The topic: The place of religious discourse in civic life.
Initially prompted by some remarks by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter from June 29, I took a close look at Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and was stunned. The particular question that attracted my attention was the issue of Obama’s ‘authenticity’ as he enacted the role of a black preacher and transformed the eulogy into a sermon on race relations in the USA. So I transcribed part of their conversation and started thinking.
And I thought that I really ought to write a blog post addressing the authenticity issue. I ended up writing four posts. I devoted two posts to a close analysis of Obama’s eulogy, discovering – to my delight and surprise – that is exhibited ring-composition, one of my particular interests. Another post consists of transcribed conversation, the Loury-McWhorter conversation that got me started, a conversation between Pres. Obama and Marc Maron, and one between Ike Turner and Sam Phillips (the producer who discovered Elvis Presley). And my final post took up the authenticity issue, with a look into the past through Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and 19th Century camp meetings, and concluding with some remarks on the quasi-political quasi-religious nature of the President’s remarks.
As I was working into, through, and beyond that last post I began to think of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications. That put it in the same place, in my mind, that I had just created for Obama’s eulogy. And these two statements came within a month of one another.
Is something afoot, I wondered, something between and around religion and politics?
As I was thinking about that, and thinking about what I’d write for my up-coming 3 Quarks Daily column, I listened to another Loury-McWhorter discussion, this one was about Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. I’ve read a few pieces by Coates, but nothing in the last year or so. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. What’s more, it seems to me that they were defining this liminal space where we find Obama’s eulogy and Laudato Si’.
And that became my 3QD column, where I place those documents in evidence for a discussion of the role of religious discourse in public life. You can find that colunn HERE. Below the asterisks I've placed my transcription of Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates.
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Here’s the Blogginheads.tv conversation:
This starts at about 8:58:
JM: If you had asked me in 2008 who I thought would be considered the god of race commentators in 2015, I would guess that it would by Dyson, or I thought maybe it would have been Jelani Cobb, somebody like that. I wouldn’t have expected it to be Ta-Nehisi Coates. But here we are, and it’s interesting. His idea in his new book is that racism remains what America’s all about and that American is on the backs of black people both in past and present, etc. And in a way I think, as has been remarked on by other people, his fame and the reverence with which he is now treated by the white intelligentsia, is evidence against the idea of it being quite as bad as he says.
And what’s interesting, it’s funny, he is umm, he’s a priest. If you look at the place that he occupies at this point, there is a religion. Not among all white and non-black Americans, but certainly among what we might call the enlightened ones, there is now what a Martian anthropologist would call a religion. Which is that one is to understand the role of racism in America’s past and present.
And Coates has reached a point, and this is not anything that I ever predicted, where he is the priest of it. Because, and this is the crucial point, James Baldwin, who Toni Morrison has anointed Coates as being the reincarnation of, his point was often that race IS America, that the race problem is the essence of America and where it needs to go. And people read that and they quoted it but it wasn’t something that ordinary white readers really felt at the time.
Whereas today, really, that is something that whites feel such that Coates is revered. He is not considered somebody where you actually assess whether what he’s saying is true, you’re only supposed to criticize him in the gentlest of terms. He’s a priest of a religion.
That’s not such a bad thing. But I didn’t know that we were gonna’ have a priest. Wouldn’t you say that at this point there is a religion which is to be non-racist and to understand that black people have the short end of the stick. And that his reputation at this point is that he is the most articulate, maybe the fiercest you might put it, articulate person putting forth scripture of that position. And so we are to read him as Pauline scripture. That’s what’s going on.
GL: […] I don’t have yet my full analysis of this moment. But I would think this would all have to take into account the post-Ferguson that we’re in here. I think these stirrings of we have to talk about race we have to talk about race, I don’t
GL: know. I don’t yet know what this all means. I have remarked here […] about the rise of Al Sharpton, I think is very interesting. I think a political scientist would probably analyze this is terms of Obama’s ascendency and how the shake-out from that has kinda’ reconfigured the whole public racial discourse and conversation. I think […] that the new era that we’re in there’s kind of an anachronistic character to the racial claim-making based on civil rights and black’s subordinated and discriminated status, and that the ground has shifted so much, you know in that the Latino, the Asian, that the character of discrimination, the exclusion, is completely different than it had been 50 years ago.
And that a lot of the white response which is solicitous of these claims, is more patronizing that it is real political compromise. That is to say, it’s more of exactly what you’re putting your finger on here about religion. It’s more of signaling a moral position, more or displaying a sentiment, than it is of politics and power, you know of coalitions. […]
On Ta-Nehisi Coates, the reparations argument, we could play it out. Let’s not. I was stunned to see how much mileage he got out of what I regard to be – oh I’m gonna’ go ahead and just say this, guys – a completely discredited and anachronistic idea. You know, black people are due some kind of compensation. Surely you mean that symbolically, right?
GL: Surely you don’t wanna’ actually make a claim, any kinda’ quantitative claim on the basis of history. Because the first question that stares you in the face […] why are you framing this in terms of race? Why is this BLACK people? Just exactly who are, within the context of a civic discourse about American politics, black people? Let’s just get down the basics.
So, you know, I just didn’t take it seriously. And yet it became this thing. So reading I decided what I was dealing with, and I don’t think this is unrelated to your religion point, is a kind of cultural expressiveness, OK. Because the language is angry, OK. It takes no prisoners, OK. I mean I actually went back, pardon me, and read James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region of My Mind” piece in the original New Yorker magazine circa 1961, OK. I just went back and read it. […] Baldwin rips the friggin’ page apart with these blistering sentences! […] Ta-Nehisi Coates is no James Baldwin. […]
You say religion, I think that’s interesting because it raises the question of heresy. OK. Because right now if you criticize this brother, OK, not only is he going to pick up his pen and dismiss you with one of these snarky little quips, in which you become someone beneath contempt even to be considered as someone worthy of even being in a conversation.
JM: And cheered on by millions of people in doing so.
GL: But if it’s you and me, John McWhorter, our motives are going to come into question because people are going to say ‘Ah, they’re jealous of the brother. They wish that they were him.‘ […]
JM: […] It was the reparations article that I realized that the ground had shifted. […] Everybody knows that it’s not going to happen, and yet the way that article was praised it was clear to me the issue was not whether or not it could happen. So it wasn’t about politics, it wasn’t about the real world. […] It’s worship. What people loved, and it wasn’t just the artfulness of the prose, either. What people loved was that this person had said those things. To the extent that it wasn’t about things that could happen, it was testament. This person was being revered for a kind of testament. It’s at the point where what he’s saying is thought of as a kind of liturgy.
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Somewhat later in the conversation, at about 48:58, Loury invokes Freud:
GL: […] I love this focus on the body. Man, ‘cause it is so Freudian. Wait a minute. We’re gonna do Rousseau, can we do some Freud here? It’s so subterranean suggestive about what the deep tectonic plates of social power are. And I tell you they have something to do with human reproduction. I’m sorry I had to point that out.
[They both laugh.]
GL: That’s a stone that brother Jimmy would not leave unturned.