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. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

  • Dumb Into Damascus

    Is this any way to go to war?

    There's some powerful video coming out of Senator John McCain engaging with his constituents. From what I can tell there were a number of citizens in the audience with Syrian roots, many of whom were not convinced by the case for war. They have company:

    By a 48% to 29% margin, more Americans oppose than support conducting military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

    The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 1 among 1,000 adults, finds that Obama has significant ground to make up in his own party. Just 29% of Democrats favor conducting airstrikes against Syria while 48% are opposed. Opinion among independents is similar (29% favor, 50% oppose). Republicans are more divided, with 35% favoring airstrikes and 40% opposed
    Polls can never be the end-all, be-all of any policy. But when you have majorities in your own country opposing a war, when the president can't convince his own party, when alleged allies in the region and your strongest ally in the world oppose war, then it's time to rethink. A coalition isn't something you assemble just for show. It demonstrates a broad range of concerns and interests have come to the same conclusion. This cuts both ways. And so it's worth considering why a broad range of concerns and interests are now united in opposition. 
     
    Put simply -- is this any way to go to war? I don't think Senator Obama would have been convinced.

  • The Lost Battalion

    I'm sorry I've left you all. I'm still crashing a piece for the magazine, hoping to be out of print-hell by Monday. There's a lot on my mind. I miss Paris more than anything. I'm waking up at two in the morning. I have not reset my watch, and don't ever plan to. I've been playing a lot of Babyface. There's air conditioning everywhere--whether it's actually hot or not. I had to come out the subway yesterday just to feel the city. This is all very ridiculous. I feel like Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets"--Over a dog. Over an ugly dog

    Thinking about Syria too. Reading Daniel Larison, who's making a lot of sense. Thinking this can't end well. 

    Started teaching yesterday. Carrying two classes this semester instead of one. Back to back. I was on fire for three hours. And then I was exhausted. But I told my kids I missed them all summer. And I didn't even know them yet. It's true.

    But I've gotta go. Need to make it happen. Gotta get it in. Or whatever the old folks are saying these days. How about this: Ma maison est votre maison. Soyez gentil. Vous possedez ça. 

    Corrigez-moi, s'il vous plaît.

  • The Case for Tracy McGrady's Hall of Fame Bid

    The 16-year NBA veteran wasn't a natural leader--but so what?



    Bill Simmons' retrospective on McGrady is really good. There's a subtle point in here about how we view we manage to view team accomplishments through the lens of the individual. Basketball is actually more sensible about this than football. 

    Nevertheless, Simmons lines up the forces that influenced McGrady's career--the era he entered the league, Grant Hill's injury, his amazing basketball skills being at odds with the temperament you want from a team leader:

    His personality never matched his talents, Morey believed, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For his first three Houston seasons, it fell upon coach Jeff Van Gundy to supply that leadership -- by default -- and as Morey accurately points out, you never want your team drawing its entire personality and toughness from someone wearing a suit. (Even in Chicago, where the Bulls assumed Tom Thibodeau's rugged personality over these last three years, that wouldn't work if lunch-pail guys like Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler weren't involved.) 
    After Morey fired Van Gundy before the 2007-08 season, new hire Rick Adelman was hoping McGrady would take on a bigger leadership role. Adelman was a more laid-back coach, Morey explains, someone who'd rather delegate to his players. So they met with McGrady to tell him that they needed his help.

    What happened? McGrady politely turned them down. He just wasn't wired that way, he told them.

    "So who did everyone consider the team's leader during your 22-game winning streak?" I asked Daryl.

    "Probably Chuck Hayes," Daryl said

    There's a tendency when you hear these stories to go in on the player for not remaking their entire self for their sport. But at the same time, I wonder if--outside of basketball--people like McGrady are ultimately healthier. It's easy to forget that Tracy McGrady is a person, not a basketball career. But he was great. And I think Simmons case is air-tight.

  • Slowing Down The War Train

    I like to think my colleague James Fallows has some sort of neural interface with the president. OK, so probably not. Nevertheless, it's worth checking out the series of posts he's written on Syria, culminating with this post where he praises the president's wisdom. I'm hoping we'll get to see the reconstituted version. Nevertheless, I think Jim was dead on this week, and is dead on now. I never believed Obama's thoughts on war were going to match my thoughts on war. But like Jim, I've always thought the president was wise. A lesser man would have stood on ego. 

    Let's see where we go from here.
     
     
  • Departures

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #16

    Departures.jpg

    So we are leaving tomorrow and I am more scared going than I am coming. I am not just a romantic, I am a committed one. That is to say, I believe in the importance, not just in feeling things, but in following those feelings through. Should that following lead you to disaster, it can never make you wrong. It can only make you a traveler. 

    It was the smallest things that got me--restaurants that served food, not sex, and never tried to confuse you. The people smiling at you like a lost puppy as you bumble through their language. The range of folks out on the block, on a night like tonight, all of them trying to get in; 70-year olds floating past with  Ohio Players on the brain

     

    I'm too young child and you're too old
    That don't mean that you got no soul.

     

    It's a beautiful thing. I hope you caught some sliver of that. 

  • Hey Everybody, an Old Man Is Talking

    Old Man.jpg

    I used Nicole Cliffe's piece "Getting the Body You've Always Wanted" from The Hairpin in my essay class last year. It was something of a hit. There were only women in the class. I recommended they read The 'Pin because I'm totally up with what all the anti-racist, sex-positive kids are doing these days. I'm hip. I'm with it. I'm intersectional. I'm an ally. I've got privilege, man.

    And I love The 'Pin, but I loved it a little less after Cliffe made a getaway. She got with a homegirl and started The Toast, which I've been enjoying a little too much for a man my age. Whatever. I told you I was intersectional. This piece, for instance, "A Day in The Life of a Troubled Male Antihero," was basically written for me. I don't think I should excerpt it here since its full of not-nice language. (We can talk in comments.) But I want to say that after reading that piece, I felt a little less lonely in the world.

    And I felt that way after perusing the site. The Toast is so ratchet, as the kids would say. Wait, isn't that what the kids would say? Is that a compliment? My son told me to say that. How about "The Toast is so twerking?" "The Toast is so HAM?" No? Hmm. This is not working out like I planned. 

    Eff it. 

    Real Americans eat oatmeal, but they read The Toast. You should too. 
  • On the Death of Dreams

    If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy.

    Watching Barack Obama's speech yesterday, I thought of a young W.E.B. Du Bois who in 1897 authored the original Poundcake Speech:
    We believe that the first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races—commonly called the Negro Problem—lies in the correction of the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains as a heritage from slavery. We believe that only earnest and long continued efforts on our own part can cure these social ills.

    Du Bois styled himself as a speaker of bold truths, arguing that black people "must be honest" and fearless in "criticizing their own faults." Those faults included a disturbing number of black boys succumbing to "loafing, gambling and crime," and a "vast army of black prostitutes that is today marching to hell."

    Du Bois was writing at a time in which such views were current in the world of white sociology. The way to defeat them was not to attack them at their root, but to be better, to be twice as good—"There is no power under God's high heaven," asserted Du Bois. "That can stop the advance of eight thousand thousand honest, earnest, inspired and united people."

    Much like Du Bois more than a century ago, Obama positioned himself as an airer of laundry and speaker of bold, necessary truths:

    And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support—as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

    It goes without saying that the president is using a tank to bravely plow through an army of straw men. George Will could not have done better. I have met a lot of trifling human beings who happened to be black, and from them, I have heard a lot of trifling excuses for not parenting. I have never met one who cited racism as an excuse for not parenting or for giving up on oneself. I doubt that Barack Obama has either.*

    The president's comments regarding the riots are particularly illuminating. The black community in 1968 had born the brunt of roughly a hundred years of lynchings, beatings, rapes, firebombs and racist policy. The American state which Barack Obama represents regarded Apartheid not as an unfortunate side-effect  but as one of its necessary premises. Nothing was immune—not postbellum reunion, not Prohibition, not the New Deal, not the G.I. Bill, nothing. In the main, the black community responded to this campaign of white terrorism and racist policy with stoic protests, hypermorality and nonviolence. Bloody Sunday was not original. It just happened to be televised.

    There is the rub: In the 1960s, black men and women who carried the pain of living in a white terrorist state, who carried the pain of redlining, of job discrimination, of being cheated out of land, put on the television and saw black women and children getting the shit kicked out of them. No one was being punished. Sometimes the police were doing the kicking. They saw this, and they stewed. They'd seen it before. And as they had in the face of racial pogroms, and in the face of slavery itself, they closed their mouths, swallowed the daggers, and got dressed for work.

    Martin Luther King turned this stoic tradition into high art. It was a kind of jujitsu by which our pain could be made redemptive. The price was high. If that imagery cut black folks to the core, one wonders how far it went in normalizing the idea of the black body as the rightful field for violence. If you accept that being twice as good is the price of the ticket, then you accept a double standard, and thus necessarily accept the precepts of racism.

    The response to this bargain was to bug King's phones, to send lewd tapes of his affairs to his wife, to plant informants in his inner circle. The heads of the American state signed off on this bugging. Jackie Kennedy held him in contempt. John F. Kennedy liked to demean him as "Martin Luther Queen." The response of the white public was considerably more vicious. And so for daring to oppose Vietnam, for challenging Apartheid, for claiming that garbage workers are people, they murdered him. 

    None of us in this generation can truly know how it must have felt to be black, to have come out of the long night of slavery, into the clutches of revanchists, to have survived only to see your great ambassador slaughtered like a dog. Barack Obama doesn't know anything about this. None of us know anything about this. None of us can really know how deep that pain must have cut. Anger is human. It is fantastic to see the head of the same American state that created the ghettos (which predictably exploded) attack the people imprisoned there for being self-defeating. 

    Like Du Bois, Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people to what black people have done to themselves. Like Du Bois, Barack Obama believes that these people have a point. Du Bois's biographer, David Levering Lewis, says that Du Bois came to look back back on that speech with some embarrassment. I don't know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion.
     
    Indeed, if we are—as the president asks us to be—honest with ourselves, we will see that we have elected a president who claims to oppose racial profiling one minute, and then flirts with inaugurating the country's greatest racial profiler the next. If we are honest with ourselves we will see that we have a president who can condemn the riots as "self-defeating," but can't see his way clear to enforce the fair housing law that came out of them. If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy.
     
    It is heartbreaking to see this. But it is also clarifying.
     

    *This sentence was changed and clarified in response to this comment
  • The Security State of Ray Kelly

    Oh hey look, the police commissioner of the largest department in America is profiling. Again:

    The New York Police Department has secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

    Designating an entire mosque as a terrorism enterprise means that anyone who attends prayer services there is a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.

    Since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD has opened at least a dozen "terrorism enterprise investigations" into mosques, according to interviews and confidential police documents. The TEI, as it is known, is a police tool intended to help investigate terrorist cells and the like.

    Many TEIs stretch for years, allowing surveillance to continue even though the NYPD has never criminally charged a mosque or Islamic organization with operating as a terrorism enterprise.

    The documents show in detail how, in its hunt for terrorists, the NYPD investigated countless innocent New York Muslims and put information about them in secret police files. As a tactic, opening an enterprise investigation on a mosque is so potentially invasive that while the NYPD conducted at least a dozen, the FBI never did one, according to interviews with federal law enforcement officials... The NYPD did not limit its operations to collecting information on those who attended the mosques or led prayers. The department sought also to put people on the boards of New York's Islamic institutions to fill intelligence gaps.

    One confidential NYPD document shows police wanted to put informants in leadership positions at mosques and other organizations, including the Arab American Association of New York in Brooklyn, a secular social-service organization.

    That Barack Obama, a politician who pushed Illinois racial profiling bill, ever flirted with a Kelly nomination, is evidence of what happens when take you Serious People, seriously.

    From my label-mate Conor Friedersdorf:

    Usually, when I write phrases like, "This is how a secret police force with files on innocent Americans starts," I'm issuing a warning about the future. But the NYPD literally started a secret police unit that began indiscriminately keeping files on innocent Americans. This isn't a warning about a slippery slope. It is an observation about ongoing abuse of civil liberties in America's biggest city.

    Precisely. This is just who we are, now. Make sure to check out New York magazine's piece on Kelly's outfit. Al-Qaeda greatest victory has been in exposing our meek defense of values we claim to cherish. Shame on Ray Kelly. This is disgraceful.

  • The Black Box of Second-Language Acquisition

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #15

    There all sorts of theories around how best to acquire a second language. Some people think you should dive right in and speak from day one. Other people think that it is perfectly normal for you to shut up and listen. There are polyglots who swear by translation as an aid for learning. There are others who think translation is the enemy of second-language acquisition. The point here is not that there are no rules. There clearly are--virtually everyone agrees, for instance, that immersion beats everything. (Which is sort of why you see "immersion" labels on products and classes that clearly are not.) And virtually everyone agrees, all things being equal, that it's easier to pick up a third and fourth language, than a second--mostly because having done it before, you have some idea how your brain works.

    I use a product called Fluenz. I also use Anki to increase my vocabulary. There's a theory that holds that if you learn 3,000 words of your target language you will know about 95 percent of all the words used in a regular conversation. Also this summer, I took about four hours of class four to five times a week. Those classes were heavy on grammar. I have reservations about all of this. I'm skeptical of the idea that you can "know" a word without repeated exposure to it in different contexts. I have strong doubts about repetitive grammar exercises, and classes where the students don't talk a lot. But I also think those doubts aren't very important, because I enjoy making flashcards, my classes anchor my day, and Fluenz is a nice change of pace.

    Am I learning at the optimal pace? Beats me. "Learning" is such a black box. We generally know that some people have more aptitude than others. We also generally agree that everyone should regularly practice. But after that there just seems to be a lot of grey area. In talking to people who've tried to learn a language and quit, I've come to believe that nailing the optimal method is not as important as continuing to put one foot in front of the other. In other words, I think, above all, you've got to find some method that keeps you practicing regularly over a long period of time.

    And you've just have to wait. I'm talking to myself, more than I'm talking to you. Peregrin Coates wants "the French" right now and I wants it all. For those of us who can't afford immersion, everything happens so slow and the benchmarks are weird. I know that when I first started I couldn't say anything beyond "Bonjour" or "Merci" and I could not say them right. Now I can generally communicate with someone, who is trying to communicate with me--but they have to be trying and I have to tell myself "OK, we're speaking French right now." Some day I hope for things to be better. But the only way to really do that is to keep walking. You can't much think about the destination. You must focus on walking the path, and try not think about seeing it. 

  • George Will Is Not a Scientist, Man

    Last week George Will joined a panel on ABC News to commemorate the March on Washington. Will said the following:

    "A young social scientist from Harvard working in the Labor Department published a report. His name was Daniel Patrick Moynahan. He said, 'There is a crisis in the African-American community, because 24 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried women. Today it's tripled to 72 percent. That, and not an absence of rights, is surely the biggest impediment."

    The report Will is referencing is entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. That second part is particularly important because Moynihan's argument was not that the black community needed to be more moral. On the contrary, Moynihan strongly believed that American racism was central to what he saw as a "tangle of pathologies" afflicting black families. We can debate that terminology all day. I am not a fan, but my point is that Moynihan was not confused about the root causes:

    That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary -- a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people.

    But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries. In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

    There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.

    Here an earlier word of caution should be repeated. These is much evidence that a considerable number of Negro families have managed to break out of the tangle of pathology and to establish themselves as stable, effective units, living according to patterns of American society in general. E. Franklin Frazier has suggested that the middle-class Negro American family is, if anything, more patriarchal and protective of its children than the general run of such families.27 Given equal opportunities, the children of these families will perform as well or better than their white peers. They need no help from anyone, and ask none.

    While this phenomenon is not easily measured, one index is that middle class Negroes have even fewer children than middle class whites, indicating a desire to conserve the advances they have made and to insure that their children do as well or better. Negro women who marry early to uneducated laborers have more children than white women in the same situation; Negro women who marry at the common age for the middle class to educated men doing technical or professional work have only four fifths as many children as their white counterparts.

    It might be estimated that as much as half of the Negro community falls into the middle class. However, the remaining half is in desperate and deteriorating circumstances. Moreover, because of housing segregation it is immensely difficult for the stable half to escape from the cultural influences of the unstable one. The children of middle class Negroes often as not must grow up in, or next to the slums, an experience almost unknown to white middle class children. They are therefore constantly exposed to the pathology of the disturbed group and constantly in danger of being drawn into it. It is for this reason that the propositions put forth in this study may be thought of as having a more or less general application.

    In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.

    There's a lot to debate here in terms of Moynihan's analysis. His thoughts on slavery breaking the black family, for instance, were thoroughly rebutted in Herb Gutman's masterful study The Black Family In Slavery And Freedom. I also think it's worth noting that the percentage of white single-parent births is now exactly where black births were in Moynihan's time. But no one thinks this has much to do with "matriarchy." But Moynihan, unlike George Will, believed racism to be at the core of any discussion about what afflicted the black family. Moreover, Moynihan -- unlike Will -- believed that because America had created this problem, it was America's responsibility to actually do something:
     

    The key to arresting the alarming rise in family instability, he felt, was a dedicated federal effort to provide jobs for black men. He was, after all, assistant secretary in the Department of Labor, not in the Department Health, Education, and Welfare; his purview was the workforce and not the family. The crisis in the black family was his justification for a federal jobs program. Along with education, training, and apprenticeship programs that would enhance the employability of black men, he favored a major public works effort that would guarantee jobs to all able-bodied workers. If full employment for black males -- especially young black males -- could be achieved, he thought, then family stability could be restored and government would be in a better position to attack more entrenched problems such as discrimination and segregation.

    With that in mind whenever I see conservatives embracing Moynihan, I wonder whether they've actually read the report. Moynihan wasn't calling for marriage classes, moral hectoring and austerity. He was a big government liberal who believed that a massive jobs program was the antidote to centuries of systemic racism. I have to say this goes for liberals too. I don't agree with parts of The Negro Family -- I think his stuff on slavery is pretty bad, for instance. And I remain skeptical of attempting to address the effects of racism, while changing the subject. But I don't think that the idea that Moynihan was blaming the victim holds up very well, either. People who are blaming the victim rarely call for massive job programs and subsidized childcare on the victim's behalf. The whole point of blaming is to evade responsibility. Whatever Moynihan's problems, he was not doing that.

  • Through The Parisian Looking Glass

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #14

    Flash.jpg
     
     

    Two weeks ago my French professor asked if we'd like to participate in a competition, the object of which I still don't quite understand. It was at the end of class, and after hours of French I sometimes slip into the bad habit of just nodding along. It's a bad habit. But willpower is a resource, and after four hours of battling my insecurities over being the dumbest kid in class I often find that I'm just trying to make it to "Bonjournée." In addition to being a bad habit, "nodding along" is self-defeating because you can often end up agreeing to propositions that probably deserved more thought. 

    Last Friday I came into class and was greeted with the fruit of my laziness--I'd agreed to forgo class, train over to Cluny-La Sorbonne, hike up a hill, and then circle the Pantheon in search of history. I was in a crabby mood. Peregrin Ta-Nehisi kept hoping my class would leave me so I could find a creperie and stumble home drunk on Nutella. But Gandalf Ta-Nehisi won. Again. Gandalf wins a lot here. I don't know why. I am starting to think that there is something to the theory that New York taxes the neurons. 
     
    We split up into groups. We were given a questionnaire with clues and questions that had to be answered. We answered them by reading historical plaques all around the Pantheon.  I had not put myself in a mental space to stumble through the city. But for two hours that's what we did.  I was carrying a large backpack. I could only halfway read the plaques. My pen kept running over my hands. I was wearing a long-sleeve shirt. I was hot and basically uncomfortable for the entire time. 
     
    At the end we met up  in the Pantheon, which is one of these places that's, like, four times as old as America. We shared our answers and checked them against one another's. Someone broke out cold-cuts. There were sandwiches and water. I was annoyed but Gandalf kept telling me to be nice. 
     
    We were looking down from the stone rows on several groups of men. The men were playing Pètanque. One of the men was black and wasn't wearing a shirt. And that made me really happy, but I didn't know why. I think it was because back home I would have sat there trying to figure out why a black dude with no shirt on was hanging out with a bunch of white people. 
     
    I really wanted to go home. But I sat there for another half an hour snapping pictures and watching the men lob steel balls into the sand. I sat there feeling odd. I was aware that I was tired, that I was hot, that I wanted to be home. And yet there was something pleasant about just sitting there, about feeling myself outside of everything. I don't understand the rules of Pètanque. I don't know black people who hang around groups of white people without their shirt. I didn't understand half of what was being said around me. My teacher kept trying to tell me something about Victor Hugo. I smiled and nodded. Who knows what I agreed to.
     
    I felt myself a Stranger, something I've never been in my life. I felt myself falling, disappearing into the stone steps. I felt like people barely saw me, like I was a presence. I barely comb my hair here. I haven't had a haircut in weeks. My body feels like it is my own and no longer performing for my tribe and its enemies. I perform for myself here. Because I have no tribe here (yet) and the blood feuds feel so very distant from me.
     
    You play a lot of roles as a black man in America. But "Stranger" isn't one of them. You feel too marked--not even marked for ill treatment, but just marked. Drunk white people stumble up to you and make confessional or mistake you for some long-lost black friend from sixth grade. They do not hate you. They just want to put their shit on you. That doesn't make them especially evil, sinister, or inhuman. Everyone is putting their shit on someone else. But I think more of us should live free for a moment, should--if only for a moment--feel themselves disconnected from the dynamics that ordinarily define their life.
     
    A friend of mine once said that he enjoyed Israel because it was the first place where being Jewish was not the single most important thing about him when he went outside. That is how I felt at Howard, in Harlem, in every hood where I'd ever lived. I'd throw on my hoodie and then disappear. The days of throwing on your hoodie and disappearing are over. But the virtues of disappearance are not. I feel it oddly here. I am disappeared by my Americaness, by my tenuous handle upon the language. I like myself more refracted through this lens, stumbling through this alien tongue. Somehow it feels more like me.
  • Accidental Rapist

    There's a piece up at our site right now by David Goldberg on his struggles with pedophilia. We pick up the story after Goldberg has been busted for watching child-porn:

    I had never asked to be cursed with this sexual attraction, and I had never hurt a child. In fact, I was always a good role model as a coach, and an upstanding citizen throughout my days. It was the nights that were a problem.

    Over the months that followed my arrest, my journalistic instincts took over. I wanted to know how a lifetime of lusting after young children could seem so normal to me on an emotional level, even though I knew rationally that it was a completely deviant lifestyle. I would spend my days longing to get back onto my computer, the way a gourmand anticipates a scrumptious feast. Yet when the computer was turned off, I despised myself for being so aroused while looking at pictures of young children whose lives had been destroyed thanks to their unwilling participation.

    The most important thing I've discovered in the 15 months since my arrest isn't the why, but rather what can be done to change the preconceptions and misconceptions that society has when it comes to pedophiles. Most people hear that word and think of the Jerry Sanduskys and abusive Catholic priests of the world. Fewer people think about the millions who grapple with sexual feelings on which they can never act. When someone hears the word "pedophile", they immediately think of a child molester. Yet the majority of pedophiles do not molest, but instead spend hours looking at child pornography. And as those numbers grow, so does the number of child victims.

    I am not advocating the cross-generational lifestyle. In fact, there is never an instance when an adult should engage in sexual behavior with a child. But until we as a society learn that help for those who view child pornography is a far better alternative to incarceration, we are doomed to see the continued proliferation of this problem. Scientists don't know for certain if there is a correlation between viewing child pornography and offending against children. Wouldn't it be nice to get pedophiles help before we find out for certain?

    My feelings on this topic aren't much changed from a year ago. (See here and here.) Basically I think that we have an issue that could benefit from some nuance, but is, instead, being treated with callous contrarianism. I think a lot of us would agree that our current societal solutions for pedophilia are poor, and in some cases, may well be harming more than they are helping. I think lot of us would also agree that a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach is not an actual strategy. I also think that many of us would also agree that when you patronize child pornography you patronize child rape. Admitting to patronizing child rape in one sentence, and claiming that you've never "hurt a child" in another is not complexity, it's obfuscation.

    Obfuscation is a popular tool among rapists and those who patronize rape. In the case of adult women the rapist claims that by their manner or dress their victims have forfeited consent. In the case of children, the rapist pretends that they do not exist. I understand that Goldberg's piece is about pedophiles, but there is distinct strain of minimization running through—like the images on his screen were more figments than actual children. I don't know how one has a "cross generational lifestyle" with a child. The word is rape. It does not appear in this essay.

    There's a kind of callousness at work here which is masking itself as intellectual provocation. It's very reminiscent of people who claim to want to start a "conversation" around racism, but really just wish you'd stop making them feel guilty. We're all very sorry that Goldberg is overcome by feelings of self-loathing. This does not change the fact that he supported an industry which takes as its premise the permanent injury of children and rape for profit. It may well be true that that Goldberg's participation in that industry was not the product of free-will. I suspect the same holds true for some portion of serial rapists. As a society, I'd like to see us better address that issue. But we don't get there by minimizing the problem, and acting as if the actual victims don't exist.
     
  • Le Batailon Perdu

    Desolée Desolé. Je suis  trés très occupé cet cette semaine par un grand histoire (J'éspére!) pour le magazine de papier. En fait, je suis trés très triste parce-que, je n'assiste pas mon classe français. Le sigh. Jusqu'a Jusqu'à je suis libre, c'est le tien. 

    (Les gens qui sont français. Corrigez-moi, s'il vous plaît. Je vais le changer bientôt.)

    Gardez mon ma maison, mes vieux. Pour les barbares. 
  • 'Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus'

    I got the following letter in response to this post on being black and loving European history. I wish Ralph Wiley was with us. I am pretty sure I owe him more than I can even know.

    My father (Charles Powers) was a highly respected writer--a Pulitzer finalist more than once--and a foreign correspondent for the Los Angles Times for almost two decades. He was a very handsome lout, and cut a romantic figure. A journalist in the Christopher Hitchens mold; I think they even knew one another in the Middle East. Anyway, his first foreign post was in Nairobi.

    This was a man who grew up desperately poor in Missouri, in a family that epitomized "white trash." I can remember visiting my grandparents at the trailer park they managed in exchange for a rent-free bungalow. I have memories of eating biscuits and sausage at their kitchen table, washing it down with Tang (my grandmother added a heaping cup of sugar to the pitcher because Tang wasn't sweet enough), and listening to my aunts and uncles discuss OJ Simpson (there was a lot of "they should just hang the nigger.") My grandfather chuckled as he described how "the boys" (*his* boys, perhaps my father) used to drive into "Niggertown" with two-by-fours, lean out of the car windows, and hit whoever came close enough. And out of this family came my father, the only one to go to college. And he was writing about Africa.

    I could talk to you for hours about the time that I spent with him in Kenya, and all of the stories that he told me (He witnessed the executions, on a beach in Liberia, of a dozen government ministers during Samuel Doe's coup. And he was arrested, jailed for days, and tortured on the orders of Idi Amin, along with another journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robert Rosenthal).

    I could tell you about how he still carried a lot of family residue (don't we all), and even more about the attitudes--latent and otherwise--that complicated the extraordinary work that he did in East Africa.

    He lived in a huge house near all of the embassies, at the outer edge of Nairobi. There was a veranda that looked out onto acres of farmland, really just a collection of small plots managed by individual families. My father was a hi-fi fanatic, and after obsessing for hours over the placement of the subwoofer he would unwind by turning the stereo up as high as it could go and relaxing on the veranda with a cigar. I have surreal memories of resting my chin on the railing and taking in a panoramic view of all the people squatting at their cookfires, each one outside of a shack with a corrugated tin roof, while Steve Winwood's voice rolled down the hillside, past the bougainvillea hedge and into the valley.

    During one of my summer visits we drove out to the house that had served as Karen Blixen's home in the movie Out of Africa. Just to see if there was a story there. We sat down to tea with the owner, a beefy red-faced man who chuckled about a recent police action in South Africa, quipping that "the bullets just bounced off of their thick black skulls." I remember my father becoming silent as a stone, just sitting and staring at the man, allowing the situation to become as uncomfortable as possible.

    My father liked fish and had always wanted to keep koi, so he hired a man to build a small pond in his enormous backyard. The pond was to be built on a slope, so the operation was just a bit more complicated than it might have been, and the builder had brought in another man who had more engineering experience. Dad and I sat in the grass above the pond site and watched the two men confer. The builder wore a polyester leisure suit that didn't quite reach his ankles, and held a notepad. The other man was very tall, wore a long white tunic and a white prayer cap, and carried a plumb bob.

    I was mulling over the man who'd joked about the bouncing bullets--I was 8, and was not used to hearing things like that, and it had upset me. I was also recovering from having seen my father fly into one of his rages. That was earlier in the day, and the recipient had been a Kenyan auto mechanic who had failed to fix something, or hadn't done something fast enough for my father, or...who knows? But there had been streams of oaths and colorful language regarding the stupidity, the eternal density, of Africans. All of this had been shouted to the man's face, and I was horrified at the meanness and burst into tears on the spot. Which made Dad angrier. It was almost dusk, hours later, and I was still trying to process all of it.

    I turned to my father and whispered, "Daddy, are Africans really stupid?"

    He said, "No, sweetheart." Then he sat in silence, just smoking his Camel cigarette. After a long time he leaned over and nudged my shoulder with his arm. He didn't take his eyes off of the workers, he just pointed his cigarette at them. "Do you see the man with the notebook? He's Kikuyu. So he speaks Kikuyu, and he also speaks English. That's why he and I are able to talk to each other. The man with that thing in his hand--it's called a plumb bob--is a Muslim. He's from Northern Africa. He doesn't speak any English, but he does speak Arabic. And I'll bet he also speaks French. Yep, I'll bet you a hundred dollars: he speaks French. But the man who is Kikuyu doesn't speak Arabic or French. So how are they talking to each other?"

    "I don't know."

    "They both know Swahili. They are speaking to each other in Swahili. They speak five languages between them. Probably others. How many do you speak?"

    "Just one. English."

    "That's right. You remember that the next time someone says that Africans are stupid."

    It's one of a handful of pristine memories that I have of him, things that I've never forgotten because at that moment he was being very kind and very patient. I learned at a very early age that the best way to placate a grumpy or difficult man was to ask him to teach me something.

    Later I majored in English. In my third year of college I read the first five pages of Anna Karenina and was thunderstruck. It was so gorgeous, and I found it so thrilling, that I had to put the book down and go back to it a few hours later. I started taking Russian. I became obsessed with Tolstoy and stopped writing fiction because I knew that I could never *be* Tolstoy. Which enraged my father, who wanted me to be a writer. I entered a Ph.D program in literature, and Dad and I went on to have lots of good arguments about literature. And politics. He died in 1996, at 53.

    I have a framed photo of Tolstoy in my bedroom. Tolstoy and Chekhov, together at a table. It's just a plate torn out of a book that I pilfered from the undergraduate library. But I am realizing, just now as I write this, that the picture shows Tolstoy--who was irascible, absolutely impossible, a judgmental crank and also a wonderful, monumental pain in the ass--lecturing Chekhov about something. Chekhov is wearing a very sweet, indulgent smile, with those wonderful crinkly eyes and an elegant slouch, just taking it all in. Because the best way to placate a difficult man is to ask him to teach you something.

    UPDATE: A correction to this piece. Rachel's Dad, Charles Powers, and Robert Rosenthal were actually tortured after Idi Amin had left Uganda. The country was then under Milton Obote. You can read Rosenthal's rather account here. My apologies for the error.

  • Or Perhaps You Are Too Stupid to Learn French

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #13

    I'm entering into my last two weeks of French education here in Paris. I started taking classes two days after I arrived. I will be in class until the day before I leave. I spend four hours every day drilling grammar and then an hour or two outside, studying. This has meant me seeing the city differently than most people who come here. Paris has basically been another work-site for me. To be absolutely clear, it is a privilege to work here, but it is not the same as, say, taking a vacation.

    The best way to think about this is to say I've more lived here than I've visited here. I have not visited most of the things I would like--the Louvre, the Museé D'Orsay, and especially St. Denis (Clovis!!!) I spent time up at near Nation (I would live up there if I could), I walked La Coulée Verte (Awesome-sauce. Totally sons The High-Line.) I drank some great wine. Ate some incredible bread. But I make no pretensions on having "seen" Paris.

    I came here to study the language. That was the job, and thus my life. I understand why people see places without knowing any language--indeed if you waited on fluency, most of us would never see anything. But knowing even the rudiments of language is so transformative, it makes the city four dimensional. And, for me, struggling with the language is part of the act of seeing the place. They go together. C'est moi.

    I would go further and say that people cannot solely be known through their buildings, no matter their magnificence. The woman at the café who is sure to tell me that it is "une baguette" not "un baguette" is telling me something about herself, her people and her nation. A buddy of mine was insulted by a French woman the other day. She basically said to him "Go take a shit." Hmm. That's different. Different and as important as as any glass boat floating down the Seine.

    But what if you never learn the language? I don't mean what if you never decide to learn, but what if expend a great amount of effort and learn nothing. This seems doubtful--but when learning something the fear of learning nothing is one of the greatest obstacles. This is magnified in French because in any class worth it's salt because the instruction is almost entirely in French. What this means is not only is your subject obscured from you, but the method of accessing the subject is obscured too. It is dreadful cycle. You can only barely understand the instructor--because you can't speak French. But in order to speak French you need to get the instruction, which you don't wholly understand because you don't speak French. So mostly you muddle your way through. And if you have a good teacher he will make sure you understand the instructions before moving on.

    Still there's no getting away from the basic feeling of complete idiocy. You are aware of being spoken to as though you were a three-year old, even though you have all the pride of an adult. Worse, if you are like me--a monolingual American in a class where virtually everyone speaks a second language and is now working on their third or fourth--you will be the slowest person. When it comes to comprehension. the Spanish and the Italians are going to just destroy you. They simply have an easier time learning to hear the language than you. This is a gift and curse. Many of the Spanish-speaking students have a much harder time learning the accent. It's as if the closeness of the two languages makes it harder--"parce que" must be be "par-ser-kay" and they will have it no other way.

    Whatever. I'd take their curse over mine. Yesterday I started B1 French. Hooray. It was like someone putting me on a boat, sailing out into the middle of the Pacific, tossing me overboard and telling me to swim back home. We had to read some text about Sartre and a mirror. Then we had to compare it to the evil queen's "Mirror, Mirror" monologue in Snow White. I pride myself on being stupid in front of people, on holding up the class with the questions that I really should know. I paid my money. I will get the knowledge. But yesterday I reached one of those points where I had to let it go. The humiliation of not knowing--and not knowing how to know--was too much. I say that knowing that it is never shameful to know, so much as it is shameful to sit in class an act like you know.

    Public school teachers, listen up: I had flashbacks of West Baltimore, because that was surely the point where, were it 12-year-old me, I would have started prepping the spitballs and jokes. I strongly believe kids act up in class for three reasons--1.) They aren't being challenged. 2.) They don't understand the value of the instruction 3.) They don't believe they can ever really know. I had a lot of those last two when I was in school. I was not the smartest kid in my class, and I was never quite clear on why I should want to be.

    As an adult whose chosen to be instructed, you understand the value--indeed you see it all around you, here--but the doubt, the belief that you might just be an idiot, does not go away. Halfway through yesterday's lesson I kept waiting for my instructor to just drop her book and say, "Est-ce que tu es stupide?!?!" Yup. "Vous avez raison." But she was patient. She kept going. We powered through. I walked out of class in a total daze. In my head there was a jumble of French words and grammar rules. I "knew" them. But applying them in real time, actually ordering them to make sense is another skill. I've had to keep myself from being lazy, because the French are too forgiving. You can mumble out some nouns and unconjugated verbs and they will figure out what you mean. But you won't get any better. It's not enough to simply pat yourself on the back for trying out your French. You have to force yourself to try and apply the rules.

    Before I came here everyone told me that the enemy was the French. It would be their rudeness, their retreat into English that would defeat me. But I am here now and it is clear that--as with attempting to learn anything--the only real enemy is me. My confidence comes and goes. I have no innate intelligence here--intelligence is overrated. What matters is toughness, a willingness to believe against what is apparent. Learning is invisible act. And what I see is disturbing. In class my brain scatters, just as it did when I was in second grade. I have to tell myself every five minutes to concentrate.

    The hardest thing about learning a language is that, at its core, it is black magic. No one can tell you when, where or how you will crossover--some people will even tell you that no such crossover exists. The only answer is to put one foot in front of the other, to keep walking, to understand that the way is up. The only answer is a resource which many of us have long ago discarded. C'est à dire, faith.

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