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.

  • A Sprawling Post Of Middling Genius

    This post allows me to engage in some old-fashion lit journalism, boosterism. I want to talk about Caitlin Flanagan's piece on Alec Baldwin. But I can't really do that without recommending Ian Parker's deeply-reported, and beautifully written profile of Baldwin as a companion.

    Now on to to the Flanagan piece. When I was coming up, I can't tell you how many hack editors told me that young people should never write in the first person. I understand the argument--self-absorption and ego generally make for boring writing. But writers don't learn to use the first person by avoiding it. They don't find a voice without looking for one.

    Anyway, I have a weird fetish for the piece that proceeds ordinarily along, and then suddenly drops the writer in as a character. I first thrilled at this a decade ago, back home, when my old friend Amanda Ripley did exactly that, while chasing a phantom across Capitol Hill.

    There's a sense of shock when you see it done right--it's a kind of card trick pulled on the reader and our assumptions. We assume we're reading a piece of objective journalism. And then the writer does this reveal, and says "No, I'm human too. Here are the assumptions, I bring to bear, and here is what they may tell you."

    [MORE]

    I think for those reasons the end of Flanagan's review is pretty incredible. She's making the argument that the relationship between a father and a daughter is, at its core, romantic. I don't think I buy it--but then I don't have a daughter, nor am I daughter. But me buying it or not is beside the point. What's cool is how she swings left and reveals her place in it all:

    It used to take three buses to get from the Berkeley hills to the I. Magnin in San Francisco. You had to take the 7 to Palmer's Drugstore on Shattuck, the F across the bay to the city terminal, and then any Geary Street line to Union Square. It was a 14-mile journey that could easily take two hours, and my father and I undertook it each December with a combination of excitement and wariness, determined to bring home his annual Christmas gift to my mother, a quarter ounce of Arpège. We would stand on the plush gray carpeting of the perfume department for a long time, while slender, beautiful young women floated past. The saleslady would dot my own sturdy wrist with the potion, and still my father would stand there, tapping the edge of his American Express card on the glass counter over and over again in agony. We had taken three buses for the sole purpose of buying one thing, the price of which never changed, but every year I was never entirely sure he had it in him. And then--with a decisive nod--he would lay the card flat and push it toward the woman: "We'll take it."

    My father was a college professor, and we lived frugally, but somehow--unlike all my friends in similar circumstances--we seemed always to be on the edge of financial ruin. Our blender was secondhand; our television, like our dryer, came from a "bargain" emporium down in Oakland that was of such dubious character that I now wonder if it was a fence for stolen goods; things around the house (like the upstairs porch that you were warned never, ever to set foot on) were in a permanent state of decay. Things worked until they broke, and then they were left that way--a broken space heater was still a space heater, after all. Who knew if our luck would change, and one day you'd be inspired to plug the thing in, and out would whir a blast of warm air?

    And yet there we were, every year, buying one of the most expensive perfumes in the world from the best department store in California, and the reason had to do with the fact that deep within our family--the spark that had gotten it all started, turning one Flanagan into four and making a certain red-shingle house in North Berkeley an unparalleled trove of talked-out Chatty Cathy dolls and years-long quarrels, Julia Child soufflés and weekend benders--was a consuming passion.

    Read the whole thing. It's worth the trip.

    More »

  • The Civil War Wasn't About Slavery

    I once thought that civil rights group made too much hay out of the confederate flag. This was, by and large, a product of me having spent all my life in places where no one really flies a confederate flag.

    This came back to me this weekend while reading Capitol Men. I was digging through a chapter which talks about the famous Congressional debate between Robert Brown Elliot and Alexander Stephens over Charles Sumner's posthumously enacted Civil Rights Act of 1875. Better schooled men than me were probably wise to Stephens infamous statements about the Confederacy at the time of secession. I wasn't. Here's an excerpt from Stephens "Cornerstone Speech," which he explains the basis of the Confederate Constitution, and attacks Thomas Jefferson's stated opposition to slavery.

     The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically....Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

    Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

    I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics...I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

    Consider that this isn't just some loudmouth Confederate delegate spouting off, this is the Vice-President of the Confederacy making the case. Also note his invocation of the Creator, the notion white supremacy is not just natural, but divinely inspired. Stephens' clarification is here. I don't think it will make you feel any better though.

    People like to debate about the salience of white racism in our daily lives. I think the fact that there are entrenched interest in this country, and in one of our major parties, that continues to honor a treason founded on white racism really says a lot.

    Those interests are shrinking, no doubt. But they are there. And so is the confederate flag. I don't know how black people live in Mississippi. I'm not trying to dis. I, in all seriousness, don't get it.

  • If You Don't Like The Argument, Just Change The Subject

    David Broder writes:

    Obama, to his credit, has ended one of the darkest chapters of American history, when certain terrorist suspects were whisked off to secret prisons and subjected to waterboarding and other forms of painful coercion in hopes of extracting information about threats to the United States.

    He was right to do this. But he was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government. And he was right when he sent out his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to declare that the same amnesty should apply to the lawyers and bureaucrats who devised and justified the Bush administration practices.

    But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more -- the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps -- or, at least, careers and reputations.

    Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

    Broder admirably avoids the strawman of "accountability," and instead gamely steps up to duke it out with the nuanced, and complicated "unworthy desire for vengeance" argument. Let us all stand back and applaud his intellectual courage.

    Listen, there's a case to be made against pushing forward on torture--mostly a political one, that many commenters have made in this space. (Marc gives another one here.) But Broder isn't even serious enough to do that. He is a pug confusing a journeyman with the champ.

    I'm always amazed at how people accrue these reputations in high places. Watching Broder fumble with the basic, rudimentary work of intellectual honesty is like watching a Harvard physicist fumble with basic Algebra. And yet somehow, much, much worse.

  • Arlen Specter's In Trouble

    Wow. I knew it was bad. Not this bad, though:

    A new Rasmussen poll of Pennsylvania finds that Arlen Specter appears to be in serious trouble going into his 2010 primary against conservative challenger Pat Toomey.

    The numbers: Toomey 51%, Specter 30%.

    Toomey, a former Congressman, previously ran against Specter in the 2004 primary, and made it into a 51%-49% race. Specter has since provided Toomey a huge opening this time thanks to his vote for the stimulus bill. And Pennsylvania is a closed-primary state, too, meaning that Specter faces a conservative base vote.

    From the pollster's analysis: "In another sign that could be troubling for Specter, the current poll finds that 79% of Pennsylvania Republicans have a favorable opinion of the "Tea Party" protests against big government spending and higher taxes held across the nation last week. Thirty percent (30%) know someone personally who took part."

    Is Ed Rendell interested in the Senate? Michael Nutter?


  • Echoes Of The Crack Age

    When I get on the mic, my windpipe strikes and ignites
    A lyric, when you hear it, you fear it and like...

    The Chubbster. Made of win. Every bit of him.

  • Why Can't Everything In Life Be Mysterious...

    Kenyatta and me, rotate Saturday duty for Samori. This means Kenyatta handles three Saturdays a month and I handle one. She's told me before that this is unfair. I've told her that it's best if we "focus on looking toward the future." She's told me that, "the future looks unfair." I've settled on simply repeating the phrases "retribution" "focus on the future," and "looking forward" undulating tones until she gets tired and takes a nap.

    This Saturday is my Saturday. I'm supposed to take Samori to Spring football practice. I usually enjoy this very much. But I plan to be recovering from a hangover after taking Ten Shots Of Anything. I think my son will be disappointed, because he'll miss practice, and his father will be a babbling mess.

    I suspect, though I'm not sure, that this behavior may have some impact on my status as a positive male role model in his life (This is to say nothing of his mother yelling "I can't believe you slept with that nasty whore!" in the background.) I think that Samori may have some questions for me, if not now, then perhaps when he's 18. I think I've found a most agreeable soloution. I'll simply peer deep into his eyes, with the smuggest, most self-regarding look I can muster, and say, "Son, some thing in life must be mysterious."

    I think this is an adequate substituite for actual parenting. I think it also ensures another ten shots next Friday. Hey, ladies...

  • A History Of Hunger Strikes

    Well sorta. Brendan takes us there:

    The hunger strike is the most universal form of human protest, employed by kings and commoners alike, for reasons ranging from the noble to the mundane. Today brings news of actress Mia Farrow preparing to try her hand at hunger, in the admirable name of bringing attention to Darfur. According to her Farrow's publicist, she'll forego food "for as long as [she] is able to survive."

    But how long might that be? Over the past few years, the aggrieved have perfected the art of the hunger strike, prolonging their agony (and increasing their visibility) to disturbing degrees.
  • Why Don't We All Focus On "Looking Forward"

    There's a bar in the East Village that offers five shots of anything for ten bucks. I'm going there tonight, and taking 10 shots of anything the crowd reccommends. Then I'm going to stand on the street soliciting random women for sex. Should I be arrested I shall have the perfect rejoinder, "Officer, I think we should focus on looking forward." Should I be slapped, I'll have the perfect rebuttal, "Baby, I think we really should be focused on looking forward." Should I succeed and come home, hung-over, and have to face my spouse's accusing eyes, I shall be armed with the perfect riposte, "This relationship should focus on looking forward."

  • Lawrence O'Donnell On Liz Cheney's Lies

    As Matt points out, Liz Cheney raises SERE as an argument against waterboarding being defined as torture. Yet SERE was designed to prepare soldiers for the prospect of being tortured. In other words, if waterboarding isn't torture, than the program Cheney is lauding is a fucking joke. Here's O'Donnell making the point, but with less profanity.

  • What Would A Community Organizer Do?

    One point worth making, repeatedly, is that the "Look Forward" crowd is effectively calling for a sliding scale of justice. I try to avoid broad statements like this, but in this case, there really is no way out--A "Look Forward," approach is, at its core, an endorsement for kind of justice for the politically powerful and connected, and another for those who aren't. Rebutting Roger Cohen, Adam makes this point perfectly:

    I agree with Cohen that the press failed miserably in the aftermath of 9/11, but given that the coverage of the torture debate has focused not on whether American officials broke the law but rather how the president might be weathering the political storm surrounding the release of the torture memos, I'd suggest that the press really isn't done failing yet.

    Cohen's argument simply reflects the consensus among certain journalistic and political elites that the powerful simply shouldn't be held accountable when they make mistakes, because, after all, we all make mistakes. This compassionate attitude naturally doesn't extend beyond this small group. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, fully 1 percent of the population. I'm sure there are millions of people currently incarcerated who would like it if Cohen's policy of absolution for crimes was extended to them.

    There really two great points there--the first being about how the press is still failing on torture, by looking at it from the horse-race perspective. Back on topic, the second points out who gets what justice, and what kind. It's amazing that in a column rightfully detailing the Orwellian use of language by the Bushies, Cohen terms investigating torture abuses, "retribution." This is, indeed, some justice. It's not retribution to, say, try someone for a robbery they committed five years ago, that's the "the system working." But it is retribution to try ask that a man who is a sitting judge be investigated, for potentially skirting the law. To accept the "Look Forward" argument, you have to accept that the enforcement arm of government will, as policy, give some people "compassion" and withhold it from others, on the basis of power.

    Matt advances the ball:

    I would even take this beyond prison. The United States isn't run along Social Darwinist lines, but we're closer than any other major developed country. To an extent that I find frankly astounding--and certainly unseen in other wealthy nations--people from modest backgrounds are expected to suffer the economic consequences of poor decision-making or bad luck, all in the name of personal responsibility. But when someone really important screws up, either in terms of provoking a financial crisis or overseeing a policy disaster or breaking the law or whatever, well then it turns out that we have better things to do than "look backwards" at who deserves what.

    Let me make this even more personal. Endorsing justice, consequences, and "personal responsibility" for poor black fathers, as Obama does for instance, is moral, upstanding, and honest. Endorsing justice, consequences and "personal responsibility" for your colleagues who are charged with safegaurding the future of hundreds of millions of people is, apparently, mere retribution. What a joke.

  • Defining Journalism

    A lot of folks took issue with me challenging Peggy Noonan, and to a lesser extent George Will, on the grounds of journalism. The basic argument being, "She isn't a journalist, how can you be surprised by this?" Given that Noonan and Will (to my knowledge) have never been reporters, and don't do much of it, I understand the basic thrust of the argument.

    But it's false on the merits. Journalism doesn't simply include reporters--but editors, producers, and yes, opinion writers. Indeed, this is why, if you go to j-school, you might very well end up taking a class in op-ed writing. In fact, in its earliest forms, journalism was more opinion then reporting.

    I think it's fair to consider Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, a journalist. I think it's fair to consider Will, someone who's won a Pulitizer Prize for Journalism, a journalist. I now write, at most, four reported pieces a year--most of my words are unreported, and on this blog. I still think of myself as journalist. (Though reporting those pieces is very, very, very important to me. Indeed, I think the blog would suffer if I didn't do it.)

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