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.

  • Rabbi Crowns Eddie Long King: Intercontinental Champ

    A video made to offend basically every conceivable stratum of this country -- blacks, Jews, Christians, atheists

    The right reverend invites a rabbi of questionable merit to his church, and has himself proclaimed a King:

    A rabbi and Christian scholar questioned Long and Messer, the man who led Long's crowning ceremony. Messer said during the ceremony that the Torah was a "priceless" 312-year-old scroll that had been recovered from the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He said he wanted to honor Long "on behalf of Jewish people, and the land of Israel." Rabbi Hillel Norry of Congregation Shearith Israel in Georgia said the ceremony was "ridiculous." 

    There's no Jewish coronation ceremony where someone is wrapped in a Torah and made a king, he said. "We just don't do that. We treat it with deference," Norry said of the Torah. "It's a shawl, not a crown. Don't treat it that way." 

    Norry said Messer doesn't appear to be an ordained rabbi in the Jewish faith. He also doubts that the Torah that Long was wrapped in is actually 312 years old, and had somehow escaped detection in a concentration camp. 

     "The Torah is the size of a person. It's not like you can hide one," he said.
    This video basically was made to offend every conceivable stratum of this country--blacks, Jews, Christians, atheists--basically everyone. It actually ends with Long lifted aloft on his "throne" by four ushers, while clutching, what appears to be, a championship belt.

    As Professor Blair Kelley said last night on Twitter -- I knew it was wrong from the moment he said "foreskin."
  • Chris Christie and the Nation-State Project


    I'm late on this, but given this blog's focus on history, I'd like to use Chris Christie's remarks to pursue a broader question:

    Christie last week vowed to veto a gay marriage bill if it came to his desk but said proponents have the option to put the matter on the ballot. He added, "People would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South."

    I think this comes from an unfortunate sense that Civil Rights movement was merely about being able to be served a cup of coffee next to white folks. I don't minimize the sit-ins. They had great power--but their power is greater still when you understand that they were a component of a broader strategy to destroy a system of white supremacy. Key to the assault, obviously, was securing the right to vote

    Let me make this as visceral as possible: Many of the actual people who were beaten and killed "in the streets"--Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, for instance--were  attempting to secure the very right which Christie, bizarrely, believes they should have exercised. It's almost as if he doesn't know what the Civil Rights movement actually was. 

    On a broader level, I go back and forth on whether I should be disturbed by the ignorance so many of us display of our own history. I don't mean this in terms of mere dates and rote facts, but in terms of the texture of the thing. (See yesterday's De Tocqueville thread.) In the defense of Americans, can any nation, en masse, come to a deep understanding of itself which eschews mythology? Are the Russians any better in how they see themselves? The French? The Dutch? The Ghanaians? The Kenyans? The Japanese? The paucity of my travels are rather embarrassing, and so I am not fit to answer.

    In his (excellent) book The Substance Of Hope, my friend Jelani Cobb says that "nations are narratives." The point being we tell ourselves a story to make ourselves possible. The story unites us. And I wonder if the problem of African-American History is that it so coldly and cruelly counters the American narrative. I have spent the past two decades thinking about that history and it's ultimately made me more of a believer in the American project, not less of one. But that's a relatively recent development and one at least partially tied to what happened in 2008.

    But with that said, I don't think it's too much to ask those who would consider seeking national office to to be more learned. I don't think it's too much to ask our leaders to understand why Andrew Goodman was lynched.
  • Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

    I came across this brilliant quote while thumbing through Democracy In America:

    It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the public good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants; by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate; by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it. 

    When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.

    But on going over it a bit more, it became clear that this was in the footnotes and the quote actually belonged to Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, the quote serves the point I wanted to make. 

    We live in a time when "democracy" has a totemic power. We take it for granted that government by the people is always best and that if you give the people the franchise good things always happen. In many ways I find that tragic because in having to actually defend your beliefs, I think you gain a deeper appreciation for them. Spending a few weeks last summer reading George Fitzhugh honestly and forthrightly argue for slavery really deepened my understanding of freedom.

    De Tocqueville loves America and is very pro-democracy. But he is writing in an era that isn't and thus is forced to go through all the twists and turns of justifying America to a (I'm assuming) skeptical audience.

    He is forced to do this on the most minute of levels. Here he is, for instance, tackling the question of whether the Constitution erred in allowing the re-election of a president. But to do so he has to fully air the critique, honestly and without weighting the argument:

    Intrigue and corruption are the natural defects of elective government; but when the head of the State can be re-elected these evils rise to a great height, and compromise the very existence of the country. When a simple candidate seeks to rise by intrigue, his manoeuvres must necessarily be limited to a narrow sphere; but when the chief magistrate enters the lists, he borrows the strength of the government for his own purposes. 

    In the former case the feeble resources of an individual are in action; in the latter, the State itself, with all its immense influence, is busied in the work of corruption and cabal. The private citizen, who employs the most immoral practices to acquire power, can only act in a manner indirectly prejudicial to the public prosperity. But if the representative of the executive descends into the combat, the cares of government dwindle into second-rate importance, and the success of his election is his first concern. 

    All laws and all the negotiations he undertakes are to him nothing more than electioneering schemes; places become the reward of services rendered, not to the nation, but to its chief; and the influence of the government, if not injurious to the country, is at least no longer beneficial to the community for which it was created.

    I keep reading this wondering where De Tocqueville was when decided to invade Iraq. The book is--at once--a strong defense of democracy and a case against "nation-building." But more than that it is the kind of civics class I wish I'd been treated to as young man. We had to memorize the branches of government, and that was fine. But the theories behind those branches, not merely checks and balances, and the history out of which they came were not touched on. I had no international context. 

    It would be nice to have kids understand that a functioning democracy isn't particularly "natural" or easy.

    We've kinda got a theme going today...
  • The Invincible Nobility of the Middle Class

    I really don't want to jump on Mitt Romney every time he phrases something inartfully. Talking in front of people is hard. The chance to phrase something wrong comes with every sentence. It is, of course, a good idea when seeking public office to be better at saying what you mean than most civilians. But I'm more interested in the deeper connotations that you hear both from Romney, most Republicans and most Democrats that somehow equates virtue, and I would argue even patriotism, with being "middle class."

    I enjoyed the President's google hangout, the other day, but it was striking how hard he--and his interlocutors--stressed the fact that they were "playing by the rules," "hard-working." and "middle class." As someone with a parent, and siblings, and friends, who were raised in public housing or, at different points, on some sort of other government assistance, I find this framing interesting. My grandmother raised three daughters in Gilmore Homes. You would not have found (rest her soul) a more hard-working, playing by the rules person in any class. My grandmother was the American that so many hard-working/rules-playing citizens believe themselves to be.

    But the implication of a middle-class patriotism holds that the poor do not work hard, and do not play by the rules. Their poverty is a moral stain. It's rather sad to see ostensible progressives reinforcing this message. Perhaps in the case of Obama it's matter of democracy and market. Perhaps he's talking to the people who are most likely to vote.

    Still, for his next google hang-out, it really would be nice if he had someone from the projects or the impoverished regions of Appalachia who "worked hard," I understand that he has to go with the market. But it'd be nice to see him influencing as well as serving the market.

    I'm sorry, but I don't have such expectations for Mitt Romney.
  • Whither the Occupation

    Occupy put the wealth gap on the national radar, but it's doubtful the movement will accomplish anything else

    In the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg is skeptical about the future of Occupy:

    Nevertheless, as Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month, dislodged from most of the public spaces it had staked out around the country last fall, the movement seems weakened, its future uncertain. It sometimes appears to be driven by a series of tactics designed to maintain its public presence with no discernible strategy or goal--a kind of muddled, loose-themed ubiquity. The movement has proven adept at provoking media attention, but one may wonder what it amounts to, apart from its ability to reaffirm its status as a kind of protest brand name. Some core organizers are painfully aware of the situation. 

    "When I step out of the Occupy bubble, I discover that people have no coherent idea of who we are. They think we're a bunch of angry kids," Katie Davison told me. Amin Husain, a graduate of Columbia Law School who worked eighteen hours a day in corporate financing and property law before quitting to devote himself to the movement full time, expressed frustration at the fact that people were having trouble "grasping what we stand for..."

    Of course this takes us back to the original critique--a lack of focus and goals:

    Jackie DiSalvo, Occupy Wall Street's labor expert, felt that after the encampment in Zuccotti Park was uprooted "a set of demands was needed, to define the movement to itself, to bind it together." One demand DiSalvo would like to see is for a WPA-like jobs project funded by taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. "But I know it would never pass the General Assembly," she said, referring to the informal body comprised of anyone who showed up that made decisions in Zuccotti Park. She also hoped that OWS would run candidates in 2012, as the Tea Party did in 2010. But again, she admitted, "OWS would never endorse them." 

    In October, a "Demands Group" did spring up among the protesters. When members of the group went public with a few suggestions, the General Assembly attempted to vote them out of existence and by some accounts succeeded. Today, a version of the group exists with 410 members who, according to the movement's website, are "developing the concept of demands" (italics mine). Instead of debating actual demands, they are asking how a group "can create a process where their wants & needs can be communicated."

    Greenberg did succeed in one effort to get some an on the record goal:

    When I asked Amin and Katie what Occupy Wall Street's ultimate goal was, they said, "A government accountable to the people, freed up from corporate influence." It seemed that this pointed to a simple, single demand, something that many in the movement had been seeking since September: a campaign finance law that would ban private contributions and restrict candidates to the use of public money. Several detailed proposals for such a law already existed, including one from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig that, though imperfect, would attack, in Lessig's words, "the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first." 

    As I spoke, I could sense the impatience of my listeners. I wasn't getting the point. Any such demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street's principles. Katie maintained that Occupy Wall Street didn't yet have "a broad enough base" to make such a demand with any reasonable expectation that it could be met. And Amin said, "It doesn't matter what particular laws you pass. We're not about laws."

    I think that's the crux of the problem. There's an argument that the process of federal legislation, at this point, is crippled by deep systemic problems. The filibuster is an obvious example. It's also worth pointing out that there is a space for activism beyond electoral politics.

    But laws exist for a very good reason. They are--roughly put--a compact between citizens and the state detailing the guidelines for governance. Laws--and their alteration or abolishment--are the means by which we change the compact. The alternative, to my mind, is revolution.

    At the end of the piece Greenberg notes that the leadership is seeking to emulate the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. I hope no one told him that directly. If they did, Occupy reflects a poor understanding of that movement's lessons. The Civil Rights movement neither eschewed the hard work of mapping out concrete goals, nor shied away from changing laws.

    The sit-ins were an attempt to desegregate public and private facilities. Segregation was made possible by law. The Civil Rights movement sought the overthrow of those laws and the establishment of new ones. The Voting Rights Act delivered the South out of quasi-feudalism into democracy. People who were alive then will gladly testify that this was a real and historically significant accomplishment.

    To my mind, Occupy's greatest contribution was placing the wealth gap on the radar. But the Civil Rights movement didn't merely seek to put segregation "on the radar."  It sought to end it. To merely highlight the problem, and then to refuse to engage  would have been everything the Civil Rights movement wasn't. It would have been cynical.

    Cynicism wasn't an actual option for John Lewis. I don't know if the same can be said for Occupy. But then they lost me at Trinity.
  • American Socialism

    How valid is the socialist NFL argument?

    Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg brings us an animated argument for football as socialism. She also links to Allen Barra's argument to the contrary, which I find unconvincing. Which isn't to say I couldn't be convinced. I don't really know a lot about baseball's economics beyond the rudiments. I have a feeling I'm about to get an education.

    As an aside, I strongly urge you to visit the blog of any American with a "Von" in their name. So aristocraty...

    Bill Maher - Irritable Bowl Syndrome from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.

  • On Tyler Clementi's Suicide

    Ian Parker's piece on the young teen who committed suicide at Rutgers in 2010 is well-reported and complicates the picture some.

    Ian Parker's piece on the young teen who committed suicide at Rutgers in 2010 is well-reported and complicates the picture some. By "complicates" I don't mean that it makes Dhuran Ravi--the freshman who spied on Clementi--sound anymore sympathetic. But it does add some interesting data-points to what we consider bullying. To be clear, I've viewed the anti-bullying movement with some skepticism

    From the piece:

    One afternoon last October, a year after Clementi's death, the image was projected onto two giant screens in a hall in a student center at Rutgers. CNN was taping a special, "Bullying: It Stops Here," hosted by Anderson Cooper. The audience consisted mostly of Rutgers students--Tyler Picone sat in the front row--and they listened courteously as a floor manager called out "Are you guys excited to be on TV?" and "You're a good-looking group," then coached them on how to express shock or grief while watching the panel. The discussion, involving Dr. Phil McGraw, Kelly Ripa, and Robert Faris, a sociologist at U.C.-Davis, and others, began with Cooper declaring that Tyler Clementi's life had been "thrown onto the Internet." 

    Then, in what may have been quiet recognition that the source of Clementi's despair was unknown, and may remain unknown, the show barely mentioned Clementi again. Its primary subject was the meanness of middle-school students. Clementi was a totem, but not part of the story. Outside, I spoke to Eric Thor, a junior, and the president of Delta Lambda Phi, a gay-oriented fraternity. " 'Bullying' is trying to be a label that covers all negative interrelations between students," he said. "If you say the word enough, it starts to lose meaning." He noted that Clementi had lacked a close ally at Rutgers. "Everyone needs a sidekick. I don't think he had that." 

    With that said, I was left with very little sympathy for Ravi, a rather persistent homophobe and young egotist, who is now facing ten years in prison after declining a plea-deal that would have given no jail time. I don't know if he "bullied" Clementi, or not. The label isn't so important to me. What he actually seems to have done--thoughtlessly making an exhibit of a troubled young man in a cruel quest to ingratiate himself to his peers--and the fact that that deed ended in a death, strikes me as bad enough.
  • Food-Stamp Primary

    Jeff Goldberg looks at what the Republican primary has to say to black voters:

    Black people have lost the desire to perform a day's work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them something because they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps. And the pathologies afflicting black Americans are caused partly by the Democratic Party, which has created in them a dependency on government not dissimilar to the forced dependency of slaves on their owners.

    The key, of course, is to understand is that none of this is directed toward black people, so much as its meant to appeal to the Party's base. That there is still an audience for this sort of thing is, given our history, both predicable and sad. 
  • Delusions of Obama the Idiot

    Jonathan Chait on Republican amnesia:

    The idea that Romney can "think on his feet," and that Obama is all "flash," expresses a common right-wing trope that Obama is actually an idiot: a charismatic speaker but helpless when not reading from prepared text. That is the basis for the GOP's otherwise inscrutable obsession with TelePrompTer jokes - the TelePrompTer is an extremely common political tool, but many conservatives have come to believe that Obama would be helpless without it. That belief accounts for a major portion of Gingrich's appeal -- he has painted an appealing picture of himself exposing the stammering dope in a lengthy series of debates. Among other problems, this fantasy ignores the actual history of Obama's debate performances ...

    It's amazing that the GOP has somehow convinced itself that Obama is some kind of beguiling intellectual lightweight. I fully expect him to take Mitt Romney apart in the debates. 

    MCs act like they don't know...

  • The Case Against Steven Spielberg

    What if 'E.T.' wasn't really a masterpiece?

    I don't know if I agree with this Bill Wyman essay on the master film-maker, but I enjoyed it very much:

    Beneath all his technical wizardry is only a simulacrum of aesthetics. The gassy high-mindedness; the complete lack of all but the most bland humor or self-awareness; the boring, slightly pompous exposition that bespeaks a person whose every word is hung on, and never challenged, for far too long. (Watch Spielberg in the promotional material that accompanies the DVD release of his films. 

    He speaks with the breezy self-importance of someone who is no longer contradicted, seemingly, by anyone. He appears to exist in a cloud.) Steven Spielberg has built a remarkable career by amplifying the familiar--taking what we know, both with regard to the language of cinema as well as his thematic concerns, and saying them loud. But he hasn't said anything new.

    I'm a simple man and generally Spielberg makes films that are a bit too big and loud to me. Even his quieter ones. I suspect I am one of the few people who enjoyed Alice Walker's The Color Purple, more than Spielberg's. I found Walker's characters to be fuller.

    Anyway, even as I say that my favorite Spielberg film, unquestionably, is Jaws. I think technical limits are often the handmaiden of good art. Though not always, Lord of the Rings comes to mind.
  • Morning Coffee

    How Chuck D crafted the perfect black superhero

    Chuck D's politics have always obscured his actual MC cred, which is a little sad. In his day he lived in this weird place between Run-DMC volume and Rakim surrealism. Looking back I just appreciate how he erected at a mythology as a black nationalist superhero. Whereas most MCs only had to worry about the cops, sucker MCs or drug dealers, Chuck D was targeted by the greatest super-power ever known to man. Here you see the mythology in full-effect--with guns, sneering white people, prison guards and  EPMD all in effect.

    When I was twelve, I just knew I was gonna grow up to be an S1W.


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

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


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



From This Author