America's pundits are rushing to meet the demand for commentary on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr by Cambridge police officer James Crowley. A lack of agreed-upon facts is no obstacle!
For example, Bob Somerby flags Judith Warner asserting in the New York Times that Crowley's report is wrong about a disputed fact (whether Gates referred to Crowley's mother) and then purporting to reveal the inner thoughts of the two men:
Perhaps the most telling moment in Sgt. James Crowley’s account of his now epoch-defining arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. occurs about three-quarters of the way through the report that the officer subsequently filed with the Cambridge Police Department.
In his story of their verbal tussle, Crowley describes himself as overwhelmed by the noise in Gates’s kitchen, as the black professor loudly accused the white cop of racial profiling. Seeing that Gates could not be persuaded to use an inside voice, Crowley retreated to the street, inviting Gates to join him outdoors.
“Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” Gates allegedly told him.
Gates denied referring to Crowley’s mama. “The idea that I would, in a vulnerable position talk about the man’s mother is absurd,” he told Gayle King of Sirius radio. “I don’t talk about people’s mothers … You could get killed talking about somebody’s mother in the barbershop, let alone with a white police officer … I think they did some historical research, and watched some episodes of ‘Good Times.’”
I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s very likely that Crowley really does believe he heard the insult to his mother. And that’s because Gates wasn’t the only one in that house, on that day, whose thoughts were traveling well-worn grooves chiseled by race. Both men were, consciously or not, following scripts in their heads, stories of vulnerability and grievance much more meaningful than their actual exchange.
Unfortunately, Swami Warner doesn't actually know what happened between Gates and Crowley, and she certainly doesn't know what their thoughts were as the exchange took place. That's a level of epistemological doubt she's unwilling to acknowledge. She concedes later that "We don’t know precisely what was going through Crowley’s mind," but as Somerby points out, the adverb "precisely" is absurd; we simply have no idea what Crowley was thinking. What's missing from Warner's vocabulary -- and that of most elite pundits -- is one simple phrase: I don't know.