Letters to the editor must be short but Professor Steven Gerrard’s effort in the New York Times today (hat tip: Jeff) seems to do as little as possible with the space that he has.

To the Editor:

We are now moving from Stage 1 of a national spectacle (what do the events in Cambridge, Mass., tell us about America?) to Stage 2 (what do the commentaries on the events tell us about America?).

Says who? From the very start of the controversy, people have been writing about the meaning of other people’s comments. Doesn’t Gerrard read blogs? Consider this Crooked Timber thread, which I linked to last week. It is filled with discussion about what various commentaries “tell us about America.” The same has been true for blogs on the right and in the center.

Not only that, but there is still an active discussion about Stage 1, even about Stage 0, i.e., what actually happened that day. Why does Gerrard waste this valuable space with an untrue claim?

As a professor who years ago taught Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s autobiography, “Colored People: A Memoir,” in an ethics class,

Although Gerrard is not an EphBlog fan, I am a Gerrard fan and have heard nothing but good things about him from students over the years. Still, what sort of “ethics” class would include Gates’ autobiography? I am not sad to see that Williams no longer seems to offer this course.

I am struck by so many critics’ failure simply to put themselves in either Professor Gates’s or Sgt. James M. Crowley’s very different shoes,

Again, this is just not a factual description of reality. Virtually every critic I have read has tried, with varying degrees of success, to place themselves in the shoes of one or both protagonists. But don’t take my word for it! Look inside yourself. Didn’t you try to imagine what it would be like to be Gates, to have some police officer hassle you while you were in your own house? Didn’t you wonder what it must have felt like to Crowley to have someone screaming accusations of racism against you for no reason whatsoever?

I bet that every single reader of this blog tried the different shoes exercise.

as if our experiences had no bearing on our perception of the facts.

Danger, Ephraim Williams! Pomo storm clouds ahead!

Now, to be fair, Gerrard is correct. Our experiences do shape our perceptions. And, perhaps more importantly, our biology and genetics shape our perceptions. My color-blind brother perceives the world differently then Gerrard. My old eyes see much less well than my young eyes did back at Williams.

But we need to be very careful about what conclusions we draw from this fact. If we all perceive differently, is there no common reality that we inhabit? Are jury trials a farce? Justice impossible? Two decades ago, Philosophy Professor Lazlo Versenyi
used to (rhetorically) beat up we immature post-modernists as bleating animals, for that is what the denial of a common reality implied about our own position. I hope that Gerrard challenges his students with similar gusto, if not with such an amazing accent.

I am not denying the complexity of these issues, but Gerrard seems quick to conclude that these facts lead inevitably toward his preferred political positions. They don’t.

My moral lesson at this stage is that President Obama was right about Judge Sonia Sotomayor: in order to judge well you need empathy.

A conclusion which has nothing to do with his premises. Empathy is the very last thing I look for in judges. Can Gerrard put himself into my shoes?

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