It might surprise you to learn that the blogger I most identify with, in terms of what I hope to achieve with my blog, is Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic. His politics certainly aren’t mine, and his life experiences are very, very different from mine — he was a college black nationalist, for example — but I always learn a lot from reading him. He’s a graceful writer, but lots of bloggers are good writers. The thing that’s so inviting about his blog is that I get the feeling that I’m reading the thoughts of a real person, someone who is actually thinking and grappling in public with ideas and issues — this, as opposed to snappily firing off opinions for the masses. And he’s always searching his own thoughts, challenging himself (and by extension, his readers) to deepen their understanding.
Take, for example, his post today about the schism between 19th century abolitionists and suffragists, over the question of how far and how quickly the franchise should be extended. It’s a long, complicated post, but here’s a key paragraph, after he stated a standard left-liberal critique of Susan B. Anthony as having taken a dive on black enfranchisement:
That’s basically the rendition I was treated to in college debates under the flag-pole, or on the steps of Douglass where nascent leftists, like yours truly, deployed arcane formulas to determine who had the most privilege, who could pile up the most layers of jeopardy. The sense was that if one could be born a half-Native American, half-African-American, lesbian, who’d done a bid on the reservation, or in the projects, some mystical ascension awaited.
Then he goes on to discuss at great length how history was a lot more complicated than abstractions that satisfy the sense of righteousness many of us have today. I won’t tell you where he ends up, but it’s a classic TNC post in that he takes you on his own intellectual journey of discovery, and gives you a sense of his own mind dealing with new information, and new ways of seeing things. He’s learning things he didn’t know, and questioning his own presuppositions and biases, even as he admits them.
I really like that in a blogger. Some of the people who used to be my favorite bloggers have calcified into complete predictability. They know what their opinion is going to be before they touch the keyboard. They usually write about the same things, in the same ways. I can tell their hearts aren’t in it anymore. I find that I rarely read them. They’ve gotten bored with ideas, it seems, and their boredom comes through in their predictable posting. I think it’s vitally important to have convictions, but I think it’s death on a writer, and a thinker, when we think our convictions have settled all questions, and that all we need to do is to figure out how to force all new information into our ideology, bang out 100 to 200 words on it, and boom, we’re done. It’s lazy, and it’s dull. Some people, maybe most people, read blogs to have their opinions validated. I do that sometimes, but not a lot — not because I’m a good person, but because I’m a curious reader, and always want to learn more about the world. As my longtime readers know, I was hit pretty hard over the last 10 years by the collapse of my faith in Roman Catholic Christianity, and my faith in movement conservatism. It’s not that Catholicism or conservatism are wrong, or bad — indeed, I am still a conservative, and though I left the Catholic Church, I consider myself a fellow traveler — but that I had such unshakable faith in both things as ways of knowing that I set myself up for a big fall. I had made ideologies of them, and, as ideologies will do when abstractions meet reality, they failed. I hope this twin experience has made me more humble, intellectually. It has certainly not dimmed my faith that there is a such thing as Truth, and that it is knowable, however imperfectly. It has made me more willing to think about how I know what I know, and to listen to other perspectives, even if ultimately I don’t or can’t agree with them. I want to cultivate a more supple mind. To ideologues, this looks like I’m going soft, I suppose, but I’m not really interested in sticking to a party line. Life is too mysterious and interesting for that.
Anyway, that’s what I see in TNC’s writing and thinking, even though I’m often not interested in the things he writes about (sports and pop music). What I’m interested in is him, and learning new things from him. He has a way of integrating his personal life into his writing, which helps build a bond with his readers. I read his beautiful post about going for a run while visiting Washington, DC, and the thoughts it brought forth in him about why and how he loves our country. Not only did I appreciate his conclusion — and it compelled me to think about my own patriotism — but I loved the way he framed it, as a lesson in a story about running on the Mall. Not everybody can do this kind of thing well, but TNC can.