As the title says, I’ve got more to say about the phenomenon of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the first place, I’m wondering is his writing is affecting people now in the way that The Autobiography of Malcolm X affected me back in the late 1960s. So I start by talking about that. Then I suggest that the story of the emperor’s new clothes, as explicated by game theory, gives us a way of thinking about Coates’ impact. He’s the little boy who tells the crowd that the emperor is naked. Game theory gives us a way of generalizing from that story that side-steps the religious analogy.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he co-wrote with Alex Haley, was published in 1965, though I didn’t read it until a couple of years later, probably in the summer of 1966 between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It hit me like a ton of bricks, though beyond that I can’t say. I simply don’t remember anything beyond the fact of the book’s impact.
Why did it hit me so hard? Simple: I’d never read anything like it, at least framed as non-fiction. I was politically left, perhaps even radical – I belonged to Students for a Democratic Society rather than to the campus Democratic organization, whatever it was called – and supported the Civil Rights movement, which I’d watched on television. I believed in equality, and so forth, though the anti-war movement was more pressing.
There’s nothing surprising about this. After all, I’d lived a white middle-class life. I grew up in a white suburb of Johnstown in western Pennsylvania. The only ethnic-cultural issue that had any impact on my daily life was Catholics vs. Protestants, and that was mostly about who went to school where and what terms the high school sports terms competed against.
Going to college at Johns Hopkins changed that a bit. I was now living in a city of some size and, for the first time in my life, Jews became real to me. There’d only been one Jewish family in my neighborhood back home, but Jews constituted a large proportion of the student body at Hopkins and I found most of my friends among them.
Baltimore, of course, is, and was back then (I assume), a majority black city. But the Hopkins campus – the arts and sciences school – is in North Baltimore, which is mostly white, and it abuts the lower edge of the Roland Park neighborhood, which had houses of size and even grandeur. If there were no black students in the student body at Hopkins in 1965 – something that would change in a couple of years – the university had black employees. That’s when I first encountered a college graduate working a clerk’s job, in the campus bookstore.
So African Americans were no longer quite so exotic – perhaps not the best word, but it points in the right direction – they weren’t on the “inside” of the world I lived in either. I had no black friends, had no meals in black homes, nor did I build anything with black friends and colleagues.
And then there's reading Malcolm X about living as a black man in a white world, that was quite a shock. So THAT’s why the man is angry, thought I to myself. Until I read that book, Martin Luther King was just fine, but Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, not so good. Now the Nation of Islam made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before. That was a rational response to irrational injustice.
But beyond that, well, I marched against the war in Vietnam, got drafted and did alternative service in the Chaplain’s Office at Hopkins, attended Sunday afternoon jazz concerts at the Left Bank Jazz Society, where the audiences were majority black, but none of that had anything directly to do with improving the lives of black people.
What does it matter that I believed then, and still do, that the foundations of the modern world were laid on the corpses of enslaved laborers, that African Americans have suffered a grave injustice, and that injustice persists? I’m not saying or implying that such belief doesn’t matter, but only pointing out that belief is one thing, social action is another. Reading can have a direct effect on one’s beliefs. How one acts on those beliefs is a different matter.
The Emperor’s New Game Theory
What I suspect is going on in the reception of Ta-Nehisi Coates has to do with the difference between shared information and common or mutual information, a distinction from game theory that I first learned at a lecture by Steven Pinker. The story of the emperor’s new clothes illustrates it. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:
A vain Emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor's ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspects the assertion is true, but continues the procession.
At the point where the emperor steps out in front of the crowd, they all share the knowledge that he is naked. Everyone knows that, including the emperor himself. But as everyone is pretending that the emperor is splendidly dressed, no one knows that even one other person sees the emperor naked, much less, that everyone sees him as naked.
Once the child yells “He’s naked!” that changes. Everyone hears him and so knows that at least the child knows. But they also know that everyone has heard the child. Now they have common or mutual knowledge.
What I’m suggesting is that Ta-Nehisi Coates is playing the role of the child who points out the obvious fact that the emperor is naked. Just why he’s been cast into that role, that isn’t obvious to me. But we need to worry about that now.
I’ve read a number of his articles in the past, though I’ve not read his book. I just read his reparations article two days ago and, yes, it is a powerful piece of work. But I can’t say that I think that pursuing reparations is likely to have any concrete results nor, as I indicated two days ago, does Coates himself seem to think so.
Rather he seems to regard reparations as a device for framing the grand conversation on race. And what he wants from that conversation is just that we discuss that nakedness among ourselves so that we all, not only know of that nakedness, but know that everyone else knows.
If that is the case, well that would explain why, in McWhorter’s words (said in conversation with Glenn Loury):
Everybody knows that [reparations] is 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.
Not worship, but creation, verification, and affirmation of mutual knowledge. What’s important is that we all know and believe this. Religion does that, but not only religion. Movies do it, and novels, and poems. Expressive culture in general, something I argued in an open letter to Steve Pinker.
If I had the power to bring alternative worlds into existence, I’d create one that’s identical to ours, but in which Coates’ article says nothing about reparations. Take that material out – it’s no more than an fifth or so of the prose – but leave the rest, the accounts of individual lives and the facts and figures that spell out the larger story. What would the impact of that article be in this alternative world?
I don’t know. But I’d guess that it would have less impact. While the personal anecdotes and the facts and figures amount to the revelation that the emperor has no clothes, the call for reparations changes the valence of that information. It is because this call to action is futile, and everyone knows it to be so, that it has the effect of underlining the importance of the assertion itself: “The emperor is buck naked.” As McWhorter said: “What people loved was that this person had said those things.” Without the call to action the article is simply shared information. The call to action forces a conversation that converts that shared information into mutual information.
That in itself has no direct impact on anyone’s lives. But it may very well be the necessary basis for action to come.
And it’s in that context that we need to think about Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. By virtue of the public nature of his speech he’s creating mutual information. And that works on two levels: 1) the words he speaks, and 2) the fact that he chose the black vernacular sermon as his vehicle when he could have done otherwise. Not only does the (mostly black) audience in the room see him enacting the role of a black preacher, but the entire world sees him doing so. What mutual knowledge is thereby created?
A brilliant young economist, Michael Chwe, has written about the creation of mutual knowledge in the public sphere. You can find his papers here: http://www.chwe.net/michael/papers.html
I recommend his 1998 paper, Culture, Circles, and Commercials: Publicity, Common Knowledge, and Social Coordination, and his 2001 book, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge.
The paper, Rationally Constructing the Dimensions of the Political Sphere (2007), has an intriguing abstract. I’ve taken a quick look at it, but the guts are technical beyond my comprehension. Here’s his summary:
Social construction poses a challenge to rational choice theory. Rational choice models posit individuals whose identities and interests are already defined, while the point of social construction is that identities and interests are themselves the result of social processes. This paper uses a game-theoretic model to show that the issue of social construction can in some form arise even in the stark conceptual world of completely rational and asocialized actors. The paper suggests that it is possible that there are “hidden” issues, dimensions of political activity which can be politicized but are not because no individual wants to politicize them. People have diverse preferences on these issues, but they play no role in political expression or decision making, and in fact are not visible to the outside observer. Individuals here do not “keep quiet” out of social conditioning, conformity, or an inability to conceive of a different political reality, but because they are well aware that politicizing new issues has potentially risky real effects. People who do try to expand the domain of political activity are people whom the currently understood dimensions of political activity place in a minority. To create a new majority on a new dimension, it is not a matter of changing people's preferences but of creating “class consciousness,” so that people know that others feel the same way they do. The preferences which people use when voting, and their identity as majority or minority, are determined by constraints in people's knowledge of each other. These constraints are not exogenous but actively and rationally constructed by people through communication.
When people affirm what Coates says, are they revealing preferences along a dimension that had heretofore been hidden?