Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Holy Writ
Have you read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, his letter to his son about being black in America? I have not, and don’t intend to. He used to be one of my favorite bloggers, because even when I didn’t agree with him, I felt that I learned from him. He seemed to have an open, inquisitive, probing mind. The Trayvon Martin killing changed him, though. He entered into what his readers called a “blue period,” from which he never emerged (he explains its origins here). I quit reading him because his blog became a slough of despond, unrelieved by any humor, lightness, absurdity, or awareness that, in a Russell Kirk phrase I love and try to live by in spite of my own pessimistic bent, that “the world remains sunlit, despite its vices.” Reading Coates, I felt that I was in the presence of a man who had been conquered by despair, and who had become so committed to a vision of despair that any gesture towards hope seemed like betrayal.
It reminded me of myself in the first half of the 2000s, commenting on the Catholic abuse scandal, frankly. I don’t know at what point it happened, but the horror of the thing cracked me, and it really showed in my writing. I got so sick of the evil, and of people’s reactions to it — which were never, in my view, sufficient — that I gave in to despair. I cringe to look back on some of that writing now, not because the horror wasn’t real, and justified, but because it was so imbalanced. I had gotten to the point emotionally in which any good news I deflected or discounted as a distraction from the reality, which was … horror.
I see now that my own vision was as distorted as the happy-clappy, all-will-be-well people’s vision. But I couldn’t see it at the time, and again, to fail to share my horror felt to me in those days like a betrayal of the victims.
I quit reading TNC in large part because I came to recognize that sort of thing in his writing about race. It took a partial truth for the whole truth. I read his famous case for reparations essay, and I could recognize the evil of racism, while finding the idea of reparations absurd and unworkable, and a form of despair.
So, when I read Christopher Caldwell’s pan of his book Between the World and Me, the negative judgment sounded plausible to me. Excerpts:
Between the World and Me uses this plunder-based model of the American race problem as a way to understand the recent wave of highly publicized incidents involving police violence against young black men. It repeats many themes from the reparations article. But it is written in a very different idiom—as a rambling, reminiscent, repetitive, hortatory, easily distracted letter of advice to Coates’s teenage son. The evidence mustered in the reparations article was tendentious, but there was a good deal of it. Coates cites historians Thomas Sugrue and Kenneth Jackson and the late Tony Judt’s discussion of Israeli controversies over German reparations. This new book doesn’t use evidence at all. It is a performance, an oration, an affirmation: a cri de coeur for those who are well-disposed to it, a harangue for those who are not.
Coates has written a provocative book about one of the pivotal issues of our time: the confrontation between black youth and forces of order. With an Internet and grassroots campaign having arisen to delegitimize the latter, it would be surprising if the issue did not gather intensity in coming months. Coates’s contribution to the discussion is not well written or well reasoned or trustworthy. But it is politically engaged, and exhilarating in the way that political engagement is exhilarating. If the book itself tells us little about the issue, the reaction to the book among intellectuals tells us a lot. It is evidence that something is changing at the core of our literary culture. Either critics have lost sight that there is such a thing as an unworthy book on a worthy subject; or they are too terrified of being tarred as racists even to give an accurate description of a book about race.
Coates’s book sets a mood rather than conducts an argument. Feeling demonized himself, he offers a counter-demonization that will convey forcefully to whites (or at least those who read it) that blacks (or at least one black author confident he speaks in their name) think white culture worthless and predatory. It will convey, too, that he considers the measures put in place to secure racial equality since the civil rights legislation in the 1960s laughably inadequate.
Both races believe race relations have deteriorated in recent years, a New York Times poll has found, with two-thirds describing them as “generally bad.” There was a moment of solidarity over the murder of nine black Christians in South Carolina, culminating in a successful biracial movement to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state’s capitol. In fact, a poll taken in mid-July by the Pew Research Center found a slim majority of whites (53 percent) saying, for the first time ever, that “the country needs to continue making changes to achieve racial equality.” But each side is perpetually in danger of missing, or minimizing, the sacrifices the other has had to make over the last half-century. Heightening the tension are the almost constant admonitions to whites that the country’s demography is changing and they will someday be outnumbered. The implicit message is that concessions will be imposed on them, whether they like it or not.
So the lavish praise—and even gratitude—that Between the World and Me has elicited from white elites is surprising. Truculent, aggrieved, allergic to compromise, Coates has nonetheless seen his book blown to the top of the bestseller lists on a powerful tailwind of antiracism. The cynical way of explaining its success is to note that the interests of privileged minorities (royal families, oligarchies, coteries of literary critics) are often the same as those of underprivileged minorities. Both of them distrust and seek protection against electoral majorities. In this light some of the most impassioned passages in the book are revealing. “The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs,” Coates writes at one point, “but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” Coates returns to this rare word in his closing pages. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America.” A median voter might find such statements appalling. A New York literary critic, with his own misgivings about majoritarian views on gay rights and guns and school prayer, might find them consoling.
A less cynical explanation is to say that McWhorter is right about antiracism’s having become a substitute religion. In demanding from whites a program of infinite penance, Coates is offering them a metaphysical purpose. Many seem to welcome it, as did the Germans who flocked to the lectures of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen when he published Hitler’s Willing Executioners in 1996. Coates’s book runs whites down—but at least it gives them a role. In our day, the peer pressure to join the procession of penitents gains momentum online, from what students of Internet memes call “virtue signaling.”
“My experience in this world,” Coates writes, “has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” He needn’t have made that explicit. It is plain from the style of his prose. As Bertrand Russell once wrote: “A skillful orator, when he wishes to stimulate warlike feeling, produces in his audience two layers of belief: a superficial layer, in which the power of the enemy is magnified so as to make great courage seem necessary, and a deeper layer, in which there is a firm conviction of victory.” But to rely on whites’ desire for exoneration may be to miscalculate, in just the way various villains in Coates’s narrative once did, from the builders of the Southern cotton economy to the planners of the all-white towns who succeeded them. They, too, looked at black-white relations as they existed in one era, in one place, in one social class, and mistook them for laws of nature, forgetting that race relations can always get a lot better, and just as easily get a lot worse.
Read the whole thing. If you’ve read the TNC book, do you agree with this review? What did you think of the book?