Contempt of Cop: Crime? or Right?

Our "public servants" act like our masters because we choose to act like their servants.

Our ongoing national debate over the behavior of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates continues apace with the good prof hopefully enjoying his brewski in the company of the President, arresting officer Sgt. Crowley, and our one-and-only Vice President Joe Biden.  Mr. Obama has called for this to be a teaching moment, and indeed it is; the trouble, though, is that there are about fifty different potential lessons being mooted.

Are we learning that the President is racist?  Or are we learning that everyone who calls him one is?  More likely, nobody much is learning anything they didn't already know, save that even the golden-tongued Mr. Obama sometimes finds himself dining on fillet of shoe sole.

No, in many ways this story is no more useful than a national Rorschach test: you see what you expect to see whether it be police brutality or reverse racism.  There is, however, one easily overlooked aspect to the tale which deserves closer attention.

Consider those few facts which are in no dispute whatsoever: Prof. Gates was, during the whole incident, on his own private property, and for most of it in his own private residence.  Sgt. Crowley didn't know this at first, but soon found out verbally and shortly thereafter had it proven independently by ID and radio.

Yet the Professor wound up being hauled away in handcuffs.  Why?

Though Gates says he never raised his voice, witnesses and a neighbor's photo put the lie to that.  Clearly, he was hootin' and hollerin'.  Still, nobody, not even Sgt. Crowley, has so much as hinted that Gates used or threatened any form of violence against the cop.

Set aside the red herring of skin color: When it comes right down to it, Gates was arrested for being rude.

The Right to Be Rude?

As we've noted before, being rude to an armed and tense police officer is stupid, but is it criminally stupid?  Should it be?

Yes, uniformed police officers carry with them the full majesty of the law.  As we all well know, however, the law is an ass more often than not, and the more laws there are, the more often the law is an ass.  The President carries with him the full dignity of the Oval Office, but that doesn't prevent us from ridiculing him when appropriate - nor should it.

On the other hand, it's one thing to ridicule and attack the President generally, but it's quite another thing to do so to his face.  We've all seen the angry faces of the left, foaming and spitting in insensate fury against the Luciferian deeds of Chimpy McBushitler - in fact, such protesters routinely committed actual crimes (e.g. littering, destruction of property) without any interference from the police.  When they tried to disrupt meetings where the President was personally present, though, their feet didn't hit the ground on the way out.

Noted conservative author Mark Steyn, no shrinking violet when it come to defending civil liberties, put the issue thus:

Last year I had a minor interaction with a Vermont state trooper and, 60 seconds into the conversation, he called me a "liar." I considered my options:

Option a): I could get hot under the collar, yell at him, get tasered into submission, and possibly shot while "resisting arrest";

Option b): I could politely tell the trooper I object to his characterization, and then write a letter to the commander of his barracks the following morning suggesting that such language is not appropriate to routine encounters with members of the public and betrays a profoundly defective understanding of the relationship between law-enforcement officials and the citizenry in civilized societies.

I chose the latter course, and received a letter back offering partial satisfaction and explaining that the trooper would be receiving "supervisory performance-related issue-counseling," which, with any luck, is even more ghastly than it sounds and hopefully is still ongoing.

Professor Gates chose option a), which is just plain stupid.

There is not the slightest shred of doubt that, confronted with a similar situation, yours truly would have chosen the course of discretion.  In fact, for a variety of reasons, it's far from certain that a letter of criticism would have been forthcoming; more likely, I'd've driven away with hammering heart and thanking my lucky stars that nothing worse happened - and this pusillanimous reaction, from someone who has never had interactions with the police beyond the odd traffic ticket.

Which raises a most profound question: Is this degree of deference to authority healthy in a democracy?  We at Scragged complain all the time that our "public servants" act instead like our masters, but it's equally true that they get away with this because we act like they're our masters.

We go, hat in hand, to the zoning board to bow low and beg their leave to put up a shed in our own backyard.  Why?  It's our backyard, and as long as we're not leaking toxic chemicals across the property line into someone else's backyard, it's none of their bloody business what we choose to do there!  Yet even the most fervently doctrinaire libertarian almost certainly lives his daily life indistinguishable from the rest of the sheeple.

We may grouse and complain - and what is most political writing but grousing and complaining?  Presumably we vote according to our beliefs, for all the good that's done of late.  When comes the time to literally say, "Thus far and no farther"?

The trouble is that there are quite a few people who've done that and are now six feet under.  The denizens of Ruby Ridge and Waco come to mind - OK, they were a weird bunch, but they were doing no harm to anyone else.

Yet because they would not bow to the bureaucracy, they were shot down, incinerated, and run over with tanks, here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.  Brave they may have been, but dead they are.

Are you willing to stand your ground and be squished with them?  Eh... guess not, huh?  On the other hand, some people seem to be preparing for a last stand against a government they have come to fear.

Those Who Fight, Then Run Away... Live To Fight Another Day?

We can all come up with a very good, sensible reason as to why we don't personally and physically stand up against something we perceive to be unjust.  I have a family!  My life is still ahead of me!  I don't want to lose everything I've worked so hard for!

No doubt the Founding Fathers had all the same arguments - more, really, since unlike most of us, many of them were seriously rich by the standards of their day.  When they said they pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor", those weren't empty words.  Many of them lost their fortunes, several lost their lives, and only a handful became the immortal names every schoolchild knows.

Yes, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and so on - but what of Francis Lewis and John Hart, who lost their property and families and are forgotten by all but professors of Revolution-era history?  For every Father of his Country, there are a thousand more who lost everything for liberty and didn't even win historical immortality.

Tweaking the nose of King George was neither the smartest nor the safest course - but it was a necessary one.  For more than two hundred years, Americans have rested secure in the belief that, whatever might go wrong politically, we can always fix it at the ballot box.  Can we anymore?  It hasn't exactly been working well recently - as with George W. Bush's deficits and massive expansion of Medicare, even when we win we lose.

Government grows by taking over more and more functions which leads to the slow erosion of liberty over time.  The more power government gets, the more it becomes worthwhile to bribe government officials for permission to do what free people ought to be able to do anyway - as we see in issues with Mr. Obama's cabinet nominations and in the recent arrests of corrupt government officials in New Jersey.

As government becomes more and more powerful, government itself costs more and more, and getting around its regulations takes more and more out of the economy.  Eventually, society can't afford all the the government overhead and the whole thing collapses.

What do you really believe?  As ludicrously unjustified as Prof. Gates' beliefs in systemic modern police racism are, at least he believed in them enough to confront the officer he felt was doing him wrong - though he did so secure in the knowledge that he had a hotline to the Oval Office, which diminishes the praiseworthiness of his bravery somewhat.

Conservatives believe in the right to be left alone.  They argue for this right.  They vote for it, with scant success.

Are we willing to stand up for it, every day, even when there is a cost in inconvenience, money, or personal incarceration?  The drug wars clearly demonstrate that when large chunks of the population flatly refuse to obey a law, that law cannot be enforced.  Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King understood the same principle and profited by it, but it wasn't real fun for them in the near term.

When does the conservative belief in rule of law become willful blindness and cowardice against unjust, unconstitutional laws wrongfully put in place by corrupt politicians who have rigged the system to ensure their own re-election and the perpetuation of overweening government power come what may?

You won't find the answer in this article.  You won't find it on this website either, at least not in full.  If it is to be found anywhere, it is in the hearts of the American people - when they aren't distracted by those who would divide us into nice little feuding tribes separated by color, gender, class, and every other grievance under the sun.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Very thoughtful article. I'm glad you didn't provide any specific answers at the end.

I teach American Literature and in every section I make it a point to go over Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience", some echoes of which I can see here. This great American philosopher influenced Ghandi, King, and others -- I am saddened that colleagues a generation or two older than I am sometimes tell me that his work is "not highly relevant to the curriculum".

Good work.

- Ron ^*^
August 3, 2009 10:49 AM
It comes down to whether you prefer 'group think' or not. Sadly, many do. Do they understand how that changes them?
August 3, 2009 2:36 PM
Any literature that makes people think is in fact not relevant to the curriculum as Werebat's friends define it. They're herding sheeple.
August 3, 2009 3:17 PM
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