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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 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.)

  • Echoes Of The Crack Age

    One of the great arguments against rappers who claim that they're just reporting what goes on, and against conservatives who think "hip-hop" can tell you something about the performance of black boys in schools, is the music itself. It's amazing that when we were at our lowest, in the early 90s, the music was its most diverse. Not to act like it's all gravy now, but the most violent years for black men, in recent memory, were the late 80s and early 90s. And yet, when you listen to the music, the gun element, is an element, but not a dominant one.

    In fact, the popularity of gangsta rap has an inverse relationship to the actual conditions in the streets. After steadily increasing throughout the 80s, the murder rate among African-American males peaked at 50.4 per 100,000 in 1991. That was a lovely and diverse year for hip-hop. Then the murder rate declined until it was 25.6 per 100,000 in 2000. By then, gangsta rap was the dominant genre in the music.

    It's weird to think about that, and surfing I came across this gem, made right about the time I was in Baltimore, and the city was going crazy. This, I assure you, is not a love ballad. But it is a beautiful song.

  • Ignorance Is Bliss

    The more I think about Peggy Noonan's statements on Sunday, the more horrified I get. Noonan is a graceful writer who was particularly hot during the campaign. And yet is there anyway to listen to her comments, and not hear them as a willful endorsement of kind of national blindness?

    The job of journalists is to challenge the government and to challenge their readers and viewers. What sort of journalist tells his readers that some things must be mysterious? What sort of writer tells her readers, and viewers, essentially, to not ask too many questions? We have a fine era, when otherwise respected, intelligent, and well-read people step on a national stage and endorse national ignorance. What a mess.

    In case you haven't seen them, Noonan's comments are below. George Will doesn't come off any better. I'm less surprised by that. In fact the whole panel is kind of depressing. They've been in the same city for too long.

  • Abu Zabaydah's Interrogator On Torture

    Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan's piece in the Times today is fascinating, and will be talked about quite a bit, I assume. But what I'm most interested in is this:

    There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions -- all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

    I am so scared of what we don't know. What we often forget is that these documents are only part of the picture. God only knows what's yet to be unclassified, or what will never be known.

  • Maybe You Should Study Harder

    I think this Affirmative Action case is going to lose. And it probably should:

    Frank Ricci has been a firefighter here for 11 years, and he would do just about anything to advance to lieutenant.

    The last time the city offered a promotional exam, he said in a sworn statement, he gave up a second job and studied up to 13 hours a day. Mr. Ricci, who is dyslexic, paid an acquaintance more than $1,000 to read textbooks onto audiotapes. He made flashcards, took practice tests, worked with a study group and participated in mock interviews.

    Mr. Ricci did well, he said, coming in sixth among the 77 candidates who took the exam. But the city threw out the test, because none of the 19 African-American firefighters who took it qualified for promotion. That decision prompted Mr. Ricci and 17 other white firefighters, including one Hispanic, to sue the city, alleging racial discrimination....

    But Donald Day, a representative of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, questioned the value of the New Haven test, which included written and oral components. "An individual's ability to answer a multiple-choice exam," Mr. Day told the city's Civil Service Board, "does nothing but measure their ability to read and retain."

    There are more important values, he added. "Young black and Latino kids have every right," he said, "to see black and Latino officers on those fire trucks that are riding through their community. They have every right to look for a role model."

    No they don't. Look if the test is a bad test, then get rid of the the test. But if you administered it as tool for promotion, then you need to be good on you word. I get that the firefighting departments, nationally, have been bastion of discrimination. People are right to be horrified by that. By how is it that no one is horrified that not a single black firefighter did well enough on the test to qualify for a promotion.

    People should have the right to compete in this country-- not the right to win. I'm not indifferent to changing the way these guys do hiring. But you can't do it like this. This is just stupid and hamfisted.

  • The Measure Of A Great Politician

    I keep getting e-mails from people who think we should stop pressing Obama on torture. The basic argument is, would you rather have this inquiry or would you rather have health care? I think it's becoming clear that we may not necessarily need Obama, himself, to launch an inquiry. But be that as it may, I want to push back against this idea that the only job of a great politician is to set a list of achievable priorities. It's, of course, a large part of the job--but the other part is making sure as many of those priorities get done as possible.

    I expect a lot out of Obama, mostly because of what I saw in the campaign. He was not a politician simply capable of taking what was given to him. Not to rehash this, but that was I saw in Hillary. Obama was the politician who was capable of creating more, of expanding the coalition. People laughed at a lot of us Obama supporters when we talked about expanding the map. I begrudge any of that. In 2004, none of us thought that a Democrat running in 2008 could win--not just Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania--but Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana. Had someone told us this would happen, we would have assumed it was some grizzled white war hero, not a black community organizer, who'd done this. You don't get to win, in the manner Obama won, and not have some demands put on you,

    I believe that while a good politician accomplishes what is possible, a great one expands the realm of possibility. He doesn't simply accept the lines of argument as they're drawn and hew to the side with the most soldiers, he tries to redraw those lines to benefit his ideals. Obama's jobs isn't simply to spend his own political capital, it's to grow his capital, and by extension, the moral weight of his ideals. Perhaps pushing torture investigations would make passing health care harder. But this is the business he chose. This is the business of becoming great. And after what happened last year, we have the right to expect more of him. We have the right to demand more.

  • Speaking Of The Man

    For years, King's family has been accused of profiting off his name. This won't help:

     Nothing is too small for the family to ignore. Isaac Newton Farris, King's nephew and chief executive officer of the King Center in Atlanta, demanded payments for images showing President Obama and King on the same T-shirts. "We're not trying to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves," Farris said. "But we cannot allow our brand to be abused." It is hard to imagine King himself demanding payment from someone who wanted to put his image alongside that of the nation's first African American president.

    In the latest monumental shakedown, the King family's Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid $761,160 by the nonprofit foundation raising money for the Washington memorial. This was on top of a "management" fee of $71,700 paid in 2003. The Kings have defended the payments by noting that donations to the foundation have been down because people were giving to the monument fund instead. The other possibility is that fewer people want to give to a foundation run by the King family.

    Few people familiar with the family are shocked by their demands. What is shocking is the failure of the memorial foundation to call their bluff and simply stop work on the memorial. Foundation officials should have publicly announced the payment so that donors could think seriously about whether they want to contribute to such an outrageous arrangement. Instead, officials waited for the Associated Press to force the disclosure. Donors have complained that they were never told of the arrangement.

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