paris in May of 1968, and later that summer, the Soviets rolling into Prague to put an end to that let-the-people-do-what-they-want nonsense (although Vaclav Havel and his merry pranksters had the last laugh in that matter) – and later that year the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, street theater from the Yippies (the Youth International Party) and the Chicago Seven, and the police bashing heads in. That year people who shook things up paid the price. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April and Bobby Kennedy in June. And we were in the thick of the Vietnam War, or our part of it after the French, and in February, CBS’s Walter Cronkite, called the most trusted man in America, had told us it just wasn’t worth it – we’d never win. What was happening?

Of course the previous year had been the Summer of Love in San Francisco (be sure to wear some flowers in your hair) and the subsequent summer gave us Woodstock. Had you been around at the time you would have heard a lot of talk about the world finally getting better – the Age of Aquarius arriving and that sort of thing (harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding) – or the world ending – the cartoonist Al Capp saying of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, where the hippies played by Fonda and Hopper are blown off their motorcycles by shotgun blasts from a redneck in a pickup truck, “at least it had a happy ending.” Yes, someone would put an end to all that nonsense. That turned out to be Richard Nixon, invoking the Silent Americans who were fed up with all this – on January 20, 1969, he took the oath of office and that should have been that. It wasn’t – even if the National Guard troops shot and killed those demonstrating Kent State students the next May, a clear message if there ever was one, Nixon eventually resigned in disgrace. Then Gerald Ford got to announce that our long national nightmare was over. That was premature.

Maybe it all comes down to one bumper sticker that started showing up in the mid-sixties – Question Authority. That was the whole problem. Authority meant, to many, not just respect for institutions and positions, but what underpinned them – the accumulated wisdom of time, of generations of things being a certain way, because all that had been worked out by many people over time, and you just don’t throw all that out the window. They weren’t talking about automatic, unthinking respect for the way things were – you trust the president, you know your place (especially if you are black), you play by the rules even if they sometimes hurt you badly. They were talking about submitting to a painfully developed complex social and political system larger than yourself, and not being so vain as to think your own personal take on things meant a whole lot. Acceptance of what was in place is your duty as a citizen, as a member of a carefully constructed society. The arrogance of those who slapped that particular bumper sticker on the old VW van bugged the hell out of them.

And the other side held that all progress depends on questioning authority – otherwise you get stuck. Sometimes things don’t work any longer – times change. And as for respect, no one gets that automatically – you earn it. The president is not a god – he’s just another guy, trying to do his best – or maybe not. You ought to look into it. That too is your duty as a citizen. We’re not sheep.

And that argument never ends, because both sides have a point. And it gets played out over and over – in Iran at the moment, with the healthcare reform debate (what works can be adjusted versus trying something new as the whole concept has finally failed), and certainly with the arrest of Professor Gates of Harvard in his own home by Sergeant Crowley, for disorderly conduct, most of which was his flamboyant and excessive questioning of authority. And to be clear, Gates wasn’t charged with obstructing justice, although some people think that was the issue. You may pretend that was the case, or assume that was the case, but it wasn’t. Gates was arrested for being an arrogant asshole – disorderly conduct / public nuisance / likely to cause public disruption. But then the Cambridge police quickly dropped the charges as they didn’t fit anything like the circumstances. Gates was in his own home, not a public place, and being an asshole is not on the books. Maybe it should be, but it isn’t. The actual crime was exhausting this officer’s patience. Gates got to him. And Obama said arresting Gates was stupid – publically, in a press conference, to the whole nation.

And that set off a firestorm. Many defended Crowley – he deserved better for just trying to do his job – but when you let someone get your goat and do something stupid that you have to take back – the charges were dropped immediately -then you’ve hardly done the right thing. And if you won’t play that game and listen, slightly amused, glancing at your watch and smiling ironically, and let the fool sputter out and end up looking like a total fool, maybe you win. This is a matter of your view of how best to deal with the assholes of this world – Thank you, Professor Gates, for your interesting views – sorry to have bothered you.

Think about this. What if, back in the sixties, some smart cop, when confronted by some fool of a would-be hippie calling him names, would have done the obvious thing and listened, politely. Tell me more. Gee, why do you think that? How does what you say fit into, say, a larger view of social and economic justice? And so on. If you remember your scruffy radical friends from those days, that would have had them whimpering and slinking away. They never thought anything out.

Of course that never happened. There was no cop like that. Each side had its back up, as it was all about authority. But such a scenario is possible. Think about how Obama deals with his conservative critics – tell me your ideas and why you hold them and what you propose and what results you envision, as I’m sure you have the best of intentions. He gives them all that rope, and of course they hang themselves. Then he explains his ideas, and why he holds them, with stunning clarity. They were in attack more and hadn’t thought things out. He had. He doesn’t call them fools. He doesn’t say they’re wrong. They handle that by themselves.

But doing that takes superb confidence, and knowing your stuff. And maybe that doesn’t apply to police work. But maybe it does. Just who is controlling the situation can be seen in different ways. But be that as it may, neither Gates nor Crowley seems to be like Obama at all – Thursday, July 30, they had their Beer Summit, moderated by Obama with Joe Biden looking on, and agreed to disagree. I had the right to arrest you in your own home for making my job difficult. No, you didn’t – it was my home, as you found out right away, and I can say what I want in my own home, including telling you to get the hell out. No you can’t. Yes, I can. And so on and so forth.

And then it got baroque – Christopher Hitchens sided with Gates and Fox News’ big-gun legal guy, Judge Andrew Napolitano, said that Gates’ arrest violated the federal Constitution – it really was stupid. And Rush Limbaugh continued to say Obama was trying to destroy a good white cop, because Obama was a racist. And that’s why Obama nominated Sotomayor to the Supreme Court – because Obama is a racist.

And of course, after the beers, Professor Gates said this:

Thank God that we have a President who can rise above the fray, bridge age-old differences and transform events such as this into a moment in the evolution of our society’s attitudes about race and difference. President Obama is a man who understands tolerance and forgiveness, and our country is blessed to have such a leader.

The national conversation over the past week about my arrest has been rowdy, not to say tumultuous and unruly. But we’ve learned that we can have our differences without demonizing one another. There’s reason to hope that many people have emerged with greater sympathy for the daily perils of policing, on the one hand, and for the genuine fears about racial profiling, on the other hand.

Crowley said he and Gates will keep talking, but he’d like a few days before he says anything more.

But it is always about how things should be, as both sides seem to have their own views.

And people do dig in their heels:

A Boston police officer allegedly sent a mass e-mail using a disgraceful racial slur in referring to Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., prompting the commissioner to move immediately to fire the cop, the Herald has learned.

Officer Justin Barrett, 36, a two-year veteran assigned to District B-3, was placed on administrative leave pending a termination hearing yesterday afternoon. When a supervisor confronted Barrett about the e-mail – in which he called Gates a “jungle monkey” – he admitted to being the author, according to officials.

Police Commissioner Edward Davis immediately stripped the cop of his gun and badge, according to officials. Barrett, who could not immediately be reached, has no prior disciplinary history.

Barrett is also a member of the National Guard, a source said, and the e-mail was sent anonymously to his fellow guard members and the Boston Globe. It was unclear whether the scurrilous missive was sent to members of Boston police as well.

“There is no room on the department for someone who uses those words,” said Boston police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll, who declined to provide the specific text of the letter.

Well, here is the specific text of the letter – and the National Guard suspended the guy too. And Andrew Sullivan comments:

I note two things that stand out to me. The first is the crudeness of the racism. “Banana-eating jungle monkey” is the baseline description of Gates, coupled, as it always is, with “I am not a racist.” He also thinks it’s real cool to use “ax” instead of “ask.”

Sullivan argues this represents, well enough, the “actual attitudes and beliefs of a segment of American society, the part that strongly disapproves of Obama, the Palin base, the Fox News core.” What Officer Barrett says of one reporter makes that clear enough:

Your defense of Gates while he is on the phone while being confronted [INDEED] with a police officer is assuming he has rights when considered a suspect. He is a suspect and always will be a suspect. His first priority of concern should be to get off the phone and comply with police, for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.

Sullivan finds that awfully familiar:

Notice the Cheney view: that a suspect has no rights; and is always a suspect, always at the mercy of the state and government, with a duty to obey police and military power or face brutal consequences. Notice the use of pepper-spray as a response to mere verbal complaints of mistreatment.

And the more you read, the more you realize how deep the Bush-Cheney legacy runs and how the torture and “enemy combatant” state, celebrated nightly on Fox, easily seeps into domestic law enforcement. Notice how Cheney actually wanted to use the military against “suspects” in America – and how proud he is of that move. And notice in the email how all of this is bound up with a defense of God. Notice the classic Christianist line to the journalist: You are an infidel.

This man is also in the National Guard.

It’s all about authority. And it played out again in DC:

A lawyer, who moments earlier had been complaining to friends about police overreaction in the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., got a taste of the Gates treatment himself after loudly chanting “I hate the police” near a traffic stop in Northwest Washington, D.C.

Pepin Tuma, 33, was walking with two friends along Washington’s hip U Street corridor around midnight Saturday, complaining about how Gates had been rousted from his home for not showing a proper amount of deference to a cop. “We’d been talking about it all day,” said Tuma. “It seems like police have a tendency to act overly aggressively when they’re being pushed around,” Tuma recalled saying.

Harmless enough save for this:

Then the group noticed five or six police cruisers surrounding two cars in an apparent traffic stop on the other side of the street. It seemed to Tuma that was more cops than necessary.

“That’s why I hate the police,” Tuma said. He told the Huffington Post that in a loud sing-song voice, he then chanted, “I hate the police, I hate the police.”

Bad move:

One officer reacted strongly to Tuma’s song. “Hey! Hey! Who do you think you’re talking to?” Tuma recalled the officer shouting as he strode across an intersection to where Tuma was standing. “Who do you think you are to think you can talk to a police officer like that?” the police officer said, according to Luke Platzer, 30, one of Tuma’s companions.

Tuma said he responded, “It is not illegal to say I hate the police. It’s not illegal to express my opinion walking down the street.”

According to Tuma and Platzer, the officer pushed Tuma against an electric utility box, continuing to ask who he thought he was and to say he couldn’t talk to police like that.

Tuma was arrested – disorderly conduct. It was off to jail with him. There was no crime, or interference with the police doing their duties, unless questioning authority is pretty much the same as obstruction of justice, which has been argued a lot since the Gates arrest. Of course Tuma wasn’t black. He was gay. That also might have unsettled the officer, and justified arrest, depending on your comfort level around folks like Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John and Hans Christian Andersen.

But some people and positions deserve automatic respect. And everyone has their own demons.

But the arguments will continue forever about that, about the authority of things as they always have been and always should be, and the proper place and behavior of minorities who claim they too deserve respect, even if that hasn’t been our tradition here in America, and so on.

In fact, Digby at Hullabaloo applies all that to those who oppose healthcare reform:

There has to be a reason that the US, of all the industrialized nations, the richest country in the world, is so hostile to social welfare programs. There are a lot of contributing factors, not the least of which is our vaunted individualism. But one of the fundamental reasons America is so resistant to programs that provide for the common good is that there is a long tradition of rejecting any proposal that taxes white people to pay for programs that benefit non-whites.

She says it’s quite simple:

…it really goes to their essential philosophy which says that the government is taking away “what’s yours” and giving it to the undeserving (blacks and browns.) The fact that Obama himself is black only adds to the atmospherics, it doesn’t create them. This tribalism is so deeply entrenched in American culture that its racial nature has long since been disguised in less obvious terms such as “liberalism.” Obama’s race simply makes it impossible for the hard core wingnuts to hide their real intent. (And they are in such deep trouble that they can’t afford to be subtle anymore.)

And she’s not having much fun watching Chris Matthews in MSNBC:

But then he is the same guy who had earlier blithely asserted that Obama had racially profiled Sgt Crowley, so his awareness of how racism works is obviously limited. But the truth is that he’s actually just a typical selfish wealthy person who believes that he’s rich because he’s morally superior to everyone who isn’t as wealthy as he is. (And who obviously then admires those who are even wealthier.) His cohort’s desire to kill Obama’s agenda is just plain old class solidarity.

But when Matthews and other wealthy people obsess over race in the broader sense, and encourage this nonsense about reverse discrimination out of some absurd self-identification as a white working class dude, they do the work of the ruling class as well by reinforcing the All American racial divide – and its resultant antipathy toward any kind of social welfare. Tweety and Villagers who pretend to be jess folks on yer TV do the work of conservatives by presenting their elite views in the guise of blue collar attitudes. It’s a great scam.

But it keeps the well-established political and social order in place, maintaining necessary continuity and useful common understandings – except for those who question authority.

And geez, Obama has to be president for both sides. There isn’t enough beer in all of America or enough available afternoons in the shade to even begin to have folks deal with this. And there are probably a lot of those damned Question Authority bumper stickers still around. But then, this argument will never be settled. Some differences cannot be bridged. And agreeing to disagree is the best you can do.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to American Authoritarian Tradition

  1. Bonnie Bishop says:

    Which scruffy radicals were you hanging out with in the ’60’s Alan? The ones I knew, still know, thought things out again and again. Study groups on Marxism, on Latin American history, on feminism, on South Africa, on the history of imperialism and colonialism, not to mention on the history and culture of our enemies, the Vietnamese abounded. Conversations and analysis were never ending.

    The ‘question’ of ‘question authority’ represents an orientation, not an ideology after all, and seems to me to be a necessary ingredient for a healthy democracy.

    And many of us old scruffy ones are still informed by what we learned then, still thinking things out–as lawyers, teachers, social workers, nurses, administrators, and more.

    I just get so tired of the fashhionable 60’s bashing that goes on in the media. I’m surprised that you partook.

  2. Arthur says:

    Dialectic Positioning by Public Intellectuals:
    #1. “Race & Difference” … plagairized from Arthur Graham’s 1980 UCSD unpublished dissertation; pimped into “Race,” Writing & Difference, the fountainhead “tree” of Skip Gates The Confidence Man. (Challenge: Ask “The Professor” if he knows Graham and his works? Leviticus 6:1-4)

    #2. “Tolerance & Forgiveness” … so, a congressperson asked “forgiveness” for the Nation’s sin/crime against humanity–slavery; and so False “Profit” Gates “arise” to deceive this ongoing “national discourse” as a “5% leader-elect”; Matthew 24:24.

    #3. “Policing & Racial Profiling” … enter the Fencing Middle-of-the-Road Con Man Gates to issue “fruits” of dumb-down books—Matthew 12:33–“for the tree is known by his fruit.”

    #4. Follow Arthur’s thread at this link:
    [Search: Judge Andrew Napolitano on Gates’ “arrest”]

    #5. Please visit Graham’s website:

    Thank you.
    Arthur j.Graham, Ph.D.

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