Writing Out Loud

Bloggers Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates give readers a chance to peer into their heads—and watch them change their minds

Over the last few days, Atlantic bloggers Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates have been engaged in a discussion and debate about the politics of identity. What started as an exploration of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor turned into a philosophical discourse on what it means to be liberal or conservative. Along the way, Sullivan and Coates defined and refined their views, reacting to each other, to their readers, and to commentators in the blogosphere. We found the dialogue fascinating, but increasingly hard to follow as multiple tabs opened on our browsers. So we’ve pulled the various strands of the conversation together, to give readers a glimpse at the evolution of ideas in real time.

—Chris Bodenner

The whole debate started with a June 8th Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Reflecting on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Steele wrote:

The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics: It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. [...] Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America's first black president, and a man promising the "new," we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed.

Reacting on the American Prospect blog TAPPED, Adam Serwer wrote:

Everything he has to say about Sonia Sotomayor and Obama in The Wall Street Journal today you've heard before. Steele just says it louder, with all the authority of the Republican Party's foremost black intellectual. Steele writes that Sotomayor is not just a "racist," she is possessing of "a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy," before taking that now infamous quote from Sotomayor's 2001 speech out of context—again. What in Sotomayor's judicial record—which Steele hasn't looked at—justifies such a description? Why the infamous Frank Ricci case, in which Sotomayor upheld the law based on precedent, except conservatives didn't like the precedent. Never mind that several Hispanic firefighters were also denied promotion in that case—Steele deals in racial tarot card reading, not facts. [...] Sotomayor, a nominee with more time on the federal bench than anyone else currently on the Supreme Court at the time they were nominated, is elevated "more for the political currency of [her] gender and ethnicity than for [her] individual merit."

Highlighting Serwer's post, Coates piled on:

I think Adam is being unsympathetic. He has no idea what it's like to write a polemic [referring to Steele's 2007 book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win] which predicts that Obama will lose, and still try to be a respectable writer in an era when Obama has done just that. Steele's answer is to repeatedly roll out the failed tropes from a failed book. [It] makes sense as a kind of unintentional memoir. I deeply suspect that this "bound man" notion says a lot more about Steele than it does about Obama.

Sullivan jumped into the fray:

I must say that, to my mind, Steele has a point. It isn't the judicial rulings that trouble me so much as her non-judicial opinions and mindset. The constant, oppressive consciousness of her identity—racial and gender—and the harping on it so aggressively so often does strike me as a classic mode of victimology deeply entrenched in her generation. I don't think it's disqualifying and I don't see any crude racialism in her rulings, but I do think it shows that for Obama, this kind of racial/ethnic view of the world is so endemic it's invisible to him. And it's off-message for his candidacy and life.

Many of Sullivan's readers pushed back. Here's one response:

Maybe I have missed something, but I haven't seen any constant harping by Sotomayor over the past few weeks, and I haven't heard any in her history. I do see a constant harping on the "wise Latina" remark (made nine years ago) and a constant harping on the Ricci case—not by her, but by the abyss of 24-hour cable news. Yes, Obama has spoken about her race and gender. But it is an historic pick, and deserves mentioning what she has accomplished. She is a role model for young Latinas and Latinos growing up in inner cities, and the community is better for it.

And another:

I find that absolutely amazing coming from you—a person who constantly makes reference to your homosexuality—and not just on the topic of gay rights. It's part and parcel of multiple posts throughout a given week. It undergirds so much of what you share and your interpretation of it. I'm not complaining, because we all see the world from where we stand. But I just can't understand how someone who advocates for people to be out of the closet would condemn someone for being out about her Latina heritage.

But Sullivan stood his ground:

The distinction I draw is the distinction made in [my 1995 book] Virtually Normal. I do not consider myself better than anyone because I'm gay; I do not think gay people have some superior wisdom; I seek civil equality so the sharp division between homosexuality and heterosexuality can eventually be elided. I've never shied from being honest or talking and writing about being gay, but I hope the goal of all of it is to move beyond the reductionism of the victimology of the left, not to entrench it. If Sotomayor had written an essay called "The End Of Latino Culture" [just as I had written "The End Of Gay Culture"] or had written of the day she hopes Latino-specific political organizations disappear, I'd feel differently about her non-judicial record.

Coates expanded the debate to political philosophy:

Conservatism, with its belief in institutions, traditions, and the past, will seemingly always privilege (perhaps inadvertently) the powerful over the powerless. Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power. Privileging them privileges their agents. [...] A critique of liberal identity politics is not wrong on its face, but it almost always is unconcerned with the identity politics of power. Thus Sotomayor's focus on her identity as a "wise Latina" pose is seen as the disturbing result of multiculturalism run amok, not having been raised in a country where the tangible mechanisms of white supremacy were in full effect.

The issue isn't, for instance, the fact that Sotomayor was raised in an era when government-backed redlining was still legal. It's the fact that some students at Yale demanded a Chicano history course. Likewise, it isn't the oppressive identity politics practiced by conservatives for the past 30 years that's disturbing, but Sotomayor's response to it. To be a true conservative is to be more disturbed by victimology, than actual victimizing. It is to claim to abhor evil—but to abhor the response to evil even more. It's like in the NFL—it's the second who throws the punch who draws the flag.

But several of his own readers also pushed back. Here's one:

When you say that "Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power," I have to disagree. The past does not belong to those with power any more than the air is the property of the birds that fly in it. The past, together with its institutions and traditions, is the common property of all men and women. At various points in time those traditions have privileged the powerful over the weak, but those same traditions and institutions have also stood for social justice, for the rights of humankind, and for the freedom of the weak and powerless to stand up to authority when that authority is seen to be overbearing.

And another:

This is true with respect to long-standing traditions, but with respect to powerful institutions versus the powerless, you're presenting something of a false dichotomy between conservatives and liberals. Liberals often side with teachers' unions, for example, over inner-city parents who seek vouchers for school choice. Liberals often also privilege Wall Street firms and big business over entrepreneurs. They also privilege alumni of elite schools over smart folks from less well-connected backgrounds.

Sullivan elaborated his views further:

My worry about identity politics is that we should indeed take into account our different experiences, but we should always also try to transcend them. Wallowing in them seems less of an overcoming than an undergoing. It's why I'm leery of hate crime laws and affirmative action, and all legal structures that put us all into separate ethnic or emotional or racial camps for ever. The argument that this comes too easily for a white guy like me is certainly valid. But I refuse to see the rule of law and judicial modesty as somehow white or male. The principles of classical liberalism have no color and gender, and are, to my mind, indispensable to getting past both.

[Coates's] point about conservatism privileging power is therefore almost right. Of course, a general desire to integrate new movements, ideas and communities into things as they already are, rather than up-ending them entirely, privileges what was over what might be. But as long as conservatism doesn't adopt a knee-jerk hostility to all social change, this is a feature, not a bug. It makes coherent and stabilizing change possible. [...] So Sotomayor's claim that she seeks to transcend these aspects of her identity to integrate herself into the existing pattern of judicial reasoning is, to my mind, an admirable conservative impulse. But her insistence that this is also impossible, while not entirely untrue, strikes for me the wrong note.

In my own exploration of homosexuality, for example, I have long argued for integration into existing structures—such as marriage and the military and workplace—rather than carving out special legal spaces for permanent victims, as with hate crimes and affirmative action. That's why my approach was rightly described in the 1990s as conservative (even though in the new millennium, it became tagged as "liberal").

Coates also invoked an passage from Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter From A Birmingham Jail," which had been a direct reply to King's conservative critics. It read:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

Coates added:

I think that passage says a lot about black people's relationship to conservatism. I'd be out of my area, but I'd guess that if we looked at other arenas, where activists attempted to open up the Constitution—suffrage for instance—I wouldn't be shocked to see conservatism lagging there, too. This is history, of course, and a record on suffrage doesn't constitute a record on all things. But it explains a lot about the chasm. If you come up paying the price for going slow, you tend to be sensitive to others having to go through the same.

I want to be clear about something: I'm not raising this to score points or beat up on conservatives. When I wrote, yesterday, that we should not dismiss the cautions of conservatism, I wasn't being polite. I believe it. I think it was Connecticut that, instead of emancipating all its slaves, simply said everyone born after a certain date was free. Was that a smarter approach? Would a steadier, gradualist approach to Reconstruction have made Redemption untenable? Would a more gradualist approach to Civil Rights ultimately have left us somewhere better, today? I don't think so. But I don't dismiss it out of hand. Lincoln's conservative hand ultimately served him well, no? [...] Our points of emphasis may be different, but [Sullivan's views on victimization] comes perilously close to my own world-view.

In the end, Sullivan wrote:

I think I blew it in that post on Sotomayor. I was unfair. My worries about the reductionism of identity politics stand. And Ta-Nehisi isn't that far apart from me in fact. But it was unfair to project all that on a Latina woman who made it the hard way based on one stray comment and years of activism in her community. I got pwned and deserved it.

As to the broader issue, it is undeniable that our identity forms us, but it is still important in my view to aspire to something beyond it. Shelby Steele inspired me on this point a long time ago (and Oakeshott, of course), but I also read and learned a lot from Ellison and Baldwin and Foucault in the opposite camp. I have long struggled to achieve a balance in writing about homosexuality—objective and subjective—and haven't always succeeded. But the point was trying. On this blog, I write passionately about the subject, but I hope I do not do so out of a sense of victimhood or in a way that doesn't assume that heterosexuals can easily grasp and agree with what I'm saying. Virtually Normal, in turn, tried to present a case that was airtight from any point of view, including that of a heterosexual.

But after I had written it as a draft argument, I realized, after some prayer and reflection, that it lacked something: why I cared, why it mattered and why it could not wait. Then I wrote the semi-autobiographical introduction. More people have told me they remember that part than any other section. Maybe I have more in common with Sotomayor than I realize.

Anyway, thanks, Ta-Nehisi, for your firmness and friendship.

In an earlier post, Coates had raised a key point about the medium in which he and Sullivan argue:

I don't think of blogging as a final verdict on my politics, as much as I think of it as a factory without walls. You are watching writing get made, largely because you are watching thinking get made. And then a few times a year, you'll see the final product of that thinking in long form. And even then I reserve the right to revisit that long form and dissent from my own words, to recast them, revise them, and reject them completely, if need be.

Sullivan had explored similar sentiments in his November 2008 Atlantic essay, "Why I Blog":

We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge. This is partly true for all journalism, which is, as its etymology suggests, daily writing, always subject to subsequent revision. And a good columnist will adjust position and judgment and even political loyalty over time, depending on events. But a blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater. [...] Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud. ... [T]he blogosphere, at its best, [is] a conversation, rather than a production.