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.

  • Sean Wilentz Tries to Change the Subject

    How much does it really matter what Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange believe about politics?

    Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

    Eminent Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has published a piece titled, "Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?" Wilentz promises to examine "important caches of evidence" which have been overlooked and reveal the unholy troika's "true motives" which are at odd with the liberal portrayal of them as "truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state."

    I think it's worth knowing the politics that animate "the leakers," as Wilentz dubs them, and engaging them. But hasn't this engagement been going on for some years now? Glenn Greenwald's politics have long been a subject of debate among liberals. Haven't Julian Assange's politics also been up for debate, particularly among feminists? I guess Edward Snowden's politics haven't been as closely examined, but that only leads to deeper critique—Edward Snowden is significant because of what he told us about the NSA, not because he's Paul Wellstone reincarnated. 

    In short, I think we know quite well what "the leakers" are thinking, but we're much more interested in what the NSA is doing. I know Wilentz is a prominent and celebrated historian, this piece just reads like elongated ad hominem. If Edward Snowden was a white supremacist, I would still be concerned about NSA officers spying on their exes, and James Clapper lying to the Senate

    See Henry Farrell's thorough response for more. 

  • 'With Complete Indifference to Life or Death'

    Is there such a thing as noble victimization?

    Prisoners liberated from Gesiowka concentration camp by the the Polish Home Army during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; Ghetto Fighters House Museum

    Christian Fleetwood, there are so many millions raped, pillaged, murdered, and gone. Defeat is defeat. It is humiliating, destructive, and dehumanizing. There's nothing noble about the bottom.

    There are no Djangos in history and when one finds Djangos, one has to be careful to not commit the nationalist error of ascribing those actions to some bone-deep chivalry. Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    And then finally there is the matter of only seeing resistance in grand and vengeful strokes. The tendency is to make too much of Nat Turner, and too little out of the enslaved women who would do anythingfilthy, spectacular, and mundane—for the majestic goal of simply saving her son. A few years back, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a great piece on the inability of Americans to grapple with 9/11. His point was that we focused on Flight 93"The Plane That Fought Back"because we could not grapple with the fact that thousands had been killed, without any chance to fight, without any sort of choice in how they might die. Instead we wanted a "feel good 9/11 movie."

    Or maybe the need for narratives of uprising springs from something else. Bloodlands is filled with repeated acts of unimaginable horror. There is very little heroism in the book. Snyder licks shots at the God of History, at our sense of "progress," at our belief in meek inheritance, and triumphant justice. Then about three quarters of the way in, Snyder tells the story of the 1944 uprising in Warsaw. The uprising is defeated and thousands are killed. But there is one moment that stood out for me:  

    On 5 August, Home Army soldiers entered the ruins of the ghetto, attacked Concentration Camp Warsaw, defeated the ninety SS-men who guarded it, and liberated its remaining 348 prisoners, most of them foreign Jews. One of the Home Army soldiers in this operation was Stanisław Aronson, who had himself been deported from the ghetto to Treblinka. Another recalled a Jew who greeted them with tears on his cheeks; yet another, the plea of a Jew for a weapon and a uniform, so that he could fight. Many of the liberated Jewish slave laborers did join the Home Army, fighting in their striped camp uniforms and wooden shoes, with “complete indifference to life or death,” as one Home Army soldier recalled.

    I read this and started crying like a baby. Most of history's oppressed do not die with their wooden shoes on. But this scene was so familiar to me from studies of the Civil War. Very often you'd find men who'd been slaves one week, turn around and become soldiers the next. At Miliken's Bend, for instance, you had men who'd literally been working on cotton plantations a month earlier, turning around to fight white Texans during the Vicksburg campaign. 

    Early on in Anne Applebaum's The Iron Curtain, she talks about how totalitarian governments rarely triumph completely. And I think there's a similar argument in the case of enslavement wherein the enslaved, very often, never completely becomes "a slave." I think that's what got me about that momentyou are half-starved, dressed only in your stripes, and your wooden shoes, but you have not actually fallen into that dark night of dehumanity. Violence is only the most spectacular example of this kind of resistance. Primo Levi has a great moment in If This Is a Manwhere he is told by another prisoner that he must continue to wash, that he cannot become what the enslaver asserts him to be. 

    And there's something else: a significant portion of enslavement involves crafting a narrative of weakness. The racistNazi or Confederatemust always justify himself, and thus asserts that the subjugated has earned their fate through a blood-born cowardice. The subjugated claps back with their own narrative—"We too have Warsaw. We too had a 54th." I don't know how you avoid that need. I don't even know that you should. And I don't know how you integrate that into other narratives, because this too is Warsaw:

    After October 1943, the Jews of Concentration Camp Warsaw were forced to perform yet another task: the disposal of the bodies of Poles taken from Warsaw and executed in the ruins of the ghetto. Poles were brought in trucks in groups of fifty or sixty to the terrain of the former ghetto, where they were executed in or near Concentration Camp Warsaw by machine gunners of the local SS and another police unit.

    Jewish prisoners then had to form a Death Commando that would eliminate the traces of the execution. They would build a pyre from wood taken from the ruins of the ghetto, and then stack bodies and wood in layers. Then the Jews poured gasoline on the pyres and lit them. Yet this was a Death Commando in more than the usual sense. Once the bodies of the Poles were burning, the SS-men shot the Jewish laborers who had built the pyre, and tossed their bodies into the flame.

    A serious humanism must conclude that you are no better than those who went into the pyre, that you would have gone into the pyre too, and thus have no right to disgust, because you cannot access that awful calculus, and that you have not earned the right to pity, that you mustat all costavoid the nationalist error of seeing yourself only in Nat Turner.

    I haven't been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. since I was a 22-year-old cub reporter. I've never been to Germany or Poland. And I wasn't on this line of questioning when I was in France. I wish I had something more learned to say. And this can only be a notepad of my thoughts, questions for later pursuit. I wish I knew more. Soon come.

  • Ukraine Has Not Yet Died

    Newlyweds kissing in support of protests in Kiev. CNN

    If I could be anywhere writing about anything, right now, I'd be lost in Kiev. I used to read about certain countries in Europe after they threw bananas at some black soccer player, and say to myself, "I'll never go there." But I am a little older now, and I am more confirmed in the fact of this one-shot life. And knowing that this is not a dress rehearsal, and knowing, too, that questions are burning in me, and feeling that my whole purpose here is to observe, I simply don't much care anymore. I am past the age where one can afford to sit around waiting for the world to autoliberate from its various hatreds. And I have had my hatreds too. Like most humans.

    I began this blue period thinking mostly of justice for my people. And having explored that subject, I came to wonder how other societies handled their national crimes. And so we've spent the past few months thinking of some of the most horrifying wrongs of the 20th century, and in those wrongs I have seen so much of myself. It is an odd thing to be raised black, to be raised by the dictates of white supremacy prevention, and then turn around and see yourself in people lighter than you. I feel deeply ignorant writing that. But it's true. The Ukrainian national anthem translates as "Ukraine Has Not Yet Died," and I have some sense of what that means.* But then I kind of don't. Analogy can sometimes obscure as much as it clarifies. Someday I hope to know more. 

    At any rate, here is a great piece by Tim Judah in the New York Review of Books. If you haven't been following the news, it's a good primer. But it also gets to one of the most trenchant questions, for me, to come out of this whole journey--what, precisely, do Europeans mean when they say Europe:

    Before Yanukovych decided against the deal with the EU, Tetiana Sylina, a journalist highly critical of the government, told me that unless the EU signed the deal, with or without the release of Tymoshenko, it would “lose Ukraine.” Not signing, she said, would lead to increasing authoritarianism resembling Russia’s. “Yanukovych,” she said, 

    is not interested in the EU or the customs union or European values, he just wants cheaper credits and foreign investment and the opening of markets for oligarchs. But for Ukrainians, Europe is not about Yanukovych but about its 46 million people.

    In this respect, she echoed Hanna Shelest, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, whom I met in the Black Sea port of Odessa. She told me that she wanted Ukraine to sign the deal because “it is a question of self-identification. Sometimes we don’t feel ourselves European but what is worse is when Europeans don’t see us as European.” Andrey Stavnitser, a businessman who runs a dry cargo terminal near Odessa, told me he was hoping that if the deal was signed, the application of EU standards would begin to curb corruption. “For my business,” he added, “it would be better to enter the customs union,” because he could then expect more Russian cargoes, but “as a citizen,” he said “I would vote for the EU.” As to a relationship dominated by Russia, he said, “I would not go there again.”

    Among ordinary people there was more ambivalence about the deal, although the polls favor it. A big reason for this was that what was at stake and how the EU deals or the customs union would actually affect people’s lives were rarely explained properly. Indeed, the Russian-funded media in Ukraine had, said Shelest, even given people the impression that if they chose Russia over the EU, “then everything will be cheaper, such as gas, and that if we go toward the EU, normal marriages will not exist, only gay marriages.” Russia, she said, was presenting itself as “the big brother who will tell us what to do,” and a pro-Russian choice would mean “we will live happily ever after and won’t have to read that complicated EU agreement.”

    There's so much there--the fear of being relegated to Asia ("You cannot move Romania into Africa.") whatever Asia means in the Ukrainian mind, and at the same time, a fear of modernism represented by the recognition of the right of gay human beings to form families. And then finally a desire for a dictator to simply tell people what to do. 

    Here's another piece over at NYRB from Timothy Snyder arguing that the country has, on paper, slipped into dictatorship:

    In procedure and in content the laws “passed” by the Ukrainian parliament this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation. Although they concern the most basic aspects of political life, and transform the constitutional structure of the Ukrainian state, these measures were not subjected to even the barest of parliamentary procedures. There were no public hearings, there was no debate in parliament, and there was no actual vote. There was a show of hands in parliament and an estimate of how many hands were raised. The standard electronic voting system, which creates an official record, was not used.

    The deputies—those who apparently raised their hands—have all but voted themselves out of existence. If the deputies from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions read the legislation, which according to Ukrainian reports they did not, they would realize that their own positions are now under threat. Their parliamentary immunity is now no longer guaranteed, which means that if they vote the wrong way they can be stripped of immunity and prosecuted. Yanukovych’s main political rival, Julia Tymoshenko, is in prison. Her defense lawyer has already been stripped of his parliamentary mandate.

    Speaking at all about the Tymoshenko case will now be risky. Actions deemed to “interfere with the work of courts” have been banned. Making remarks of an “offensive” nature about judges is illegal. It seems unlikely that truth will be a defense. It is true, for example, that the new president of the highest Ukrainian court was once in charge of the court that misplaced documents about President Yanukovych’s earlier criminal convictions for rape and robbery. But that seems like exactly the thing that people will no longer be allowed to say. As far as Yanukovych’s own record is concerned, the new legislation’s vaguely worded ban on “slander” will presumably be used to criminalize unfriendly references to the president.

    Democracy is such a fragile project--more a continuing series of actions, then a state.

    More soon. I've just started reading Anne Applebaum's The Iron Curtain. She begins with Stalin crushing the instruments of society in Poland, Hungary and the old GDR. I can tell there are lots of bright days ahead on this blog. As I said, more soon.

    *As a sidenote, a comment on that page reads "Russians have killed 10 million of us, jews have tried to take us over, the polish killed us too. but we they have not succedded. ukraine be free!!!!" A foot on the neck is never an ennobling experience.

  • Richard Sherman's Best Behavior

    There's some weird notion in our society that holds that trash-talking is for the classless and stupid. 

    It's worth heading over to Deadspin for a moment and checking out both Greg Howard's penetrating piece on the reaction to Richard Sherman and Samer Kalef's aggregation of the racist bile directed his way. Podhoretz was responding to a tweet he sent out asserting that Sherman was a "role model for today's Taliban youth," presumably because ... I actually don't know. And neither did Podhoretz who deleted the tweet and claimed it was just a joke. The tweet from Iguodala just makes me sad, mostly because it reflects a rather ancient strain of thought in black America that holds that men like Richard Sherman are the reason we can't have nice things. 

    A few points of biography: Richard Sherman is a the son of sanitation worker and teacher. He finished second in his class in high school and then went to Stanford. He graduated from Stanford with a 3.9 GPA. Here is how Sherman describes his introduction to the school:

     "I was with kids from prestigious private schools, and they were drawing comparisons between Plato and Aristotle," says Sherman. "A lot went over my head. I hadn't even read The Iliad yet. I had to check out all these books just so I could know what everybody was talking about."

    Here is what Richard Sherman is doing now:

    Beverly and Kevin now live in a well-landscaped community in Compton, but she still works for Children's Services and he still drives his truck every morning at 4 a.m., a Seahawks sticker plastered across his helmet. Their home is wallpapered with pictures of their children: Richard, Branton and 22-year-old Kristyna, who runs a hair salon out of the Shermans' garage. (Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice is a client.) The first photo you see, upon opening the front door, is of Richard's commencement ceremony at Stanford.

    Across the street lives an English teacher from Dominguez named Michelle Woods who charters a bus every spring break for Dominguez students to visit colleges throughout California. "Most of them think Cal State is their only option," she says. When Sherman was at Stanford, he made sure the bus swung by Palo Alto, and he led the tours himself. "I'm here; you can be too," he told the group every year as he advised them on classes and grants.

    Here is how Sherman describes himself:

    I'm an awkward guy. People used to tell me all the time, You're not from here. And that's the way I felt, like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports. If you're like me, people think you're weird. They pull you in different directions. But those people aren't going where you're going. I know the jock stereotype—cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it.

    I don't think this is what people think when they see Sherman trash-talking. There's some weird notion in our society  that holds that trash-talking is for the classless and stupid. I don't know what it means to be "classless" in an organization like the NFL. And then there is the racism from onlookers, who are incapable of perceiving in Sherman an individual, and instead see the sum of all American fears—monkey, thug, terrorist, nigger.

    And then there is us, ashamed at our own nakedness, at our humanity. Racism is a kind of fatalism, so seductive, that it enthralls even its victims. But we will not get out of this by being on our best behavior—sometimes it has taken our worse. There's never been a single thing wrong with black people that the total destruction of white supremacy would not fix. 

  • Richard Sherman Is Better at Life Than You


    I sat down and watched two football games yesterday for the first time in a couple of years. It was sort of like seeing your ex-wife for coffee. For 30 years of my life, Sunday afternoons in the Fall were the best time of the year. But given the NFL's tangled, and frankly indefensible, sense of morality, I left. Tom Brady and Peyton are like old friends, the last stars of my generation entering the twilight years of their career. I watched the Broncos win, and then I turned to see the real treat—Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks.

    Sherman is the best cornerback in football and loves to explain this, as he did to Erin Andrews last night after the game. There's some amount of consternation, and broad sense that Sherman is crazy. But Sherman isn't crazy, as Tommy Tomilson explains over at Forbes:

    8. If you stick a microphone in a football player’s face seconds after he made a huge play to send his team to the Super Bowl, you shouldn’t be surprised if he’s a little amped up.

    9. Ninety-nine percent of on-field interviews are boring and useless. The TV networks do them anyway for the 1 percent of the time they get a moment like Richard Sherman.

    10. As a reporter and writer, that raw emotion — whatever form it takes — is exactly what I hope for. That’s why media people fight for access to locker rooms. After players and coaches cool off, most of them turn into Crash Davis, reading from the book of cliches.

    11. But we — the media, and fans in general — don’t know what we want. We rip athletes for giving us boring quotes. But if they say what they actually feel, we rip them for spouting off or showing a lack of class.

    12. It’s like we want them to be thinking, Well, that was a fine contest, and jolly good that we won. Which NO athlete is EVER thinking.

    Much of what makes pro football so attractive is embodied in Sherman. There's the pure athletics of the play he made at the game. But behind there's the intelligence which Sherman employs on the field and off. It's worth checking out this video, where Sherman gives you some sense of how he prepares for game day (H/T Deadspin.) And then there's the raw emotion which you saw on display last night. You watch an NFL game and there's a sense that the total individual is competing in the ultimate team game. It remains a beautiful—and endangered—thing.

    As a side-note, it's worth checking out Sherman's dismantling of Skip Bayless in the video above, "Skip, whenever you ever you address me, address me as 'All-Pro, Stanford Graduate.'"

    There's something very English and debonair about it: 

    I'm intelligent enough and capable enough to understand that you are an ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin ... I am going to crush you on here in front of everybody because I am tired of hearing about it.

    Anyway, it was good to see the ex-wife again. It was also good to remember why I left.

  • Neal Brennan: White America's Greatest Klingon Writer

    Never trust anyone posing as a tour guide.

    The Q&A with Neal Brennan, co-creator of "Chappelle's Show," over at Buzzfeed begins with this ominous paragraph:

    In a sense, Brennan has made introducing black America to white America his life’s work. His advice for how white people should act around black people? “It’s an odd thing. You treat them like human beings.”

    These two sentences are in conflict. It's certainly true that you should treat black people like human beings. The first step in that process is understanding that asking how to act "around black people" is itself an act of inhumanity.

    The second step is understanding that the way to get introduced to black America is to introduce yourself to black America. This is not particularly hard. We have a month every year dedicated to this task. Some of our greatest literature, music, cinema and art hails from this experience. I have heard that there are whole neighborhoods where black people actually live.

    The third step is understanding that white America does not so much need to be introduced to black America, as it needs to be introduced to itself. It pains me (seriously) to see this point made by Neal Brennan himself:

    Some people question whether a white person should even be writing black characters.

    NB: I think anyone can write about anything that they have knowledge of and exposure to. I think the best black screenwriter is Quentin Tarantino. Quentin may write better black characters than Spike. I mean, Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction is fucking unbelievable. That would be Exhibit A. I actually think that’s why Spike gets mad at Quentin. Quentin happens to write unbelievably rich black characters.

    So does David Simon.

    NB: There’s Exhibit B. Omar is the best black TV character, one of the best TV characters of all time. I think saying a white person can’t write black characters is as racist as anything on earth. And it’s also insulting to black people. It’s like, “So, are you not human?” Because I can write about humans. A white person writing about black people is writing about humanity with a slight vernacular spin.

    I am not sure who these people are who don't think white people should never write black characters. Certainly not black actors and actresses, the lionshare of whom want to compete for the largest roles possible. Probably not even black screenwriters who, like most artists, want the right to follow their imagination. More likely, there are artists who are concerned that they actually don't get to follow their imagination, and even in their native world there are white artists who are privileged over them.

    Which brings us back to Neal Brennan. Last week, during the great public intellectual debate, I pointed out that I'd grown up in a time when white people freely made whatever declarations they please about worlds they knew very little about. Neal Brennan is an accomplished artist, and we all thank him for his substantial contributions to "Chappelle's Show." But if you try to picture rich black American life, and the first thing that comes to mind is The Wire and Pulp Fiction, and the first characters who come to mind are black men who kill people, I suspect your qualifications are not all in order. 

    And I love The Wire, but blindness follows blindness. Leave aside black screenwriters like John Ridley, Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay—Neal Brennan does not know who the best black screenwriter is because the best black screenwriter right now is waitressing tables, counting up shit tips, thinking about her babysitting shift that night, hoping to get her car out the shop tomorrow, and storing lines of dialogue and character notes in her memory chalet. Neal Brennan can not know who "the best black" anything is, because the best black anythings are shot, jailed and destroyed at discomfiting rates. And there were so few black people in Wilmette. And these facts, and Brennan's blindness, and Brennan's declaration offered in blindness, are not wholly unconnected.

    Never trust anyone posing as a tour guide. Learning things is hard. Do the work.

    Never trust that part of you that wants a tour guide. All of us are tempted by the Cliff-Notes. Decline them. Sometimes you must wander through The Louvre.

    Never trust that part of you that thinks you found "the best black" anything. Likely, you are speaking loudly of the little you know, and not intelligently of the everything that is. And you know so little of it. This world was made precisely so that you would know so little of it. And the minute you learn anything of it, you will understand why that part of you was ridiculous.

    Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. You must have an awkward phase. All of us would like to skip that awkward phase. That is not how it works. Here is how it works: Get your ass in the water. Swim like me.

  • Liquid Chords

    Kendrick Lamar's Label-Mate, The Sizzling SZA, Brings The Burn


    Awesome SZA. Watch This Woman

    This has been a pretty depressing place for some time now. It's all Nazis, Stalinists, famine and torture, redlining and wealth gaps. There was a time when this blog was actually fun. It used to be oatmeal and MF Doom. It used to be old masters and football. It used to be Autobots. I'm not quite sure what happened. Perhaps it's seeing the other side of 35. Perhaps it's growth.

    But some light must peek in, from time to time, so I present to The Horde, SZA The Great. Her shit is beautiful and weird, as if Kelis and Madlib convened a high-level conference in Switzerland:

    I apologize for waiting to tell you for so long that I am not human.
    I am made of I am made of bacon, fairy tales pixie dust. I don't feel.
    I hung myself and didn't die.
    I am omnipotent, I'm alive...

    You get SZA's low husky voice, bizarre snippets of Eartha Kitt and Rosemary's Baby, and low bluesy grooves. I play her EP incessantly, along with this hot one.

    I've played the joint below, "Aftermath,"  precisely 1,344,233,978 times. That a 23-year old could tell an old dude everything about his life is ridiculous. But I'm totally sold now on the proposition that music doesn't get old, we do. And if this ain't love--"You don't have to kidnap\I'd like to be kidnap"--then God ain't real. 

    Of course she's down with Top Dawg and Kendrick Lamar. That makes sense. I'd like to tell you I don't believe in music anymore. The game ain't been the same since Jay Electronica broke my heart and took all of western civilization with him. ("The vivid memoirs of an obnoxious slave.") But some things we can't control. And what better motto might there be for this blue period, for this Horde, grieving for an imagined America, than "Maybe we should burn?"

  • Hitler on the Mississippi Banks

    Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    Poster depicting the Nazi campaign against "degenerate music." Wikimedia Commons.

    From time to time, someone will ask why I write so much about racism. The underlying charge is that a writer should cease to follow his curiosities. I might well retort that Paul Krugman should stop writing about the economy, or Jeff Goldberg should stop writing about the Middle East. The difference is that the world which racism made is seen as a niche issue, with no real import. "Gender" and "women's issues" are often regarded in the same way.

    Many of the vexing moral issues of our time--inequality, schooling, the drug war, mass incarceration--simply can't be discussed without discussing racism. People sometimes try to do so (especially in the vein of inequality.) Their analysis is the poorer for it. It's tempting to suggest that this idea of racism as a "niche issue" is a result of the way in which black history is taught and the rise of black studies. Except that regarding black people and the issues that injure them as "niche" did not begin in 1968. 

    It is my guiding thesis that people who claim a serious interest in America but consider racism to be a niche topic are divided against themselves. You can't understand American politics, without understanding the Civil War. You can't understand the suburbs, without understanding redlining. You can't understand the constitution, without understanding slavery. In effect if you are an American who avoids understanding the force of racism, you are avoiding an understanding of yourself and your country. 

    Perhaps you are even avoiding something more. 

    The Nazi plan for Eastern Europe was called Generalplan Ost. It called for the conquest of Eastern and Central Europe, the reduction of its "non-German" peoples, the seizure of their land, and the enslavement of all who remained. The details are slightly different, but in its outlines, offered here in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, we should see something haunting and familiar:

    The general design was consistent throughout: Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations, and bring order and prosperity to a humbled frontier. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear. In one redaction, eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs were to be eliminated.

    After the corrupt Soviet cities were razed, German farmers would establish, in Himmler’s words, “pearls of settlement,” utopian farming communities that would produce a bounty of food for Europe. German settlements of fifteen to twenty thousand people each would be surrounded by German villages within a radius of ten kilometers. The German settlers would defend Europe itself at the Ural Mountains, against the Asiatic barbarism that would be forced back to the east. Strife at civilization’s edge would test the manhood of coming generations of German settlers. Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based upon exterminatory colonialism and slave labor.

    The East was the Nazi Manifest Destiny. In Hitler’s view, “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians. The Volga River in Russia, he once proclaimed, will be Germany’s Mississippi.

    It's easy to consider the reduction of this hemisphere's aboriginal people, the seizure of their land, their enslavement, the importation of African labor, the creation of a "black race," the profitable murder of black families, the perpetual warring against black people, the subsequent campaigns of terrorism which followed, as without analogue or global import. As though the land simply appeared beneath our feet, and by God's decree, delivered onto us its wealth. As though our state was not founded in plunder of land, labor and lives. 

    Hitler knew better. From Ira Katznelson's piercing history, Fear Itself:

    Hitler denigrated blacks, admired American racism, and regretted the South’s defeat in 1865, especially how “the beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by the war.”* He complained when the French stationed African troops in the Rhineland, warned about racial mixing, and denounced “negrified music.” His main direct sources of information about the South were a series of odd and skewed reports that were provided by a German resident of Florida who wrote about putative Jewish plans to mobilize American blacks to destroy the white race.

    Like other Nazi leaders, Hitler was fascinated in 1937 by Vom Winde verweht, the German edition of Gone with the Wind. This melodramatic epic of the Civil War and Reconstruction was a best-seller. The film, not surprisingly, proved a big hit. Nervous as he awaited the dawn invasion of the USSR, a move that would start Operation Barbarossa, Joseph Goebbels spent the hours after midnight on June 22, 1941, watching a prerelease German version with a group of invited friends, perhaps not aware that one of the film’s stars, Leslie Howard, was a British Jew.

    When Americans complained about Nazi anti-Semitism, party officials rejoined by citing southern racial practices, claiming a kinship. The Völkischer Beobachter, the oldest Nazi Party newspaper, routinely disparaged Africans and African-Americans. Like much of the German press, it frequently printed antiblack cartoons, reminded its readers that southern public accommodations were segregated, and delighted in reporting how blacks, like German Jews, could not sleep in Pullman cars and could not exercise the right to vote. Lynching was a favorite subject. Neues Volk celebrated southern lynching for protecting white women from unrestrained black desire.

    The Völkischer Beobachter published many graphic stories that were intended to support lynching as a tool to shield white sexual purity. “The SS journal Schwarze Korps exclaimed that if lynching occurred in Germany as it did in the American South, the whole world would complain loudly.” 

    The desire to put a history of American racism, which is to say a portion of America's roots, in a corner is a kind of wish-fulfillment. It would be so much easier if "black studies" really were niche, if it really weren't that important, if racism really was a minor thread in the history of the West. We should be so lucky--except we shouldn't.  No state ever is and we are not an exception to humanity.

    *It was pointed out to me that the first quote was pulled by Katznelson from a source which should be viewed skeptically. I would not have included that quote had I known this. I'm striking it to show that, but leaving it up so as not to erase the mistake. That is the only quote relying on that source.

  • Grappling With History's Greatest Gangsters

    Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, author of the Katyn massacre. (Wikimedia)

    In early 1940, the Soviet Union executed 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and others deemed problematic to Soviet rule. The author of this policy was Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police. Beria was not simply a detached administrator of death, he was a serial rapist who employed the apparatus of the state to his ends:

    The records contained the official testimony from Colonel R.S. Sarkisov and Colonel V. Nadaraia, two of Beria's most senior NKVD bodyguards. They stated that on warm nights during the war years, Beria was often driven slowly through the streets of Moscow in his armored Packard limousine. He would point out young women to be detained and escorted to his mansion where wine and a feast awaited them. After dining, Beria would take the women into his soundproofed office and rape them.

    Beria's bodyguards reported that their orders included handing each victim a flower bouquet as she left Beria's house. The implication being that to accept made it consensual; refusal would mean arrest. In one incident his chief bodyguard, Sarkisov, reported that a woman who had been brought to Beria rejected his advances and ran out of his office; Sarkisov mistakenly handed her the flowers anyway prompting the enraged Beria to declare "Now it's not a bouquet, it's a wreath! May it rot on your grave!"

    The woman was arrested by the NKVD the next day.

    One of the men charged with carrying out Beria's orders (and Stalin's will) was Vasili Blokhin, arguably the most prolific executioner in modern history:

    He had been one of the main killers during the Great Terror, when he had commanded an execution squad in Moscow. He had been entrusted with some of the executions of high-profile defendants of show trials, but had also shot thousands of workers and peasants who were killed entirely in secret. At Kalinin he wore a leather cap, apron, and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German pistols, he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty men, one after another.

    Then the bodies were driven, in a truck, to nearby Mednoe, where the NKVD had some summer houses. They were thrown into a large pit dug earlier by a backhoe.

    There are horrific scenes, perpetrated by seemingly awful people, all the way through Bloodlands, so much that a kind of nihilism eventually sets in on the reader. If I have one critique, it's that the sheer scale of death in the book works against one of its ostensible goals--to make us feel the great tragedy that swept through Ukraine, Belorussia and Poland. You move from narrative into something closer to chronicle. 

    Still I think Snyder frames the questions correctly--How can men commit such acts? The question is not answered by empty invocations of "evil" or vague invocations of "sociopathy." The question is not answered by memorializing victims (though this has its place) or the construction of national oaths (though that too might have its place.) On the contrary the question might best be answered, not by identifying with history greatest victims, but by identifying with its killers. This is in fact, as Snyder argues, the moral position:

    It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.
    It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. Outstanding politicians and intellectuals—for example, Edvard Beneš and Ilya Ehrenburg—yielded to this temptation during the war. The Czechoslovak president and the Soviet-Jewish writer were justifying revenge upon the Germans as such. People who called others subhuman were themselves subhuman. Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position.  To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.   To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.
    Vasili Blokhin was a particular man, handpicked for a particular duty.  Even the SS was purged in the last phase of the Final Solution, so that it could reduced to its most willing killers. But the point is not that all humans are interchangeable, so much as it is that game must recognize game.  Most of us may not be killers, but there is a killer in most of us. Much as there is a slaveholder in most of us.  It is enough to understand that mass murder made sense to Himmler. You have to get to the Himmler within. 
    I think that allows for a skeptical morality. I think that allows those of us on the socio-economic bottom to give up our righteousness, to understand that there is nothing super-moral, or blessed, or prophesied in being down here. The bottom is just the bottom. Can we truly say we'd be much different were we on top?
    Perhaps we can--but not because of what is in our bones, but because of what is behind our questions. Once we can see the world from Stalin's end, perhaps we can push further and question, not just tactics, but goals. Perhaps we can see that the means by which we seek liberation--for ourselves and others--can not truly be separated from the ends:
    It cannot be denied that mass starvation brings political stability of a certain kind. The question must be: is that the sort of peace that is desired, or that should be desired? Mass murder does bind perpetrators to those who give them orders. Is that the right sort of political allegiance? Terror does consolidate a certain kind of regime. Is that kind of regime preferable? Killing civilians is in the interest of certain kinds of leaders. The question is not whether all this is historically true; the question is what is desirable. Are these leaders good leaders, and these regimes good regimes? If not, the question is: how can such policies be prevented?
  • 'Germans Are the Masters and Poles Are the Slaves'

    Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

    "I decide who is a Jew." Karl Lueger, 19th century mayor of Vienna

    I finished Timothy Snyder's masterful study, Bloodlands, last night. Most of it anyway. I'm still picking my way through the conclusion. At any rate, I want to focus today on one of the minor, but gripping, themes running through Bloodlands--power and social invention. Whenever American racism enters our field of discussion, it's fairly common for liberals, like me, to point out that our concept of race is a social construct. I've tried to unpack the logic behind this before, but I think this is the sort of thing said so much, and perhaps sometimes said in such a flip manner, that it's become cliché. I think it's important to say that our modern construct of race isn't just a "social construct," but that it is--itself--a racist construct, and as such has always depended less on ancestry, then the naked exercise of power.

    When Frederick Douglass died, his wife Helen wrote:

    It is easy to say, as has been carelessly said by some in commenting 
    upon Mr. Douglass' life and career, that the intellectual power, the 
    ambition, the talent which he displayed, were inheritances from his 
    white father; that the colored strain disappeared except as it gave the 
    hue to his skin ; and that to all intents and purposes Frederick 
    Douglass was a white man.

    That America was full of black people, like Douglass, with white parents did nothing to dissuade. The point was to make Douglass, and his many accomplishments, accord comfortably with the dictates of the day. When Hermann Goring needed to justify the service of "The Jew Nazi" Erhard Milch he asserted, "I decide who is a Jew and who is Aryan." Goring was echoing the words of Austrian anti-Semite Karl Lueger who'd denounced Budapest as "Judapest," then turned around and justified his many friendships with Jews by claiming, "I decide who is a Jew."

    Lueger and Goring were right. The "Jew" in Lueger's mind, the "black race" in the American mind, were little more than totems employed to legitimize injustice. Surely Jewish people (much like black people) exist in our world with their own culture and traditions. But these were not the Jews of Goring's imagination

    Likewise in Poland:

    At Ciepielów, after a pitched battle, three hundred Polish prisoners were taken. Despite all the evidence, the German commander declared that these captured soldiers were partisans, irregular fighters unprotected by the laws of war. The Polish officers and soldiers, wearing full uniform, were astonished. The Germans made them disrobe. Now they looked more like partisans. All of them were gunned down and thrown in a ditch. In the short Polish campaign, there were at least sixty-three such actions. No fewer than three thousand Polish prisoners of war were murdered...

    As one general maintained, “Germans are the masters, and Poles are the slaves.” The army leadership knew that Hitler’s goals for the campaign were anything but conventional. As the chief of staff summarized, it was “the intention of the Leader to destroy and exterminate the Polish people.” Soldiers had been prepared to see the Polish civilian population as devious and subhuman. One of them was so convinced of Polish hostility that he interpreted a Pole’s death grimace as the expression of irrational hatred of Germans.

    The point here is invention. The reality of Polish soldiers undercut Nazi needs and so they were vanished and refashioned into "partisans." One thinks of Howell Cobb writing during the Civil War, "If slaves seem good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Or Kate Stone, after hearing of a Confederate defeat at the hands of black soldiers, writing "there must be some mistake."

    In Cracow, Polish intellectual accomplishment clashed with the Nazi image of the country and so the Nazis sought turned to destruction. "The entire professoriate of the renowned university was sent to concentration camps," writes Snyder. "The statue of Adam Mickiewicz, the great romantic poet, was pulled down from its pedestal on the Market Square." 

    In post-war Communist Poland, the art of invention continued. The country sought to purge Jews from "public life and positions of political influence." There was just one problem:

    ....who was a Jew?

    In 1968, students with Jewish names or Stalinist parents received disproportionate attention in the press. Polish authorities used anti-Semitism to separate the rest of the population from the students, organizing huge rallies of workers and soldiers. The Polish working class became, in the pronouncements of the country’s leaders, the ethnically Polish working class. But matters were not so simple. The Gomułka regime was happy to use the Jewish label to rid itself of criticism in general. A Jew, by the party definition, was not always someone whose parents were Jewish. Characteristic of the campaign was a certain vagueness about Jews: often a “Zionist” was simply an intellectual or someone unfavorable to the regime.

    When I was young man, I studied history at Howard University. Much of my studies were focused on the black diaspora, and thus white racism. I wish I had understood that I was not, in fact, simply studying white racism, but the nature of power itself. I wish I had known that the rules that governed my world echoed out into the larger world. I wish I had known how unoriginal we really are.

  • Addendum to the Great Public-Intellectual Debate

    Or, how to apply for the TNC Public-Intellectual Prize

    Three quick items to close out the great public intellectual debate of 2014:

    1.) Dylan Byers replies here. You can judge his argument for yourself.

    2.) I received the following note from a reader:

    How do I apply for the TNC public intellectual prize? Does it ever go to Jews? Does it ever not go to Jews? 

    The TNC Public-Intellectual Prize is an annual cash-less award given by the International Institute for Greater Conversating. The International Institute for Greater Conversating does not discriminate. Jews and black people with Mormon lineage are encouraged to apply. As are Mormons with black lineage. Special attention will be given to blacks with Mormon heritage who've considered converting to Judaism. There is no application fee. Applications open in February. 

    3.) The restaurant we went to (If you're a francophile and Aurora is your server, you're in luck.) was Joseph Leonard. If you're in New York, go. Get the kale. Get the oysters. And—I can't believe I'm going to say this—get the hamhock. Also get the carrot cake. And have a glass of Les Garrigues.  Take someone you love who loves food almost as much as they love you.

  • What It Means to Be a Public Intellectual

    Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with what is around you.


    Last night my wife and I went out for dinner. Our server was French, a fact that allowed us to spend a few moments practicing the language. When the server left, my wife said, "It's everywhere." Indeed. Some years ago I decided to learn French. It turns out that means more than talking to people, reading books or watching movies. It means understanding the difference between a definite and an indefinite article, the deeper meaning behind "Prêt A Manger" or "Le Pain Quotidien," or the fact that the language you take as foreign is actually "everywhere"—on the buses and trains, on the lips of mothers remanding children, out the mouths of cab-drivers yelling at each other. 

    These are Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns"—not simply a lack of answers, but an obliviousness to questions.  The awareness of this is humbling and euphoric: If French is "everywhere," how many other things are "everywhere?" What does "everywhere" even mean? At that moment one realizes that it isn't the cool facts which wise you up, but the awareness of a yawning, limitless, impossible ignorance. 

    Yesterday Dylan Byers, Politico's media reporter, sent out this tweet:

    He was then asked to offer suggestions of his own. Byers didn't immediately answer. After being berated for an hour and a half he decided he should: 

    Byers's contenders were all white men and a white woman disqualified on account of death. This was caricature—a pose not wholly unfamiliar to Byers—and it was greeted with all the mockery which #blacktwitter so often musters. But black people—and #blacktwitter—mostly laugh to keep from crying. 

    This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is "America's foremost public intellectual." I made this claim because of Harris-Perry's background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry. 

    Now Melissa Harris-Perry neither needs (nor likely much cares about) my endorsement. Regrettably, there's no cash attached to the "TNC Public Intellectual Prize." Moreover, other people will make other cases. What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

    I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like "Geniuses of Western Music" written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

    Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still. 

    We suffer for this. So many people charged with informing us, with informing themselves, are just sitting still. 

  • The Smartest Nerd in the Room

    Why Melissa Harris-Perry is America's foremost public intellectual, and what she means

    Melissa Harris-Perry/Facebook

    On Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry apologized on air for segment that made light of the Romney clan's adoption of a young black boy. On Sunday, Mitt Romney accepted Harris-Perry's "heartfelt" apology, noting, "I've made plenty of mistakes myself." I've watched the offending segment several times now. I can see how a white parent who'd adopted a black child (or vice versa) would find the segment flip and offensive. It would not have surprised me if those concerned about adoption, equality, and racism voiced some protest about the segment. Instead what we got was week of invective driven mostly by a conservative movement with less lofty concerns.

    "Harris-Perry has been a public laughingstock for some time now," wrote John Nolte. "P.S. The Duck Dynasty family has an adopted black child. Maybe this is why the media hate them so much." Nolte was writing for the site named for the man who engineered the "Shirley Sherrod is a racist" hoax. There has never been an apology for that and there won't be one. That is because the conservative movement does not believe that racism is an actual issue to be grappled with, but sees it instead as a hand grenade to be lobbed into an enemy camp. One week we find Sarah Palin defending a man who thought my father was better off living under state-sponsored terrorism. The next we find her arguing that history's greatest monster is one Melissa Harris-Perry. 

    When not attempting to shame their enemies on trumped-up charges of racism, the conservative movement busies itself appealing to actual racists. We are into the sixth year of the era of a black president. In that time the conservative movement has gorged on a steady diet of watermelon jokeswaffle jokes, affirmative-action jokes, monkey jokes, barbecue jokes, terrorist machinations, secret Muslim plots, and dastardly Kenyan conspiracies. Three months ago, the movement reached a new low, waving the flag of slavery in front of the Obama's home. It is tempting to call this the climax of a long campaign. That would exhibit an unearned optimism at odds with history.

    Mitt Romney is not immune to this trend—he embodies it. On July of 2012, then-candidate Romney spoke to the NAACP (allegedly planting his own supporters). Later that day, he went before a crowd of conservatives and pitched his speech as follows:

    I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston and I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don't give different speeches to different audiences alright. I gave them the same speech. When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren't happy, I didn't get the same response. That's OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don't stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that's just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy-more free stuff. But don't forget nothing is really free. 

    A few months later Barack Obama ended Romney's political career. Romney responded as follows:

    Mitt Romney told his top donors Wednesday that his loss to President Obama was a disappointing result that neither he nor his top aides had expected, but said he believed his team ran a “superb” campaign with “no drama,” and attributed his rival’s victory to “the gifts” the administration had given to blacks, Hispanics and young voters during Obama’s first term.

    Racism is, among other things, the unearned skepticism of one group of humans joined to the unearned sympathy for another. Mitt Romney was born into a state whose policy was white supremacy, whose policy was to heap "gifts" upon people who looked like him, at the expense of people who looked like Barack Obama. Romney's familiarity with white supremacy was not passive and distant but direct and tangible. As a child he lived in a neighborhood which, by the employment of compacts, red-lining, and terrorism, was an exclusive white preserve.

    As an adult, Romney worships in a church that as late as 1978 took racism not simply as policy but as the word of God. It is possible the church believes this even to this day.* In 2012, the Washington Post looked at the Mormon church's racist history. Reporter Jason Horowitz talked to Brigham Young University professor of religion Randy Bott, who explained the church's take on its past:

    “God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

    “What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth—although not in the afterlife—protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

    There is a sense that Romney's grandchild should be off-limits to mockery. That strikes me as fair. It also doesn't strike me that mocking was what Harris-Perry was doing. The problem was making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy. That's a weighty subtext. But there is no one more worthy, and more capable, of holding that conversation than America's most foremost public intellectual—Melissa Harris-Perry.

    More »

  • Grappling With Holodomor

    Thoughts On Timothy Snyder's The Bloodlands

    A few days ago, I listened to a chapter in Timothy Snyder's The Bloodlands on famine in Ukraine during the 1930s.  The famine was man-made--the result of Stalin making war against his own citizens in Ukraine. I listened (I have the book in MP3 format) to about 90 percent of the chapter before I just had to cut it off. I generally have a strong stomach when it come to reading about evil, but this was too much:

    Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.

    That people were starving to death in Ukraine, and that this was a political act, not an act of God, was hidden from the world. And then sometimes the world just looked away:

    Throughout the following summer and autumn, Ukrainian newspapers in Poland covered the famine, and Ukrainian politicians in Poland organized marches and protests. The leader of the Ukrainian feminist organization tried to organize an international boycott of Soviet goods by appealing to the women of the world. Several attempts were made to reach Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president of the United States.96 None of this made any difference.

    The laws of the international market ensured that the grain taken from Soviet Ukraine would feed others. Roosevelt, preoccupied above all by the position of the American worker during the Great Depression, wished to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The telegrams from Ukrainian activists reached him in autumn 1933, just as his personal initiative in US-Soviet relations was bearing fruit. The United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933.

    In August of 1933, French politician Édouard Herriot came to Kiev to see the socialist spirit. Instead he got a show. Food--meant for display not consumption--was put in the shops. Party activist were brought in to make it seem as though the town were bustling. The healthiest of the starving children were trotted out and coached to give pre-approved answers. Herriot was then chauffeured on to Moscow where supped on caviar. He would later praise Soviet actions for honoring both "the socialist spirit" and the "Ukrainian national feeling."

    More »


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