History and Progressives

Here's an interesting critique by Corey Robin of my Liberal Sorcery post from last week. I'm not completely sure what to make of it, because it seems more a matter of objecting on tone, not substance. 


At any rate, I think this point is really worth teasing out:

If each of us is going to put our shoulder to the wheel, why doesn't Coates start with himself? Not with a harangue about how we fail to realize that the Civil Rights Movement didn't happen because "Martin Luther King was a really nice guy." (The one orbit of the political universe where you can be sure the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are properly understood is on the left.) But by challenging his colleagues at his magazine to report more on these stories, and by challenging himself to do the same. I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson's Battle Cry for Freedom?

The answer is Yes. 

I'd rather not detail the range of stories/columns/blog-postings I've written and/or reported over the past 15 years, or the places I've visited to expound upon that work, Let's, for the sake of argument, say that all I've done -- or most of what I've done -- amounts to harping on the Civil War, and thus ignoring the present-day struggles of progressives. 

The subtext of that critique is the notion that the stories of the past have no real import on the struggles of the present. Perhaps more generously, addressing history doesn't really address the struggle. In either case, I disagree. 

If you're working in virtually any area of public policy, I think it's important to understand the precise, specific origins of the wealth gap, and thus at least partially grasp the policy needs of African-American communities. If you're struggling against the tide of those who regularly attack Islam and would have people hauled off planes and detained, I think it's important understand that the most lethal terrorist movement in American history, was white and Christian, not tan and Muslim. 

If you're pondering the use of force by the American military, I think it's important to grapple with whether the use of such of forces is always a tragedy.  I don't know how you have a meaningful conversation about Affirmative Action, if you don't understand the policies which shaped this country for it first two hundred years. And if you are, like me, someone who seems himself as part of the ongoing black struggle, and who also believes that progressive policies hold the most promise for realizing the goals of that struggle, I have no idea how you don't harp on the lessons of slavery, reconstruction and the Civil War.

I think if progressives could convince more Americans to be in the habit of seriously studying history, then more Americans might be in the habit of seriously studying progressives. There is a direct link between the intellect that denies the import of Darwin, and the intellect that denies the roots of the Civil War.

Finally, I think it's important to be able to intelligently evaluate politicians who enlist the past in their causes, as they so often do. In the matter of hippie-punching, I couldn't help but notice that Robin agrees. I don't want to sound ungracious, but I noticed in his agreement, he skipped past the historical foundation and went for the present conclusion. I take that as my failure, as a progressive, to duly emphasize and elucidate the history.

I can see no recourse except to offer what precedes and what surely will follow -- another post, in its own way, about Jim McPherson.
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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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