Fine Old Cannibals

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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.

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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.

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