The essential point about Gates-gate, or the tempest over last week's arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., is this: Most liberal commentary on the subject has taken race as its theme. Conservative commentators, by contrast, have furiously hit the class button.
Liberals, by and large, immediately plugged the event into their unfair-racial-profiling template, and proceeded to call for blacks and whites to "listen to each other's narratives" and other such anodyne niceties even after it started to seem that police racism was probably not what caused the incident.
Conservatives, meanwhile, were following their own "narrative," the one in which racism is often exaggerated and the real victim is the unassuming common man scorned by the deference-demanding "liberal elite." Commentators on the right zeroed in on the fact that Mr. Gates is an "Ivy League big shot," a "limousine liberal," and a star professor at Harvard, an institution they regard with special loathing. They pointed out that Mr. Gates allegedly addressed the cop with that deathless snob phrase, "You don't know who you're messing with"; they reminded us that Cambridge, Mass., is home to a particularly obnoxious combination of left-wing orthodoxy and upper-class entitlement; and they boiled over Mr. Gates's demand that the officer "beg my forgiveness."
"Don't you just love a rich guy who summers on the Vineyard asking a working-class cop to 'beg'? How perfectly Cambridge," wrote the right-wing radio talker Michael Graham in the Boston Herald.
Conservatives won this round in the culture wars, not merely because most of the facts broke their way, but because their grievance is one that a certain species of liberal never seems to grasp. Whether the issue is abortion, evolution or recycling, these liberal patricians are forever astonished to discover that the professions and institutions and attitudes that they revere are seen by others as arrogance and affectation.
The "elitism" narrative routinely blind-sides them, takes them by surprise again and again. There they are, feeling good about their solidarity with the coffee-growers of Guatemala, and then they find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from, say, the plumbers of Ohio.
The Gates incident was a trap that could not have been better crafted to ensnare President Barack Obama, who is himself a loyal son of academia's most prestigious reaches, and to whom it was immediately obvious, even without benefit of the facts, that the Cambridge police "acted stupidly" in the situation.
Mr. Obama's way of backing out of his gaffe was just as telling: He invited Mr. Gates and the policeman who arrested him to the White House for a beer, the beverage so often a gauge of a politician's blue-collar bona fides. One symbolic gesture, hopefully, can exorcise another.
Class is always an ironic issue in American politics, and the irony this time is particularly poignant. We are in the midst of a great national debate about how to make health care affordable; almost nothing is more important to working-class Americans. "For the health of the nation, both physically and economically, we need a system with a public option," Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, wrote recently in the Huffington Post. "And we need it now."
But whether working families get it now depends to a large degree on Mr. Obama's personal popularity. And now comes Gates-gate, this latest burst of fake populism from the right. Waving the banner of the long-suffering working class, the tax-cutting friends of the top 2% have managed to dent the president's credibility, to momentarily halt his forward movement on the health care issue.
Umbrage at a Harvard professor's class snobbery, in other words, might derail this generation's greatest hope for actually mitigating the class divide.
Another irony: Long before he became a hostage to the culture wars, Henry Louis Gates had another career as a pithy commentator on the culture wars. The false appeal of victimization was something he understood well. In Loose Canons, his 1992 book on the subject, he joked that his colleagues should "award a prize at the end [of a conference] for the panelist, respondent, or contestant most oppressed."
But when he sits down for that can of beer in the White House, it is another passage from his book that I hope Mr. Gates remembers. Speaking for liberal academics, he wrote in 1992 that "success has spoiled us; the right has robbed us of our dyspepsia; and the routinized production of righteous indignation is allowed to substitute for critical rigor."
Today the cranking out of righteous indignation is a robust growth industry, and it threatens to do far worse than cloud our critical faculties. Help us to put the culture wars aside, Professor Gates. Too much is on the line these days.