Interview With a Putative Genius

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates answers my most difficult questions.

Aspen Institute / Flickr

My friend and colleague here at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, received some big, genius-related, news from the MacArthur Foundation this week, and I thought it would be enlightening to speak to him in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, both to measure the current size of his ego, and also to put his now widely celebrated intellect to the test.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Congratulations on your new job at the Apple Genius Bar. Maybe you could help me with something: I can’t seem to back up my contacts to the Cloud. I went to Settings > iCloud > Backup but I couldn’t get anything to work.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I don’t think that’s what they meant, Jeff. By the way, the MacArthur Foundation discourages linking the fellowship I was awarded with the word “genius.” Having said that, I would not object to you referring to me as “Genius Coates,” “Sir Genius,” or if that feels too stuffy, “He Who Holds Knowledge of All Things in All Realms at All Times.” Seems about right.

Goldberg: Okay, but how do I back up my contact list?

Coates: Did you google? Google is the real genius—though I repeat, “Genius Coates”  is acceptable.

Goldberg: Okay, Sir-Think-a-Lot, answer me this: In a class of 50 students, 18 take music, 26 take art, and 2 take both art and music. How many students in the class are enrolled neither in art nor music?

  1. 6
  1. 16
  1. 24
  1. I'm not that kind of genius

Coates: Where are you getting these questions?

Goldberg: The real genius.

Coates: The answer is six.

Goldberg: Is winning this prize going to make you unbearable, or merely insufferable?

Coates: Unbearably insufferable. And I now have an excuse—I am a genius, after all. Thus my insufferableness is a blessing. You should be happy I’m even communicating with you.

Goldberg: I’m not feeling so happy about it at the moment. Next question: Reparations is to knee socks as theoretical physics is to:

  1. Kung Pao chicken
  1. Wuthering Heights
  1. Volkswagen
  1. National Review

Coates: Volkswagen, of course.

Goldberg: Correct! Next question: Chicken or egg?

Coates: The egg. I haven’t checked, but I highly suspect that chickens evolved from an egg-laying ancestor, which would mean that there were, in fact, eggs before there were chickens. Genius.

Goldberg: Remember when we were having breakfast this summer and you couldn’t open a swingtop-style water bottle, no matter how hard you tried?  Finally, you asked one of my kids to open it for you, and she did, without any problem.  My question: Does this make her a genius?

Coates: Yes, Talia is also a real genius.

Goldberg: I met Malala Yousafzai a couple of weeks ago. She’s 17 and she already has a Nobel Peace Prize. Are you a loser in comparison to Malala Yousafzai?

Coates: We are all losers in comparison to Malala Yousafzai. But we are not all geniuses. Like me.

Goldberg: Justin Bieber (MacArthur Fellow, Class of 2019) recently said, “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.” True or false?

Coates: It’s an interesting thought. And I’d hate to contradict a future Genius like Justin Bieber over something as small as a category error. Hmmm. I’m going to say “True.”

Goldberg: If you were to write a comic book with a Jewish superhero, would it be me?

Coates: The Jews have plenty of superheroes—Superman (though sort of passing) for starters. With that said, a Genius does not discriminate. If I wrote a Jewish superhero he’d have awesome time-traveling powers. I’d call him Doctorow.

Goldberg: Like a lot of Jews, I sometimes dream of going back in time and killing Hitler before he could murder my people. As a genius, could you devise a way to send Jews back in time to kill Hitler? Or could you just go do it yourself?  You’re in Paris already.

Coates: Hmm. Feelings of resentment for the murderous exploiter of your people? I wouldn’t know anything about that—my superior morality has put me above such pedestrian terms. But even if I were inclined to design such a device, or tell you how to do it, I wouldn’t. I suspect that in murdering Hitler you would also be, in some sense, murdering some aspect of modern Jewish identity. We don’t always acquire our identity through positive experience—to be African American, for instance, is to feel yourself the product of mass rape. But it is one’s identity. And no matter how it was acquired, and one should be careful about wishing it away. I can play at genius, Jeff. But I can’t play at being God.
Of course it’s also possible that I know nothing about the particularities of the Jewish experience and I’m just spitballing. Even so my contributions should be valued. I am, after all, a genius.

Goldberg: Jesus, I didn’t know you were going to get so heavy.

Coates: It’s almost as if I’m sort of genius or something.