On the seventh day of May, in the year of our Lord 2018, the heavens did open. And lo! They poured forth a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay. For a parched people, seeking to drink from the wells of wisdom, his words were a great blessing, a blessing that caused them to praise the Almighty.
My god, Ta-Nehisi Coates. My god. https://t.co/NyfDPKctJy
— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) May 7, 2018
And the praise did reach a great crescendo, with the multitudes rejoicing across the length and breadth of Twitter. For there is no greater writer than Coates. He is the prophet of our times.
This the single most powerful — and devastating — piece of essay writing I’ve read in ages. Read every word: https://t.co/hWt2o3R7Y6
— Michael Barbaro (@mikiebarb) May 7, 2018
If there’s a better writer alive today than Ta-Nehisi Coates … oh, hell — there’s not a better writer alive.
This is stunning.
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) May 7, 2018
In some American circles, it is taken for granted that Coates is one of the most important public intellectuals — if not the most important public intellectual — of our times. The praise above isn’t extraordinary; it’s normal when Coates writes. Remember this tweet, from New York Times film critic A. O. Scott?
"Must read" doesn't even come close. This from @tanehisicoates is essential, like water or air. http://t.co/wJySUg7nMw
— 32 across (@aoscott) July 5, 2015
As you read this praise, keep in mind that this isn’t just an assessment of the beauty of Coates’s prose. It’s an extraordinarily enthusiastic endorsement of the man’s ideas. He is perceived as speaking necessary truths to a nation. In this instance, what is that necessary truth?
When Kanye West went rogue, he was leaving the black “we” for the freedom of “I.” But the freedom he sought was “white freedom.” And what is white freedom? The definition may surprise you:
freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.
In his excellent essay today, Ben Shapiro calls out the innate racism of these words. Ben’s right, and it’s worth dwelling for a moment on why he’s right.
Look at the list above. It’s a laundry-list indictment of American history, with every single negative characteristic attributed to whiteness. Moreover, it describes a “freedom” utterly alien to virtually every white person living in the United States. It’s reductionist, and it’s wrong.
Where to begin? He can’t truly believe that white people live without consequence or criticism. Does he not now know how many of his fellow citizens, though white, are struggling immensely, dying deaths of despair at such a rate that it’s decreasing American life expectancy? Does he not understand that for each terrible movement he identifies, there was white opposition — sometimes white opposition to the point of death?
When Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment faced William Oates and the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, which white man was exercising “white freedom”? And when he talks of the “rape buttons” and the other hallmarks of #MeToo, does he not remember Bill Cosby and Russell Simmons?
White people have conquered, yes, but they are hardly history’s sole conquerors. Coates in earlier writings would have attributed the sins above less to whiteness and more to human nature itself. People are prone to do terrible things, and other people rise to oppose evil. Whites have done terrible things and faced opposition from white and black alike. People of color have done dreadful things as well. The evil that lurks in a man’s heart knows no color boundaries.
None of this is to argue that America hasn’t faced dreadful problems with white supremacy, or that white racism has been extinguished. But there is a world of difference between decrying the actions of actual individuals and racializing malice and ignorance on such a scale. Coates is a good enough writer to know what he’s doing. These are not sloppy words. They’re carefully chosen words.
As I’ve written before, there is a generations-long temptation in white progressive circles to revere and promote radical black voices. It’s as if the anger itself is worthy of respect, and expressions of outrage, no matter how vicious, are markers of “authenticity.” But Americans not steeped in this ideology — where white “allies” promote black radicals (yet somehow always remain in the seats of power) — read Coates’s words and see something else.
They see hatred.
Adoration is no substitute for critical inquiry.
But they also see ignorance. There was a striking moment in the publicly released transcript of the internal Atlantic forum with Jeffrey Goldberg and Coates. Speaking of his now-famous essay on reparations, Coates says that “there was, like, no other conservative person I would have answered” other than Kevin Williamson. In all of conservatism, only one man met his threshold for engagement — and that was mainly because he viewed Kevin as a sufficiently gifted writer.
While Coates gets criticism from the Left, it typically takes engagement with Left and Right to fully evaluate ideas. To write off an entire movement as unworthy of engagement is to create your own bubble. And so while the underlying talent may remain, the quality of thought can and will degrade over time.
I’d ask Coates’s many fans a simple question. Read the quoted paragraph again. Put aside its appealing ferocity. Engage with the ideas. Are the words true? Or is he too often recasting what is evil as what is white? White Americans should not flinch from hard truths, but they can and should resist angry falsehoods.
It’s the false idea behind the eloquence that makes the rapturous praise so nauseating. Powerful people push Coates’s prose and declare, this is truth. This is real. And while Coates is certainly capable of speaking truth, adoration is no substitute for critical inquiry. Time and again, Coates’s words are hateful and wrong. The Left’s golden literary idol has feet of clay.