What really may have been bugging Gates

Just when the news cycle of Harvard professor Henry Gates’s arrest was winding down, President Obama gave it another spin. By accusing the Cambridge, Massachusetts police of acting “stupidly,” he leant support to those who speak out against racial profiling (as he also did while serving in the Illinois state legislature).

Some might still think Gates over-reacted. But, as John McWhorter, who characterizes himself as a conservative Republican, writes in a New Republic blog, “That sort of thing has not been typical. . . of Gates. He has even been assailed by black writers lefter than him [as] an accommodationist. … Gates has never been a rabble-rouser.”
As for those who maintain statistics don’t support profiling, McWhorter quotes author Ellis Cose: “. . . in the real world such statistics are almost irrelevant, for rage does not flow from dry numerical analyses of discrimination or from professional prospects projected on a statistician’s screen.”

Still, Gates broke the cardinal law for individuals of all stripes: Never antagonize the police. However much you’re looking for trouble, the extent to which they’re itching for action is often doubled. Gates might ordinarily have known better. . . if, that is, he weren’t simmering from another slight beyond racial profiling. One that he couldn’t help wondering was racial, but, without casting himself in a bad light, couldn’t make the accusation.

See, as one of a rash of books to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Gates, along with another author, Donald Yacovone, edited a book titled Lincoln on Race & Slavery. Also in the New Republic, this time the current issue of the magazine, is an authoritative and lengthy review of seven new books on Lincoln, including Lincoln on Race & Slavery. In fact, Who Lincoln Was, by respected historian Sean Wilentz, amounts to a crash course in current thinking on Lincoln.

In short, Wilentz basically eviscerates Gates’ book, with its premises left hanging out like guts. In fact, Wilentz spends such a disproportionate amount of space criticizing Lincoln on Race & Slavery, Gates could be forgiven if the world “vendetta” popped into his mind. Or even, were it not preposterous to cast Wilentz in that light, to wonder if his criticism were racist.

Some of the lowlights (each passage separate from one another):

. . . Gates presents. . . his own dramatic–and utterly unpersuasive–version of the fanciful “two Lincolns” script. Several basic facts of political and constitutional history elude him, as do certain nuances of political speech and political strategy. And on some crucial issues his analysis is very poor. [The second Lincoln “saw the light” and signed the Emancipation Proclamation and enlisted blacks into the Union army. — RW]
By concentrating on Lincoln’s writings about race and slavery, Gates also misunderstands how much more besides race affected Lincoln’s political approach to slavery.
This ahistorical judgment leads Gates to complain, a little obtusely, that Lincoln only occasionally and obliquely recognized slavery as the basic cause of the Civil War until he delivered his forceful Second Inaugural Address in 1865. In fact, between 1854 and 1865, virtually every speech Lincoln delivered, and every political letter that he wrote. . . made it clear, at some level, that slavery and its expansion lay at the heart of the sectional divide. In effect, Gates–and he is not alone–holds that the radical abolitionist view of slavery. . . is the only one worthy of respect, let alone serious consideration. … This may express a noble morality, but it is bad history.

As for why Lincoln changed his mind about recruiting blacks, including ex-slaves. . .

. . . Gates, the literary critic and rare-book lover, finds the key to the riddle in a literary text. Specifically, Gates proclaims that Lincoln came to his senses after reading a brief book. . . written by one George Livermore–a Cambridge, Massachusetts abolitionist. . . about the Founding Fathers’ admiration of black soldiers during the American Revolution. … The problem is that most of what Gates says. . . is either dubious or inaccurate, and much of it is preposterous, and some of it runs afoul of basic scholarly standards.

Gates simply fails to understand what historians have long known was transpiring beneath Lincoln’s political artifice. He takes Lincoln’s words at face value when it suits his own arguments. . . but he is unable to see Lincoln for what his finest biographers have shown he was: a shrewd leader who could give misleading and even false impressions when he wanted to do so.

This is how politics actually works in Washington, and always has worked. Gates does not comprehend it. This failure yields even stranger results when Gates offers his own account of why Lincoln reversed course on black recruitment–results so strange, and even potentially damaging, that they demand closer examination.
Gates’s credulity about historical sources also mars his treatment of Lincoln and colonization. … Gates’s inquiry quickly begins to look like a wild goose chase.

And on and on and on — I’ve barely scratched the surface. If any other reviews were as remotely negative, Gates had to be simmering. He faced not only the prospect of disappointing sales, but of being forced to defend premises which he may even have admitted to himself now looked unfounded. Enough to put anybody in a bad mood.

Still, however much Gates’s reaction to the police might have been fueled by more than racial profiling, the police reaction was that much more unwarranted.

More at Memeorandum.

2 replies »

  1. This seems like a rather bizarre and irrelevant stretch, and I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that Gates’ behavior was so inexplicable that some mystery explanation is required? There seem to have been plenty of factors in the immediate situation that would make even a pretty low-key guy lose his temper, let alone one who’d been on a plane for the past 14 or more hours. I have no idea whether Gates was particularly upset about the Wilentz review, but it seems pretty clear what was bugging him at that particular moment was being confronted in his home and asked to prove that he wasn’t a burglar.