August 5, 2009

Beer and loathing in America

The White House happy hour President Obama convened last week to soothe hurt feelings between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley was yet another glimpse at the undeniable reconciliatory power of beer.

Beer has been making jokes funny, furniture comfortable and homely people sexy for at least 10,000 years, and there could be no finer tool to thwart post-racial racism. Any substance that could make golf entertaining ought to be able to put the brakes on a frothing media and convince the parties involved to put the matter behind them. And it seems to have worked: Lubed with beer, the heretofore somber professor Gates said of his arresting officer: “When he’s not arresting you, Sgt. Crowley is a really likable guy.”

There is, of course, much precedent in American presidential history for using psychoactive substances to bring together feuding factions. While the White House has been dismally abstemious for the past eight years (not counting being drunk on imperialism), previous centuries were marked by great moments in insobriety. For example, Jimmy Carter famously brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together at Camp David to snort an eight ball of pure, Peruvian blow. The result: peace between those nations, Nobel Prizes for Sadat and Begin, and an exhilaration Carter described as “Dang, mah whole head is numb.”

Just a few years earlier, Richard Nixon opened China to the Western World by meeting with Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and knocking back a case of Cutty Sark (though Mao complained Nixon bogarted the Scotch). Even during Prohibition, Franklin D. Roosevelt got Wall Street and financial reformers to agree to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission by passing around a pitcher of Old Fashioneds and several “tobacco cigarettes enhanced with cannabis sativa.” Going back further, who can forget Dionysus, who got Euripides and Aeschylus so baked on wine and hellebore that they agreed, “Tori Amos isn’t so bad after all.”

So no one can complain that Obama “acted stupidly” in inviting Crowley and Gates over for beer, even though his choice of beverage was disappointing. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Obama had a Bud Light, Sergeant Crowley had Blue Moon, Professor Gates drank Sam Adams Light and Mr. Biden, who does not drink, had a Buckler nonalcoholic beer.”

Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her taste in beer, and I will leave it to my far-more-qualified colleagues Roger Baylor or Sara Havens to alcho-analyze. But the Bud Light choice seems to say Obama was more interested in shutting down the media shitstorm than achieving reconciliation. If he really wanted progress, he could have chosen a beer with substance, perhaps the Tall Tale Pale Ale from Cambridge Brewing Company — or at least shotgunned the Bud. But that’s a technicality in what was otherwise my favorite White House photo op since Nixon made Elvis an honorary federal narc.

If there’s anyone who’s done as much as Obama to make me feel the world is really going “post-racial,” it is Gates himself. His PBS miniseries “African-American Lives” was an enlightening look at the genealogy of famous African-Americans like Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Maya Angelou and Oprah. By telling the family histories of famous people, the stories felt more personal. By using DNA evidence, Gates showed that we all come from a complex admixture of world bloodlines. And there are a lot of people with pretty much the same racial makeup as Obama who look as white as Joe Biden.

Maybe we won’t be post-racial until our lying eyes evolve past the point where they tell our faulty brains that, because somebody’s skin appears a different color than ours, that person is somehow different from us. At any rate, four out of five pundits agree that this national dialogue on race is necessary and cathartic but will be painful. But you know what four of five bartenders agree is good for pain? Beer! The whole Gates-gate episode and most especially Obama’s presidency prove we’ve made strides in the right direction. And I’ll drink to that.

Laura’s jams

Thanks to all of you who’ve sent suggestions for albums for Laura. Polls are still open — if you’d like to join the festivities please visit http://tinyurl.com/LauraRose and drop me a line at jimwelp@gmail.com. I’ll report the results in my next column.