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.

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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."

    [MORE]

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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?


  • 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...

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