A teachable moment. Have you noticed how the phrase, so redolent of reasonable and sober reflection, gets hauled out by the mainstream media every time liberals get into a serious fix involving race? So its no surprise that the Henry Louis Gates affair, like last years revelation that Barack Obamas spiritual mentor spouts the vilest kind of hateful tripe, has been cast as a teachable moment. What are we meant to be taught? Well, what else? That for all of the progress we seem to have made on race, black people understand, in ways whites can never fathom, that racism is alive and well in America.
With each such incident, however, fewer and fewer of us are playing along. This time, more than ever, were learning other lessons. One of them: for all the talk from his starry-eyed acolytes, in the media and elsewhere, about Obamas being post-racial, the president clings to the discredited and deeply damaging view of America as fundamentally racist, seeing his fellow blacks as perpetual victims justifiably suspicious of cops and other establishment authority figures. So when it comes to race, its facts be damned. Indeed, while Obama is so famously cautious and deliberative it took him months to decide on the family dog, his now-infamous off-the-cuff comment on the stupidity of the Cambridge police made it clear that on this issue, the former community organizer wholeheartedly embraces the black victim/racist cop trope.
Were also learning that race hustlers come in all kinds of packages. Henry Louis Gates, notwithstanding his success and prestige, is every bit as ready as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to wield the race card, and even less apt to take responsibility for his own mistakes and shortcomings. Lest we forget, the supposed Bull Connor he reflexively pegged as a racist operates in the politically correct wonderland of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gates and his fans would tell you that the incident just proves that racism can rear its ugly head anywhere. By contrast, any rational soul would tell you that instantly jumping to such a conclusion is prima facie evidence of a distorted worldview.
Weve learned, too, that a professorship at Harvard isnt all its cracked up to be. As a scholar in the trendy field of black studies, Gates has built a career on being deferred to by cowed liberal colleagues, and hes obviously unaccustomed to anyones calling him out on anything. In the midst of the current episode, the estimable Mark Steyn recalled Gatess courtroom appearance some time back on behalf of the rap group 2 Live Crew, in which the professor testified that one of the groups lyrics was similar to Shakespeares My love is like a red, red rose. As it happens, noted Steyn, My luvs like a red, red rose was written by Robbie Burns, a couple of centuries after Shakespeare. Oh, well. Sixteenth-century English playwright, 18th-century Scottish poet: Whats the diff? Evidently being within the same quarter-millennium and right general patch of the North-East Atlantic is close enough for a professor of English and Afro-American Studies appearing as an expert witness in a court case. Certainly no journalist reporting Gatess testimony was boorish enough to point out the misattribution. As one anonymous online commentator observed about the current controversy: Why wouldnt Gates expect preferential treatment? Hes been getting it his whole life.
Weve also been reminded, once again, that the media are to be trusted even less on race than on other contentious issues. The New York Times, for one, seems always to have a racial-profiling feature prewritten and ready to slap onto the front page. Yet somehow these features never seem to include the vast store of documentary evidence contradicting the fervently held view of minorities as victims of racist cops. Perhaps the most telling media moment during the Gates brouhaha was the observation by an NPR anchoronly slight paraphrasing herethat opinion was divided over whether the police were to blame or there was fault on both sides.
Teachable moments never teach these people anything.
Harry Stein is a contributing editor of City Journal. A journalist and novelist, he is the author of How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace) and the new I Cant Believe Im Sitting Next to a Republican.