Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Exchange On Toxicity Of Ta-Nehesi Coates
I respect your desire not to argue the issue, Itzik, but I think you must have wanted to know what your friends think of the subject of the article, and that of Mr Williams. FWIW, I have a different take on Mr Coates. Here are my main thoughts on the subject:
I read Coates, not out of self-loathing or guilt, as Mr McLaughlin suggests, nor because I agree with every assertion or conclusion of the author, but because his writing is among the most compelling contemporary offerings on a topic of vital social interest. I think the main thrust of Mr Williams' article, connecting Coates and Spencer, falls short of being convincing. Unlike Spencer, Coates is not pimping for a system of forced racial subjugation, so the attempt to connect the two men seems far-fetched.
With the exception of a few years in the 1960's, white America has largely ignored the problem of racial injustice. One wonders why it is so. Why is it that the very public killing of unarmed black men by police, to take one issue for example, has not resulted in political focus on police reforms?
Our indifference in the aftermath of the death of Tamir Rice was particularly telling. We held a presidential election in which this was a non-issue, and the new Attorney General has de-emphasized police oversight by the Justice Dept. - football players who peacefully protest the injustice are threatened and bullied with broad support of white Americans.
The experience of racial injustice is never far removed from any aspect of American culture, but white America is practiced in the art of denial. It makes us uncomfortable to see it, so we do not, and we have ready defenses to stifle anyone who calls it to our attention. Though it offends our sense of Christian duty and community, we have carved out an exception for people of color, whose suffering we may ignore, or even hold against them as indicators of their less deserving nature. Their suffering is justified, or justifiable, and is not the result of our racism. This is what we tell ourselves. Tamir bleeds out in a playground because of many things, but race has nothing to do with it.
Mr Williams would prefer that Coates not talk about race - or as he puts it, not "fetishize" race. As I read Williams, he seems to be complaining not so much about the core of Coates' writing, but with what he sees as excessive generalization and exaggerated claims that overstate the role played by race in our society. He decries what he sees as an extremism that looks a lot, to him, like the position of people like Mr Spencer. I think that's a fair criticism - Coates offers an uncompromising denunciation of a pervasive white supremacy that makes us uncomfortable and leaves us to wonder if there is not some exaggeration in the charge. But to argue about the edges of his jeremiad is to avoid the main debate.
Coates strips away all of the pretenses and pokes a sharp stick into the wound that we have hidden from our own eyes. His is a prophetic voice, and he does not let us slide along in deluded and comfortable indifference. Perhaps he exaggerates and over-generalizes, but my sense of the main body of his work is that it is deeply insightful, artfully written, and among the most important books of recent years.
An opening comment: I think the issue Coates throws up is important in relation to his instance in particular but also beyond just him as a template for certain and growing-to-the-point of-becoming-pervasive left thinking that seems increasingly where the Ds are going, and mirroring to the Rs’ harder right turn. Hence even increasing polarization and diminution of moderate, centrist voices and politics in your country, and more and more coming to mine, and all’s the pity. McLaughlin and Williams arbitrarily are counterpart foci here only because they’re whom I’ve most recently read.
One other preliminary point, it may be McLaughlin’s view that white liberals and even centrist intellectuals fete and supplicate before Coates out of guilt but I’ve not credited him with it. Here, for whatever McLaughlin may think, it’s mine alone. And I don’t universally ascribe it. Mine is a general but not universal characterization. I saw it most exemplified in instances of both Jeffrey Goldberg, left leaning, and David Brooks, leaning right, contorting themselves into self castigating pretzels and pulverizing their toes by so much tip toeing in gently asking if Coates would mind too much, please don’t, if they ventured to tend to begin to suggest that, well, they just might disagree with him a shade. So in a nutshell, I wouldn’t suggest that you find Coates compelling out of guilt. I’m simply astonished that you or anyone else sensible does.
That said, let’s start by paraphrasing the exact argument Williams and McLaughlin after him make. Williams starts by contrasting two views of historical development: one derived from Hegel, later adapted by Marx, that a determinism moves through history and so a predeterminism, whether rooted in a metaphysics, or whether more limited in time and involving a narrative of inevitability given the nature of particular historical conditions specific to a time, could be centuries, and place, say America. That view, Williams argues, reduces itself to essences, something ineluctable in the nature of a given people of that given time and place: in this instance as concerns Coates, it’s whiteness, the essence of whiteness.
In a word or a few more, the other view of history is that it is an arbitrary jumble, forces converging to make for chance created patterns when looked at retrospectively.
So Williams says:
...A similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages — they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin — white supremacy — explains everything, an all-American sonderweg....
and, Williams says, Coates is an exemplar of this view of historical inevitability.
From Coates’s, Between The World And Me:
....The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.....
Williams notes that Coates has squared by itself his inevitablist view in his recent book of essays, ...Eight Years In Power... So Coates writes:
....it’s likely that should white supremacy fall, the means by which that happens might be unthinkable to those of us bound by present realities and politics....
pointing to the need for violence and some type of upheaval, as he later says, on modern analogy to the French Revolution, which among other things is infamous for its “reign of terror,” an implication I’d argue Coates raises by his analogy.
Getting closer to the heart of Williams’s core argument, he notes that for Coates Trump’s election is something like vindication, proof that the racist origins of America are alive and well and with all of you, and quite undiminished though variant in its outward modalities: racist America was at the centre of itself at its de jure founding and racist it is now at the centre of itself de facto: I take Coates to mean de facto, de jure transformation to the contrary notwithstanding.
The de facto racism is manifest in what Coates calls irreducible white tribalism, irreducible because it insidiously infects, as Williams notes Coates asserts, muscularly sympathetic left/liberal/progressive white intellectuals like George Packer, who dare to argue against taking racialism too far, for when taken too far, Packer argues, and so do I, it becomes essentialist. And what follows from Coates criticism of Packer is, as Coates would have it, and as his general proposition: whiteness as such is the enemy.
And so with all this appetizing we come to the beating heart of the entree of Williams’s argument: Coates saying in bizarrely exotic prose ...Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.... (an amulet is a small piece of jewelry worn to ward off danger; eldritch is an adjective denoting weird, sinister and ghostly)—is a mirror from the opposite angle of white supremacism like Richard Spencer’s, that whereas for Spencer that white essence is positive racial superiority, for Coates it’s negative racially immoral inferiority.
....Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring....
So Neil, with what you say is the thrust of Williams’s argument, you, respectfully, haven’t sufficiently understood it and in that you minimize what Williams says is at the heart of what Coates asserts. And Williams is right; he’s right because as he makes plain and clear, it actually is at the heart of what Coates asserts.
(Now that I’ve come this far, I won’t, as I was going to do, at least right now, elaborate on what McLaughlin argues, because Williams’s argument is sufficient for my polemical purposes.)
Your paragraph starting “With the exception of the sixties...”seems, again respectfully, only respectfully, both quite astride Williams’s argument and, if not simply mistaken, at a minimum easily controverted.
From the sixties on one might observe in America a huge legal, political, financial, and cultural effort to concentrate on and ameliorate disadvantaging instances of racial injustice. So there is no need to wonder as to why something that is not so is not so.
And to take your one example, really, it demonstrates nothing. Who is the personification of the killing of innocent unarmed black men by police or police wannabes, Michael Brown and the mythic falsity of the culture suffusing meme “hands up don’t shoot,” the more difficult but still understandable example of Trayvon Martin, where a mixed race jury of Florida citizens acquitted Zimmerman?
Are we to look to the insanely politicized death of Freddie Gray, where Marilyn Moseby to her discredit demagogued before the fact “no justice no peace,” that being a proximate cause of the nihilistic rioting and looting, which only hurt black citizens and back business owners? Only by the way to have all remaining charges withdrawn after losing the first few cases and having to retreat into embarrassed ignominy (but not after a photo spread in Vanity Fair.)
None of which is to say that there aren’t instances of injustice in outlier bad cops getting away with it, just as there are instances when bad actors get convicted and punished, mostly all happening in fraught, ambiguous circumstances, in which police often have to make split second decisions, and against a general backdrop of increased assassinations of police in your country.
So do you really want to use individual cases gone wrong on which to mount a defence of Coates’s messianic thesis? Do you really want to rest on the “narrative,” a word I use here with withering scorn, of these police shootings and the action of Zimmerman as dyed in the wool American propensity of white men simply killing unarmed and innocent black men? Do you really want to say that police, all over your country, of every hue and cultural tradition, are systemic racist killers, and that, a la Coates, not only are they that, pigs, but so too are pigs the American public at large, who sustain the police and facilitate them, and of whom, says Coates, the police in their systemic racism are their agents?
To be clear, it is one thing to have genuine differences over policy initiatives, be it the present regime’s, or it having been the last one’s, without resorting to the essentialist apocalyptic visions of Coates.
So along the way, Coates lays bare a past of undeniable American racist depredation starting with the American founding, staining it, and points out a post—emancipation of racist policies that continued de jure for about 2/3ds of the twentieth century. Certainly something to see in that but nothing new and nothing not said, and scathingly so, by many, many American writers, thinkers, commentators, and policy makers.
So I say, contra you, Coates doesn’t strip away all the pretences. Rather in the guise presenting himself as a truth teller of terrible truths, he ends up as an simple minded apocalyptic declaimer whose aberrant conclusions undermine such point and sharpness as exist in what he points out along the way.
I don’t think he’s a good writer; I find him an abysmally unsophisticated thinker; and I remain perplexed by the feting and celebrity he enjoys.
Here’s the most concisely trenchant disassembling of Coates I’ve come across.