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.

  • Ill Visions

    Last night I read this rather chilling quote from Adelbert Ames, the Reconstruction-era governor of Mississippi. Ames, himself, is rather amazing and worth reading about. (He is, amongst other things, George Plimpton's great-grandfather) Here he is writing to Mississippi senator Blanche Bruce on the plight of blacks in the state, just as Reconstruction is ending:

    Election day may find our voters fleeing before rebel bullets rather than balloting for their rights. They are to be returned to a condition of serfdom--an era of second slavery. It is their fault (not mine, personally) that this fate is before them. They refused to prepare for war when in times of peace, when they could have done so. Now it is too late. The nation should have acted but it was "tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South"...The political death of the negro will forever release the nation from the weariness from such "political outbreaks" You may think I exaggerate. Time will show you how accurate my statements are.

    The "autumnal outbreaks" Ames is referring to reference Grant's Attorney General, Edwards Pierrepoint, who refused to send troops to Mississippi, telling Ames that the nation was "tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South," and that the state would have to fend for itself. Shortly thereafter Mississippi's white supremacists effectively staged an armed coup. You know the rest of the story.

  • The Radical Critique Of Obama

    From Andrew Bacevich:

    ...however much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded. Put simply, Obama's pragmatism poses no threat to the reigning national security consensus. Consistent with the tradition of American liberalism, he appears intent on salvaging that consensus.

    For decades now, that consensus has centered on what we might call the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism - the concrete expression of what politicians commonly refer to as "American global leadership." The United States configures its armed forces not for defense but for overseas "contingencies." To facilitate the deployment of these forces it maintains a vast network of foreign bases, complemented by various access and overflight agreements. Capabilities and bases mesh with and foster a penchant for meddling in the affairs of others, sometimes revealed to the public, but often concealed.

    Bush did not invent the Sacred Trinity. He merely inherited it and then abused it, thereby reviving the conviction entertained by critics of American globalism, progressives and conservatives alike, that the principles underlying this trinity are pernicious and should be scrapped. Most of these progressives and at least some conservatives voted for Obama with expectations that, if elected, he would do just that. Based on what he has said and done over the past three months, however, the president appears intent instead on shielding the Sacred Trinity from serious scrutiny.

    I wish I was more prepared to tackle this critique. One problem with blogging is you end up talking about everything you're reading. But interest isn't the same as deep knowledge, and when it comes out to national security, I admit to my status as a tadpole.

    Nevertheless, indulge me a moment, as I doggie-paddle with the sharks.

    Andrew (Sullivan, not Bacevich) posed an interesting question to me yesterday. He asked me if there was anything about Obama that scared me. I answered that the thing that scared me most, was the possibility that Paul Krugman was right.

    I mean that in the specific sense (about the economy) and in the broader philosophical sense. I think it's fair to say that Obama is, temperamentally, conservative. I mean conservative in opposition to "radical," not progressive or liberal. I think that approach undergirds everything from his stance on the economic crisis to his unwillingness to push too hard on torture. George Packer summed it all up pretty well:

    What underlies so many of Obama's decisions is an attachment to the institutions that hold up American society, a desire to make them function better rather than remake them altogether.

    I differ with Andrew (Bacevich, this time) in that I'm not really surprised by any of this. I didn't think Obama's campaign was especially radical, and I thought his anti-war bonafides were more born of caution and skepticism than out of a deep critique of American military power. That is, in large measure, why I voted for Obama. After eight years of dealing, not simply with an impulsive, anti-intellectual, hot-headed, president, but a rigidly ideological president, I thought the answer was someone who was more pragmatic--even when their politics (as on torture) didn't match up with my own.

    But what if pragmatism isn't enough? The danger of a conservative approach, of too much respect for institutions, is that it's liable to deeply underestimate that rot eating away at the girders.  It tends to downplay the evil at home, preferring to believe that was is old is, essentially, always good. I think the challenge Bacevich (on foreign policy) and Krugman (on the economy)  are posing is this: Pragmatism isn't going to cut it. Only a deep and fundamental overhaul will do.

    Is the radical critique, in these two specific cases, of Obama correct? I wish I had the knowledge to answer that. But one reason why this particular point keeps nagging at me is intuitive--it scares me in the credible way that conspiracy theories don't.

    Another reason is my own personal history as an African-American, and thus, a member of a group that's historically paid the price for the desire to preserve American institutions.  It's fascinating to be reading about Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction America, just as all of this is happening. What's clear is how much the broader country, arguably willfully, underestimated the rot of white supremacy.

    The underestimation was founded on the interest of preserving the ultimate institution in American life--the country itself. In 1876, Mississippi essentially staged an armed coup, damning the state to a century of racial hell, and we did nothing. Some of our best minds were taken by lynch mobs, and we looked the other way. A large part of it was racism, but another part was the threat of another Civil War.

    It is arguably unfair to isolate race in this matter. The country came of age just as long-held ideas about the nature of humanity were crumbling. There were gender struggles, class struggles, ethnic struggles, all happening at the same time. Still, it took children dying in churches to get us to perk up and take note. One could argue that, even then, we did not take the radical action needed to heal the ancient wound.

    What are we underestimating this time? What are we missing by not pushing ourselves toward a fundamental critique of the country? In one respect, it's unfair to put this on Obama. I think the polling shows that he is what America want him to be. In another respect, it's totally fair. Leaders have to risk something. They can't just reflect the electorate. They have to push the electorate.

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  • That's Not How You Get Invited To Rush's Xmas Party

    Ross, silky-smooth as ever, wonders if conservatism would have been better if Dick Cheney were the Republican nominee:

    "Real conservatism," in this narrative, means a particular strain of right-wingery: a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state. And Dick Cheney happens to be its diamond-hard distillation. The former vice-president kept his distance from the Bush administration's attempts at domestic reform, and he had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his boss's policy agenda. He was for tax cuts at home and pre-emptive warfare overseas; anything else he seemed to disdain as sentimentalism.

    This is precisely the sort of conservatism that's ascendant in today's much-reduced Republican Party, from the talk radio dials to the party's grassroots. And a Cheney-for-President campaign would have been an instructive test of its political viability.

    As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively. And when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might - might! - have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that's necessary if it hopes to regain power.

    It's worth noting that "real conservatism" means being pro-life and anti-gay marriage also. But that aside, I'm mostly interested in this column for the writing. Which is pretty damn good. I don't know how he'll hold up after a few years of this. But he isn't Bill Kristol.

  • Newt Trapped On Torture

    I think Newt knows the right answer on waterboarding. But I think the laws of politics dictate that he can't call waterboarding torture, because he won't be able to score points. And that's all that really matters.

  • 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."

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    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.

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  • 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.

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A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

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I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

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Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

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