08/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Free Skip Gates

The cop who arrested Skip Gates (how come we're all suddenly on a nickname basis with this guy?) keeps complaining about Gates's "tone." In fact, that's really his only beef, it turns out, with Gates -- his tone.

It's an American obsession, tone. It echoes from lousy teachers trying to assert authority over truculent children, to nannies in the playground, to mothers and fathers with wise-guy kids at the dinner table, to spouses locked in increasing enmity, to the police who seem to think that mockery or condescension or sarcasm are felonies.

No doubt race exacerbates the tonal divide, but, I'd argue, it isn't principally about race. A black person might have a greater chance of being hauled off for implying a policeman is a moron, but, with enough insistence and repetition (and once you do hit that right tone, it's hard to stop), a white guy will get hauled off, too (as for women with a nasty tone, they take them to an insane asylum).

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