Wednesday, December 6, 2017

How the peculiar power of Ta-Nehisi Coates feeds on white guilt and despair

Brendan O'Neill, in Spiked:
His insights are bleak; they are for the most part an intellectualised version of the 21st-century politics of identity and victimhood, so that, in the words of one of his growing number of black critics, in Coates’ moral universe ‘whiteness and wrongness… become interchangeable’. Indeed, Coates’ obsession with whiteness ends up displacing black agency and autonomy — as the victim-oriented new politics of identity is wont to do — because in his ‘whiteness-as-talisman’ worldview, ‘those deemed white remain [America’s] primary actors’. So ironically — but logically, too, given that the politics of identity in its current incarnation is devoted largely to the diminution of the individual and the folding of him and her into victimised groups to which things happen, rather than the treatment of him or her as an individual who can make things happen — Coates’ anti-whiteness centres white people, makes them the adults of the story, gives them all the potential action — to observe themselves, correct themselves, better themselves — while blacks are mere ‘bodies’ for whom history is a violent act upon themselves rather than something they act upon. (Coates continually uses the term ‘black bodies’ to refer to black people.)

No, it isn’t his style and certainly not his optimism — there is none — that endears Coates to the liberal establishment, and most passionately to the white sections of it. Rather, this increasingly spiritual and needy celebration of Coates speaks to one of the darker, more socially destructive elements of the latest manifestation of the politics of identity: the use of historic black suffering to justify the self-loathing and fear of the future of the late, decadent bourgeoisie; the privileging, indeed, of the painful black experience as a means not of ensuring historic clarity about past events but as a key prop, the starring role, in fact, in the contemporary political establishment’s turning against its founding values and loss of faith in its project.

Coates plays a very important role for today’s American elites: he provides them with an intellectual justification for their growing dearth of belief in their republic and its values; he is an external expression of their internal crisis of historic legitimacy and purpose. He is less an independent thinker, in the mould of WEB Du Bois or James Baldwin, than a literary manifestation of the American establishment’s own turn against itself and its search for a proof that makes sense as to why it is right to do that.
The birth of 'black privilege':
In recent years, particularly from the 1960s, many thinkers have observed the shift of the left’s focus away from class to identity, from social relations and questions of economic power towards narrower, though of course legitimate concerns about inequality among people of different backgrounds. In more recent years, there has been a further shift in the post-1960s rehabilitation of the politics of identity by those who profess to be left — a move away even from the tangible if limited question of inequality towards more therapeutic notions of pain and recognition; of the right of identity groups not merely to have equal access to public life but to feel validated in their self-professed suffering and to be accorded resources or respect on that basis. As Christopher Lasch argued in his 1985 book, The Minimal Self, ‘the victim has come to enjoy a certain moral superiority in our society’; we have witnessed the ‘moral elevation of the victim’. Competing groups now ‘vie for the privileged status of victims’, as Lasch said.

And this creates a situation where they increasingly ‘appeal not to to the universal rights of citizenship but to a special experience of persecution’, Lasch argued. In short, where a society organised around democratic ideals, around the idea of the self-willed individual and his freedom to shape his life and even political life as he saw fit, naturally encouraged people to appeal to the ideal of citizenship — to demonstrate their capacity for citizenship — a society organised around the victim, around the sanctification of having experienced suffering, naturally invites people to disavow their capacity for citizenship and instead to accentuate their frailty, their insufficiency, their helplessness. This ‘moral elevation of the victim’ has intensified, enormously, since 1985, so that the demand and the living of the universal rights of citizenship have now almost entirely given way to the project of cultivating self-weakness and dismantling one’s citizenship. And these shifts in the modern politics of identity have had a particularly profound impact on black politics, and on the cultural privileging of the black experience. [...]

Coates represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of these developments, the embodiment of the privileging of the black experience by those who have experienced a profound and existential ‘loss of faith in the future’, in Lasch’s words. This is why white liberals venerate him and need him like they need air and water: he provides the story for their crisis of belief; his biographical experience gives coherence to their jettisoning of faith in universal values and the project of the American republic; his often pornographic focus on America’s alleged disgust with and ongoing torture of ‘black bodies’ titillates their own sense of self-loathing, and complicity, and guilt. The guilt of the republics, the shame of the Enlightenment — key themes of our misanthropic era.

And so white liberals actively welcome Coates’ chastising of them and their culture and history. Writing in Elle, the white liberal broadcaster Sally Kohn said all white people, especially white women, should read Coates because his ‘sharp edges’ and ‘hard truths’ will force whites to face ‘brutal reality’. It is ‘impossible to read [him] without wincing’, she says, ‘and it should be’. Because ‘discomfort is progress’. ‘Get even more uncomfortable’, she tells her fellow wealthy, well-connected white liberals, and then ‘spend the rest of your life’ thinking about what Coates says. This is not reading for intellectual expansion or pleasure — it is reading as self-punishment, the use of black pain to justify white self-loathing and liberal self-doubt. A perversely symbiotic relationship has developed between Coates and his largely white liberal readership, the former dutifully providing horror stories about ‘black bodies’, the latter dutifully lapping them up and feeling disgusted with themselves for their part in it all. This isn’t intellectualism — it’s a public performance of identitarian S&M.
H/t Glenn Loury.


  1. There have been some good left-wing critiques of Coates, expressing frustrations with what they see as a lack of black agency and dismissal of material analysis in his work, authored by writers like R.L. Stephens, among others.

    O'Neill, on the other hand, is a right-wing hack and apologist who employs that hoariest of conservative tropes: "I was a liberal/leftist/Marxist once, but now they've gone too far..." (usually accompanied by claims that "Actually, I'm a classical liberal.")

    I wouldn't take anything he has to say about Coates, or much of anything else, very seriously as whatever its merits - usually better articulated elsewhere - its overall purpose is to shrinkwrap the dominance of a ruling class in a palatable package, usually by targetting some small group of elites as the enemy in the service of the elite as a whole.

    "today’s American elites ... their growing dearth of belief in their republic and its values" is particularly rich.

    1. Well, that may be true, but the article is consistent with the conclusions I'd reached about Coates a couple of years ago.