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God Vs. Identity Politics

I’ve been saying for a long time here that the racial essentialism of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates is unavoidably calling up the same thing among white nationalists and other right-wing whites. You cannot have it both ways. The black writer Thomas Chatterton Williams agrees. [1] Excerpt:

Given the genuine severity of the Trump threat, some readers of this essay may wonder, why devote energy to picking over the virtue and solidarity signaling of the left? Quite simply because getting this kind of thinking wrong exacerbates the very inequality it seeks to counteract. In the most memorable sentence in “The First White President,” Mr. Coates declares, “Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. 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.

True, and important to say.

Yet I read Williams’s essay in tandem with this one by Justin Dean Lee in the L.A. Review of Books, [2]concerning Mark Lilla’s book calling on fellow liberals to refuse identity politics. Excerpts:

While there is much to commend in this book — Lilla’s wide-ranging expertise, his good humor and sharp wit, his moral seriousness — it is not without its faults, the greatest of which is Lilla’s failure to press his critique to its logical limits.

Meaning what, exactly? Lee says that Lilla misses that his own politics are built on the same shaky ground of emotivism as those he critiques. Lee:


Lilla’s recognition of the deep affinity between Reaganite economics and left identitarianism is the most profound aspect of The Once and Future Liberal. It is also the element around which his entire project unravels. In all his denunciations of both movements he is curiously shy of naming the irreducible heart of their similarity: nihilism.

Whether the will to power finds expression in economic self-determination or in the assertion of one’s identity over-against an other, it remains a groundless nothing, a sheer, arbitrary exuberance. The will to power sits beneath Lilla’s critique just as it resides within the objects of his scorn. This is made clear by his unwillingness to apply his critique of individualism to his own political commitments.

Lee explains that in his piece, and ends by saying that the renewed civic square Lilla seeks isn’t really possible in our culture:

Even if our institutions were more dependable, or if trust could be ensorcelled, the project of reorienting our political discourse to the promotion of the common good is doomed from the start. What do we hold in common? What is the good? Lilla seems to have learned nothing from the criticisms leveled against his highly selective 2007 study of political theology, The Stillborn God. The common good is emphatically not a product of consensus. To posit a common good is, necessarily, to embrace metaphysical realism, and thus to wade into the deep waters of natural law theory. Without the firm ground of first principles, the “common good” is merely the whim of the majority.

And this is perhaps what most irks Lilla’s critics on the left, even if they’re wary of articulating it: any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all.

A different Mark Lilla, the one who wrote The Stillborn God, celebrates the banishing of faith to the private sphere. For that Lilla, theology is a contamination best kept hermetically sealed from politics, lest some dark “messianism” raise its head. But the Lilla of The Once and Future Liberal looks back wistfully on the role faith once played in energizing civic virtue, his reflections colored, perhaps, by his own youthful dalliance with Evangelicalism. One suspects that Lilla doubts his ideal of citizenship is really capable of instilling a sense of civic duty “[i]n the absence of a motivating charitable faith.” If the failures of French universalism are any indication, such doubts are justified.

Read the whole thing.  [2]

Before we go any further here, I want to draw your attention briefly to an older essay. In 1989, Glenn Tinder published a lengthy essay in The Atlantic, on the political meaning of Christianity. [3] Here are some excerpts:

Here we come to the major premise (in the logic of faith, if not invariably in the history of Western political philosophy) of all Christian social and political thinking—the concept of the exalted individual. Arising from agape, this concept more authoritatively than any other shapes not only Christian perceptions of social reality but also Christian delineations of political goals.

… Can love and reason, though, undergird our politics if faith suffers a further decline? That is doubtful. Love and reason are suggestive, but they lack definite political implications. Greeks of the Periclean Age, living at the summit of the most brilliant period of Western civilization, showed little consciousness of the notion that every individual bears an indefeasible and incomparable dignity. Today why should those who assume that God is dead entertain such a notion? This question is particularly compelling in view of a human characteristic very unlike exaltation.

He’s talking about sinfulness. Tinder points out the necessary paradox at the heart of Christian political thinking:

The fallen individual is not someone other than the exalted individual. Every human being is fallen and exalted both. This paradox is familiar to all informed Christians. Yet it is continually forgotten—partly, perhaps, because it so greatly complicates the task of dealing with evil in the world, and no doubt partly because we hate to apply it to ourselves; although glad to recall our exaltation, we are reluctant to remember our fallenness. It is vital to political understanding, however, to do both. If the concept of the exalted individual defines the highest value under God, the concept of the fallen individual defines the situation in which that value must be sought and defended.

The principle that a human being is sacred yet morally degraded is hard for common sense to grasp. It is apparent to most of us that some people are morally degraded. It is ordinarily assumed, however, that other people are morally upright and that these alone possess dignity. From this point of view all is simple and logical. The human race is divided roughly between good people, who possess the infinite worth we attribute to individuals, and bad people, who do not. The basic problem of life is for the good people to gain supremacy over, and perhaps eradicate, the bad people. This view appears in varied forms: in Marxism, where the human race is divided between a world-redeeming class and a class that is exploitative and condemned; in some expressions of American nationalism, where the division—at least, until recently—has been between “the free world” and demonic communism; in Western films, where virtuous heroes kill bandits and lawless Indians.

This common model of life’s meaning is drastically irreligious, because it places reliance on good human beings and not on God. It has no room for the double insight that the evil are not beyond the reach of divine mercy nor the good beyond the need for it. It is thus antithetical to Christianity which maintains that human beings are justified by God alone, and that all are sacred and none are good.

The proposition that none are good does not mean merely that none are perfect. It means that all are persistently and deeply inclined toward evil. All are sinful. In a few sin is so effectively suppressed that it seems to have been destroyed. But this is owing to God’s grace, Christian principles imply, not to human goodness, and those in whom it has happened testify emphatically that this is so. Saints claim little credit for themselves.

Tinder concludes by doubting that liberal democracy can survive the demise of the Christian faith that animates it. He cites Dostoevsky’s view that people have to worship something; it is in our nature. If we don’t worship the God of the Bible, we will make idols of other things, if only our desires. (This, by the way, is what Dante’s Commedia is about; the Inferno is full of idol worshipers of one sort or another.)

Now, what does this all have to do with Justin Dean Lee’s essay about Mark Lilla’s book?

For one, the fundamental fault Lee finds in Lilla’s book can easily be found among many other conservatives (not that Lee would deny that at all). That is, it is easy to find thoughtful essays by civilized, non-radical thinkers on the right who advocate revival of republican virtues, as Lilla does. But they don’t seem to recognize how much their project depends on a shared religious belief — and not just any religious belief, but Christianity: a religion that insists not only on man’s sacred dignity but also on his fallenness. Or, to put it in Lee’s terms, we cannot escape metaphysics if we want to restore our degraded politics.

This is not likely to happen for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus on my own side, religious conservatives. We ought to be a source of political renewal as a consequence of a renewed life in churches and communities. In fact, that is the long-term political goal of The Benedict Option. [4] The Ben Op is not a withdrawal from political engagement, but rather a reorientation of Christian priorities. We are not going to be a source of political or social renewal anytime soon, because we have allowed our own inner lives, and the lives of our church communities, to become deeply compromised by modernity. As a conservative theologian friend told me the other night, the “sociological reality” of the American church today is “a façade of capitalism and emotivism.” He was talking about Evangelicalism, his own tradition, but it is also true of the entire church.

I spoke recently to an Evangelical pastor about what he’s seeing play out in the church. We were generally discussing the claims I make in my book. He said that he’s dealing with this stuff in his congregation. Folks may sense that there’s something really wrong with things in the world today, and also in the church, but they resolutely refuse to do anything about it, other than what they’re already doing, because that makes them comfortable. They can’t even bring themselves to talk about it. They may actually believe what Christianity teaches, but they cannot articulate it to their children. Many of them believe that it’s the church’s responsibility alone to teach and form their children. Many are just as absorbed in popular culture as any non-believer.

Listening to the pastor, I thought of G.K. Chesterton’s line: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” The congregation he’s talking about means well, it seems to me, but they are, in effect, a dead thing, carried down the stream of liquid modernity towards the falls. To be clear, I am not judging their souls; I am judging their sociological state, particularly with regard to being able to pass on a living faith to their children. A congregation that does not regard itself as actively in rebellion against the Empire is going to lay down and die. (I define “the Empire” as the hedonistic, individualistic, relativistic, post-Christian social order.) The days of a comfortable compromise are over. You cannot let the Empire into your soul, and have to fight to expel it.

If the church — I’m talking about all Christians in America — is so compromised that it can only serve as a chaplaincy to late capitalism, then it cannot be the leavening that society needs. In The Benedict Option [4], I quote Philip Rieff saying that a culture begins to die “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” This is where we are in the church today — and by “the church,” I’m not simply talking about the institutional church, but also mothers, fathers, grandparents, all of us. With the Millennial generation, the bottom is dropping out of religious belief [5] — and we cannot blame them for that. Who raised them? Who formed them? At the same time, the vast number those who still profess religious belief are in thrall to the pseudo-Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. [6]

My point is that without realizing what we were doing, we American Christians have allowed ourselves to be catechized by the post-Christian culture, such that we are rendered inert, and unable to pass the faith on to our children — who, having been catechized by the post-Christian culture, are unable to receive it.

So, to recap: Justin Dean Lee rightly says we cannot have a politics of the common good without substantive agreement on what the Good is, or how it might be known. Liberalism, in both its classical and progressivist forms, is agnostic on that question, or at most assumes things (“all men are created equal”) that cannot be sustained absent a shared commitment to a metaphysical ideal. Last week in Paris, talking about these things with Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher said that he sees no exit for the French, because they have concluded as a society that there is no realm beyond the material. Most Americans would deny that they believe this, but that’s not the way we live, not even Christians. It is true that we Americans are not as far gone into atheism as the French are, so we still have time to recover. But to recover, you first have to recognize the problem. You first have to recognize that the way you are living as a Christian is not going to survive the prolonged encounter with liquid modernity.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer are both atheists who have found a strong source of belief in their respective races. Spencer, a Nietzschean, has said that Christianity is a religion of the weak. They have drawn the line between good and evil not down the middle of every human heart, as that great Christian prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did, but between their race and the Other. There is immense power in that kind of tribalism, and it lies in large part because it denies the fallenness of one’s own people. Where in contemporary American Christianity can we find the resources to resist falling prey to the malign power of racialism, in all its versions?

They are hard to locate because we American Christians have been almost as compromised by radical individualism, emotivism, and the worship of technology as everybody else.  How can we witness to the “common good” in the public square when we don’t have a robust idea of it within our own communities of faith? That Evangelical theologian friend I mentioned above told me that so many Christians today see the Bible as only one of many sources of authority in their lives. They cannot rightly order their lives as Christians because whatever they say they believe, the real authority in their lives is the Choosing Self.

This is why American Christianity does not offer effective opposition to the allure of identity politics of the left or the right — and indeed, why it so easily succumbs to the same thing. It is true that we all have multiple identities, but for the Christian, his fidelity to Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Bible (and, for many of us, in the authoritative teachings of the apostolic church), has to be primary. It has to be the identity that gives all the other identities order, meaning, and legitimacy. I am neither proud nor ashamed of my race, but I do not believe in the racialism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer because it is impossible to reconcile with the Gospel — which, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, directs us to judge not by the color of one’s skin, but by the content of one’s character. Near the heart of the power of identity politics — which Justin Dean Lee rightly identifies as a pseudo-religion [2] — is its power to explain, to absolve and to bind. It explains the tribes suffering by blaming those outside of it. This absolves those who embrace the identitarian ideology of their sins, and releases them from the responsibility to examine their own consciences in light of the transcendent truth. And it binds them in a brotherhood of the sanctified — sanctified not because of anything they have done or accomplished, but simply by their membership in the tribe.

Only a strong Christianity can counter this nihilistic tribal religion. But this we do not have today. I am on record as strongly disapproving of some of the antics of Milo Yiannopoulos, but he and I are on the same page here, in this excerpt from an interview with America magazine [7], which he says they refused to print:

What does masculinity mean to you?

It means a willingness to expose yourself to enemy fire, whether or not you wear a uniform, in order to defend the good — your family, your church, your country, your civilization. Now the men in uniform are much better men than I, but even I can do a bit to defend those things with the gifts God gave me.

Our Lord, as always, showed the way: He endured the horrors of the Passion to defend and redeem the whole world. I’m with Rod Dreher [8]: Anybody who only preaches a namby-pamby God, and not the highly masculine God of Scripture, is leaving young men vulnerable to the monstrous false gods of race and ideology.

Boys struggling to become men are always potential barbarians, because they hunger for masculinity but aren’t sure where to find it or how to productively express it. Our Lord revealed it to them, but too many in the Church keep masculinity hidden or the subject of shame.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, if you will not have God — not the MTD God, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the God of the saints and the martyrs — then you had better prepare to pay homage to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Spencer, Donald Trump, and all the other rising avatars of identity politics.

90 Comments (Open | Close)

90 Comments To "God Vs. Identity Politics"

#1 Comment By KD On October 11, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

Harvey writes:

Kaepernick kneeled because he wanted to draw attention to the fact that it is functionally legal for police to kill black people.

Does anyone remember how much money Rodney King got out of his civil suit?

I don’t know what “functionally legal” means, but it is not legal for cops to use deadly force except in exceptional circumstances. Cops can be put up on trial and get criminal convictions for unjustified use of force, and they and their departments can be sued civilly.

However, if you look at most of the BLM poster children, they for the most part didn’t look like ideal plaintiffs, not because of race but because they had long rap sheets, were probably involved in criminal activity at the time of attempted arrest, were belligerent, and resisted arrest, which is a pretty good “how-to” guide for getting shot by the police, whether you happen to be white or green or black.

There is no evidence that Blacks are getting shot more relative to violent crime rates than any other racial group.

[Granted, when your group accounts for 600% of the homicides relative to other groups, you are probably per capita going to have more shootings. . . which is why we have Black Lives Matters but not Hispanic Lives Matters and Asian Lives Matters even though “White Supremacy” Conspiracy Theory would predict whitey killing all the brown and yellow bodies.]

There is just more press when a Black guy gets shot.

Here is the reporting on Freyer’s findings:


For other members of the “reality-based” community.

#2 Comment By Stefan On October 11, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

TNC is in no way comparable to Richard Spencer. Whereas the latter ontologizes race, TNC, like most of the American self-identified left, ontologizes victimization. He then proceeds to describe the way that victimization is refracted through the lived experiences of various racial tropes, though in ultimis the ingroup are those who submit to an epidemiological understanding of themselves, whereas those who claim “voice”, as they say in social theory, are the outgroup.

Remember that the TNC marketing claim is that he is not only wokerderer-than-thou but that he is above all le alpha intellectual, always immersed in deep thought and with a very laboured cadence in the way he develops his arguments (as opposed to the toad-licking Bachanal of the Trumpist International). If the corollary of his premise, i.e. the need for an increasingly custodial state in order to suppress the interpretive ferality of biosemiotic processes (the idea that the way we interpret our lived experiences has at least minimal political valence) were to materialize, you can be sure that non-black people would be heavily overrepresented in its governing bureaucracies and that they would consequently biased towards their sensitivities and interests. Epistemic closure always benefits political, economic and cultural incumbent along with a smattering of interstitial minorities. It cannot benefit black people because it denies the way they are partially autonomous sign-generating processes.

Richard Spencer on the other hand appears to be a much more straightforward, less tortured character, though like TNC he seems to be the product of ready access to book learning in a society that provides limited opportunities for acquiring spiritual intelligence. The whole Völkisch enterprise mistakes the map for the territory in spite of the (to me) obvious fact that being white or of any other race(s) is a stage, a launch pad for something that is far beyond that race but that can only be approached by using racial heritage (or other similarly politically suspect aspects of human embodiment) as a skillful means. In that sense both Spencer and Coates are right to intuit, for the wrong reasons of course, that the search for post-racialism within the political mainstream (abolishing the human body for liberals, the desperate search to locate some shangri-la of emergent racial harmony right after WW2 for conservatives) is code for white genocide and black genocide respectively. That is the mythological truth refracted through the unintelligent racial paranoia of both sides.

#3 Comment By E.J. Worthing On October 11, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

The following pair of sentences is not only false, but ludicrous:

“Any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all.”

One cannot identify the good by appeal to theology. Good things are not good because God wants them. God wants good things because they are good. He knows what is good through reason. We can know what is good in the same way.

#4 Comment By Alex Brown On October 11, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

I admire your writings and generally agree with most of what you say. Religion is an exception. No offense, but why should I believe in Creation story if it’s established fact that our planet is ~4.5 bln years old and humans are descendants of African apes?
And why following Christian religion would save civilization? You mentioned sex scandal at the highest levels of Catholic church, and there are countless other examples of religious people committing crimes or starting unjust wars.

Atheists believe in empiricism. That we can learn, individually and collectively from the facts of the real world and incrementally improve. This strategy doesn’t guarantee permanent successes, but at least it’s based of empirical evidence. And what empirical evidence religion can offer?

#5 Comment By Liam On October 11, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

Don’t let your journalistic love for pungent commentary confuse it for integrity and substance. Milo’s interview can illustrate how much of a Potemkin village it can be in reality. The Jesuits did him an act of charity or at least mercy not publishing that trolling act.

#6 Comment By Brendan from Oz On October 11, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

“Atheists believe in empiricism. That we can learn, individually and collectively from the facts of the real world and incrementally improve.”

Actually, that is Aristotle’s Metaphysics that arose from the rejection of Sophistry and the notion that Man is the Measure of All Things, and the Cultural Constructivism of Sextus Empiricus (Empiricism rejects Logic and has since the Skeptic Empiricus wrote “Contra Logic”).

Only one religion/metaphysical tradition has the Greek notion of Logic as its divine source. Only one.

#7 Comment By JWJ On October 11, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

Who in their right mind would ever think that Buzzfeed was in any way a credible “news” source? They are an extremist far-left group similar to thinkprogress or media matters.

The term “alt-right” as used by Breitbart meant an alternative to the establishment right. Anyone who does a modicum of research can know this.

#8 Comment By Carlo On October 11, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

Alex Brown:

“No offense, but why should I believe in Creation story if it’s established fact that our planet is ~4.5 bln years old and humans are descendants of African apes?”

Where is the contradiction? (Unless you are a biblical literalist. Are you?)

#9 Comment By Carlo On October 11, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

Andy C.

Sorry, I think you missed my point. Coates takes race (even if it is a social construct) to be the all-important, all-determining factor that explains most (perhaps all) of US history, and the current political situation.

That’s completely different from “race shapes his world view about race”. It shapes his world view about almost EVERYTHING! At least everything cultural and political in the US.

#10 Comment By JonF On October 11, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

Re: Atheists believe in empiricism.

And my religious belief is strongly based on empiricism. Your point is?

(Also, for crying out loud how many times do people have to point out that Young Earth Creationism is hardly synonymous with the Christian faith, let alone religion generally?)

#11 Comment By Robert Levine On October 11, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

Anybody who only preaches a namby-pamby God, and not the highly masculine God of Scripture, is leaving young men vulnerable to the monstrous false gods of race and ideology.

God has gender?

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 12, 2017 @ 12:46 am

No offense, but why should I believe in Creation story if it’s established fact that our planet is ~4.5 bln years old and humans are descendants of African apes?

Because the two stories are congruent.

Atheists believe in empiricism. That we can learn, individually and collectively from the facts of the real world and incrementally improve.

Ah, you did learn something from the Bolsheviks that you still treasure.

I don’t know what “functionally legal” means, but it is not legal for cops to use deadly force except in exceptional circumstances.

I believe what is really at issue is far more nuanced than most speakers credit… but there is still a legitimate concern. Basically, juries find it very easy to credit that a police officer “feared for his life,” because there are many reasonable fears. But there is such a thing as an honest but UNREASONABLE fear, e.g., when it turns out the deceased had no gun, and there is no evidence of resistance or intent to use a weapon. We need better argument and better jury instructions.

Further, a significant fraction of police are offensive, in both senses of the term, when they need to be calm and courteous.

These factors both fall on “white” as well as “black” people. Police are not out to simply “hunt down some n****s.” But, a significant fraction of officers are a little more fearful and quicker on the trigger when the person facing them has a dark skin color.

Not easy to resolve, but there is a real basis to the expressed concerns.

#13 Comment By Craig On October 12, 2017 @ 12:54 am

In another recent post, you suggested that no one would or should choose to believe in God for the good of the social order. And yet, here is another apocalyptic post offering a grim choice: believe in God (the Christian one) or prepare to live with nihilistic tribal religion. The claim that faith in God is *the only* antidote to something far worse sure looks like a plea to believe for the sake of society.

Thinking more broadly, I also don’t buy the idea that the only successful societies have been Christian societies, or that Christianity can restrain tribalism. The history of Western Europe suggests otherwise. For much of the time after the fall of the Roman Empire, there was frequent warfare between nations where Christianity was the dominant religion. Christianity wasn’t a particularly unifying force, nor did it restrain national and ethnic competition. In fact, there is a school of thought that the constant warfare and competition between these various Christian European nations is what catapulted the West ahead of other, non Christian regions.

It is common, of course, for politically oriented Christians to attribute the economic and military dominance of the West to Christianity. But the West’s embrace of capitalism and science, in the service of Imperialism can hardly be dismissed as unimportant. And it is frequently pointed out here that capitalism and science have corrosive effects on belief, while Imperialism is big time tribalism. It is ironic that some Christians want to undercut the very things which brought about the dominance that is touted (by some) as evidence of the superiority of Christian culture.

I do agree with the notion that people are most easily organized around shared mythology. In aggregate, we are far too emotional and irrational to avoid this. And some myths work better than others. But no one has yet invented a mythology that is so powerful that it can fully transcend racial, national, and ethnic divides (as evidenced by the present and past state of the world). Perhaps the future of the world is a continuation of the past – constant conflict between rival tribes, each with a different set of unifying myths. Only now, it is tribes with nuclear weapons.

#14 Comment By John Spragge On October 12, 2017 @ 5:07 am

Given the context of what he writes, my understanding of what Mr. Coates means by “whiteness” differs very much from yours. Mr. Coates, in the conclusion of his argument, quotes James Baldwin on people identified as “white” saying: “because they think they are white”.

The idea of peoples from a geographical area spanning Western Asia to the Atlantic Arc of Western Europe having common biological and cultural traits based on a protein common throughout the animal kingdom is a risible idea, and in fact melanin levels, as Orlando Patterson pointed out, do not actually form the basis for the identity we call “white”. Receiving white privilege means passing an arbitrary and irrational inspection, one that varies from observer to observer. To take the most obvious example, many Americans consider Ashkenazim “white”, but to judge from recent rhetoric, many members of the latest generation of racists do not. Yet ideas of racial identity and superiority have a considerable malign power. To paraphrase George Orwell, these ghosts need strong magic to lay them.

Mr. Coates begins the final paragraph of his article with a seemingly paradoxical statement: “It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves…” How can “whiteness” threaten white people? To understand the sentence requires appreciating the difference between the ideology of “whiteness” and actual people who (ordinarily) receive white privilege because others identify them as white. Mr. Coates attacks the ideology, not the people.

#15 Comment By Rob G On October 12, 2017 @ 7:31 am

“JonF is correct that we don’t need metaphysics in our politics. The essence of nonestablishment and free exercise is that metaphysics does not belong in politics, and politics does not belong in metaphysics.”

Politics is inescapably metaphysical. Denial of the metaphysical element or attempting to shove it off to one side to be ignored merely causes it to reappear in less-satisfactory forms. What’s that quote about nature being pushed out the door but coming back through the window?

#16 Comment By JonF On October 12, 2017 @ 9:22 am

Re: Politics is inescapably metaphysical

But only in the trivially true sense under which almost everything we do involves metaphysical assumptions that we rarely think about and about which there is almost universal agreement. The world around us is real, or at least real enough to matter (we are not in a dream or some Matrix-type simulation). The arrow of time points from past to future. Cause and effect, though sometimes complex and confusing, is real.

The issues that are contentious in politics are not so due their metaphysical underpinnings, but rather their ethical assumptions. I don’t need to argue about how many angels can dance on the end of a pin to determine that healthcare ought be available to all persons without financial impediment– but I may need to defend the ethical position that all humans are of value and ought not be arbitrarily deprived of life or forced to undergo needless suffering for no better purpose than to allow for the gratuitous profit of those posing as “betters”
Again, leave the metaphysics on the sidelines. The battle where there is one is about ethics.

#17 Comment By ludo On October 12, 2017 @ 9:35 am

Simply put, I think, to do as Ta-Nehisi Coates does and insist on the overarching importance of race and especially white-black racial dichotomies in American history and present is simply to abet the ideological project of the ancient foundational slavocracy by contributing to the dereliction or marginalization of any acutely perceptive, i.e. transparentizing, and therefore potentially transformative, exploration of the structural nature and function of the American, and now globalized, type of capitalist economic system, both at home and abroad, in the soi-disant democracy and in its custodial and commercial empire.

To say that race and racism is somehow metaphysically psychically foundational in U.S. society is precisely to mystify its human all too human intellectual devising and function within a highly unequal and exploitative economic system, the genius of which lay in its very ability to control a majority of men with a minority of lethal power up until (and perhaps even including) the Civil war. To be sure this formula was applicable only in the case of those human groups that were considered economically utile, where not they could be physically exterminated as in the case of the Native Americans. Race is not the be-all and end-all of American society and history, besides the mechanism of Northern Protestant capitalism which undergirds and gives hidden minoritarian rationale to it all, lies the inordinate politically useful fear of the Indian, French, Spanish, British, Russian Other, etc., which also economically serves the coercive purposes of the aforesaid minority of stakeholders and allows for a more economical, less literally physically disturbing, application of capitalist-directed state coercive power.

Coates cannot seemingly imagine a world other than the American present because either he is too intellectually incurious to undertake such an undertaking or, perhaps, because his foundational psychological grievance all along was the overriding sense of exclusion from the upper echelons of such a world despite his own sense of superiority, even brilliance, vis-a-vis the unthinking white multitudes who still compose the majority of the U.S. and consequently still determine its politics. Coates, in such a scenario, wishes above all to have his particular sort of litterateur-brilliance recognized and his person incorporated into the aforesaid upper echelons, of whose really existing nature he can only be dimly aware. For Coates the true unveiling and transformation of the very much still taboo-enclouded capitalist system, with its essential undemocratic (and not racist per se) inequalities as the true encoded determinants, must be postponed till after he has amply enjoyed the exclusive benefits that such an unequal, undemocratic, warlike imperialist system remuneratively excels in offering its popular mystifiers and magicians, its producers of doubt and thought chaos, as opposed to the shocking, even traumatic, clarity that is product of the brilliant denuding of the system’s most ancient and ensconced structures, the kind of revelation whose startling brilliance is never in doubt.

#18 Comment By William Tighe On October 12, 2017 @ 10:06 am

Rob G asked:

“What’s that quote about nature being pushed out the door but coming back through the window?”

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.

#19 Comment By KD On October 12, 2017 @ 10:36 am

On the TNC/Spencer overlap, I think this is point:

Both men are addressing/creating a political question on racial lines.

Both are fully aware of the inequalities existing in American society along racial lines.

TNC holds that not only are these divisions made up, socially constructed, etc., but they have been made up in a collaborative process, both consciously and unconsciously, by Whites to keep down Blacks.

RS holds (I think) that these divisions are not made up, but reflect different biological potentials between racial groups, ergo the problem is not white racism, its liberal anti-racism which is trying to subvert the natural order of things.

Of course TNC is not Spencer, but the White liberal who agrees with TNC is the photographic negative of a white nationalist, in terms of sharing the same political question, and it is quite possible that such a person could be quickly flipped around if they were exposed to sufficient empirical data. [Hence the need for no-platforming and speech restrictions to prevent the dissemination of empirical data that contradicts the white liberal narrative.]

I don’t think expanding the reach of white nationalism is a socially desirable outcome, but I think the current modality of white liberalism drinking heavily from the well of critical race theory is greasing the skids for a really nasty white backlash.

I think we need a major re-think about how we talk and conceptualize race in this country before things spin out of control.

#20 Comment By Rob G On October 12, 2017 @ 10:43 am

“The issues that are contentious in politics are not so due their metaphysical underpinnings, but rather their ethical assumptions.”

The very fact that these are viewed as unrelated is a big part of the problem, and puts paid to your suggestion that there is “almost universal agreement” on these matters. If such were the case Lilla would not have had to write his book, and Lee would not have had to critique it.

#21 Comment By Rob G On October 12, 2017 @ 11:00 am

By the way, MacIntyre’s most recent book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, looks at the foundations of some of these meta-ethical disagreements.

#22 Comment By Tyro On October 12, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

What Coates argues is that white identity in opposition to blacks is foundational to American culture, and that foundation was established long before secularism.

I don’t see how you can lay secularism at the feet of this.

#23 Comment By jb On October 12, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

“Well you gotta give him this, he doesn’t propose genocide as an answer to the problem unlike Spencer.”

Spencer doesn’t propose genocide, only separation, which, I suppose, to all the ticks and parasites who live off of whites LOOKS like genocide. Coates and the political left, on the other hand, not only advocate genocide against whites, they actively pursue it everyday, and with great success. It’s a peculiar sort of racism toward whites that equates whites wanting to maintain their existence, wanting their own homeland, as aggression against others.

#24 Comment By Hound of Ulster On October 12, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

ANY ‘identity’ , including religious, can be a tribal totem or used as weapon against strangers. Just look at the Balkans. Being devote Catholics didn’t stop Croats from slaughtering non-Croats, and being devote Orthodox didn’t stop Serbs from slaughtering non-Serbs.

Half the people attacking TNC clearly havn’t read anything he has written. Richard Spencer is…God have mercy on his soul.

‘White’ identity called ‘black’ identity into being with nearly four hundred years of racist mischief in the New World. Neither has any basis in reality or science, contra the so-called ‘race realists’ (who are actually measuring poverty and the effects of systemic racial bias when they chortle about IQ and crime rates among non-whites, not ‘race’).

Racism is the key part of the American culture of death.

[NFR: I do read him and have read him. — RD]

#25 Comment By Steve On October 12, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

TNC isn’t a black nationalist. He’s said repeatedly back when he blogged at the Atlantic, “There’s no nobility in suffering.” (or words to that effect) That African-Americans aren’t better people than white folks just because they’d been victimized, and if the shoe was on the other foot they’d have done the same thing that was done to them. There’s no comparison between him and ethnic supremacists like Spencer.

#26 Comment By Jane Kerber On October 12, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

The Bible calls upon men and women equally to defend and endure persecution for the faith. There is no distinction, and it is not a masculine trait.

“How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.” Masculine God?

#27 Comment By Alex Brown On October 12, 2017 @ 4:12 pm

Where is the contradiction? (Unless you are a biblical literalist. Are you?)
I am an atheist. The problem with non-literal interpretation is that it can be stretched to explain anything. Why not believe in any other religion, then?

@ JonF
And my religious belief is strongly based on empiricism. Your point is?
My point is, that the Earth wasn’t created in 6 days or human wasn’t created in an instant. These are empirical facts, as opposite to the Bible teachings.

@ Siarlys Jenkins
Ah, you did learn something from the Bolsheviks that you still treasure.
It’s quite possible, given my upbringing. But my difference with the Bolsheviks is that I am willing to listen, open to respectful discussion and able to change my mind. Banning religion would never occurred to me.
I have very decent religious friends, attended numerous Orthodox churches and even Papal mass in Vatican. Attended Jewish synagogues as well. None convinced me in God’s existence. It’s very difficult to argue about basic beliefs and from my experience, it’s usually futile. I would be interested in Rod’s explanation on how to reconcile religion and science but it may be too time consuming and perhaps of no interest to him. As I said, people usually don’t change basic beliefs. Also, there’s always a possibility of trolling. So I understand.

#28 Comment By Callixtus On October 12, 2017 @ 7:22 pm

Here’s a different type of tribalism: Christians as a group subject to bans. Not sure if you heard about this Rod:


#29 Comment By Donald ( the left leaning one) On October 12, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

Just got around to reading this. I suspect you would lump me in with the MTD crowd, though personally I think it is wrong. We Christians with some theologically liberal beliefs often ( not always, admittedly) come by them honestly. There really are, in our opinion,serious problems with some of conservative Christianity.

That said, I suspect you are basically correct in this piece. I have nothing to add except the caveats above.

#30 Comment By JonF On October 12, 2017 @ 8:06 pm

Re: My point is, that the Earth wasn’t created in 6 days or human wasn’t created in an instant.

You did not read the rest of my post, which pointed out (as others have) that belief in Young Earth Creationism is not synonymous with Christianity and certainly not with religion in general. Why persist in this strawman argument?

#31 Comment By Carlo On October 12, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

Alex Brown:

“The problem with non-literal interpretation is that it can be stretched to explain anything.”

Naah. Intelligent and intellectually honest people are able to look at texts and figure out what literary genre the belong to, whether they mean to speak literally or symbolically, how the content reflects (or not) the historical context, what degree of authority we should give to them, where they fit in a certain intellectual or religious framework, and so on and so forth. You can do it too if you try, I promise.

#32 Comment By Carlo On October 12, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

Alex Brown:

I did not mean to sound sarcastic. But it is possible to reach reasonable conclusions about interpreting texts. I am quite certain that a “day” in genesis does not refer to a 24 hour period. But part of the reason for my certainty is also belonging to a long tradition/community of interpreters who thought about the same questions and reached various conclusions. Understanding is greatly helped by conversation with other people.

#33 Comment By BCZ On October 13, 2017 @ 5:12 am


This piece is epic. So much to chew on here.

#34 Comment By JonF On October 13, 2017 @ 8:43 am

RE: Spencer doesn’t propose genocide, only separation, which, I suppose, to all the ticks and parasites who live off of whites LOOKS like genocide.

What a fetid display: racism and 1% “makers and takers” dung fused into one vile mess.

#35 Comment By KD On October 13, 2017 @ 10:39 am

One wonders what TNC and RS would say about this publication from Rutgers:


The real problem I have with TNC is not his take on race, it is his social function: he seems to be adored by white liberals for purposes of ethnomasochism, and is in fact about as radical as Whole Foods groceries.

While there is not a lot of overlap between my views and a figure like Louis Farrakhan, at least Farrakhan is not afraid to speak truth to power.

I would much prefer white liberals to push Farrakhan, who will provide plenty of reasons for white people to feel guilty, but who is in fact a social radical, versus TNC who would never deign to say anything that might irk his publishers.

#36 Comment By KD On October 13, 2017 @ 10:56 am

But I guess it comes down to whether you prefer a strong black coffee from an independent or a syrupy light-brown coffee milk from Starbucks.

#37 Comment By KD On October 13, 2017 @ 11:14 am

Here is an illustration. This is from Wikipedia, top 4 ethnic groups by income in America:

Indian American : $107,390[2]
Jewish American : $97,500[3]
Taiwanese American : $85,566[4]
Filipino American : $82,389[4]

Let’s call them the IJTF’s. Note they don’t really share ancestry as a group.

Now lets call the others non-IJTF’s. The non-IJTF’s make a LOT less money than the IJTF’s, and probably have lower educational attainments, higher crime rates, etc.

Now there are two political explanations for American structural IJTF supremacy: basically, better genetics or better cultural norms of behavior, or the IJTF are conspiring against the rest of us to hold us down.

Clearly, these groups are socially constructed, basically an arbitrary lumping of people together. At the same time, these groups pick out real social and probably biological differences (say prevalence of Tyche-Sachs disease).

And since most behavioral traits work out to maybe 50/50 genes/environment, there are probably a greater share of “success in late capitalism” genes in the IJTF than in non-IJTF, although individuals will run the statitisical gamut. Further, the IJTF’s also probably have “good” cultural norms that increase the likelihood of success in American society.

Now, if we want to, we can create a political question around IJTF success and non-IJTF failure.

Giving political energy to either side will force people to come down on one side of the question or the other.

Should we have affirmative action for non-IJTF’s, or tax IJTF differently and redistribute to non-IJTF’s, etc. etc.

This is the game. Richard Spencer and TNC are both playing a version of this game, but on White/Black lines. Further, everyone is basically right in some fashion by looking at the problem from one particular lens, and wrong, because they lack the nuance and balance to describe a complex situation (and removing that nuance and balance is exactly what turning a question into a political question is all about).

#38 Comment By John Fargo On October 13, 2017 @ 9:22 pm

While racism and misogyny are big problems in Amerika, I think they are subsets of the bigger, all encompassing societal clash over class. Ta-Nehisi Coates does a disservice to minorities by trying to focus attention on racial discrimination while ignoring the larger problem of economic disparity. A fight against class discrimination would include all races and genders under one very large umbrella.

#39 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 15, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

KD starts with a good point. There are many ways to pick a few demographics, and show that life is somehow more fair to this one than to that one. I think of this whenever anyone is comparing IQ’s in aggregate. No doubt if you assembled all the IQ scores of Polish Americans and Irish Americans, there would be some difference in the average and the curves. So what?

The raw averages KD cites probably hide significant differences in distribution. An off the track analogy… depending on which historical studies you read, Finnish immigrants were either red agitators or devout economically conservative Lutherans. The truth is, some Finnish immigrants came from conservative, devout rural areas, others from urban areas around Helsinki, with markedly different politics and levels of religious observance. There have been poverty-stricken Filipinos for most of American history since 1898… some initiated the strikes the led to the United Farm Workers.

But then we come to this:

Should we have affirmative action for non-IJTF’s, or tax IJTF differently and redistribute to non-IJTF’s, etc. etc.

The answer to the first question is no, because our laws and institutions have never had a de jure policy or deeply ingrained routine practice of excluding non-IJTFs. We could however dispense with affirmative action for Filipinos, per se, (although they were subjected to considerable exclusion in the past) because obviously, Filipino qua Filipino is no longer a bar to prosperity and participation.

The second part of KD’s question is a red herring. We have NEVER had tax laws that taxed some races, creeds, religions, national origins, differently from others. Many IJTF’s undoubtedly pay more under a system of progressive income taxation, but that’s because they have more money, not because they are IJTF. And I haven’t heard anyone proposing to exempt African Americans from paying income tax.

I am, however, entirely supportive of taxing 50 percent of any person’s income above the $1,000,000 level, and applying that, in part, to alleviating the cost of access to essentials, or opportunities for personal advancement, afflicting people with less money. That this would disproportionately benefit African Americans is irrelevant to me. Its the money that makes the difference. Herman Cain will pay through the nose, as will Bill Gates.

I find myself in complete agreement with Carlo, vs. Alex Brown, the anti-Bolshevik atheist. It really is not true that if one is open to examining what is and is not real in a text, or in scientific examination of the world, therefore, ANY conclusion is equally sound. Facts, evidence, reason, results of testing a hypothesis, really do rule out some possibilities and emphasize others as highly likely, even to near certainty. Humility is not abject surrender to the nearest narcissist.

#40 Comment By KD On October 16, 2017 @ 6:11 pm


The point of the question was not to seriously ask if we should tax IJTF’s or get affirmative action for IJTF, but rather illustrate how the game is played, and how it evokes fear and resentment on either side of the divide you create. But the fact is that while our social policies don’t generally single people out on race, ethnicity or class per se, they always have disproportionate impacts politically, for example the lottery or tobacco taxes.

Further, either way you come down, you are going to generate an opposition.