L’Affaire Gates and Honor

We’re so far into this Henry Louis Gates thing that almost everyone has ceased to really care about what actually happened, or to try to understand both sides. At this point, the conflict is tribal–the side you end up on is determined by norms of appropriateness (whose side does a person like me support in a situation like this), not the facts of what happened.

For what it’s worth, however, my take is that this little micro-dispute in Cambridge was fundamentally a conflict about “honor.” This whole thing would have been a big nothing if either man were willing to swallow his pride. The cop could have defused it by letting Gates call him a racist and have it roll off his back. He couldn’t because, I think, he has a self-conception as precisely not a racist cop (given that he does racial profiling seminars). To back down would have been to accept what Gates was accusing him of–to be dishonored. Gates couldn’t back down and say “yes, officer, whatever you ask, officer” because he believed he was being treated in a way that was inappropriate to his status as a Harvard professor and because he thought he was being hassled because he was black. To back down would have been untrue to his idea of himself–as a race man and a part of America’s elite. Again, he would have accepted being dishonored. So they both stood their ground, and the guy with the gun won.

And so Gates retaliates in the media, and with the president–where HE was, in effect, holding the gun. Now the Cambridge cops think that they are being dishonored, because they believe that they run a comparatively professional police force that tries to treat black and white citizens fairly (“we’re not like LA!”), especially compared to what was the case in the past. To accept what Gates and the president said would have been to swallow being dishonored–to accept that what they believed about themselves was not the case. So they opened up on the president and Gates in this press conference.

The question is, is there any way for everyone involved here to retain their honor? That is, can they back out of this thing with the way they understand themselves, and that they want others to understand them, intact? Had the president used his press conference to make the quintessentially Obama move of explaining both sides to each other, then maybe. But in what was up to this point a zero-sm conflict of honor, he took the side of Gates and dishonored the cops (rubbing it in by saying they acted “stupidly”). Maybe the cops deserve to be dishonored, but I think that as the president–as the “head of state” in our system of government–it would have been a better move to try to cauterize this particular wound rather than inflame it. For good or ill (and there is ill, because the role requires you to lead the country, and not just speak truth about it), that is what it means to be “presidential.”

Today, however, Obama seems to have realized that taking sides in this zero-sum conflict was not the right move, at least given his office. Which is why this is so refreshing. Whatever his flaws, Obama knows when he messed up and he knows how to find the right way to clean up his mess. Whatever his flaws, I do believe this is a man who has a touch of greatness–not from being flawless, but from being able to recognize his flaws and counteract them.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.