Fine Old Cannibals

In an earlier post, I wrote:

It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust. "Civilization" is irrelevant to racism. I don't even know what "civilization" means. When all your great theory, and awesome literature, and philosophy amounts to state bent on genocide, what is it worth? There were groups of hunter-gatherers wandering the Kalahari who were more civilized than Germany in 1943.

I probably should not have.

I was trying to do two things: 1.) Question the idea of "civilization," a word that I have a hard time disentangling from intellectual bigotry. 2.) Point out that even by the standards of those who use words like "civilization, " alleged "civilizations" often fail.

But sometimes when we try to question a bigoted claim, we end up simply restating the bigoted claim. I should have been clearer. I don't want anyone leaving with the impression that I think it is helpful, useful, or even accurate to attempt laud entire ethnic groups as "civilized" and others as "uncivilized." Not because it's "mean," but because I don't think such talk has any meaning or content.

Some of the deepest revelations of my life have come from sitting with Herman Melville. Even deeper ones have come from sitting with my father. I would expect that exact same thing to be true on the Kalahari.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Global

From This Author

Just In