Please enjoy the excerpt from my autobiography-in-progress --
From Marshall Arts, Chapter 1, "The Fiddle"
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Stupidity is a hard and indivisible kernel, a primitive … it grips me (it is intractable, nothing prevails over it, it takes you in an endless hand-over-hand race.
- Roland Barthes
Putting the conclusion before the interpretation, Gates and Obama, by their own stupidities, made a nobody into a somebody, allowing the conservative opposition to undermine the credibility of the president at the very beginning of his Health Care struggle. Gates and Nobody were and are bit players in a Tragedy of a King.
At the very moment when the Nobody lured Gates out of his house into the professor’s own front yard, Gates, the historian, had forgotten the history of the ‘outside the home,’ of the Agora, as the ancient Greeks called it. The nullity that lured Gates out of his house onto his front lawn knew very well this slogan I’m using: “We own the streets.” The front laws and patios as well. We, the Police. Thereupon began Gate’s disgrace and the power it would turn out to give the Neo-neo-cons, who, from even before Obama’s inauguration, dedicated themselves to, as it were, assassinate the president. They are doing precisely that.
I’m stipulating you’re familiar with Foucault’s “Surveillance and Punishment” (a better translation than the English “Discipline and Punish”). The book presents the sad and vicious history of punitive society. To put a point on it, mine, we now live in America in a carceral society, a policed and police state ratcheted up by an event of several years ago remembered by all New Yorkers. “What New York's aggressive ‘We Own the Night’ policing policy did do,” wrote a Los Angeles Times staff writer in June of 2006, “was create fertile ground for several scandals involving overzealous officers. This included pumping 41 bullets into an unarmed [black] man named Amadou Diallo and beating and sodomizing a [black] man in custody.” The logo of the United States of Police can be said to have come from Louima, hearing, handcuffed in the back seat of the cruiser, one of the arresting ‘officers’ yell in joy: “It’s Giuliani time!” The sodomizing weapon, back at the station house, was a broom handle.
To hear my own voice on the matter, log onto csmonitor.com, the online newspaper of the Christian Science Monitor. Go to Opinion, then enter the archives to come to an article dated the day before the Event and entitled “TV’s insipid commercials, decoded.” Jump to the end, if you want to see my words on the policing of America.
Gates, just off the plane from China (maybe still a bit woozy from in-flight drinks), arrived at his house in Cambridge, unable to get his jammed front door to open. He and his black taxi driver “was [sic] wedging his [sic] shoulder into the front door as to [sic] pry the door open,” writes “Officer Figueroa#509” [sic] in the police report filed just after the Event. “I stepped out [of Gates’ house] to gather the information from the reporting person, WHALEN, LUCIA.” It was WHALEN, LUCIA who had dialed 911 with words of Intruders, which of course included the signifier ‘black,’ not once but twice for emphasis: "two black males with backpacks." Backpacks? She isn’t smart enough to distinguish luggage from camping gear.
July 27 NBC Nightly News reports the 911 tapes of July 16. Turns out Lucia did recognize luggage, did not warn of blacks; rather, a [hesitantly said] Hispanic. No matter. A mass mediological law: first impressions trump later corrections.
Figueroa, continuing his narrative, reports that “the gentleman shouted ‘You don’t know who your [sic] messing with.” Forget the professor. Forget Harvard. Any decent instructor in any college in the United States, upon reading a paper with such bad grammar, would put an F (unless afraid of grade inflation) immediately on that document. Officer Figueroa#509, who forgets to put a space between name and badge number, clearly is a hard nut, uneducable, in Barthes’ notion of stupidity.
Bear in mind that Police Report: 509 needlessly apparently opens his report with the word ‘black’: “When I arrived, I stepped into the residence and Sgt. Crowley (oops, I allowed in the name of Nobody, giving him a civil status) had already entered and was speaking to a black male.” Only apparently needless. #509 is from the get-go creating his Anti-Hero, Negritude, as Barthes used to write—utterly apposite this scene.
In response to the signifiers, ‘black back-packers,’ the two squad cars raced to the now famous, yellow-walled home. By now inside (through the back door) was the king of his castle, a white-bearded, jowly, paunchy, ugly T- or polo-shirt wearing Professor Henry Louis Gates—entitled in his own home to look as ratty as you or I inside our own spaces.
But soon, also inside, were the real Intruders. From the news: “Gates has said he was ‘outraged’ by the arrest. He said the white officer walked into his home without his permission and only arrested him as the professor followed him to the porch, repeatedly demanding the sergeant's name and badge number because he was unhappy over his treatment.” In a moment, that “followed him to the porch.”
For now, I ask: by what right were the two inside? Wasn’t the yellow house supposed to be a castle? Did the badges have ‘probable cause’ to enter? Isn’t it a citizen’s right to ask name, rank and serial number? Indeed, to raise his voice? To lecture the Uneducated? From 509’s report: “As I stepped in, I heard Sgt. Crowley [oops, I allowed the Name to get in] ask for the gentleman’s information which he stated NO I WILL NOT!’. The gentleman was shouting out to the Sgt. that the Sgt. was a racist and yelled that ‘THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BLACK MEN IN AMERICA!’ As the Sgt. was trying to calm the gentleman, the gentleman shouted ‘You don’t know who your messing with!’”
Forget this is the second time I’ve used the quotation. I want to stress my own question: haven’t lawyers many times advised their clients that, inside the home, one has many rights vis-à-vis police? One can raise the voice, be calm or not, your choice; refuse to answer (you’re in your home, not in court); and most surely quote one’s own books (“This is what happens to black men in America!”), perhaps even deliver a lacerating message to the interlocutor—the July 23 Root, of which Gates is editor-in-chief, cites the AP: “On Thursday, he [Crowley] told WBZ that Gates verbally assailed him. The police report says Crowley asked Gates to talk outside, to which he responded [sic] "Yeah, I'll speak with your mama outside.”
That’s Gates using ‘hood’ talk—sure, demeaning our Nobody.. But only the clannish lower class gives a damn what you say about their mothers. Our sergeant confirms this: "There was a lot of yelling, there was [sic] references to my mother, something you wouldn’t expect from anybody that should be grateful that you're there investigating a report of a crime in progress let alone a Harvard University professor." Can you identify a code in play here? That of wounded, sloppy self-righteousness. Whence the meanest, fiercest counter-strike.
Forget my questions. Not one of the answers will we know—absent a court proceeding that Gates a few days later said he would not initiate. Have you speculated why?
Most of the country sees professors, especially those in the Ivy League, as arrogant, elitist, cosmopolitan (visitor to China), cold to the feelings of those who, thankfully, never went there, hustlers of things bad for us (PC, IP, Queer theory, Women’s Studies, Black Studies), wordy (stupidity despises language, Barthes said), useless, irremediably out of touch with anything real. Gates was, starting hours after the affair, coded as Alien, by no means perceived as victim, made to appear sic transit gloria mundi. Whereas Crowley, Little League coach, church-goer, director of a program against profiling, family man, white and lean in that blue T-shirt the world saw—not the slightest doubt about it, the Sergeant got quickly coded as Poster Boy for Us.
And this sub-code: Gates’ a whiner, a screamer like a bad father in a suburban home. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s not with it: post-Obama, nobody’s a racist. He’s vulgar (might as well have said yo’ mama’s been laid). He’s disrespectful.
Gates loses. America chooses the more identifiable.
Full stop. Gates knows that if he sues, he’ll be yet another junk lawyer. Guesses he hasn’t a chance in hell of prevailing.
Gates is a historian of black experience, not a professor of law, or of Classics. He didn’t know his own rights vis-à-vis police in his house: later, on his own porch, he most certainly didn’t know he’d been lured into what the angry cop, the townie who had wanted all along to hurt to hurt the Harvard man, declared to be public space. #509: “On Thursday, July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. [address redacted] Cambridge, MA) was placed under arrest for at [redacted] after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous [meaning: it’s what I say (but I never say) is ‘loud and tumultuous’] behavior, in a public place. … These actions on the behalf [sic] of Gates served no legitimate purpose [oh?] and caused citizens passing by this location stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.” In the agora, thou shalt comport thyself in ways such that no others in that space shall stop and take notice of thee.
Sgt. White Man could have just walked away, leaving Gates to choke on his mantra. But no, with all the knowledge of how to bend the rules of engagement, he exercised his own self-given, US police-given ‘rights’ on the porch, that is, the Agora, as if Fifth Century B.C. Greece was still extant, over-layered onto our own hic et nunc. The Agora, usually understood as a ‘place of assembly,’ is the realm of Polis, the State, making Nomos, Law—ever seeking to gather might and extension, and intending to encroach on the oikos, the home. It’s encroachment that Sgt. Pepper Spray was all along intending. It is when Antigone speaks of oikos that she gets the idea of dike, “what is right”—unthinkable to Nomos. Gates had all the signs and opposing systems of signs: law had already entered the home, but it could work its malice best in the agora; here, the front porch. Didn’t Gates “get it”? –that the Sgt. was mightily seeking to distinguish inside from out? It’s the deceit, the luring outwards for which we find Sarge guilty.
At the moment Skip stood on his supposed own porch, a black from the Hood masquerading, to the racist perp-seeker, as Harvard black scholar—and evidently to the illegal Badge, a civilian at the lowest social rung, given the white beard, the tattery shirt, the cane—the Skipper gave signs of the Weak. As well, given the raised voice in the ears of the undeconstructed (good guy/bad guy), badly educated, and, yes, stupid clerk-of-the system, signs of the Uppity (can ‘nigger’ be far behind?). At this very moment, the Clerk had all he needed to do what he had always wanted to do: handcuff a Nigger who thought he was untouchable by the Little People of the world.
Counter-proof: when next seen on TV, our prof appeared as a parody of a Suit—remember the chalk-striped, old-aged, broad lapelled threads? Too late was he dressing as more than Authority (the authority teaching a Harvard seminar scarcely wears a tie anymore); he was using vestment to signify Power itself. Making him all the more a poseur to the vast populace.
When Obama said, the perp-cop acted “stupidly,” he didn’t realize perhaps how potent was the policing state-within-a-state—which
closed ranks behind the now Stigmatized One. Who knows how many phone calls were made between police department and police department; or between police official and conservative political operative? Now the national rank-and-file Police Power made itself felt in the White House—don’t forget to add in the accounts of the Cambridge police force, the entirety, crying, hugging, eventually laughing from joy at their new status of Avant-garde of CIS Nation. But weeping, hugging, laughing, group solacing—isn’t this but a modern day iteration of the old Est forces? Doesn’t this violate a code of policing, supposedly the code of the ancient ‘andrέ,’ hero? Andrέs don’t cry.
Stupidities? Of course. But whose? Gates’, Obama’s (Axelrod’s)? To add stupidity on stupidity, we end our little story with Obama inviting the prof and the cop to the White House “for a beer” this Thursday July 30. I think Obama knew that he was, once again, insulting the cop. In a Barthesian ‘bathmology’ (the art of laddering), even vin ordinaire would be a rung or two above a Blue Moon (ever heard of it). Cops drink beer; I, POTUS, drink wine. On Tuesday, July 28, NBC Nightly News humiliated the beer fest in advance, naming it “Beer Summit” on the program.
Inviting the once-and-never Nobody to the White House for a Sit-Down? A few words of my old teacher Umberto Eco beg to be inserted now. When Eco launched Foucault’s Pendulum, in 1989, at Indiana University, I was ‘covering’ the launch for the New York Times Magazine. In the course of our two weeks’ ‘togetherness,’ I took (and never published) his autobiography.
The university organizers of his launch and lecture also convened a conference to enable marketers how to use semiotics. Wasn’t he angry he’d been highjacked? Wasn’t he going to protest publicly? I asked. “Pay attention. If it is in order to make clear your position or an assertion, remember that in delicate situation, the channel of defense mustn't be bigger than the channel of offense. If somebody writes, 'Marshall Blonsky is a crook in the Indianapolis Star and you answer, 'I am not a crook in the New York Times, you make a million peoples to know that somebody told, you are a crook. If somebody writes in the New York Times that you are a crook, you have not to answer to the CBS because the CBS has an audience larger than the New York Times. I studied the phenomenon."
Obama didn’t. Gates, neither. The sergeant’s handlers? They’re acting as if they had. Pushing on the other Harvard guy to allow a Primitive, a hard nut to crack (remember Barthes?) past the White House gates. The sergeant has already admitted his Indivisibility: he told the media that, while the affair was happening, he was watching Gates and finding him the Primitive. And now comes the Beer that will make nobody an Andrέ.
What to do? Get a diplomatic illness, Mr. President. Do it now, before Thursday!
Milano, 1974. First Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. Twenty minutes before the opening ceremony. We had planned the Congress for two hundred people. In the course of the last months, we had realized there would be more, but we were not expecting the more than eight hundred people who materialized that morning. And among them were an impressive number of Big Ones. Somebody said that the floor looked like a 'Who’s Who.'
And there, patiently waiting, a mustached young man who introduced himself as Marshall Blonsky. I felt embarrassed (you’ll see why) and I looked for Roland Barthes, who was the most distinguished member of the Reading Committee. We had spent the previous year in evaluating the papers we received, and they were so many that the Committee was obliged to split into subcommittees. Every group accepted the papers of the acknowledged leaders in our discipline, rejected the blatantly crazy ones, and the whole committee met only to discuss the dubious cases. While shaking hands with Blonsky, I realized that his case had remained unsolved because at first reading, his paper had looked to me so linguistically coiled upon itself that I was not sure it would have been understood by normal human beings.
Now, reading Blonsky’s preface to this book, I understand why. He was “probably one of the first semioticians teaching in New York City...[managing] to impregnate [his] students with Frenach ideas,” and he was doing so by inventing an intricate French-like English which in its turn was trying to imitate the German-like French of Lacan, or at least of many Lacanians. We all have to start somewhere, and the American making love to his students with 'la jouissance' (I remember that part) was the prototype Blonsky before he got to us. Thus I had put his paper apart for a further discussion with Barthes and other members of the Committee. And then I forgot it (believe me, the last two months before the opening of an international congress always are a damned mess, and I won’t repeat such an experience again).
I realized that Blonsky did not know as yet whether he was admitted or not; but, a man of faith, our Pilgrim had sailed from the East Coast to reach the Semiotic Eldorado.
So (the secretary of the Congress, Doretta Gelmini, being a genius) I retrieved in five seconds Blonsky’s paper. I found Barthes at the bar sipping a mineral water, and I told him my problem. Barthes took the paper and disappeared for fifteen minutes. Then he came back and said: “It’s true, it is awkward, but there is someting intriguing here... Let him speak.”
End of story. With this writing, Marshall is also paying a tribute to the Magic Donor who gave him the Key to enter the Enchanted Palace of All Mythologies.