'He Hated Error More Than He Loved Truth'

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A few notes for some folks who are interested in the winding path to the Blue Period:

1.) A friend sent along the following quotes from Michael Oakeshott on the limits of awesome sonnage. Oakeshott is critiquing Hobbes who raised sonnage to historic levels:

...The blood of contention ran in his veins. He acquired the lucid genius of a great expositor of ideas; but by disposition he was a fighter, and he knew no tactics save attack. He was a brilliant controversialist, deft, pertinacious and imaginative, and he disposed of the errors of scholastics, Puritans and Papists with a subtle mixture of argument and ridicule.

But he made the mistake of supposing that this style was universally effective, in mathematics no less than in politics. For brilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment. Always to play to win is to take one’s standards from one’s opponent, and local victory comes to displace every other consideration. Most readers will find Hobbes’s disputatiousness excessive; but it is the defect of an exceptionally active mind.

And it never quite destroyed in him the distinction between beating an opponent and establishing a proposition, and never quite silenced the conversation with himself which is the heart of philosophical thinking. But, like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition. There is sagacity in Hobbes, and often a profound deliberateness; but there is no repose.

I didn't finish Leviathan. I hope to get back to it. I'm sure some folks in the Horde will disagree with this characterization. But I think the deeper point about "brilliance in controversy" is one for the ages. It's tough to remember that you must never do it for them. It's tough to remember why you came. Why you came was not to be lauded for "destroying," "owning," or otherwise sonning anyone. You must always define the debate and not allow the debate--and all its volume and spectacle--to define you. 

2.) As noted before, I first began seriously considering the immortality of white supremacy after listening to Nell Irvin Painter. I say "seriously considering" to distinguish it from the kind of general cynicism toward white America that a lot of black people feel. I felt that and then lost most of it with the election of Barack Obama. What followed wasn't cynicism--which I think is really just another specimen of naiveté-- but something more haunting and real. Here are a couple interviews on that point--one with Phoebe Judge at WUNC in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the other with Jonathan Judaken before a lecture at Rhodes College in Memphis.

3.) Horde Legionnaire Absurdbeats has done the tremendous--and laudable--labor of compiling virtually every single book and scholarly article I've ever spoken of on this blog. Some of them remain unfinished--Leviathan, The Origins of Species and Discipline and Punish, being the major ones. The two that really pushed me over were were Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom and Barbara and Karen Fields' Racecraft. Morgan is indispensable. There is no single book I've found myself reviewing more over the past five years. 

4.) Barbara and Karen Fields' Racecraft is curious compilation of essays that I did not quite get when I first read it. Below I've embedded a video of me and Barbara Fields discussing the book. I was still processing its thesis even as I was interviewing to her. (I remember being really afraid of looking stupid.) But the basic argument is that Americans tend to speak of "race" as a biological constant, which it isn't. That notion it, itself, a product of racism. Racecraft is the process by which something moves from the condemnable (racism) to the value-neutral (racism.)

Thus we say that we need a "conversation on race" or "race divides America" or we speak of "different races." Another way to say this is we need to have a "conversation on racism" or "racism divides America," or to speak of "historical victims of racism." This is very key. The was no white and black race until we created one, and this creation was--itself--an act of racism, done to justify other acts of racism. Presuming that there is biological constant called "white" and "black" removes human actors, elides responsibility, and annihilates history.

Around 39:30 you can hear Fields give a good explanation for the process of racecraft.

6.) The New York Times has a great video about "The Superpredator" era of social policy in the 90s. In many ways it brings us full circle. Its protagonist is John Dilulio, who with William Bennett, authored the book Body Count which predicted that a wave of "godless" and "fatherless" and "jobless" juvenile criminals would soon descend on America. You will remember that it was in the company Bennett that Paul Ryan offered his unlettered critique of inner city culture. Bennett and Dilulio were wrong--horribly so, as the film lays out. America's black communities are still paying the price, and will continue to for some time. That is danger of crafting policy as though we have no history and writing off broad swaths as culturally pathological.

7.) We began with Oakeshott. It seems fitting to end with one of his disciples. I recommend checking out Andrew's attempt to think his way through this. It's admirable and more writers should do it. I very often strenuously disagree with Andrew over the force of white supremacy in American history and the American present. At the same time, Andrew was a big, big influence in my efforts to master the art of thinking publicly. Sometimes our teachers come in unexpected clothing. We are better for taking the lesson, nonetheless. 

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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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