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.

  • 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.

  • Compensation


    IV. Morality

    One rather unfortunate argument made to me, over the past few weeks, grudgingly acknowledges Ron Paul's willingness to cover up his profligate race-baiting, as well as the foolishness of his claim that rich planters should have been financially compensated for trafficking children. The argument then pivots to note that such issues are ancient history and of little importance when weighed against the great present evil of our time--the drug war. 

    I confess that I too get that old feeling in my leg when I hear Paul denounce both wars abroad and at home. Moreover, Paul does so with a kind of forthrightness and directness that you don't really see among national politicians. The appeal is strong, invigorating, and should be acknowledged. I am not sure whether it is the shame of our politics, or the shame of our electorate, that such topics seem so off-limits and so off-stage.But the selective abandonment of uncomfortable history is neither a viable option for my tribe, nor is it particularly wise for the greater tribe which\believes our criminal justice system to be a great failure. 

    It is often said that Americans aren't interested in history, but I think it's more accurate to say that people--in general--aren't interested in history that makes them feel bad. We surely are interested in those points of history from which we are able to extract an easy national glory--our achievement of independence from the British, the battle of Gettysburg, our fight against Hitler, and even the campaign of nonviolence waged by Martin Luther King. For different reasons, each of these episodes can be fitted for digestibility. More importantly that can be easily deployed in service our various national uses. Thus it is not so much that we are against history, as we are in favor of a selective history. The fact is that Martin Luther King is useful to us, in a way that Bayard Rustin is not (yet.)

    Likewise, Ron Paul, and his followers are not against deploying history, so much as they are for deploying history in ways which advantages their candidate. When Paul invokes his own history of service to attack our wars abroad, no one says "That's all ancient history." The connection is obvious and advantageous. Paul's own service gives his claims a kind of moral weight, that Newt Gingrich's lack. Moreover, it buttresses Paul's credibility in an effort to sway those who remain undecided. Of course a necessary truth, follows this line of reasoning: As sure as Paul's service in the military lends respectability to the critique of our international wars, his service in the aims of white supremacy detract respectability from the critique of our national wars.

    Indeed, one of the quicker ways to delegitimize the critique of the War on Drugs, in the eyes of black people, would be making Ron Paul the prominent face of the movement. That black people even need to be swayed doesn't seem to occur to Paul's supporters who, admittedly, are unoriginal in viewing African-Americans as the slick paint-job on a pre-fab argument. But the fact is that black people are far from united in their feelings about the criminal justice system in general, and drug crimes in particular.

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  • 'House of Lies' and Mainstream Pornography

    The dangers of mediocre pay-cable TV

    I caught House of Lies at the barbershop the other day, and was disappointed. I'm pretty much a fan of the entire cast--especially Ben Schwartz and (obviously) Don Cheadle.

    Ken Tucker captures much of what I was thinking:

    Most of the time, House of Lies plays like one of those glossy, empty USA Network shows like White Collar or Psych, but with a butt-load of the sort of sexual activity one can get away with on pay-cable. That means both ends of this creature, so to speak, aren't all that interesting. People talk fast on Psych because the folks making it think you'll mistake that for snappy patter; people have grunting quickies in semi-public places on cable TV because they think it'll turn us on. But there's no novelty or freshness in House of Lies' patter or its penis-placement. 

    The show's crucial weakness is its dead language: The lines have no comic lilt; no exchange between any two characters gives off sparks. When you have an actor with a tongue as adroit as Cheadle, this seems nearly cruel. The sex is brutish and quick, laced with hostility -- orgasm as inflicted punishment. In the second episode, the promise of lively flirtation is proffered the moment the bright-eyed Cat Deeley shows up in an airport cameo. But the show's writers use her the way they use everyone else here -- Deeley ends up looking foolish for being friendly to one of Cheadle's team, even having to stoop to mop up coffee spilled on a man's crotch. (Coffee she didn't even spill herself.) 

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  • No One Left to Lie To

    The truth hurts:

    The Republican presidential candidate has denied writing inflammatory passages in the pamphlets from the 1990s and said recently that he did not read them at the time or for years afterward. Numerous colleagues said he does not hold racist views.

    But people close to Paul's operations said he was deeply involved in the company that produced the newsletters, Ron Paul & Associates, and closely monitored its operations, signing off on articles and speaking to staff members virtually every day. 

    "It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product. . . . He would proof it,'' said Renae Hathway, a former secretary in Paul's company and a supporter of the Texas congressman.


    A person involved in Paul's businesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing a former employer, said Paul and his associates decided in the late 1980s to try to increase sales by making the newsletters more provocative. They discussed adding controversial material, including racial statements, to help the business, the person said. 

    "It was playing on a growing racial tension, economic tension, fear of government,'' said the person, who supports Paul's economic policies but is not backing him for president. "I'm not saying Ron believed this stuff. It was good copy. Ron Paul is a shrewd businessman.''


    Ed Crane, the longtime president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said he met Paul for lunch during this period, and the two men discussed direct-mail solicitations, which Paul was sending out to interest people in his newsletters. 

    They agreed that "people who have extreme views" are more likely than others to respond. Crane said Paul reported getting his best response when he used a mailing list from the now-defunct newspaper Spotlight, which was widely considered anti-Semitic and racist.

    Benton, Paul's spokesman, said that Crane's account "sounds odd" and that Paul did not recall the conversation. 

    At the time, Paul's investment letter was languishing. According to the person involved with his businesses, Paul and others hit upon a solution: to "morph" the content to capi­tal­ize on a growing fear among some on the political right about the nation's changing demographics and threats to economic liberty. 

     The investment letter became the Ron Paul Survival Report -- a name designed to intrigue readers, the company secretary said. It cost subscribers about $100 a year. The tone of that and other Paul publications changed, becoming increasingly controversial. In 1992, for example, the Ron Paul Political Report defended chess champion Bobby Fischer, who became known as an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier, for his stance on "Jewish questions.''


    Paul "had to walk a very fine line,'' said Eric Dondero Rittberg, a former longtime Paul aide who says Paul allowed the controversial material in his newsletter as a way to make money. Dondero Rittberg said he witnessed Paul proofing, editing and signing off on his newsletters in the mid-1990s. 

    "The real big money came from some of that racially tinged stuff, but he also had to keep his libertarian supporters, and they weren't at all comfortable with that,'' he said. 

    Dondero Rittberg is no longer a Paul supporter, and officials with Paul's presidential campaign have said he was fired. Dondero Rittberg disputed that, saying he resigned in 2003 because he opposed Paul's views on Iraq.


    In 1996, as Paul ran for Congress again, his business success turned into a potential political liability when his newsletters surfaced in the Texas media. Paul was quoted in the Dallas Morning News that year as defending a newsletter line from 1992 that said 95 percent of black men in the District are "semi-criminal or entirely criminal" and that black teenagers can be "unbelievably fleet of foot." 

    "If you try to catch someone that has stolen a purse from you, there is no chance to catch them," the newspaper quoted Paul as saying.

    All parties agree that Ron Paul is not, personally, racist and that he didn't write the passages. This is comforting. I am not an anti-Semite. But give me a check to tell Harlem the Jews invented AIDS, and I'll do it.

    As I've said before, we all must make our calculus in supporting a candidate or even claiming he is "good" for the debate. But it must be an honest calculus. 

    If you believe that a character who would conspire to profit off of white supremacy, anti-gay bigotry, and anti-Semitism is the best vehicle for convincing the country to end the drug war, to end our romance with interventionism, to encourage serious scrutiny of state violence, at every level, then you should be honest enough to defend that proposition. 

    What you should not do is claim that Ron Paul "legislated" for Martin Luther King Day, or claim to have intricate knowledge of Ron Paul's heart, and thus by the harsh accumulation of  evidence, be made to look ridiculous. 
  • Good for Wolf Blitzer

    We talked the other day about asking a debate question, but not really being prepared to ask it. Newt Gingrich has repeatedly hidden behind a veil of Republican unity when it was to his advantage, while pulling out daggers when it wasn't. I don't begrudge him that. He's running a campaign to be president of the United States. That's his interest. In a debate setting, the interest of reporters (among others) is to make candidates defend their statements in detail. 

    Often those two interests collide. That's a feature, not a bug. It was good to see Wolf Blitzer--even with the crowd turning on him--lean into that collision a bit last night. The ref isn't there to make sure the crowd cheers for him, or to make sure the combatants "approve" of him.

  • Girlfight

    The New York Times chronicles boxer Claressa Shields

    The Times chronicles boxer Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan. It's amazing at the end to see her coach say when he gets done with her she's "going to be a real lady." It's amazing how much that word--lady--has changed. A century ago it definitely couldn't encompass fisticuffs.

  • Patriotism

    In the early days of army integration, a young white supremacist expresses a stunning amount of hatred, a type that can't be explained away by politics.

    As I mentioned before, I'm reading Randall Kennedy's book The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency for a magazine piece. The most moving chapter in the book is on black patriotism. Most of the chapter finds Kennedy offering a rather sympathetic, and compelling, look at Reverend Jeremiah Wright through the lens of his father. 

    But there's also an intense section where Kennedy describes black soldiers efforts at The Battle of The Bulge. Eisenhower had lost so many troops that he gives black soldiers the opportunity to volunteer to fight. Even though it means taking demotions so that black officers wouldn't end up commanding white soldiers, four thousand black men sign on.

    In the years following the armed forces began to desegregate. In the wake of those changes, the following letter was sent to Theodore Bilbo, an avowed white supremacist and senator from Mississippi:

    I am a typical American, a southerner and 27 years of age.... I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
    The letter was written by a man who served, not in the American military, but in the white supremacist militia and rose to be a "Exalted Cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan. In another life the longest serving senator in American history, and supporter of the country's first black president. The man was Robert Byrd.

    One of the problems with history as debate club is Byrd's name is typically bandied about in order change the subject away from the latest racist act by some GOP official. This offers a convenient excuse to not look, in any depth, at Byrd's past actions. 

    I don't pull out that quote to play "Who is more racist?" But it must be said that there is stunning amount of hatred in those words. It can't be explained away by politics. This isn't the public "I'll never be outniggered again" race-baiting of Wallace. And it's much more than just hatred of black people; it's hatred of an America in which black people are allowed to fight with whites, voiced by someone who did no fighting himself. 

    Byrd's sentiment isn't original, It really is the same fear that led to secession. But it basically holds that one hates black people so much, that they would see their mother country fall, so long as black people stay fallen. 

    Perhaps inappropriately, I'm reminded of a scene in one of those many X-Men crossovers from the 80s. Jean Grey is locked in battle with her clone, her "sister," Madelyne Pryor. As they fight to the death Jean tells her she can still save her and they truly can learn to live in the world together that there still is a world to live for. Pryor says "Not with you in it" and dies. 

    That's the kind of hatred you see in that letter. And it wasn't even unusual. Kennedy chronicles how blacks in the South, up through the 1950s, often didn't celebrate the 4th of July less they be lynched for believing themselves American. 
  • Compensation


    III. Violence

    We have, thus far, established that Ron Paul's version of the Civil War is wrong on chronology, and wrong on economics. But what of Paul's contention that slavery was ended in every other country without the violence that swept over America:

    Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war.

    I think we can grant the technicality here--that the specific sort of violence. a civil war launched by slave-holders to establish an empire of White Supremacy, makes America different. But if Paul's point is simply one of nomenclature, or specimen, it doesn't has little import on his greater argument--that the horrific violence that attended America in 1860 was, somehow, preventable. 

     I'm fairly sure, for instance, were we to use the terminology of some of Paul's fellow travelers "The War Of Northern Aggression" his point would remain. His argument is about violence and war--that "every other major country" somehow managed to purge itself with a minimum of bloodshed or through magnanimous nonviolence. As with virtually everything else Paul says about the Civil War, the facts have taken leave.

    The obvious counter-example is Haiti, where black people fought a bloody two year war of liberation against the French, and then a second war against the French under Napoleon. The Haitians triumphed in each instance and thus authored one of the few (if only) successful slave rebellion in world history. I spent some time, via twitter, talking with Laurent Dubois, author of Avengers Of The New World, one of the most heralded histories of the Haitian Revolution. We have a source here putting casualties at over 100,000, in era before the minie ball.

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  • Grandstanding Gingrich

    I hadn't actually seen this moment with Newt Gingrich and John King until I was filing through some old Daily Show segments. I don't really understand why reporters allow themselves to be fodder for this sort of thing. I think the worst part is King's backpeddaling attempt to blame the question (about Newt's previous marriage) on someone else, which allowed Newt to go into nuclear faux-outrage mode.

    If you don't think a question is legit, don't ask it. If you do, and you're called to defend it, you need to do so, not relapse into "What had happened" mode. I don't know how objectivity is served by being afraid of your own questions. Newt Gingrich knew the rules. He's defending his brand. CNN should defend theirs. Gotta say, Bill O'Reilly--to his credit--would never go out like that.

    Sorry I'm late. Too much Civil War on the brain.

  • Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

    Yesterday, I think we arrived at an interesting historical paradox. The consensus was that, in the slimmest sense, compensated emancipation was possible. But in the actual sense it was impossible. That is because while we were able to imagine the country getting its hands on enough resources to bail-out slave-holders, we could not imagine slave-holders accepting such a bail-out. The only way to make it work would be to compel them to accept--which is just another way of saying "War."  (This, of course, only one of many problems with the counter-factual, and I ask patience as we address the others in the coming days. Again, one post can't do it all.) 

    So, of course, this made me to think of De Tocqueville:

    The great difficulty was, not to know how to constitute the Federal government, but to find out a method of enforcing its laws. Governments have generally but two means of overcoming the opposition of the governed: namely, the physical force that is at their own disposal, and the moral force that they derive from the decisions of the courts of justice. 

    A government which should have no other means of exacting obedience than open war must be very near its ruin, for one of two things would then probably happen to it. If it was weak and temperate, it would resort to violence only at the last extremity and would connive at many partial acts of insubordination; then the state would gradually fall into anarchy. If it was enterprising and powerful, it would every day have recourse to physical strength, and thus would soon fall into a military despotism. Thus its activity and its inertness would be equally prejudicial to the community. 

    The great end of justice is to substitute the notion of right for that of violence and to place a legal barrier between the government and the use of physical force. 

    Is it fair to say that by 1860, slavery had effectively brought the American government to ruin? Isn't that what secession was? The failure of government? Can we not look at the administration of James Buchannan in the face of the secession crisis and see a weak temperateness and "many partial acts of insubordination?" It is probably not accurate to say that North and South fell in to "despotism" during the War -- there was an election in 1864, and one which Lincoln believed he would lose. But you do see the State strengthening itself and infringing on previously held liberties. 

    These are all questions. I don't have much experience with political science or the history of governments. But it would seem that the threat of violence is an indispensable fact of governing ("I got more glocks and techs than you.") And yet having to honor that threat regularly indicates a failure of legitimacy. 

    This is disturbingly akin to the West Baltimore of my youth. Without a real power establishing a monopoly on dispensing of beat-downs, pistol-whippings, and shootings, we were left to regulate it ourselves. The kids who were most able to protect their person, were allowed the right of self-governance, and almost never had to fight. The threat of what they might do had to be honored. I, on the other hand, spent the first half of my seventh grade year getting jumped, and the second half fighting. My eighth grade year was considerably less violent. The threat was now honored, and by then I was rolling with a crew.

    This is all thinking out loud. We're here in the sandbox together. Let's go.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



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