Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Limited Art of Interpretation

By Peter Dorman, an economist and a professor at Evergreen State College whose writing and speaking focuses on carbon policy, child labor and the global financial crisis. Originally published at EconoSpeak

Among the least persuasive writers on contemporary politics, for me, is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Mind you, I often agree with him, but only because I agreed with him before reading him.  If I go into a piece of his with a different perspective, nothing he says has an effect on me.

Now, if I were intellectually stubborn, the sort of person who rarely changes his mind, that would be a statement about me, not Coates.  In fact, I’m always changing my mind.  Nearly every day my views are shifting, sometimes only slightly, sometimes a lot.  When I go back and read what I wrote several years ago, my first instinct is to grab an editor’s pen.  Maybe I’m too susceptible to persuasion.

But not by Coates.  The thing is, he seldom makes arguments in the sense I understand that term.  There isn’t extended reasoning through assumptions and implications or careful sifting through evidence to see which hypotheses are supported or disconfirmed.  No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it.  He is obviously a man of vast talents, but he uses them the same way much less refined thinkers simply bloviate.

But that raises the question, why is he so influential?  Why does he reach so many people?  What’s his secret?

No doubt there are multiple aspects to this, but here’s one that just dawned on me.  Those who respond to Coates are not looking for argumentation—they’re looking for interpretation.

The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture.  This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports.  Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism.  A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  I read criticism all the time to deepen my engagement with music, art, film and fiction.

But criticism jumped channel and entered the political realm.  Now events like elections, wars, ecological crises and economic disruptions are interpreted according to the same standards developed for portraits and poetry.  And maybe there is good in that too, except that theories about why social, economic or political events occur are subject to analytical support or disconfirmation in a way that works of art are not.  How should we hear The Rite of Spring in the twenty-first century?  Colonial or pre-postcolonial?  Racist or deracializing?  These are meaningful questions, and thoughtful criticism can help us explore them more deeply, but neither evidence nor reasoning can resolve them.  If you want to know why the US election last year turned out the way it did, however, reasoning and evidence are the way to go.

Coates is an interpreter.  His latest piece in the Atlantic, The First White President, reads the election the way a film critic would read a film.  There are references to factual events, like quotes taken from the campaign trail, but they serve the same function that references to camera angles serve for a critic interpreting the latest from Darren Aronofsky.  In the end, Coates wants to convey his sense of what the election means, that it is a reflection of the deep racism that was, is and will continue to be the core truth of America.  If anything was different, it was that eight years of a black president ratcheted up the racism and allowed a sociopathic white extremist to prevail.  Post-election concern for the well-being of the white working class by white pundits is itself a further reflection of this truth, a turning away from the ugly reality of bigotry. This is a reading of the election as a cultural artifact.

The problem, of course, is that much about the election is subject to social science investigation.  We have opinion polling and the factual record of specific campaign strategies and tactics.  We have a variety of models that predict voting behavior—testable models.  If you go through Coates’ article, you’ll find statements (especially sweeping generalizations) that are dubious in light of the evidence or even flatly refutable.  This isn’t because Coates isn’t well informed or unable to examine the data, but because he is applying the method of cultural interpretation, not evaluating hypotheses.

In the end, Coates is expressing how the election feels to him, and that’s OK.  But his feelings tell us little about why Trump, and not somebody else, is sitting in the oval office.  Is there massive racism in America?  Yes.  Could someone like Trump be elected president if racism were not so widespread?  Almost certainly not.  But like the man says, racism has been a major factor in every election, yet they don’t all come out the same.  It looks like other factors were at work too, especially since Obama outperformed Clinton across most demographics.  Time to get deeper into the data.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


    1. B1whois

      I don’t understand how this comment is constructive, or encourages the reader to think more deeply about anything. It appears to me that this comment’s only purpose is to display the cleverness of the author. It is a shame that such a shallow comment is the first to arrive, especially for an article that contains no introductory text from Yves.

      1. Clive

        Unfortunately, despite the collective efforts of the commentariate, we do get infiltration from those who are apparently determined to give the impression that they are incapable of parsing an entire piece of writing and reading it as a whole. Indeed, Dorman specifically stated:

        If you go through Coates’ article, you’ll find statements (especially sweeping generalizations) that are dubious in light of the evidence or even flatly refutable.

        It shouldn’t take an introduction form the editor to tell readers this. As has been previously noted (regular readers will be aware) we (that’s the “Royal we” — fellow commenters, occasional contributors such as myself and the moderator team) are engaged in an ongoing attempt to keep the quality of comments at its former impeccably high standard. Sadly, this is more of an effort than it should be. If a piece can’t be run by the editor “raw”(without an explanatory preamble) and not run the risk of dumb observations, then we’ve reached a pretty sad state of affairs.

        And as a writer, it is rather tiresome having to try to explain to the occasional numpty who happens across a post basic reading comprehension skills, how to follow an argument when it is constructed long-form and the ability to master data interpretation.

        I’m getting to the point where I think it might be best to simply mark a comment with an easy to type symbol like they use put on plague-stricken houses in medieval times (a white cross on the door if I remember my high school history correctly) as a sort-of “there’s something unpleasant in here, best not go in” warning. We could then quickly move our gaze onto something more worthy of our attentions.

        1. Dirk77

          Idk. The readership comes from a spectrum of understanding. And up to now, a commenter wasn’t slighted just because their degree of sophistication was not on the level of those who put a lot more time and effort into it. I’ve read many comments in the past in which I cringed at their naïveté. That said, I have often regretted my comments upon further reflection, and personally like the new policy that filters them out. It’s possible Mr Shetterly’s observation was new to him, or perhaps he felt an impulse that we all share from time to time to get it off his chest so to speak. if so, that’s good enough for me. I realize that in academia at least, there is a pecking order of quality, and perhaps Yves thinks that NC has matured enough now that ratcheting up the standards is appropriate. If so, that’s fine with me. To me that just means my time to comment has probably passed as I will never be able to put the proper degree of effort into it. But I look forward to the less effort reading the comments, which were always a big attraction to this blog.

          Interesting article by the way.

        2. JVnotdelinquent

          By any chance are you Clive AHNC from a certain other formerly-progressive place? Your statement about wanting high quality commenting here, and marking the plague-stricken comments, informs my hypothesis.

          If so, fistbump and high five from a disgusted expatriate! : >

      2. Kurt Sperry

        This strikes me as an odd criticism of the comment above it. Does it argue that the simple claim made is false? No. Does it attempt to make and enunciate any sort of factually-based counterargument? No. It attacks the comment saying, essentially, that the comment is too straightforward, succinct, and lacking the obfuscatory verbiage required to be “serious”–for someone’s version of the word “serious”. Is Coates preaching to the choir in the secular church of neoliberal identitarianism? Probably, yes, is my answer. Is simply stated truth not enough in itself? Do we require that a comment meets some arbitrary subjective standard of being “constructive, or encourag[ing] the reader to think more deeply” to be worthwhile? And if so, who gets to make that call, and on what empirical basis?

        1. Clive

          While I could certainly learn a thing or two about conciseness and economy of expression, you’ve put your finger on my issue with the original comment. The purpose of a comment is to clearly and unambiguously convery the commenter’s thoughts and, where appropriate, to advance an argument.

          Reading the comment, we simply do not know what the writer of it intended to say. Were they, as you suggested, reiterating what Coates is and what Coates is in the habit of doing? Or were they, rather, saying that Dorman had missed an obvious aspect of Coates and this was their attempt at a correction? (not that a correction was in order).

          And the comment is, essentially, a word salad. I understand the meaning of the words, but I don’t understand what they add in short form to Dorman’s comprehensively long-form coverage.

          Any comment which, as this one did, causes readers to wonder themselves “so, did you agree with the broad content of post or not? and if not, why not? but if you did agree with it, why not start with something as simple as an ‘I agree…’ or even just a ‘yes’ in such a way as we’re not left scratching our heads and wondering.” is simply a time and attention stealer.

          If the original commenter comes back and adds some more, maybe we’ll get to find out. But really, should we have to do that?

          I understand your point totally from what you wrote and as a comment on Coates, completely agree with it. I’d like to think you understand my point here, as expressed, without being in too much — if any — ambiguity. Being able to do that after reading a comment is not an unreasonable thing to ask.

          And I’ve just caught up on all the subsequent comments on this page. All the other commenters have managed to make coherent and intelligible contributions that furthered my understanding or gave me something to think about, because they took the trouble to type more than a single sentence. I don’t agree with everything that’s been said in other comments. Quite the opposite in a couple of cases. But at least I understand what was expressed and the intention behind it.

          1. ChrisAtRU

            Well, it certainly qualifies as “drive by” … ;-) but I can’t say I disagree. Coates is preaching to those who effectively believe that “things were OK” or “better” under Obama. Anyone who read his Obama hagiography piece “My President Was Black” is well aware of Coates’ “blind spot” as it were. I wonder what Peter Dornan thinks of Adolph Reed … ;-)

            1. Clive

              Oh, I agree, anyone who disses Obama appologists is doing fine by me. It was, though, the drive-by quality of the comment which rankled. If someone wants to make a point and chooses commenting on an already substantial and well-reasoned article as their forum for making it, they need to sit within the context of the original piece of writing and explain their presence as an adjunct to it.

              Conversely, not leaving readers with a clear understanding of whether their comment was an endorsement for the ideas expressed in a featured post or a reaction against them — which none of us sitting here can, still, say for sure it was — doesn’t add anything worth having. So what was the commenter trying to achieve?

              1. Jonathan

                The commenter is elegantly generalising the author’s thesis. He suggests that identity-politics pigeonholes such as ‘blackness’, and the neoliberal concept of personal identity as self- or tribe-commodification adventure, are two sides of the same coin rather than the antagonists commonly supposed; and that both are really theological rather than scientific, hence unsatisfying to the author’s appetite, and the public’s need, for falsifiable theories rather than parochial rectitude.

                1. Clive

                  You are obviously better at reading between the lines than I am. Especially as there was only one line to read between.

          2. jrs

            at least Obama apologist is somewhat well defined, if they criticize Trump for the same policies they endorsed in Obama it’s one thing. Of if they didn’t mind Obama’s foreign policy, it’s another thing (they are neo-cons pretty much but perhaps consistent ones). But at least one knows what is being criticized. The insult in the original comment was too vague in it’s targets to be anything of anything.

        2. jrs

          A comment like it was responding to can’t even be true or false. I mean “secular church of neoliberal identitarianism”, uh how can one even argue true or false against a word sandwich.

          I don’t think comments need to be blocked except when wildly inflammatory etc. (and those ones already are in the vast majority of cases) but neither do I think the comment adds much.

      3. sgt_doom

        Well, the entire column isn’t constructive, it is simply a rehash of identity politics. As I recently explained to a young Jewish-American female who was certain I was a rabid neocon (quite the opposite) because I told her she was just regurgitating identity politics, and as far as she was concerned from her TV watching, identity politics is codewords for right rightwingers — the first I read of identity politics in print was by a most intelligent Jewish-American academic and progressive who mentions it in her book.

        Racism is a convenient way to excuse pathetic reasoning — but how can anyone expect other given the structure of American school systems, popular culture, TV and endless Fake News.

        Just the other night on our local NPR radio station in Seattle (KUOW), the idiot fake newsy host wasted endless amount of time on his Fake News Show talking about some idiotic trust fund baby who wore a swastika armband and then was punched out downtown. Next up, football players and their endless symbolism?!

        In other words, nothing ever of any substantive value or content!

        When everything is geared to continuously force predatory capitalism down our throats, expect the masses (and only 40% of the electorate voted for those two scoundrels — Trump and Clinton) to value predatory capitalists.

        And further expect the masses to believe all the bilge about Russia and Facebook turning the election, as opposed to the Deep State (I know, former FBI retards love to label that to be a sudden Russian meme) going after Trump on an arbitrary red herring, as opposed to going after him for his super crime of colossal real estate/money laundering deals with his Russian buddies — ’cause foreign purchase of American real estate is a $92.2 billion a year market — and the Bankster Party (composed of two wings, the R-cons and Faux crats) doesn’t want that exposed!

      4. Greg Taylor

        The OP doesn’t describe Coates’ political views for readers who might not be familiar. Will’s comment adds his interpretation of those views. If Will’s assessment is reasonably accurate, the comment is well worth 3 seconds of reading time for the unfamiliar.

      5. Donald

        I thought the original comment was correct and needed no elaboration. It wasn’t original, but it is rare that I see any comment that is very original on the subject of politics. Almost every position one can take has been taken by someone already and stated many times.

        If you disagreed with Shetterly’s claim then say so. If you found it too obvious, then pass it by. It will be ironic if the attempt at raising the quality of comments at this blog leads to even more unpleasantness than we had here a month ago.

        1. Clive

          I would never, ever venture into the topic of racism in the US. That isn’t because we don’t have racism in the UK, far from it. It’s because our racial fault lines are set in the aftermath of our colonial past and the government-encouraged economic migrancy from the 1950’s and 60’s historically and our proximity to Africa (and, comparativey) the Middle East latterly which has resulted in migration as a result of our failed-state creating wars.

          So apart from reading Dorman’s article and the limited and partial view of race in America that I get on the media here (plus the again very dubious education we get in schools) I rely on comments being reasonably unambiguous to be understood. And I am happy to be corrected on this, but on this subject, precisely because it is so weighted down with baggage and strong, deeply-held views on all sides, surely clarity and well-thought out statements are of especial importance?

          In short, this is a thorny topic. Are such divisive, contentious and incendiary matters really helped by off-the-cuff, quickly written, ambiguous comments? Do they help or do they hinder — even if you agree with what they say (assuming you can understand, correctly, what they say…) ?

          And I’ll take your word for the originality or otherwise of it. I’m not sufficiently close to the local situation to verify or dispute that. But if it’s not original and it’s not detailed and it’s not clear in meaning and it’s not even obvious whether it is agreeing or disagreeing with the original post by Dorman, what was the point in posting the comment in the first place?

          1. Donald

            My point was that this sort of meta- dialogue about the quality of comments is not likely to make comments better. What it will do is intimidate or cause hurt feelings. If you want better substantive comments, write them. That’s my last word on this.

            1. Lambert Strether

              I disagree, and in fact I think the quality of the comments on the rather explosive material of this post disproves your thesis, since people (clearly as a result of the actuation of our “comment circuit breaker” in August) were trying to think through how to comment in a non-conversation stopping manner, one of those things that has to be worked out in practice.

              1. Donald

                I wasn’t talking about your policy. I like your policy and like in general how the threads have been going. I was talking about this long meta discussion about a short comment and whether it was worthy. The weird thing for me was that I thought Shetterly’s comment was a nice concise summation of what many people here would think of Coates’s appeal. The fact that a great many people did have long substantive things to say happened because they had long substantive things to say and not because of the meta discussion. And a short comment accusing Coates of appealing to neoliberal identitarianism shouldn’t be a conversation stopper. It could have triggered a discussion about how accurate that was, whether his personal motivations mattered, why his writings are so popular among many liberals and so forth. That happened down below anyway. I almost contributed, but decided others had said what I was going to say., probably a little better than I would have said it.

                My own comments range in quality from mediocre to good, I think. I don’t intend any of them to be mediocre, but so long as people post in good faith and aren’t breaking the rules for me at least meta discussions about the quality of a comment rather than the substance of a comment are not substantive. What seems like a good comment to one might seem poor to another, but in that case, I would try to refute it. In Shetterly’s case I agreed with him.

                Of course I am doing meta commenting in this thread and promised that my previous comment was my last one, but the thread is presumably mostly dead and when one of the blog owners responds I felt like I should explain myself.

                1. Donald

                  In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, when I get back from a very long walk I will explain why I agree with Shetterly. Which is what I should have done yesterday.

                  1. Donald

                    Short walk. It’s hot out there today.

                    I long admired Coates–I liked his Civil War blogging. I also liked his reparations article a few years back and learned a lot from it, but that piece also shows what is wrong with his political views and why he is liked. It’s politically completely unrealistic. You might be able to assemble a coalition in favor of ending a stupid war or bringing about Medicare for all, but it is almost impossible to imagine getting most Americans to agree to pay reparations. Then in the current article Coates expresses resentment about the attention the opioid epidemic is getting. He has a point, but he seems more intent on proving that racism is the problem that transcends all other problems than he is in assembling a coalition that would help most Americans. His critique is popular in part with middle class white educated liberals because it allows them to feel radical without having to support anything truly radical that has a chance of passing. He criticizes Clinton, but he also criticizes Sanders for expressing empathy for white working classs people. It’s identity politics as a form of radical politics that undercuts any attempt at trying to unite people against the rich.

                    My comment here is mediocre. I am doing my best, but I am not terribly articulate on this subject and others below did better. But that is the substance I saw in Shetterly’s remark and I would have thought most regulars here would have understood his comment as a succinct statement of Coates’s appeal to many neoliberals. If they disagree, they could spell out wh.

      6. Ash

        You’re not entirely wrong, but on the other hand, the entire stream of comments responding to you makes it hard to find ANY comment of salience on the issue. So now where are we? Criticize you for your non-helpful comment that has derailed the comments?

        My two cents for the author and anyone, is listen to Glenn Loury and John McWhorter at bloggingheads, they frequently discuss and criticize Coates.

  1. Steve H.

    At the Globe, patrons paid double for opening night because it was expected the crowd would influence subsequent performances, a dynamic critic in the moment. Think hecklers at a comedy club. The author was very responsive, since he didn’t get paid til the third night.

    If the theory of Critical Theory is to criticize, the practice allows an infinitude of intersectional perspectives. How many angles can dance on the head of a pin? In the old days we just called it an editorial. Think of Dilbert on Mr T’s rapid A/B testing, and the interpretation can be interpreted as simply a play for audience response. Lookin’ to get paid.

    Testable models: I’m tentatively adding Turchin to the short list of tested sources. Along with NC and the other one.

  2. bob mcmanus

    “Colonial or pre-postcolonial? Racist or deracializing? These are meaningful questions, and thoughtful criticism can help us explore them more deeply, but neither evidence nor reasoning can resolve them. If you want to know why the US election last year turned out the way it did, however, reasoning and evidence are the way to go.”

    Gotta disagree with Shetterley and Dorman here, and line up with Coates

    “neoliberal identitarianism” is all we have, There is no outside neoliberalism, no outside capitalism. Frankfurt School in the late 30s

    I come at this from revolutionary Marxism through Critical theory. The desire is not to get an “objective” analysis, universally useful, through reason and evidence, and then use that to decide who you are and what is to be done. For one thing it is intellectually elitist. The factory worker, the Walmart checker, the girl seeking reproductive freedom should be able to come up with as useful an analysis for her agency as an academic economist. This is not anti-intellectualism, this is democracy and respect/recognition.

    We have too long an elitist “objective” scientific and political establishment accomplishing little but maintaining their privileges and dominance. The answer is intersectional collectives of singularities expressing their subjectivity.

    I am not going to convince Shetterley or Dorman that they shouldn’t be the boss in a couple paragraphs, and have little interest in doing so. It has been 75 years since Adorno & Horkheimer, 50 years since Fanon and Marcuse, and 25 years since Habermas, Honneth, and Patricia Hill Collins. Try doing a little reading before dismissing Critical theory or identity politics.

    I don’t always agree with Coates, but I do respect him and his polemical emotional rhetoric. His goal is not to understand the world and share the vision with white male academia. He wants to change the world.

    1. Jeff

      I’m not sure how he can change the world when his foundational belief is that America is a profoundly racist place because it elected Trump. Breathtaking logic failure.

      1. Charles R

        Not a failure of logic, but differences in premises. If you sincerely do believe the issue is logical, perhaps demonstrate an example where in Coates there’s a mistaken use of an introduction or elimination rule.

      2. Sandwichman

        America is not a profoundly racist place because it elected Trump. America is a profoundly racist place AND it elected Trump. American racism is not necessarily because most people are racist. The institutions are implicitly racist (take the electoral college… please), much of the ideology is inherently, if not explicitly, racist. Customs, traditions and patterns of urban settlement have been inscribed by racist practices.

        Now a lot of this gets experienced by people as “just the way things are” rather than as injustice, even though it is experienced by the people who suffer from it as injustice. To understand how deeply ingrained the racism is, one must read ENLIGHTENMENT authors from the 18th century. The cream of the intellectual crop had bat-shit crazy notions about Africans, Asians and American Indians. So-called PROGRESSIVE authors from the early 20th century also were often profoundly racist.

        Colonialism, chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation doesn’t just tootle along for 450 years and then get obliterated in a fortnight by a Supreme Court decision, a couple of pieces of voting and employment legislation and Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers.

        1. Lambert Strether

          > So-called PROGRESSIVE authors from the early 20th century also were often profoundly racist.

          Woodrow Wilson resegregated the Federal Government, and had a showing of Birth of a Nation in the White House. I most definitely did not learn that in school.

        2. Jeff

          If you believe America is a profoundly racist country, explain successful immigrants or any of the successful members of minority groups, many of which didn’t come from monied backgrounds.

          We are far from perfect and we’ll likely never completely snuff out racism, but characterizing the US as racist country ignores reality.

      3. jrs

        it’s not a logic failure so much as perhaps a failure to make the case, but there have been others who tried to get at the reasons people voted for Trump (the Atlantic did one piece on it being motivated by racial issues – it’s much better argued than those who say people voted for Trump for economic reasons at any rate, though I’m not sure it’s the whole reason either).

        HOWEVER people who voted *FOR* Trump are only one half of “why did Trump get elected” the other question is why didn’t more people turn up and vote for Hillary in which case Trump would not be President either.

    2. Absolute Negativity

      The factory worker, the Walmart checker, the girl seeking reproductive freedom should be able to come up with as useful an analysis for her agency as an academic economist.

      This isn’t necessarily true because a purely subjective understanding is necessarily one-sided and does not account for the whole. Without accounting for that whole, a view that seems useful subjectively may not be useful objectively within society but quite the opposite. Individuals don’t simply exist as singularities but also as functions of social and material givens that determine them.

      Ignoring this in favor of a purely subjective element denies wider society in favor of necessarily conservative assertions of determinate identities and anti-scientific views such as those in the next quoted portion which lead to a denial of material reality. Such assertions of subjectivity and identitarianism have only limited and situational usefulness for the left, and much of that usefulness has passed, particularly in the West.

      We have too long an elitist “objective” scientific and political establishment accomplishing little but maintaining their privileges and dominance. The answer is intersectional collectives of singularities expressing their subjectivity.

      The elitist “objective” scientific establishment has accomplished much, unless we’re going to render the word “accomplishment” meaningless.

      That aside, any subjectivity expressed is necessarily within the terms a society sets because all subjectivity must use a language which cannot by its nature be merely subjective but develops according to a general consensus within the community of speakers. “Intersectional collectives of singularities” are meaningless to one another without recognizing each other mutually and together forming a socially recognized objectivity in some fashion.

      His goal is not to understand the world and share the vision with white male academia. He wants to change the world.

      For a Marxist (presumably), this statement seems very odd. Marx’s desire to change the world was very much wrapped up in understanding it for what it is and sharing his vision.

      Regardless, one cannot change the world by oneself. This is heroic fantasy nonsense. It requires a wider movement that must include and convince others, although, considering he’s a liberal writer in the Atlantic, his audience will include many of those in “white male academia” in addition to a generally more well-off (and largely white) reader base and the so-called chattering class. If his goal isn’t to convince such people of his vision but some other group, he’s chosen the wrong magazine to write for and the wrong way to change the world in the way you seem to think he wants.

      1. Matt

        Great comment. What I don’t understand about this whole denial of “objective” methods in favor of subjective experience is how you are supposed to weigh competing claims. What happens when two people, even within the same group, have exactly opposite experiences?

      2. Marco

        From wherever his cosmic essence calls home I’m sure Gavrilo Princip may disagree with “One cannot change the world by oneself”. How’s that for drive-by word salad?

        1. Absolute Negativity

          I’m sure Gavrilo Princip may disagree with “One cannot change the world by oneself”.

          If so, he would be wrong. His action wouldn’t have been significant alone, outside of the way the alliances in Europe were structured prior to World War I. Even ignoring that, his actions would not have necessarily led to the war if the other nation-state actors had not been as reckless diplomatically and militarily, if the various governments hadn’t approved credits for war, etc. That isn’t to say he had no historical role, but his assassination of Franz Ferdinand was only one event in a series of events leading up to World War I. A war can be blamed on a single man only by eliding everything historically besides that man.

          How’s that for drive-by word salad?

          For whatever it’s worth, I’m not a drive-by commenter. I read the site frequently and I’ve posted here before, albeit only rarely. Also, I don’t think I said anything very odd or uninterpretable in the context of the argument, although if you’re largely unfamiliar with that context then it might seem so.

          1. Marco

            Very sorry about the word salad comment it was in reference to the meta discussion further up the comments section and NOT in any way directed at your comment which I thought was very insightful.

          2. Basil Pesto

            without wishing to belabour the point I would just like to add my opinion that to say Princip changed the world by kicking off the war is ahistorical, not in the sense that is disputatious of the fact of the event itself but in the sense of history as an academic discipline. Sorry to be lazy and repeat myself but I wrote this the other day under the article ‘The Boring Story of the 2016 Election’.

            “I’ve found it puzzling and dispiriting that people are seemingly desperate to pin the result of the election on one specific cause. How often is it that historical events are monocausal, rather than the result of a concatenation of factors and circumstances? On the other hand, thoughtful and detailed takes on these discrete factors, such as the piece above, may help historians of the future form some kind of synthesis when taken as a whole (hopefully dispassionately and not tendentiously).”

            (to that end, when some poor schmuck is doing their undergraduate course in US history at Tehran university or wherever in 50 years time, Coates’ essay is going to be an historical source of fairly limited value – certainly he would be misguided to rely on it exclusively to form his conclusion)

            Regarding WW1 and its causes specifically, while I haven’t read it myself (I bought it for my father though!) you may find Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’ to be of interest: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780061146657/the-sleepwalkers

    3. Adrienne

      Coates is popular as a writer for the simple reason that nothing he says is a threat to the status quo. If it were, he wouldn’t be writing for The Atlantic. Reparations? Great idea, necessary and just, but never-ever-in-your-wildest-dreams gonna happen. {Besides, I think the Native Americans should be first in line, which means we get to give it all back to them.} Liberals are comfortable with the idea of systemic racism because it means they don’t have to do anything other than wring their hands and re-tweet their wokeness.

      @Absolute Negativity’s reply to bob mcmanus’ comment is vastly more eloquent and educated than mine will be, but I’ma gonna chime in anyway…

      bob mcmanus said:

      I come at this from revolutionary Marxism through Critical theory. The desire is not to get an “objective” analysis, universally useful, through reason and evidence, and then use that to decide who you are and what is to be done. For one thing it is intellectually elitist. The factory worker, the Walmart checker, the girl seeking reproductive freedom should be able to come up with as useful an analysis for her agency as an academic economist. This is not anti-intellectualism, this is democracy and respect/recognition.

      We have too long an elitist “objective” scientific and political establishment accomplishing little but maintaining their privileges and dominance. The answer is intersectional collectives of singularities expressing their subjectivity.

      bob mcmanus sings the same song as the legions of smug, comfortable academics that have turned the university into a PoMo circle****. If dudes like bob really want to help the “factory worker, the Walmart checker, the girl [sic] seeking reproductive freedom,” he’d be honest about what a racket college is and tell them: “Hey kids, y’all just mortgaged your entire future for this gig, but it doesn’t matter what you study because your future success is 100% predicated on who your daddy’s friends are.”

      Critical Theory doesn’t mean jack if you can’t find a job, if your life is a hopeless s***show because the system is totally rigged against you. “The answer is intersectional collectives of singularities expressing their subjectivity.” REALLY? That’s the answer? If this is true, please provide ONE example of the success of an “intersectional collective of singularities expressing their subjectivity” in providing the basic necessities of human survival and dignity. I’ll wait….

      The elites are morally bankrupt, I’ll agree with that. (But lumping “scientific objectivity” in there is another absurd and damaging Liberal Arts Uni trope.) But I see ZERO coming out of academia or the mouths of media pundits that demonstrate that they are any less so, because every one of those institutions are fully invested in the system of divide-and-repress. Identity politics serves the elites because it keeps us all navel-gazing, obsessed with expressing that we’re all so “intersectional” that we cannot identify one single axis of oppression against which we can unite and kick some serious Elite a**.

      *Sigh.* There’s no way to talk to folks like bob about the real world. Tragically, I see too many of my young friends have drunk this PoMo Kool-Aid™ and have abandoned their own good sense, and what’s in front of their own eyes, of how the world operates, and instead are deluded into thinking that academics like bob have something useful for them, some tools with which to command their own lives. Many of these young folks have great ideas, energy, and passion, but their lives are being strangled with college debt and their minds muddled with nonsensical theories of the world.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos

        I’ll let this comment through for the part of it that contributes to debate, but phrases such as “academics like bob” personalize the discussion and aren’t necessary. In general, there’s no good reason to address other commenters in the third person.

        1. Adrienne

          Yes, you are absolutely correct. My apologies–that bit was ad hominem. I will be more careful in the future, and be more respectful of both commenters and the moderators.

        2. H. Alexander Ivey

          Thank you Clive for your response. It is good to have working examples of out-of-bounds remark (Singapore expression meaning what the Sing. gov’t will not allow). Now if only I can keep from getting a Clive white cross on my posting…

  3. Ryan Netzley

    Mightn’t Coates retort that the opposition between interpretation and argumentation isn’t as hard and fast (or as politically or rhetorically useful) as Professor Dorman implies? And that that’s especially so in accounting for an election (this one or any other) in which wide swathes of an electorate vote against their apparent interests (i.e., data)? My guess would be that Coates envisions cultural interpretation as itself a type of argumentation, that data alone do not make arguments. I’d agree that interpretation often leads to an inertial cul-de-sac, but I don’t think this is the result of its imprecision or refusal to consider causal explanations.

    1. a different chris

      >in which wide swathes of an electorate vote against their apparent interests

      I am not convinced of that. If I start with the proposition that the election was racist*, meaning a white person feels they should be given things a black person shouldn’t and Trump agrees, then how are they voting against their apparent interests? Even given what little did get thru (hey don’t show up in Wisconsin, Hillary – the little people should just read your position papers) it’s pretty easy to convince people that Clinton was all talk… the type of help she offered was so convoluted and paperwork heavy that you (Mr. White Guy) would never see it.

      Not saying it’s true, saying it’s pretty easy to convince somebody. Well all, including Hillary, agree she was a bad politician, hustings wise anyway.

      *which I still don’t get why that is so accepted as a base of discussion, I don’t get it because Clinton was a freaking white person??? Has anybody but me noticed her lack of melanin? Her predecessor’s generous quantity despite his mom?

      1. sgt_doom

        Great comments . . .

        “it’s pretty easy to convince people that Clinton was all talk. . .”

        What? You mean after those Wall Street speeches leaked by WikiLeaks (thanx guys and gals) promising to destroy American workers’ protections and pass the TPP? Why would that dissuade anyone?

        And her being a former board member of Walmart? How could that possibly dissuade the American worker?

        And her hubby’s support of right-to-work in Arkansas (and those sane among us being boggled by cheering union workers in Wisconsin when Billygoat showed up to speechify during their failed recall of Gov. Wanker — what in God’s name is wrong with so many demented union members today? Reminds me of the speech I gave before PATCO just before they endorsed Reagan, warning them that their jobs would be in jeopardy should they do so — and golly was I ever prophetic!)?

        Sorry, can’t help the vitriolic sarcasm. Great comments again!

  4. kioseff

    Coates is a pretty conservative figure in the realm of racial politics. He openly bashes left and thinks that American social democracy and socialism are inextricably tied to racism (it’s a mixed record, but he chooses to smear racism on all of it). He seems to think nothing is worth trying to address the racism in this country beyond a process of moralizing that leads to symbolic healing gestures; the political goal he centers in his writing is reparations. As African American scholar Cedric Johnson puts it, reparations is “not a political issue that emerges from the discrete experiences and felt needs of the majority of blacks.” If we successfully completed a reparations project, Johnson makes clear: “this would all have little long term bearing on inequality if the overarching processes of capital accumulation persisted without any social democratic modification.”

    There are plenty of universal social democratic policies we could adopt that would be bigger and longer-lasting wealth transfers to black people than reparations would be. We could actually take up both approaches at the same time: reparations as the healing gesture and reform of capitalism as the structural change. But Coates is so frustrating because he, especially recently, validates his liberal readers’ bias against critiques of capitalism. His latest essay is an elegant, drawn-out version of the Bernie Bro smear: “you’re all racist white men who aren’t real progressives.” Greatest public intellectual of our time? I think not.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Stylistic qualities aside – he’s not the only polemicist writing on race who can serve up a pleasing phrase – perhaps his habit of punching Left is precisely why he gets the attention and praise he does. He can make grand statements, which upon closer examination offer no structural challenges whatsoever, but which enable readers of the Atlantic, et. al. to feel that they’re on the inside a virtuous circle on race…

      1. DanB

        Bingo on this comment, M. Fiorillo. That’s how I read Coates. In every one of his essays I’ve read there s at least one claim that astounds me for its inaccuracy or its naive faith in the system. For instance, in one of his recent essays he asserts something to the effect that Obamacare has been an overall success.

      2. sgt_doom

        Is that the same dude who writes those Black Panther graphic novels????

        (Sorry, I gave up on The Atlantic and The Nation many, many years ago, considered too many planted Wall Street-like stories.)

    2. JTMcPhee

      About the selective redistribution of wealth that reparations would be, that reminds me of Samuel Gompers’ response to the question “what does labor want?” One SMithsonian source selects this sound bite:

      We do want more, and when it becomes more we shall still want more. And we shall never cease to demand more until we have received the results of our labor.” http://americanhistory.si.edu/american-enterprise-exhibition/corporate-era/labor-wants-more

      Others report a more comprehensive response, that seems relevant to the current situation: http://historymuse.net/readings/GompersWhatdoestheworkingmanwant.htm

      And my favorite: What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.


      What would the recipients of that proposed vast redistribution of wealth do with it all? Invest it in the Market? (Finance rubs its hands in anticipation…)

  5. Ted

    I have been puzzling over Coates success myself. As a critic, he does just what Dorman states, reads the texts of political culture and his own encounters as a well-heeled black man in America through a lens that he has adopted as a standpoint. That standpoint is fixed probably becuase it has been so lucrative for him. Fair enough. But why the very broad appeal? I have suspected that it is part of a marketing campaign by Team D and their media outlets to make race and racism (very important national concerns) into the only lens permissable when talking about rising inequality and lowered life chances in this country. This then puts the onus of a fix on individual attitudes, and allows the professional classes (who abhor racism as a personal value system) a way of avoiding a more wide ranging discussion of other structural factors that promote human immiseration in this country. An example would be the completely uncontested power of capital over labor or household production. Another would be the horrifying and completely unchecked power of the military-industrial state and its brutal unending wars. By focusing the attention of the top 10% on questions of race as a total explanation for politics, nothing else seems permissable.

    1. sgt_doom

      Very well articulated. HRC embraced the identity politics of strictly social justice while precluding economic justice, which Bernie stated was uppermost, because without economic justice there is NO possibility of social justice.

      This should be so obvious to one and all . . .

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        “HRC embraced the identity politics…”

        I disagree. The Democrats pushed a perversion of identity politics that substituted worship of Dear Abuela Hillary and fear mongering in lieu of a campaign that actually sought to bind and appeal to non-white male identities which is part of the reason the campaign was so listless. The Democratic elites dumped identity politics when they embraced Van Hollen over Donna Edwards and poured money into their star recruit, Evan Bayh.

        I’m reminded of the Clinton obsessions with “soccer moms” and their vans and now the “moderate suburban Republicans.” Both seemed like dog whistles to white flight types. Lets get away from those urban cities and play a sport which is big in Europe (wink wink).

        1. witters

          “…in lieu of a campaign that actually sought to bind and appeal to non-white male identities.”

          I don’t want a campaign that “appeal[s] to my identity”. I want one that appeals to my sense of social, economic and political justice.

          1. JTMcPhee

            I’d be more activated by a “campaign” and actual in-office behavior that was focused tightly on providing those policies talked about here under the heading “concrete material benefits,” and looking forward to ways and means to keep the local polity, the species, and the sustaining planet alive and healthy. If that includes an appeal to senses of social, economic and political justice (all very big and important topics needing context and clarity), so much the better. The American mythical way of going about politics and power is not cutting it.

      2. Basil Pesto

        I don’t think she so much embraced identity politics as assumed it. That is, she thought that by not being as awful as many republicans and making some token nods to PoC, to use the lingo, that she would reap commensurate and vast political benefit. In fact, the Republican establishment thought so too, the RNC expressed their anxiety in a paper after the 2012 election articulating that if they don’t get with the programme and even tentatively adopt a sort of multiculturalist position that they would be doomed to fail in elections in perpetuity. Of course, the opposite happened.

        You might remember last year that there was some talk from pundits of Texas being a purple state, and that it might swing. Why? Purely on the basis of deomographics – an increasing latino population = votes in the bank. Heaven forbid you actually have to earn your votes.

    2. cgeye

      Yep. Ever since the 1980s, when the Dems purged their old school members in Congress (a franking scandal? really? when procurements kickback rumors laid on the ground like overripe fruit?), the frame was to shift matters to race, just after the culture found a way to allow underserved cultural minorities to participate as safe candidates and elected officials.

      And, it’s no coincidence that Obama’s team punished whistleblowers as if they were Commie-symp spies, when whistleblowers were trying to preserve the structure of the republic, in the first place.

      I’m not saying placing everything in a frame of racism hasn’t been beneficial, to some — but it leaves behind the majority of people, of all colors, creeds, and loves, who just want to get through the day with their bills paid and their families safe.

      It’s time to get past the way both sides use race as a ‘lets you and him fight’ distraction from the way both parties kowtow to power, to our detriment.

  6. Mark Gisleson

    Thank you. Coates has always been “one off” in the persuasion department but until now I had trouble grasping why. Instead I just noted that those who seemed most excited by Coates were also those who knew the least about African American culture.

      1. Mark Gisleson

        Yes, Coates appears to be descended from house slaves but to me that’s like blaming someone for being descended from death camp trustees.

        Coates misses the importance of class, and that undoes all his eloquent thinking. He is a product of his lineage, but that’s his choice. By the same token I should be a Iowa farmer, obsessed with weather and crop prices. Inequality warps lives, but for the most part we all get to choose what we think however constrained our actions are. Coates chooses to embrace his identity because it’s sexier than defending the middle class.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          Coates is the son of a Black Panther, not exactly a House slave type. I’m suggesting Coates has made a conscious, active decision to be a defender of the capitalist elite and actively sells his last name to provide not interpretation but affirmation to the “woke” liberal. The decline of youth and minority voting isn’t the fault of the people who put up the Hillary candidacy or allowed the Democrats to be the party of Wall Street. No, its the fault of powerless rednecks.

          Trump was inevitable, not the results of poor strategy such as dumping on potential Democratic voters in favor of “moderate suburban Republicans” who voted for McCain and Romney where they would pick up two Republicans for every union member they lost which would be like three votes because the GOP would lose a vote. Coates is selling his approval to the people who ran a campaign to appeal to racist, and the GOP is a racist party. It didn’t happen over the last year because Trump is a dynamic individual with his pulse of the heartbeat of a nation. It happened because the Democrats made a decision to embrace Wall Street and not Main Street despite campaign promises which brought them to power. The people who might have made a difference and forced the Democrats to act (As demonstrated by the repeal of DADT), they cheered on a terrible campaign. Coates wants “woke” liberals to know its not the fault of $1.4 billion Democrats needed to sellout their principles for. Nope, its not that.

  7. Jeff

    To my eyes, Coates assumptions don’t pass the common sense test. How did Obama get elected in such a racist country he believes America still is? Why did millions who voted for Obama turn racist and vote for Trump?

    These assumptions make his opinion pieces read more like something out of The Onion.

    He’s a serious writer with some pretty big blind spots that require his readers to have the same.

  8. JTMcPhee

    Doing a set of searches to see if there is any kind of definitive answer to the author’s assertion that Trump is a “sociopathic white extremist” or psychopath produces, I guess inevitably, a vast sweep of argument and opinion from an enormous range of blunt to nuanced opinion and disagreement, with precious little definitive support.

    Keeping in mind that the president is just a single person with a position, a personality, a presence, and a pen, who fortuitously sits for a while as the titular head of government that is a multi-tentacled Blob that in its complex operations appears mostly antithetical to decency, survivability and sustainability for the most of us, or the planet we perforce inhabit. Despite the efforts of many people of good will to try to hold the line against the descent into that other condition.

    As a result, maybe, it seems to me to be hard for people trying to change the vectors of the political economy, in a direction of more decency and survivability and sustainability, to come up with effective answers about where to apply what kinds of political force to accomplish that redirection. Especially where there is so much focus on the singularity, the “Mule”, that is Donald Trump. And such potent, embedded, massive sets of interests and stakeholders opposing any move toward what ordinary people might think of as “better.”

    It also seems clear, to me at least, that there’s precious little agreement, among those seeking such change and improvements, as to what the organizing principles for humanity ought to be — going forward, as they say. Not even agreement on how to come to agreement. The drive to advantage and dominance is strong in these ones… the blind philosophers cannot even agree, from fondling disparate parts, on the nature of the elephant in the room…

  9. travis bickle

    There is, much as our tecnocratic dispositions resist the idea, a great deal to be said for making ones reality, ala Karl Rove’s putative worldview.

    The politcal world is malleable, and the realities, take Climate Change as an example, take a backseat to the perceptions, as is apparent. Yes, reality will come around to bite the ignorant and nondiscerning in the arse, but THAT is the reality that must be contended with.

    No, what we may even call the Rhetoric of Coates, stands to make more of a positive difference. The poster’s frustrations are those of a wonk, not someone with any sort of grasp of the real issues of leadership in a Democracy.

    1. tongorad

      …what we may even call the Rhetoric of Coates, stands to make more of a positive difference.

      A positive difference for whom? He’s got nothing to say about my life.
      In the class war, it’s crystal-clear what side Coates in on, and who he speaks for.

  10. Camelotkidd

    How, in a nation based on slavery and genocide, did a black man like Obama get elected president?

    That’s the question I’m left with after reading Ta-Nehisi-Coates masterful essay on race entitled–The First White President.

    Coates central assertion is that the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the repudiation of Barack Obama’s legacy. He goes on to assemble a powerful argument that, contrary to many post election class-based analysis, race was the central factor that led to the election of Trump.

    There is much that is true in Coates essay about the pernicious role that race plays in America.

    However, the whole race/class thing in America is incredibly complicated, and trying to understand where one ends and the other begins seems to be a fools errand.

    Let’s say that both contributed to the election of Trump.

    I’m more interested in who is allowed to be president by the elite that control our country, and what they are expected to do once in office.
    Coates wants to blame persistent racism and the obstructionist Republicans who simply wouldn’t work with a black president, but this seriously distorts the historical record. We know from Ron Suskind’s, book–Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, that Obama, having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at Wall Street and the bankers, called a meeting of the nations top 13 financial executives in March of 2009. Instead of siding with those who’d been most harmed by the crisis–workers, minorities, and the poor–Obama sided unequivocally with the bankers.

    “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas FDR had, during the Great Depression, pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said “I welcome their hate”, Obama was asking “How can I help?” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

    The real tragedy of Barak Obama is that he had the opportunity to be a transformational president, and advance race relations on a monumental scale. Imagine how Americans of all races, minus the 1%, of course, would have viewed him had he taken on Wall Street and advanced economic policies that began to reverse the inequalities brought on by 40 years of neoliberalism. Imagine if he would have put forth Medicare-for-All, healthcare reform instead of the neoliberal Affordable-Care-Act.

    But, that was always out of the question for Obama. His values are that of meritocracy. He saw people like Jaimie Dimon not as criminals who’d wrecked the country but as the smartest guys in the room that he went to Harvard with and socialized alongside.

  11. DWD

    I am here every day but seldom post a comment.

    The Coate’s Piece left me wanting, to say the least.

    Yes. What he is pointing out so eloquently is most certainly true (there are exceptions but overall the effect of racism on our society cannot be underestimated.)

    And then I am left with this, And?

    That’s my problem with the piece: it is an argument worthy of a high-priced attorney who has been
    ’round the track a bunch of times and knows which words to reference and emphasize and which ideas to promote and even more importantly, which ideas to either gloss over or skip entirely.


    That’s it in a nutshell. Yes, Americans are racists and selfish and mostly full of hate and contempt on certain subjects: but are there other considerations that are able to transcend our inherent mendacity?

    I think there are.

    But Coate’s Piece (Which is an excerpt from a forthcoming book) never addresses this.

    And so we have a bill of particulars – an indictment, if you will – but no remedy nor even consideration beyond that.


    1. Basil Pesto

      And furthermore, pointing out racism is of course valid and accurate, and perhaps conceiving of it as a disease is too, but then what? Is the goal to eradicate racism entirely? It’s a goal so quixotic that it’s almost comical. We’ll be wiped out by an asteroid before it happens. Merely pointing out what is axiomatic – that racism is a thing, what’s the point? What is the model for a state free of bigotry? Is there one, in history? If racial prejudice is eliminated, might other prejudices not arise to take its place and lead to considerable suffering (we could think of the civilian casualties and displacements of the Russian revolutions)? Is it possible that there is a biological basis to our prejudicial nature (and we all surely harbour prejudices of one kind or another)? These are all valid questions but nobody seems particularly interested in even asking them, instead retreating to the succour of a sense of belonging – in this case to a social group that sees itself as virtuous (as pretty much all social groups with a belief system do). Meanwhile, America seems to be becoming disconcertingly sectarian along ethnic lines.

      If America is to become a more pluralistic society (perhaps, as a rough model, we could turn to post-nazism, post-reunification Germany), how does shouting at racists for being awful contribute to that?

      (I said furthermore but I think in a way I’ve basically just restated your post, sorry)

        1. Basil Pesto

          I actually saw that shortly after I wrote the post and thought it was a funny coincidence. Beyond the realm of fiction, it is something that Arendt also touches on in ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’.

      1. jrs

        a better goal might just be to deal with systematic racism .. that would be your different society right there.

  12. Synoia

    But not by Coates… No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it.

    But that raises the question, why is he so influential? Why does he reach so many people? What’s his secret?

    Another way to ask the question above is:

    For whom is he writing? The public or his employers?

    Is he influential because his writing tells some, influential some, what they want to hear.?

    He is, after all, writing for exposure and influence, if not directly being paid.

  13. George Phillies

    ” How should we hear The Rite of Spring in the twenty-first century? Colonial or pre-postcolonial? Racist or deracializing? These are meaningful questions,…”

    Well, no.

    ” If you want to know why the US election last year turned out the way it did, however, reasoning and evidence are the way to go.”

    Well, yes.

    ” Could someone like Trump be elected president if racism were not so widespread? ”

    Rather easily, especially some one who did not have the list of attitudes towards women that Trump had.

  14. Basil Pesto

    this is an interesting and good piece. This too, is interesting:

    “The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture. This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports. Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism. A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism.”

    I think perhaps the author too quickly lumps the literary and cultural studies groups together. Literature was not always studied in the way he describes. More attention was given to close reading of the text, maybe biographical circumstances of the author etc. Postwar academy trends changed this. Harold Bloom is perhaps the most notable academic who fought against this. He suggested two things that upset people: That a post-colonial reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or some other fashionable new angle for reading a classic text that doesn’t really have much to do with reading a classic text, so much as it does transmitting the critic’s worldview, which is fine I guess) might be intellectually bereft, and that a work is not worthwhile merely because it comes from a woman or someone from a minority (Bloom of course belongs to a minority). To put it in non-identitarian terms though: Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front might be a virtuous and righteous book, but that does not make it good literature. For his efforts, he was branded a crusty conservative racist/sexist, when actual reading of his writings reveals he’s nothing of the sort (he’s a staunch critic of Reagan, Bush 2 etc and, iirc, anti-neolib as well). Furthermore, he is often effusive in his praise of African-American and Women writers and their works (Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘And Their Eyes Were Watching God, Emily Dickinson are among his faves). He was attacked relentlessly for having these opinions and he referred to his detractors generally as “The School of Resentment”. It seems somewhat prescient given the vituperative tenor that comes from identitarians today.

    I tend to be on his side (though he’s certainly not alone where these issues of ideoligised reading and writing are concerned) and to that end I disagree that the question of whether The Rite of Spring (or Frankenstein or what have you) is colonial or pre-postcolonial (!) is especially meaningful, or even interesting (I find it tedious but ymmv). While this approach may lend some interesting I find it troublesome when applied to the arts in the same way the author finds it troublesome when it’s applies to national events – it’s often tendentious and lacking in rigour.

    1. Stephen Rhodes

      Because I saw this from a book ad minutes ago in the NYRB I’ll add this—if it’s up to today’s bracingly high standard:

      While there has been a great deal written within literary theory and criticism on the novel Frankenstein, and there is a substantial, and growing, literature within moral and political philosophy on the rights of children and the obligations of parents, Mary Shelley and the Rights of the Child is the first book to bring these two areas of inquiry together. Eileen Hunt Botting’s fascinating analysis shows how literary texts, suitably reinterpreted, can make better sense of key philosophical claims.—David Archard, Queen’s University Belfast

  15. fresno dan

    Counterpunch had an article on Coates as well

    fresno dan
    September 17, 2017 at 11:48 am
    Well, just like giraffes don’t have tall necks because they tried to have tall necks, but only the ones with tall necks survive, I don’t think writers like Coates tailor their views ONLY or mostly because of money – but you can bet that the Neoliberal 0.1% is ONLY going to advance those that disparage any discussion of CLASS – that is, being racist is so, so bad that there can NEVER, EVER be any time given to even mentioning income inequality in the problems of POOR people….

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos

      Thanks, fresno dan, but we already posted a link to this article two days ago, so no need to post a large portion of its text.

  16. Adams

    “The problem, of course, is that much about the election is subject to social science investigation. We have opinion polling and the factual record of specific campaign strategies and tactics.”

    This doesn’t seem to be a problem for Coates, who quotes election stats extensively to make his point that, e.g., the white vote went to Trump pretty much across the socio-economic spectrum. If his “hypothesis” is that the white vote was determined by race, not class, his “evaluation” is rather convincing. And, therefore, liberal focus on the economic travails of the white working class misses the point of the election, and, perhaps even more importantly, ignores the continuing history of the denigration of black labor to manipulate white working class attitudes (and votes).

    I certainly learned a lot from his article. He makes a clear and convincing argument for the importance, even the centrality, of race in our electoral politics (and in social and economic relations). I don’t completely agree, and am more comfortable with a stronger focus on economic factors. But that’s my bias, not his. And that’s why I read NC every day, not The Atlantic.

  17. Florian Radke

    Thank you to Peter Dorman, and all those who’ve commented, here. And to Yves and NC. ‘Long time listener, first time caller’/ comment, here.

    I read Coates’ article in the Atlantic yesterday, closed my laptop, and wandered about for the last 24 hours deeply moved by it. In which direction? I don’t know. More of a vortex. Of an internal, subjective emotional movement, with brief meteors of scattered intellectual reasoning, which flare and vanish before I have time to watch them cohere or make landfall.

    I open my laptop this morning and find those trusted sources of information within information networks which confirm my worldview, are ablaze, with discussion on Coates.

    A privilaged white male speaks here to be sure, but unlike most of you (I’m guessing), I have no access to the arsenal of expensive dialectics accumulated or honed through education or genome expression. So, I hesitate to argue within the fiery argumentation here, since I assume it will be a waste of the finite time I’m heir to, ignored, or beaten with expensive pointing sticks. (oops, I guess there’s an argument in every phrase) Pursuant, I submit only personal statements of my experience of Coates and the resulting malestorm from the left, and questions.

    Coates article was powerful. Whether that “power” is from his eloquence and articulation of thought on a new object or perspective of truth, or equal eloquence and articulation of his own, personal, subjective experience of society and politics that’s just another spoke on the wheel – I do not know!

    Even if his piece was from subjective experience, does that ruin it? I think it’s still valid and worthy of deep consideration, rather than waving it away, because that experience is his, and he’s done such a superb job of communicating his subjectivity on a critical topic of late, to our objective consideration. That is, all well tended expressions of subjective experience are valid and often (but not always!) good, if carefully expressed. (I think I get this from… Emerson?)

    Coates has tipped over a wheelbarrow. Maybe he tipped it out of reckless anger. Maybe that was the point. But now, the arranged bricks in that wheelbarrow must be picked back up and rearranged. He takes aim at a quote from one of the left’s most beloved entertainers, Anthony Bourdain, a quote he claims aligns with the settled but incorrect constructs of the causality beneath and around Trump:

    “The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes,” charged the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, “is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.”

    (Though methinks Bourdain an A-hole) I was more or less onboard with that quote. Until now. I have no idea where I am, but wherever I am this place brings no easy rest.

    It seems to me Coates tipped over the wheelbarrow, and said, “that’s not enough!” that’s not enough to understand and through understanding, repair.

    I dearly hope what is reassembled is a construct, strategy, and compassionate understanding of all perspectives, which move American and global society out from under this type of capitalism, step-wise to the whims of rabid and unchecked disruptive technologies, that for all I can see, lead us toward existential crises, and literal extinctions, of varieties of horror.


    1. Lynne

      Even if his piece was from subjective experience, does that ruin it? I think it’s still valid and worthy of deep consideration, rather than waving it away, because that experience is his, and he’s done such a superb job of communicating his subjectivity on a critical topic of late, to our objective consideration. That is, all well tended expressions of subjective experience are valid and often (but not always!) good, if carefully expressed

      Ruin may not be the best term, but it substantially limits its persuasiveness and its value. Over the years, Coates has struck me as a deeply provincial thinker, uninterested in expanding his horizons to encompass any facts or views that would challenge his preconceptions. Ask yourself, when has he given any indication that there is anything of value past the Appalachian Trail? Or, for that matter, that he has spent any time west of the Appalachian Trail in an inquisitive frame of mind?

      He has limited himself to being a handy reference for one particular theme, able to make a living as a commentator trotted out to support one subset of arguments. Unfortunately, that subjectivity that you seem to value makes him supremely unqualified to speak with any authority outside his small, narrow world. As a result, it’s difficult to take seriously any of his purported attempts to expand, and impossible to think he could speak to policy for an entire country.

      There is a saying, “get out of yourself.” After reading Coates, I always wish someone would say that to him.

  18. Peter L.

    I find Ta-Nahisi Coates’ essay frustrating. For one example:

    “Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. … The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice.”

    1. Is this really the collective verdict? On the one hand, Hillary Clinton appears to believe that she and the Democratic Party simply have public relations problems. For reasons totally outside of their control, they can’t convince people that they are better for job creation, etc. I don’t think they ever say that have abandoned job creation. Some people say the Democratic Party has abandoned job creation, but it’s hard to argue that it is a “collective” judgment.

    2. On the other hand, who really believes that the Democratic Party has taken up the cause of social justice in any case where doing so would challenge wealth and power. Does the Democratic Party support reparations or support indigenous people of the First Nations in their many struggles. Weren’t there serious struggles over the Democratic Party’s platform, in which the elite of the party were against pushing social justice issues too far?

    I think an interesting thing to ponder is this: if the United States had substantially reduced the pathological, racist hatred of black people, and wiped out misogyny it seems pretty easy to imagine Donald Trump would not have been elected. Yet, push this a bit farther. Under the same circumstances, would Clinton have been the Democratic Party’s nominee?

    I suppose the problem may not really be with Coates’ thought provoking interpretation of events, but the likely use of his conclusions to attack those people interested in pursuing social justice issues even when they directly conflict with current distributions of wealth and power.

  19. manymusings

    Thanks for this essay, it draws a very helpful distinction, in a respectful way. I was trained in criticism and appreciate the discipline. You might even say that interpretation — to be persuasive — does engage in a form of argumentation (i.e., using reasons and assumptions to make a point), and on the flip side, even conventional “argumentation” also is engaged in some interpretation (as opposed to simply explaining reality “as it is,” as already noted in this thread). But it’s still a good distinction. The thrust of it for me can be understood as a matter of focus or orientation — are we talking about what something means or how and why it happened? It’s significance or its (more practical) explanation? The first question calls for interpretation and the second for explanation.

    This distinction helps me understand why it feels like banging my head against the wall to try to talk about facts with the “racism-is-the-answer-about 2016-full-stop” crowd. They are insisting on what the election means; racism is their thesis; and trying to discuss facts that don’t fit the thesis is construed as missing the forest for the trees. Even if you’ve already acknowledged their point. Anything more is is just noise; or worse, an indicator that you just don’t “get it.” As in, you don’t get what the election means.

    The trouble seems to be the conceits of both modes. Generalizing here, but it seems something like this: Interpretation often seems to be saying, at least implicitly, that “mere” facts and empirical models are insufficient to understand something (and are actually not objective or empirical but subjective/biased in any case). The risk then is to preemptively bat away inconvenient facts as irrelevant. On the other hand, empirical explanation often can be blind to its own assumptions or biases and can be dismissive of critical modes that don’t “engage in facts and argument” (i.e., facts as I’ve defined them and argument within my framework).

    One quibble is that the essay seems to suggest that interpreting events that have an actual explanation is invalid; I think we can, an inherently do, both explain and interpret current and past events. But it’s helpful to discourse to recognize the distinction (and even how the two modes might interact). I also disagree with the suggestion in the essay that interpretation is about “feelings.” That said, one can become emotionally invested in an interpretation to the exclusion of all others, or — as seems to be the case for many when it comes to 2016 — to the exclusion of arguments about facts and reasons in an empirical mode, which is critical if we are to have a public square. We have to engage in facts and reasons. But they’ve already decided any explanation that threatens what the election means is invalid. This is the definition of epistemic closure.

  20. George Phillies

    “If you go through Coates’ article, you’ll find statements (especially sweeping generalizations) that are dubious in light of the evidence or even flatly refutable. ”

    It might have been interesting to read a few examples. Otherwise this line perhaps reads more than would be dieal as an example of the things being complained about.

  21. Joviangate

    The neo-liberal elite use a thin veneer of social justice to act as a club to beat down any attempts at economic justice.

    To be clear both are needed. Instead guilt by association ploys are used to tar economic justice needs as racist, leaving only very limited social justice concepts as acceptable. (Those that don’t threaten the current neo-liberal order.)

    TNC embodies this dynamic to its logical conclusion.

    1. bob mcmanus

      TNC is calling for a kind of economic justice, reparations. Unclear exactly what he means by that, but I favor reparations in the form of one million dollars to every native-born afro-american man woman child in the US, financed by MMT and printing. We need some inflation anyway.

      And I say again that neoliberalism and identity politics is what we are stuck with, because of the forces of production and the social relations. We can have a neoliberalism that is more economically and politically egalitarian than the one we now have.

      French Regulation School, Antonio Negri. Marxism is at least a little determinist, in that the place we are now wasn’t forced on us by bad people in the Mount Pelerin.Society.

  22. some lurker

    This guy?

    Shetterly popularized the term “social justice warriors”[citation needed] in 2009 in his blog “Social Justice Warriors: Do Not Engage”, by contrasting them with “social justice workers”, the former being more extreme people who “rage, mob and dox in the belief that promoting identitarianism [I.e., identity politics] will make a better world.”.

    If you are opposed to identitarian thinking yet assign people into groups based on their common identity…how does that work exactly? This drive-by comment is getting a lot of attention, maybe more than the post itself.

    How did Obama get elected in such a racist country he believes America still is? Why did millions who voted for Obama turn racist and vote for Trump?

    Because he ran against the McCain/Palin ticket?

    Is there a serious argument that there is not a virulent strain of racism/white supremacy in American history/politics/culture? Was the second amendment really about overthrowing corrupt governments — George Washington put down two rebellions, so evidently he didn’t buy into that — or keeping some people (defined as 3/5th of a white person) in line? Coates has written extensively on the plundering of black society through redlining and other forms of sanctioned racism. He wrote an expansive piece on the cause for reparations. And he was the recipient of a MacArthur grant, on top of being a best selling author.

    Maybe the OP is not his audience. Coates obviously has one.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos

      The Wikipedia claim needs a citation, as Wikipedia itself acknowledges – it’s true that Shetterly uses the term “social justice warrior,” but I have no idea whether the way he uses it has had much influence. What Shetterly attempted to do, re terminology, was to save the term “social justice” from being discredited by people who “mob and dox.”

      I’m pretty confused about what you mean when you say that he “assigns people into groups based on their common identity.” The social justice “worker” vs. “warrior” distinction he tries to draw is based on tactics, philosophy, and behavior, not more ascriptive forms of identity. I don’t see the contradiction between making this distinction and criticizing identitarianism.

  23. Joel

    Why was Coates singled out for this critique?

    Maureen Dowd and many other mainstream columnists have been writing this way for decades.

    Otherwise, I agree 100% with the author: you’re entitled to your own perspective, but not your own facts.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Because Coates presents himself and is seen as a Serious Thinker. Dowd knows she is just being (when she manages to achieve it) clever and snarky. She knows she a raconteur who at her best slips in some real barbs.

  24. Bunk McNulty

    My goodness, what a torrent of words! I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’ but I’m quite sure this line from the essay is not true:

    “Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.”

    There have only been hundreds and hundreds of posts here explaining how Trump did not win the election, rather that Mrs. Clinton lost it.

    1. skippy

      In vein… boomers did it…

      disheveled… if I was only more ethically flexible at work thingy… sigh…

    2. BoycottAmazon

      Consider If Obama had lost to Clinton, then it makes perfect sense. Trump would not have had a Hillary to run against.

      So perhaps It took Hillary to get Trump elected? There is some perverse justice to this, as many writers have noted Bill Clinton (and Hillary who helped jump start the birther movement) put Trump up to running seeing him as the only candidate Hillary could beat. They knew this calculation would give them a Republican Congress and Republican States, but they didn’t care — and it seems Bill and Hillary were right when it comes to the popular vote, but they just completely screwed up the real politics of an electoral college system.

  25. dbk

    I read Coates’ essay upon publication. My impression was that Coates himself–and he is not alone–argues that (endemic, structural) racism trumps class, but also understands at some level that class and race are inextricably related in U.S. history. This was the position MLK had arrived at by the end of his life. Coates, unfortunately, remains conflicted.

    Some (related) observations:
    (1) I’d recommend readers go back to Tony Gilpin’s superb essay (this blog’s Labor Day essay post) on how the Farm Equipment union (FE) unionized an IH plant in Louisville in 1947. Blacks and whites fighting together, and they won. Plus tons of historical detail, aka facts, to back her interpretation up.
    (2) Coates recently hosted a book presentation at a DC bookstore with Richard Rothstein, author of the newly-published The Color of Law, a history of how segregation was forwarded and entrenched in the U.S. not just through zoning laws and racial covenants but by actual federal housing policies. Coates had nothing to say, but Rothstein (of the EPI) was outstanding for those who like their views buttressed with facts.
    (3) Also useful was the recent posting on this site of Stanley Greenburg’s piece in American Prospect. HRC was made aware of her lack of appeal to the working classes but was constrained–like the party itself–from directly addressing it. See Thomas Frank too on this, e.g. Listen, Liberal.
    (4) Essentially, nobody–black or white–who doesn’t belong to the upper/upper middle class has a party representing their interests today. As an old friend is fond of reminding me: “Remember Hyde Park in discussions like this: Blacks and whites united against the poor.”
    (5) YMMV on whether race trumps class or class trumps race. One simple thing is clear, however: blacks and whites uniting to fight economic injustice isn’t where this country wants to go.

    1. JBird4049

      (I just looked over this and saw it had become rantish and a bit repetitive, but it’s late and I’m too tired to fix it. Please just accept my apologies if you actually read it.)

      I hadn’t studied combined blacks and whites, and even Indian social, political, religious, and economic activities, but I know enough to say that for at least 300 years, probably more, that whenever any two, never mind all of those groups got together, even just on a social level, bad things happened. Did not matter if it was Dutch, English, or especially American ruling elites, they used any means, including murder to break them up.

      So after centuries of propaganda along with political, legal, economic, and social bribery, or none if that worked, “legal” law enforcement, violence including lynchings, mass shootings, and outright armed coups of towns that especially in the South, and the coverup of any of this in even college textbooks, it should not be a surprise that too many believe it the racism, and not class. There is some truth in stating racism is the important part, but it was economics that people a bullet in the head, or hung, or enslaved in the prison farm system, which could be said to ongoing. Not the hanging mind, or the armed mobs and coups, but everything else is pretty much there. Just less of it.

      Still, there has been some serious and real improvement; after centuries of poor people, and even upper class reformers struggling to deal with this, often being ostracized, losing their jobs, businesses, or money, or just being murdered, saying it’ll never get better, is all about race, and class is just a smokescreen irks me.

      That is not to say that racism has never been the sincere focus.


      I believe that race was, and is, used to obscure, and reinforce the economic and social oppression by the elites, on the lower classes. That also at least indirectly includes Coates, and honestly, the black leadership. They are saying let you and I fight each other, and not the people who run the damn system.

      1. Lambert Strether

        > too many believe it the racism, and not class

        I think too many believe this question is either/or, when it’s both/and.

        Law enforcement for profit in Ferguson is a perfect example; clearly, racism entered into the traffic stops, since (poor) blacks were very disproportionately stopped; but stops and the fines were also a revenue generator, and part of the reason for that was servicing municipal debt, IIRC a real issue not only because of the recession but because of the closure of the auto plant, which impacted everything (including property taxes, I would think).

        I keep thinking of the way hands work: “One hand grasps, the other manipulates” (as in opening a jar). The race hand grabs (“collars”) and the class hand manipulates (“collects”). And so forth.

        The difficulties we all struggle with, even leaving different life experiences, shall we say, aside, are that (a) our culture really seems to like “either/or” dichotomies a lot, and (b) we seem to have no language to describe the, er, intersections of race and class in any given situation. And in lefty circles, I think “it’s all class,” besides being over-simplified vulgar Marxism, is an over-reaction to the liberal insistence that “it’s never class” (to keep people “punching sideways,” as you say).

        I am hopeful that these difficulties are being worked out on the ground, because that’s where it’s likely to happen (i.e., not in the pages of the Atlantic).

        1. JBird4049

          I agree.

          Americans do seem to have a more difficult time in not being Manichaeian. We always seem to want to be on a crusade.

          I also think that the growing use of fake facts or at least ignoring anything inconvenient makes using nuance, of trying to understand and explain something beyond That bad! or That good! difficult. I find increasingly difficult to even rationally talk with some people because their thoughts have become monomaniacal. It’s like who are you and what have you done with him?

          Not to mention how the Real World is also making people fearful enough to become unhinged enough to also think stupidly crazy things. It’s been a struggle for me, I know, to not do so. Seeing some people intellectually mutate has made me try harder to remain balanced in my thinking.

  26. Musicismath

    Many thanks for posting this article. I’ve long thought along the same lines, and I think a large part of why Coates is so widely read among what Lasch calls “the caring class” is because he speaks not only to their prejudices but to their ways of making sense of the world. A disproportionate number of liberal professional-managerial types will have been exposed to cultural or literary critique at grad school, or at least as undergraduates. And what’s so useful for argumentative purposes is that critique silences. It reads the text as merely symptomatic of some underlying force. Applying it to living people rather than poems or paintings suggests that their intentionality can be waved away in just the same way the critic declares the author’s original intentions irrelevant or out of bounds. It enables them to be discussed forensically, as sheer objects.

    Rita Felski’s Limits of Critique (2015) is worth reading for her take on why critique has achieved mainstream epistemic hegemony and also why it’s such an unsatisfying and unproductive form of writing:

    In “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Bruno Latour remarks that critique has been so successful because it assures us that we are always right—unlike those naïve believers whose fetishes we strive to expose …
    Critique is negative. Critique retains the adversarial force of a suspicious hermeneutics, while purifying it of affective associations by treating negativity as an essentially philosophical or political matter. To engage in critique is to grapple with the oversights, omissions, contradictions, insufficiencies, or evasions in the object one is analysing. Robert Koch writes that “critical discourse, as critical discourse, must never formulate positive statements: it is always ‘negative’ in relation to its object” (531). Critique is characterised by its “againstness,” by its desire to take a hammer, as Latour would say, to the beliefs of others. Faith is to be countered with vigilant skepticism, illusion yields to a sobering disenchantment, the fetish must be defetishised, the dream world stripped of its befuddling powers. However, the negativity of critique is not just a matter of fault-finding, scolding, and censuring. The nay-saying critic all too easily calls to mind the Victorian patriarch, the thin-lipped schoolmarm, the glaring policeman. Negating is tangled up with a long history of legislation, prohibition and interdiction—it can come across as punitive, arrogant, authoritarian, or vitriolic.

    Rita Felski, Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion, Media/Culture, 15:1 (2012).

    1. Basil Pesto

      “Applying it to living people rather than poems or paintings suggests that their intentionality can be waved away in just the same way the critic declares the author’s original intentions irrelevant or out of bounds. It enables them to be discussed forensically, as sheer objects.”

      The postmodernists have a lot to answer for!!

      Many thanks for the above link to that essay

  27. Patricia

    Evocative excellent proposal, Peter Dorman. Thanks!

    Coates confuses life and art, but art is by definition deeply subtractive and re-directive.

    Of course, cultural/political analysis is also subtractive but it works to discover most salient indicators in ‘what is’.

    Coates ends up with artifice. The remaining honesty is to his own vision. Perhaps his talents could be better used by pursuing an art form.

  28. ChiGal in Carolina

    Wow! Only just now clicked on this post only to discover the wealth of commentary.

    I remember when Between the World and Me came out and was feted across the land, this more nuanced review


    provided insight. Of course, since then his execrable hagiography of Obama opened a lot of eyes to how the race-colored glasses erased class from the picture.

    Thing is, he writes powerfully, he moves readers. It is worthwhile to elicit a visceral experience of what it is like to be black in this country in those who have no clue.

    But it’s just a start.

    1. Patricia

      Yes! And its a rare talent he has, too. I wish he would see his way to some form of creative writing. Leave the rest behind, let it float out.

  29. John

    I thought this was a very good article.

    I really liked Cedric Johnson’s Jacobin article from last year on Ta-nehisi Coates.

    Coates places far too little emphasis on class and is stuck in a 1960’s mindset on race where he views the different races as monolothic groups. The reality is that upper class blacks and lower class blacks have entirely different lifestyles and sets of interests and face entirely different types of discrimination. The neoliberal want to convince blacks to identify with race more than class and to listen to the black elite so that they don’t articulate their demands on economic issues. This is why Coates was never much of a strong Bernie supporter–he’s totally uninterested in causes like free healthcare and free public education because “it won’t be enough.” I don’t understand how he expects to achieve racial equality without taking the necessary first steps. There is no policy that will “be enough,” but that doesn’t mean we should reject everything that gets us on the way to being there.

    He had to admit that Bernie was a better candidate than Hillary, but rather than try and support him and encourage black people to vote for the candidate that would help them more, Coates wrote about Bernie’s flaws. Coates worships Obama and it wouldn’t matter to him that black people would benefit a lot more from a Sanders presidency than Obama’s. Identity (not policy) is the only salient political trait for him.

  30. stefan

    After reading Dorman’s article, I have just finished reading Coates’s article, and I think Coates has got it far more correct than Dorman has. Coates has also marshaled far, far more evidence than Dorman has, despite Dorman’s accusations to the contrary. In fact, Dorman himself marshaled no evidence. Commenters here ought to try to actually read Coates’s piece.

    While Dorman’s ideas sound good, they seem to have nothing to do with what Coates is actually writing, except to prove him correct in saying that white people can construe anything they damn well please and probably get away with it.

    White man, wake up! Trump is a serious disgrace and a serious problem.

  31. JD

    I don’t disagree with the general critique of Coates here — you are quite correct that he makes many sweeping claims that are fundamentally empirical, and to the degree that social science can answer them, many of his claims are factually false.

    However, in the spirit of empiricism, as someone who has spent much time with literary critics (and was once one), the interpretation of literary criticism as loose “interpretation” is one that many of not lost literary critics would disagree with. It is one of the first things taught in a freshman English course that all interpretations are not equally correct, and that many of not most things freshman or beginning critics say about a work are false. At the highest level, it is true that it may be hard to distinguish from the text one solid, historically and contextually well-informed reading from another, but 99% of interpretations are not that, and most are either inconsistent with the full text, internally incoherent, or inconsistent with what we know of the author and their intentions.

    So while you may disagree with literary critics’ own account of what they are doing, if we do want to go the empirical, polling-based route, I’m pretty sure most critics would say that baseless sweeping claims in the absence of empirical evidence are no more what they do, than they are for the social or other sciences.

    1. Basil Pesto

      Thanks for this perspective. I wish the concept was more broadly accepted or even understood. But as an amateur student of literature who didn’t pursue it at university, it’s reassuring to read what you write about how English is taught. Though I do wonder what the ratio of lost to not-lost literary critics is!

      Not to discount all of those who study English and who read and interpret in good faith, but I’ve often found that the most interesting, nourishing criticism comes from those who are themselves artists. Proust, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Robbe-Grillet to give some (all French for some reason??) examples. Heck, in reading Nabokov’s “Lectures in (on?) Literature”, beyond his typical grumbling about the very issues we’re talking about here, a lot of his lectures seem to be merely reading out passages that he admires at length. Maybe sometimes that’s enough.

  32. marcos

    Were I not already long inclined towards racial justice, the language used to message identity politics and intersectionality would probably drive me in the other direction.

    What we are seeing from Coates is the story telling that validates the lived experience of The Most Vulnerable and passes that off as politics.

    This multi-generational naming of the problem means that we never get to a place where we name the solution and figure out how to work towards it.

    Coates is also a neoliberal funded and published author. The neoliberals exist to deflect class challenges to the Democrats into their identity politics race plantation where the designated overseer ensures that everyone is contained in their proper reservation.

    The system can contain race challenges but cannot handle class challenges. Hence the neoliberal insistence that race trumps class, as it were.

  33. Newbie

    Great thread of comments (barring the initial one-liner), and I still have not read them all– whew! I’m not as well-read or well-informed as many of the regulars, but that is why I read NC, and the comments: to ‘better’ myself. However, some of the comments did cause me to re-think my views, so I wanted to add my ‘two-cents’ of facile insight. Please allow me some latitude for oversimplification as a ‘newbie’:

    Recent essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates (which I did just read– thanks to Peter Dorman for the link in his OP) about why Trump won seems to boil down to unrepentant racist Trump playing the identity politics game more effectively than Clinton played it due to enduring racism and desire to preserve white privilege among white voters across all socioeconomic classes.

    I would add that because our archaic Electoral College system is thoroughly gerrymandered along racial lines, Trump showed he could win enough Congressional districts to prevail at the state level of Electoral votes, despite trailing by millions in the popular vote (3M in my home state of California alone).

    Bottom line, Coates’ argument of “racism” is not a sufficient explanation, nor at all helpful in leading to a constructive response that would prevent recurrence of such a woeful outcome. Consequently, President Trump may be just the first in a line of racist and divisive demagogues.

  34. bernie k

    If the USA was self-evidently, racist —- then — why would it have elected a black president 2 straight terms and with a fairly decent majority?

    The ‘driving’ factor, it seems to me, self-evidently, was the economy

Comments are closed.