Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"I Can Forget but I never Forgive"

"I can forget but I never forgive."  Alice B. Toklas' trenchant honesty, as attributed to her by Gertrude Stein, her life partner and "auto-"biographer, reminds us of the difficulty of forgiveness.  While we may (not?) cringe at the cynical flippancy of the Toklas/Stein phrase, we all know the dilemma.  We can harbor resentments against siblings, parents, friends, long after we still remember clearly the incident we have yet to forgive.  How much harder, then, when we remember it all too clearly, or when we can see the offense still playing out before our eyes.  How much worse when the transgression happens at the hands of those we need most to trust, because of their power over us.

One obvious case comes to mind.  Everyone following the American media the last week has heard about to something approaching the saturation point:  Prof. Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates' arrest in his home for disorderly conduct by Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge, MA Police Department.  

So much of how we approach this story depends on whom or what we find to forgive or leave unforgiven.  Some will have difficulty believing that an Irish-American cop in the metropolitan Boston area can have as lily-white a record on racial profiling and other race-related miscarriages of justice as the Cambridge Police claim applies to Crowley in particular and the department in general.  If they have such a terrific record of race relations, why did they need Crowley trained in deprogramming the racist instincts of his fellow officers?  And yet, racism pervades the Boston area, Cambridge did something about it, and apparently Crowley did the best of any.  Perhaps we really don't have racial profiling here, after all?

Some will find it all too easy to imagine Skip Gates jumping to conclusions, paranoid or not, based on experience or not, about the intentions of the Cambridge police squad descending on his home as he tried to get settled after finding his front door stuck and having to go around to the back door.  Some of those will feel empathetic.  The President tells a story in his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, of waiting to meet someone for dinner at an expensive restaurant in Chicago only to have one of the patrons toss his car keys to Obama, then either a law professor at the University of Chicago, a state senator in the Illinois Legislature, or both, assuming that he had the responsibility for valet parking as the only African-American in sight.  

Others will feel less kind.  Only a very aggressive personality, that case might go, could become senior faculty in African-American Studies at Harvard, and one can all too easily imagine that personality erupting when beset upon by cops of dubious sympathies in the matter of race relations.  The fact that such an eruption does not justify arrest accounts for the fact that the police have dropped the charges, without exonerating Gates from the unofficial and all-too-human charge of behaving badly.  

Even in a news story, none of whose dramatis personae we have met, we have much to forgive and to attempt to forget.  I can claim all of the above sentiments except empathy for a racially-profiled African American based on shared experience.  Skip Gates' writing has had an effect on me--I remember for some reason reading Colored People on a bus pulling into Waterbury, CT en route to Virginia--but his reputation within academia resembles that of many who have achieved much and struggled with balancing whence they came and where they have arrived.  The same applied to a mentor of mine who grew up white in working-class Philadelphia and bled Yale blue, as the expression goes, by the time I knew and greatly admired him.  One needs to forgive them their eccentricities as one forgives and asks forgiveness for one's own.  One can all too easily imagine why Sgt. Crowley, as he wrote in his report, found Gates' actions "peculiar," though one has a much harder time getting from eccentricity to disorderly conduct.   
The press has made much of the President's invitation of Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer (not Gates' beverage of choice, apparently) tomorrow.  Some have begun to sound a bit cynical about Obama's notion of the "teachable moment."  Think about it, though:  an African-American president who used to teach at the University of Chicago, an Irish-American cop, and an African-American literary and cultural critic who teaches at Harvard.  Think of what that says of the reversals we've seen; and yet the conversation depends on an incident that suggests we haven't gotten so very far, after all, unless one could imagine, say, Larry Summers similarly arrested after having to get in the back door of the President's House during his tenure at Harvard.  As a friend noted in a comment on my entry last week, the reversals here have as much to do with class as with race.

One hopes that some true forgiveness and forgetfulness will lie at the bottom of the glass of Blue Moon (pretty good stuff, pace Paul Begala's ignorance) Crowley has, whatever brew Obama prefers, and whatever drink Gates requests.  One worries that Gates may not see this as a matter for either forgiveness or forgetfulness just yet.  His lawyer, asked earlier this week if his client had given up the notion of a lawsuit, said that that he and Gates had yet to make a decision.  One would hope Gates has the Our Father--"and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us"--on his bedside table, but one fears that he has The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, instead.

1 comment:

  1. Recently, when I was visiting the national historic site of the Little Rock Nine in Little Rock, Arkansas, I asked one of the staff if he thought the Crowley-Gates incident was similar or in the tradition of the Little Rock Nine. He said a resounding "no."

    I didn't ask him why. His response seemed too emphatic for a follow up. Now, I wish I had.

    When I first watched this incident unfold, I saw its potential for growth in all of us and to become a real historical marker. Now, I am not sure. I think it has shined the light on racial profiling.

    But how do we all relate to and change from this teachable moment? I wonder if the informant could have walked across the street to ask the "intruder" if the house he was "breaking into" was his own. After all, what does it mean to be neighborly?

    Why wasn't the woman informant invited to the White House for a beer or was she? Did I miss something here?

    The arrest began with the original phone call. The informant needed hops and healing as well.