Politics & Policy

Coates vs. Sanders: When Liberal Pieties Collide

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Photo: Montesbradley/Wikimedia)
Which social-justice hero should liberals follow?

Liberals often claim that the little people, those without a college education or a subscription to the New York Times, are easy prey for demagogues. Lacking political nous and basic B.S.-resistance, apparently, these plain-thinking folk find themselves in thrall to frothing Fox News anchors and various other big-haired, well-known people who spout simple political messages. We can think independently, but they can’t, say snooty liberals. All of which makes the Cult of Ta-Nehisi Coates so ironic. The very liberals who mock rednecks for falling for the bluster of biblical or right-leaning nuts basically bow and scrape at the feet of Coates, treating his every utterance as a bolt from heaven.

During the two weeks I have been in the U.S., I’ve been amazed by the moral stranglehold Coates exercises over significant sections of the media and intellectual elites. The gormless look of the ill-educated guy who believes everything his favorite shock-jock tells him is nothing compared with the wide-eyed wonder with which liberals greet Coates’s cod-philosophies. Consider the turmoil Coates caused among the liberal Twittersphere and in broadsheet-reading circles last week when he suggested that people shouldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders. It was as if a headmaster had scolded a group of children: Apparently free-thinking liberals didn’t know what to do or think after their favorite provider of moral platitudes had called into question their voting intentions.

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In the words of Flavorwire magazine, Coates’s comments about Sanders “nearly burst the left consensusphere on Twitter and elsewhere.” In a piece for The Atlantic, Coates had argued that while Sanders presents himself as a “radical,” his refusal to support slavery reparations actually means he’s an implicit defender of white supremacy. Anyone who disagrees with Coates is a white supremacist, don’t you know. Cue copious amounts of handwringing among those media and cultural people who like the idea of President Sanders but who also get their fix of morality from Coates’s writings, and in fact treat his words as secular gospel. What are they to do now? Defy Coates? Is that allowed?

Liberal Twitter tortured itself, torn between what it views as good guy Sanders and saintly Ta-Nehisi.

The New York Times published an actual news report on Coates’s “stinging critique” of Sanders, informing its no doubt Coates-worshipping readers that Coates’s edict might dent Sanders’s chances of winning over black voters. Liberal Twitter tortured itself, finding itself torn between what it views as good guy Sanders and saintly Ta-Nehisi. Numerous articles appeared to analyze the correctness, or otherwise, of Coates’s latest pronouncement on who is good (supports reparations) and who is evil (opposes them). Strikingly, even those hacks who bravely took Coates to task made clear that they will still follow him. “Coates is right about white supremacy — but that doesn’t mean that Bernie Sanders is wrong,” said one headline. “You Can Agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Still Vote for Bernie Sanders,” said another, no doubt providing sweet relief for Sanders-loving liberals who were worried they might have to abandon the Cult of Coates.

RELATED: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s New Book Betrays a Toxic Worldview

Others were less sure. In City Paper, E. R. Shipp reminded liberals that Coates inhabits a “rarefied sphere” of moral thinking — as all prophets do, right? — and is a special moral creature “bound by neither pragmatism nor election cycles.” So this is the dilemma facing liberals: Do they keep clinging to the hem of Coates, the multicultural messiah, standing above the ghastly pit of politics we mere mortals stew in, or do they do the low, pragmatic thing of saying, “Oh well, Sanders is the best of a bad bunch, so I’m voting for him”? Do they stick with their prophet or trip after their politician?

#share#The commotion caused by Coates’s piece on Sanders speaks to the strange and backward role Coates now plays in liberal America. That some liberals criticized him over the Sanders thing — however meekly — is itself striking, since up to now it has been heresy to speak ill of Coates. Consider the furious response to Times columnist David Brooks last year, when he had the temerity to mildly criticize Coates’s lavishly praised book Between the World and Me. The Twittersphere mauled him. He was slammed for being white and privileged. A letter-writer to the Times said Coates has “spoken his truth profoundly” and Brooks should have kept his mouth “shut for a while.” In short, lap up this truth from on high and do not answer back. Such a demand that we obediently imbibe Coates’s “truth” makes the most gullible Fox News addict seem reasoned in comparison.

RELATED: Angry Black Radicals and the Foolish White Liberals Who Love Them

That it feels so surprising to hear at least a few liberals question Coates over Sanders reveals how irrational the Cult of Coates had become. Coates has made himself a key cog in liberal America, not because he has anything especially fresh or original to say, but because he provides America-doubting, self-hating white liberals with the thrill of black anger. At a time when being a liberal doesn’t mean defending the American Dream and aspiring to create a wealthier, happier future for all, but rather has come to mean sneering at the American Dream and raking endlessly over America’s past and its various racial and military crimes, Coates has been clutched to the liberal bosom as the confirmer-in-chief of America’s rottenness.

Coates has been clutched to the liberal bosom as the confirmer-in-chief of America’s rottenness.

The most striking thing about his book is its misanthropy. It expresses extraordinarily little faith in humankind. It is historically deterministic, describing racism as a “default setting” to which America will always “inevitably return,” and it is contemptuous of the masses, especially the white masses, who are depicted as shallow and inauthentic, “spilling out of wine bars.” This is manna from heaven for the modern American liberal, whose faith in humanity is waning, whose love for America has weakened, and who has exchanged the old, positive urge to remake society for an obsession with dark, immoveable events of the past. It is striking that Coates focuses so hard on “black bodies” and the violence America has done to them: He provides a pornography of black pain for the titillation of lost, confused liberals.

#related#The relationship between Coates and his liberal fans is a strange, mutually reinforcing one. They, the guilty-feeling whites, horrified by their own comfort and privilege, long to be told off and perhaps even punished for the sins of their nation; and he, the “rarefied” black, the holder and teller of a “profound truth,” is happy to give it to them, to excite them with tales of broken black bodies and never-ending, default hatred. There is little authentic or even independent about Coates’s work: It is better seen as a shallow performance of historical black pain for an audience of elite self-hating whites. And so liberals can brook barely any criticism of Coates, and are thrown into turmoil when he criticizes Sanders, because Coates dutifully gives them what they so desperately need today: physical proof that they are right to have turned against the American Dream, and against the American masses.


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