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.

  • Pour Out A Little Liquor

    Somehow I missed this, but Culture11 is no more. Sad to see. Even on the web, it takes money to keep the ship afloat. People who care about this stuff should check out Charles Homans autopsy. (H/T The American Scene.) There's a great scene in there where some of Culture11's editors tackle Jonah Goldberg. It's not great because they're tackling him, but because it shows the price modern conservatives pay for walling themselves off from popular culture. In Culture11's wake, something more traditionally conservative has popped up:

    It was a grimly funny coincidence that around the time Culture11's financial well was running dry, another Web site sharing its subject matter debuted to much greater fanfare in the right-wing media than Kuo's project ever received: Big Hollywood, an entertainment and politics blog created by Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Los Angeles-based Internet entrepreneur who helped launch both the Drudge Report and Huffington Post. Beneath an angry vermillion-colored banner, the blog offers recurring features like the "Celebutard of the Week"--tracking the latest vapidly liberal political utterances from the likes of Cher--and clips of the best conservative moments in film interspersed with rote breaking news from the entertainment industry. It's supposed to eventually host cultural musings from such notable film critics as House Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor; commenting on a scene in the new thriller The International in which the characters shoot it out in the Guggenheim Museum, one Big Hollywood contributor coos approvingly, "I love seeing modern (phony) art destroyed."

    But for all the bluster of all-caps headlines like "GLOBAL WARMING PROPAGANDA SINKS 'UNDER THE SEA 3D,' " it's a far less courageous site than the comparably nonconfrontational Culture11; beneath the patina of combativeness, it's really just a support group for 24 fans. What Big Hollywood does isn't criticism, or reporting--it's ideological accounting.

    While the inability to confront culture is particular to the right, the problem of ideological journalism is not. My ideal is really Norman Mailer in Armies of The Night. Mailer was anti-war, but that didn't stop him from panning the anti-war protests, or panning himself. And he did it while reporting

    I'm a lefty. That political bias informs my story selection and my interests. But I'm in the business of storytelling, not of converting people. Journalism is certainly informed by political beliefs, but even more so, political beliefs should be informed by journalism. If they aren't, you start claiming knowledge of masses of people you've never met. You get lazy, your mind slows and you become self-congratulatory and limited.

    I always thought Culture11, at its best, was at war with that mentality. I'm sorry to see them go.

  • The Merits Of Jailhouse Hooch

    Or the lack thereof:

    If you're looking for proof of mankind's inveterate need for altered states of consciousness, look no further than pruno. Long created beneath the bunks of prison inmates, and often consisting of such odious ingredients as ketchup and sauerkraut, pruno is notoriously unpalatable, even for the most hardened toughs. According to a participant in a harrowing 2006 taste test, the stuff is reticent not of black currant and cinnamon, a la Spain's finest riojas, but rather "a rotten compost heap of tropical fruits consumed by maggots."

    But it's not just the terrible taste that inmates must contend with. According to a new CDC study, recent batches of pruno have been found to be rife with botulism--yeah, the stuff that gets injected into Nicole Kidman's face on a semi-daily basis, but was once better known for killing people.

  • We're All White Trash now

    Or are we all niggers? Don't know. But the day of figuring out this black-white shit is coming. Hate, however, is eternal:

    Discussing the first lady's visit to a Washington D.C. classroom last week, Bruce incredulously recalled Obama's story about wanting to get A's in school and called out her use of a "weird, fake accent."

    "That's what he's married to," Bruce said. "...You know what we've got? We've got trash in the White House. Trash is a thing that is colorblind, it can cross all eco-socionomic...categories. You can work on Wall Street, or you can work at the Wal-Mart. Trash, are people who use other people to get things, who patronize others, who consider you bitter and clingy..."

    There's a joke here--something about pots and kettles. There are many in fact. I'm overwhelmed though. Where do I begin? Yet again, the mind reels...

  • Why Do Black Immigrants Do Better Than Native Blacks?

    This argument pops up from time to time, but it's been coming up a lot lately. It always seemed to me that the question answers itself--an immigrant is someone who's specifically come to this country to capitalize and exploit opportunity. Comparing any immigrant group to virtually any native-born group is like comparing the most ambitious members of one team with the entirety of another team. This is to say nothing of whatever skills, education and wealth a particular immigrant group may bring to bear.

    I think it's very hard to accept what's happened to black people in this country post-slavery. I think we can accept that we had slaves--most countries did. But very few followed it up with the Klan and Jim Crow. These facts challenge our self-image as Americans. How can red-lining and Horatio Alger be true at the same time? The black experience threatens our image as a place of great individual opportunity. Of course, if our ideals are real, we shouldn't be threatened at all. Sometimes I say something stupid and unloving to Kenyatta. Doesn't mean I don't love her. But I also can't act like I never said it, or look for excuses for why I would. I have to confront myself and be honest, as opposed to trying to cover my ass

    Where was I? Oh yeah, black immigrants. I think a natural--but ultimately cheap--reaction is to appeal to the Myth Of The Black Immigrant. If we can prove that other black people come here and do well, than it must mean that our ideals and our execution of them have, indeed, been righteous. It's just that the American blacks are too lazy and self-pitying to see this.

    I think the best grappling I've seen with this was by Malcolm Gladwell, himself an immigrant black of West Indian descent. He rather brilliantly combines his own first person experience, his family's views, and some actual social science to show that, as he says it, someone must always be the villain. Forgive me for quoting at length. The piece is quite lovely:

    I grew up in Canada, in a little farming town an hour and a half outside of Toronto. My father teaches mathematics at a nearby university, and my mother is a therapist. For many years, she was the only black person in town, but I cannot remember wondering or worrying, or even thinking, about this fact. Back then, color meant only good things. It meant my cousins in Jamaica. It meant the graduate students from Africa and India my father would bring home from the university...
    But things changed when I left for Toronto to attend college. This was during the early nineteen-eighties, when West Indians were immigrating to Canada in droves, and Toronto had become second only to New York as the Jamaican expatriates' capital in North America. At school, in the dining hall, I was served by Jamaicans. The infamous Jane-Finch projects, in northern Toronto, were considered the Jamaican projects. The drug trade then taking off was said to be the Jamaican drug trade. In the popular imagination, Jamaicans were--and are--welfare queens and gun-toting gangsters and dissolute youths. In Ontario, blacks accused of crimes are released by the police eighteen per cent of the time; whites are released twenty-nine per cent of the time. In drug-trafficking and importing cases, blacks are twenty-seven times as likely as whites to be jailed before their trial takes place, and twenty times as likely to be imprisoned on drug-possession charges.

    After I had moved to the United States, I puzzled over this seeming contradiction--how West Indians celebrated in New York for their industry and drive could represent, just five hundred miles northwest, crime and dissipation. Didn't Torontonians see what was special and different in West Indian culture? But that was a naïve question. The West Indians were the first significant brush with blackness that white, smug, comfortable Torontonians had ever had. They had no bad blacks to contrast with the newcomers, no African-Americans to serve as a safety valve for their prejudices, no way to perform America's crude racial triage.

    Not long ago, I sat in a coffee shop with someone I knew vaguely from college, who, like me, had moved to New York from Toronto. He began to speak of the threat that he felt Toronto now faced. It was the Jamaicans, he said. They were a bad seed. He was, of course, oblivious of my background. I said nothing, though, and he launched into a long explanation of how, in slave times, Jamaica was the island where all the most troublesome and obstreperous slaves were sent, and how that accounted for their particularly nasty disposition today.

    I have told that story many times since, usually as a joke, because it was funny in an appalling way--particularly when I informed him much, much later that my mother was Jamaican. I tell the story that way because otherwise it is too painful. There must be people in Toronto just like Rosie and Noel, with the same attitudes and aspirations, who want to live in a neighborhood as nice as Argyle Avenue, who want to build a new garage and renovate their basement and set up their own business downstairs. But it is not completely up to them, is it? What has happened to Jamaicans in Toronto is proof that what has happened to Jamaicans here is not the end of racism, or even the beginning of the end of racism, but an accident of history and geography. In America, there is someone else to despise. In Canada, there is not. In the new racism, as in the old, somebody always has to be the nigger.

    Read the whole thing. It's wonderful.

  • Eraserheads

    Alyssa Rosenberg tackles Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse." It's a typically smart take. Me? I'm not sure I want to watch some dude repeatedly erase a woman's memories. It feels like a rape fantasy, or some such. I'm sure it's more to it than that. But the shows premise makes me recoil a bit.

  • A Lack Of Old School Cred

    A commenter licks a few hot ones:

    Yo, dude . . unrelated, but I think it's a crime you posted a video of Aretha last week, and didn't even honor Chaka Khan on her b-day. your old schoolness is inconsistent, sir. i demand satisfaction. :(

    The emoticon at the end really burned. So much cred to keep up with--street, nerd, old school, sports, lefty etc. The mind reels. Ah well, lets see what we can do.

  • Katha Politt On Ross Douthat

    She raps a bunch of lefty doodz for congratulating Ross on his move, and strings together some his more disagreeable quotes. And then she gives us this:

    So who would I like to see in the Kristol slot? Actually, Kristol. I was livid when they gave him the job, but he was perfect: a dull, complacent apparatchik who set forth the Bush line in all its fact-free glory. His columns were like press releases--you could hardly remember them two minutes after reading them. But his presence on the page reminded readers that David Brooks is not really what Republicanism is all about. Frankly, though, I don't see why there must be two conservatives on the page. Does the Wall Street Journal, the Times's national competition, have two liberals? That the Times, the closest thing we have to a liberal paper, cedes so much turf to the opposition, as progressive bloggers applaud, shows the truth of Robert Frost's quip that a liberal is someone so open-minded he won't take his own side in an argument.

    As a liberal, I can see the point. Kristol was, indeed, a useful idiot. But we need to tease out a couple things. Kristol wasn't merely a conservative who was bad on the issues, he was a columnist who was bad at his job. He was not so much a conservative columnist, as he was  a GOP shill, a political operator who ran an advance office for the Palin 2012 campaign, out of the Times' edit pages. Paul Krugman may be a liberal, and a lefty, but he most certainly isn't shilling for the Democratic Party.

    More than that, Kristol failed at the non-ideological essentials. Getting your facts right is a basic standard of the profession. There's no left/right to it--either Obama was in pews to hear Jeremiah Wright, or he wasn't. Either Michelle Malkin said it, or she didn't. These are basic rules that you can teach a 14-year old. And Kristol got them wrong. Often. He was, in sum, an incompetent foe, the sort of boxer who think road-work is for sissies. In the midst of writing a review of one of Ann Coulter's silly tomes, Christopher Hitchens once told a reporter,  "If I can't fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch then I shouldn't be in this business." Indeed. And to even the most simple-minded liberal I'd say, If you can't fuck up Bill Kristol before breakfast, you shouldn't be blogging.

    The dude was good for that first Monday morning entry, no doubt. But here is the thing--in the war of ideas you don't gain much by measuring yourself against the worst that your opponents have to offer. The thing about competing against jokers, is that it eventually makes a joker of you. Your ideas lose their complexity, their volume and heft, mostly because you don't need them to take down Kristol. You just need to read the corrections on the Times website. I don't see how that helps me become a better writer.

    Frederick Douglass once said that "A man is worked on, by what he works on." We have direct evidence of what comes to those who spend their days sparring with Kristol. Is that really where we're trying to go?

    As a side-note, people who think Ross shouldn't have gotten the gig and want to enumerate why are free to comment. People who simply think he's a douchebag should probably just have a drink. I'll be deleting those comments anyway. Which will simply make you more frustrated, thus making you drink more. I know, I know. Life is so unfair.

  • Fix the wealth gap, Fix the world

    After all our back and forth about culture, discrimination, young black men, and absentee fathers, so much of it comes do the fact that, as Meizhu Lui tells us:

    The gap between the wealth of white Americans and African Americans has grown. According to the Fed, for every dollar of wealth held by the typical white family, the African American family has only one dime. In 2004, it had 12 cents.

    That, really, is all you need to know about race in this country. Your average white family holds roughly ten times as much economic power as your average black family (UPDATE: see comments below for the change) . Moreover, I suspect that even if you're a black family on the upper end, you likely, still, enjoy less social capital than your peers, if only because there are going to be so few other black families like you. Why is the wealth gap so big? Frankly, I find race-based culture arguments to be hazy, unmeasurable and unknowable. I find arguments about job-discrimination more credible, but still unconvincing, mostly because I suspect that discrimination is a human impulse. I'm not convinced that we get it, today, any worse than the Irish or the Italians got it.

    But the effect of past discrimination is observable and quite profound:

    The biggest predictor of the future economic status of a child is the net worth of the child's parents. Even modest inheritances or gifts within a parent's lifetime -- such as paying for college or providing the down payment on a home -- can give a child a lift up the economic ladder. And historically, white families have enjoyed more government support and tax-paid subsidies for their asset-building activities.

    Let's look at the rules of the game in homeownership, for example.

    During the Depression, the Home Owners' Loan Corp. was formed to rescue families whose homes were in foreclosure. Not a single loan went to a family of color. The black section of Detroit was simply excluded. After World War II, GIs received government-subsidized home mortgages, but there was no oversight to ensure that soldiers of color got their fair share. Of the 67,000 mortgages issued under the GI Bill in New York and northern New Jersey, 66,900 went to white veterans, as documented in Ira Katznelson's "When Affirmative Action Was White."

    This says nothing of redlining--a federal government policy which was, at its root, designed to keep black people in certain neighborhoods, and keep those neighborhoods poor. This says nothing of the the South's efforts to destroy black middle class communities, and violently suppress anything resembling black economic power. I think reparations are politically unworkable, but its becoming clear that we're paying a price for taking the easy way out. As Malcolm would say, agreeing that we sit on the toilet next to each other should be the minimum, not the apex, of our efforts to set history right.

  • No One Said It'd Be Easy

    Jonathan Martin points out that Obama is catching from the Times's liberals. Meh, most of these guys were always lukewarm to him. Except Frank Rich, who offered the following on Sunday:

    Within 24 hours, Summers's stand was discarded by Obama, who tardily (and impotently) vowed to "pursue every single legal avenue" to block the bonuses. The question is not just why the White House was the last to learn about bonuses that Democratic congressmen had sought hearings about back in December, but why it was so slow to realize that the public's anger couldn't be sated by Summers's legalese or by constant reiteration of the word outrage. By the time Obama acted, even the G.O.P. leader Mitch McConnell was ahead of him in full (if hypocritical) fulmination.

    David Axelrod tried to rationalize the lagging response when he told The Washington Post last week that "people are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about A.I.G.," but are instead "thinking about their own jobs." While that's technically true, it misses the point. Of course most Americans don't know how A.I.G. brought the world's financial system to near-ruin or what credit-default swaps are. They may not even know what A.I.G. stands for. But Americans do make the connection between their fears about their own jobs and their broad understanding of the A.I.G. debacle.

    I think this is pretty much right. Obama is, temperamentally, a deliberative, thoughtful guy. It's why I voted for him. Unfortunately that quality doesn't exactly lead you to outrage, when the public is demanding it. Maybe that's for the best. I don't know. What he most needs now, is to be right about the economy. I'm a laymen, but it's not clear to me that he is.

  • BSG Finale Open Thread

    As you know, I swore off the show and thus wasn't interested in the finale. But my sense is that there's a group here who would very much like to talk about it. I want to provide a forum for that. With one caveat--don't be boring, and don't be an ass. That is all. 

  • In Defense Of Iceland

    From a commenter:

    I find it fascinating to read this blog. So many people seem to be able to write about things they clearly know almost nothing about. Iceland did NOT trade fish for finance. The fishing industry has always been our most important industry, and it still is. The banking sector grew so much in a short time, that it became no 1 for a year (I think, don´t have the actual numbers handy). It is also incorrect (and irritading) to say Iceland, because it was 3 BANKS, not the whole country, that went bankrupt. A part of Icelanders took foreign currency loans, not everybody.

    I read somewhere that 10% of households foreign loans on their houses. I read the article in Vanity Fair and thougt it was really funny. It was deffinetly not meant to be taken seriously. I thought the part about exploding Range Rovers funny. I also read in an article that people were warned not to come here because of riots, bunch of people making noice with pots and pans, that sounds real dangerous.

    Sentences like "Iceland is a giant hedgefund" work because they are sensational and catchy, and people need to find somebody who is in a worse situastion than they are. That is why it works.

    Also New York magazine objects.

  • The Death Penalty

    With Bill Richardson outlawing the ultimate punishment, John has some thoughts on conservatives:

    One of the things I have never understood is the seeming breakdown on opposition to and support for the death penalty. I have never figured out why conservatives, the people who flip out about zoning boards and if their taxes are raised 3% and who shout limited government until they are blue in the face have absolutely zero problem with the government taking that which is most precious- someone's life. All this posturing about the "ability to tax is the ability to destroy" just seems silly when you turn a blind eye to the government executing people.

    There's more over at his place. But I'd offer one theory. I think a sizable, maybe not a majority, of the conservative base doesn't actually believe in small government. They believe in government not not taking their tax dollars and using it to help people who they don't like. This goes back to state's rights, Jim Crow and reconstruction. I don't mean to impugn principled liberarians, but there's certainly a strain of "small government" conservativism that's rooted in those old racist notions.

    It's very difficult to disentangle debates over criminal justice, from race. Felon disenfranchisement laws have their roots in the efforts to keep black men from voting. I don't think the death penalty is a racist plot. But I wonder if the face of crime were more familiar, where we'd be on the issue. This is all a long way of saying that some conservatives don't hate big government, they simply want big government to work strictly for them.


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