Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

  • How Bad Is It For Newspapers?

    Even the politicians are feeling bad. Still, I'm with David Carr on this one--I'm not sure government funding is the answer:

    I'm all for journalists swarming the Hill, especially now that about half of the reporters who used to work there are gone, potentially leaving much of government to its own devices. But to leave our industry tin-cupping its way around a government it covers seems desperate and ill-advised: a cure that might be worse than the disease.

    No one is arguing that the situation is not dire. Though Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, calmly told the senators on the panel led by Senator Kerry that "it's still very early," we all know better. In the past six months, five major American publishers have filed for bankruptcy.

    Given that monopolies that drove the business are falling apart, some antitrust relief that would allow the industry to collectively hit the reset button seems reasonable. But how exactly is the rest of it an agenda item for an elected government? Besides all the esteem we seem to hold ourselves in, it is difficult to make a rational economic argument for granting special favors to a relatively minor part of the American economy. Alan D. Mutter, who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, said that newspapers "collectively employ a mere 0.2 percent of the nation's labor force and generate only 0.36 percent of the gross national product." In other words, we are not, like the bankers and the auto industry we have covered so ferociously, too big to fail.

    Wasn't it up to publishers when things were fat and happy to invest for this foreseeable crisis? And wasn't it the publishers themselves who leapt into the arms of online aggregators and now want government intervention for what seems to be a business negotiation gone bad?

  • The Deeper Meaning Of Star Trek\Wolverine\Terminator

    Alyssa Rosenberg's take on fanboyism and the summer blockbuster is pretty damned good, and a welcome counter to those of us (me included) who like to inveigh against the horror of Hollywood's marketing of geekdom. Forgive me for quoting at length:

    Despite that financial success, the critics are growing restless. The New York Times' A.O. Scott declared that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is "the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue." Slate's Dana Stevens announced that "I'll be holding comic-book-based blockbusters to a more robust standard" this summer. And Anthony Lane, a film critic for The New Yorker, took a nasty shot at comic book enthusiasts in his review of Watchmen earlier in the year, saying the film "should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex."

    It's easy to dismiss sci fi flicks as clumsy and loud, but the critiques miss a key virtue. Unlike other genres, fanboy blockbusters are a constantly innovating form, with an important message about the present even as they outline visions of our future. In romantic comedies, the scene can shift from the Civil War to the Los Angeles real estate market as long as boy meets girl amidst the bayonets or billboards. Horror movies can switch weapons with no fall-off in audience long as there are coeds to dice. Come Oscar season, World War II films are such a reliable source of nominations that Kate Winslet's turn as a sexy Nazi became a simultaneous joke on the genre and a lock for the Academy Award.

    Science fiction and superhero movies don't have the luxury of simply finding the latest neighborhood where attractive singles are settling or the flashiest car on the market and plugging those accessories into a formula. By nature, those films have to imagine the future, to put something on screen that audiences would never see in their everyday lives. Sometimes, those visions are farfetched, unrealistic, paranoid, immature, or deeply cheesy. Of the four major sci-fi movies being released this spring and summer, two feature vengeful giant robots. Another centers on a guy who metalizes his skeleton, and the fourth plants spaceships in Iowa cornfields. They'll vary in quality, and plausibility, but at least they have something to say about the perils and opportunities of the future.

    X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first of these movies, is a perfect example of the power of a bad fanboy movie. The film is far too full of cheap-looking special effects and dialogue that seems ludicrous outside a cartoon bubble to be really absorbing. But Wolverine has far more to say about its chosen subject, the scientific manipulation of the human body, than, for example, the romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has to say about relationships between men and women.

    I think Anthony Lane has constructed three or four of my all time favorite sentences. (Of Yoda's tripe ramblings in the Star Wars prequels, he once quipped, "Break me a fucking give.") But I think Rosenberg makes a great point here. At some point critics (once again, including me) will have to start judging these flicks on their own terms.

    And with that, I guess I now have to go see Star Trek. Damn. I thought I'd be able to worm out of that one.

  • The Irrelevant Dick Cheney

    Andrew on Cheney:

    Here is a former vice-president, who enjoyed unprecedented power for eight long, long years. No veep ever wielded power like he did in the long history of American government. In the months after 9/11, he swept all Congressional resistance away, exerted total executive power, wielded a military and paramilitary apparatus far mightier than all its rivals combined and mightier than any power in history, tapped any phone he wanted, claimed the right to torture any suspect he wanted (and followed through with thousands, from Bagram to Abu Ghraib) and was able to print and borrow money with impunity to finance all of it without a worry in the world. But even after all that, he cannot tolerate a few months of someone else, duly elected, having a chance to govern the country with a decent interval of grace.

    There's obviously part of me that wants to see a guy like Dick Cheney brought to justice. But there's another part that sees a justice in his post-VP life. Cheney was once asked about public opinion and polls. Cheney responded that he didn't care. He was lying. I haven't meant a single human being who didn't care what other people thought of him. I don't think Cheney's a sociopath--I think he's a megalomaniac.

    Moreover, Dick Cheney is/was a politician--a hard job, at any level, for someone who doesn't care about polls to occupy. He is now one of the most hated political figures in Washington. His personal poll numbers are shockingly low--only 19 percent of all Americans, and only 50 percent of Republicans view him favorably. Think about that. Even among his own party, Cheney--hardcore conservative--isn't exactly a unifying figure.

    Were one to accept Cheney's notion that he really doesn't care about polls, perhaps this wouldn't matter. In fact, since the nadir of the Bush-era, Cheney has repeatedly tried to re-inject himself into the public dialogue. The last thing John McCain, running in a general election, needed was a Cheney endorsement. And yet there it was unprompted. And since Obama's entered into the White House, the ex-VP has been going to the public via the press. People who don't care, don't spend their days making their case to the very people who they don't care about.

    Something deeper is at work--a need to matter, a need to be understood, a need to cleansed, a need for the people to know that he did it all for them. He's not going to get that. Barack Obama barely acknowledges the guy. And every time Cheney steps in front of camera to wash his laundry, it seems like the opposite happens.

  • Limbaugh As The 20th Hijacker

    Meh, I think Wanda Sykes Limbaugh bit was so/so. The treason part was weak, but the "I hope his kidneys fail" was pretty hilarious. Anyway, hand-wringing over Wanda Sykes is pretty useless. She's a comedian. She's not there to respect the line.

    Moreover, I think people need to remember the context. Sykes belongs to three groups which Rush has made a career maligning--blacks, gays and women. I don't have time to dig up the Rush-file. But I'm willing to bet that if take together all the abhorrent things Limbaugh has ever said about those three groups and measured them against Sykes few minutes, it wouldn't be a contest.

  • The Wimmins Factor

    One other thing that should be said about Rosen's piece is the extent to which gender played a role in how Sotomayor came across. I'm out my league on this one. But some people who I trust are right at home. Here's Emily Bazelon over at Slate:

    Rosen quotes a bunch of negative comments from attorneys-"overly aggressive," "abuses lawyers"--followed by a brief acknowledgment of a couple of tepidly positive ones--"good legal ability." She sounds like a bitch. Who'd want her on the Supreme Court?

    Or many other women judges for that matter. Because this is how lawyers often talk about women on the bench. It's an old story. In 1994, in writing up the findings of the Ninth Circuit Gender Bias Task Force, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that "attorney evaluations of judicial performance revealed a 'pattern of bias;' 'female judges were rated lower consistently than their male counterparts on every attribute measured.'" O'Connor was quoting a 1993 study by law professor Joyce S. Sterling.
  • Some Interesting Advice

    Just got this note over the intertubes-maily doodad:

    Dear TNC,

    I meant to write this a while back so it's not as topical now, but I just wanted to offer you a very quick piece of advice. You have a beautiful (writing) voice and and interesting mind; don't get dragged in every time somebody writes you saying, "some hick say XYZ about black people, please respond." Your commentary on race issues is, of course, interesting and always well thought out. But some of the shit you respond to deserves neither your attention nor that of your readers. Just my two cents.

    This is always such a tough one, and I highlight this note because it mirrors some things I've been turning over in my head. A solid half of my e-mail consists of links from my readers cataloging the dumb shit people say about black people--often by "serious" people. Do you respond? Or do you ignore?

    First, the groundwork. I think that many people (I won't say most) who make money doing opinion journalism aren't very curious. Their interest isn't in expanding their view of the world, or refining their analysis. Their interested in scoring points, and the only relevant information is the kind that helps them score more points. It's understandable--nuance won't get you on Hannity, or turn you into Keith Olbermann for that matter. You get paid to score points, and rev up your side.

    This is a temptation of the trade--and it's one I struggle with mightily. I try not to take TV and radio gigs if I don't know what I'm talking about. I try not to blog too much about areas where my understanding is thin. But I get caught out there sometimes. And I'm sure some missive I've authored, at some point, has been sent to some other blogger as an example of liberal "dumb shit."

    Second, the perils of race-related opinion-journalism--particularly the sort that features no original reporting--are compounded by the demographics of this country.  Black people are the most segregated minority in America.  The people who interpret black people for the world are, in the main, white, and thus not likely to have spent much time in the company of their charges.

    More than that, even if you're black, the nature of race in America is so complicated and so twisting, that being black isn't really enough. Writing about race requires walking and chewing gum, and yet often it's left in the hands of people who aren't particularly interested in either--be they black or white.

    And then there's one final problem--people aren't convinced that black people are human. That's a pretty blanket accusation, but I think it bears out pretty well. I think it explains why the pathologies of poverty are so easily transformed into pathologies of blackness. I think it's why people actually believed that a handsome, Ivy-educated lawyer from the South Side of Chicago, whose married to a black woman, wouldn't be "black enough" for African-Americans. I think it's why people think Bill Cosby is saying something that's never heard in black communities. I think it explains why George Will believes that a guy who wrote a book subtitled "Why We Are Excited By Obama And Why He Can't Win," is nonetheless "America's foremost black intellectual."


    In these sorts of intellectual debates, black people aren't people, as much as they are symbol of American sin. We are not discussing a group of loosely connected human beings who drink, eat, shit, piss, fuck, kill, fight, laugh and love. We're discussing a thing--a club to inveigh against liberalism gone amock, a sword to inveigh against the backwardness of conservatives, a cudgel to beat on poor people everywhere.

    My job is to report and write. But so much of what informs my view of race is shaped by the in between. I enjoy debating race, just like anyone else. But if you want to know about Negroes, don't read this blog. Come to 128th and Second on any given Saturday in the Fall. That's where my son plays little league football, and where you can find blackness laid out in all its requisite splendor. It's all out there--the single mothers, the Puerto-Ricans, the Jamaicans, the kids on scholarship at Dalton, the Muslim fathers fasting for Ramadan, the boys one step from the corner. One big mass of conflicted and contradictory humanity.

    Our problem is this--we have pundits who are geniuses at interpreting numbers, but rank failures at interpreting people. This is how someone looks at you with a straight face and argues that black men will use gay marriage to escape the altar. It's a notion cultivated by a pundit who's stared at the numbers for so long that they've started confusing them with people.

    Man listen: Bring me all the stats you can muster. Bring me your illegitimacy rates, your marriage rates, your crime stats. Bring me your achievement gaps, your IQ chasms, your precisely weighted data. I'll read it all with you and weep. But  if you're scared to be amongst the community you deign to interpret, I have only a pound and prayer to offer you. This isn't exclusive to black people. This goes for "intellectuals" who analyze Iraq from the comforts of Washington think tanks, yet wouldn't recognize a word of Arabic and haven't spent more than a few days in the Middle-East.

    The fear of people is real, and while it's a barrier to saying anything original, it's not a barrier to having a career explaining them. Thus, the dumb shit flourishes. So what do we do with the resulting flood of stupid? Do we let it stand? Do we ruthlessly attack every single instance of intellectual charlatanism? Or do we just move on to the new Star Trek movie and Brett Favre?

    More »

  • Obama Just Like Bush

    If you're gay and in the military:

    Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and officer in the Army National Guard who is fluent in Arabic and who returned recently from Iraq, received notice today that the military is about to fire him. Why? Because he came out of the closet as a gay man on national television.

    Ignorance begets ignorance. Ignorance of homosexuality will now make us more ignorant about the Arab world.

    Meanwhile, as Matt points out, repealing DADT won't ever be convenient. There won't be any politically expedient about it. It's the sort of move you may well lose some votes over. At some point, Obama is going to have to honor liberal tradition, swallow hard, and throw the long ball. It's not suppose to be easy to do the right thing. That's why so many don't do it.

  • Rosen-Gate Wrapup

    It's worth reading Reihan's response here. I think he thinks he went a little too hard. He offers a worthwhile explanation why. And here's Darren Hutchinson, who offered some of the more substantive critique of Rosen's legal reading. Lastly, we have Glenn one more time. In the words of Method Man, flying guillotines here they come.

    As for me, don't expect me to push this much further. I've said my piece, and stand by it. It's there for all to read. I'm not in this for blood. At least not most of the time.

    Also, one quick note on something Reihan offered:

    On the humility point, I have to say: I don't think humility is, as TNC suggests, a floor at all. Given the extremely high levels of self-satisfaction I encounter in the universe of opinion journalism all the time, I actually think humility is pretty rare. But that's an honest disagreement.

    Well, not really. Reihan is obviously right. Humility is pretty rare--in the practical observable sense. I guess I meant in a more abstract sense, as in, "humility is the floor for anyone I'd want to read." In the context of opinion journalism, I guess it makes a certain sense to give writers credit for humility. But that's a kind of sick statement on opinion journalism. Perhaps the old "I take care of my kids!" black male battle-cry is a better analogy.

  • What Are You On, Crack?

    Jon Stewart airs Marion Barry out. Two things struck me about that video. The utter and complete hatred in the eyes of "community leaders" protesting the council's vote. It's like that Nietzsche quote about battling monsters. Second, the spectacle of a dude who put a city at risk so he could get high and get some ass, railing against the immortality of gay marriage.

    These are last days of a certain type of black leader who glories in crowds, placards, sanctimony and indignation. They're getting their kicks in while they can. Nothing else awaits.

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  • The Gay Marriage Debate, Live From D.C.

    A reader sent this note to me. It offers a portrait of the sort dialogue that's going unreported in the city:

    I was at a meeting of the Ward 4 Dem's last night in Washington, D.C., where residents had a passionate but respectful conversation about marriage equality (with both sides voicing their views) and two of DC's Council Members (Ward 4's Councilmember Muriel Bowser and at-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson) discussing their votes, before the room passed a resolution advocating support for FULL marriage quality (not just the "out-of-state" provision passed this week) by a vote of 36 to 6.

    Ward 4 is one of the most diverse wards in the city, and it is very representative demographically (racially, ethnically and socio-economically) of the city as a whole. I think that the tenor of the room last night suggests that the apocalyptic threats of Councilmember Barry and his cadre of suburban Maryland ministers may be exaggerated. (After living in D.C. for more than 20 years, I have seen the many faces of Marion Barry, so nothing he does really is surprising.) Even if he thinks that he is representing the views of the voters of Ward 8 (who I will concede generally are different from those in other wards in the city), I think that Council Member Barry is getting it wrong. 

    I will agree with other writers to your BLOG that D.C. is in many ways a Southern city, and its politics are impacted by the fact that it remains a majority-African American city. But D.C. residents are some of the most politically educated and progressive in the United States. Certainly we saw last night that Barry does NOT speak for African Americans city-wide. Councilmember Bowser succinctly and eloquently described her support of marriage equality is a simple matter of justice. And Ward 4 Dem Chairperson Deborah Royster shared a rather poignant story from her childhood about her family being refused lodging in a Virginia hotel because of racial segregation, saying that that experience of discrimination was etched into her memory and that she cannot stand by and condone other forms of discrimination.

    I am more optimistic than I was prior to meeting with my Ward 4 neighbors. I think - with some good grassroots outreach throughout the city - we can win this fight, even in Barry's backyard. The question is whether outside forces will allow DC residents to have this dialogue without their interference. I am less optimistic about that.

    That last sentence is key. The history of bigots meddling in D.C.'s affairs is extensive and stretches back nearly 100 years. Then it was white supremacy. Now it's anti-gay bigotry. Anyone interested in reading up on the story of how Southern racists lorded over D.C. for years should check out Dream City by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. It's indispensable to understanding why a city would re-elect a man caught on tape smoking crack.


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



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