Remembering the Horde, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A former moderator of TNC’s comments section, Sandy Young, writes:

Depiction of the Golden Horde (Wikimedia)

That was a good piece on the Horde. I would disagree to some extent with Jim’s claim that we “drove away” dissenting voices like Amichel—who, if memory serves, continued to post right up to the reparations article. But that’s small potatoes.

In keeping with the Horde/Khan/Steppes metaphor, I would remind people that, while it was thrilling, being a member of the Horde was also a hard bloody ride. You had to follow along as people far more knowledgeable dove into difficult topics, and you had to search for sources to defend your positions. And more often than not, you had to let go of that stubborn insistence that you were right. As I said to one commentator who had just apologized for handing me my ass, “This is no place to be if you can’t stand being wrong.”

You have linked before to some of the more memorable conversations, such as oatmeal. But I wonder if you have read what, in my opinion, was TNC and the Horde at its best: his pieces on “The Civil War Isn’t Tragic.” That was an on-going discussion, analysis and scholarship that is unsurpassed in the records of the Horde.

The Horde was always a delicate balance. As TNC’s fame grew, he became a bigger target, and no amount of moderation would have stopped the attacks. It simply wasn’t a platform built for that. Most of us miss it, but we go better armed into the world of ideas because of it, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

From another member, silentbeep:

The Horde is not dead, not really.  We still talk to each online in other mediums, such as the five-year-old Facebook group we would periodically advertise in the OTANs. (The group is only for TNC commenters, or now past commenters, with extremely rare exceptions, and TNC knows of its existence.) We even meet offline. Erik’s tone made it seem like we’re far gone, and that’s just not the case.

Dan Fox shares a wonderful, in-person memory:

As a member of the Horde, I wanted to relay a story about Ta-Nehisi from his early days at The Atlantic, when had dinner with me on my birthday.

Like so many others, I was introduced to TNC’s writing by Andrew Sullivan quoting him and linking to his blog. I think the first time was something about the financial crisis and the general foolishness of taking advice from guys who guest star on Arrested Development (Jim Cramer). Eventually I discovered that Ta-Nehisi is a fellow fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a Baltimore native. I’d have given him the MacArthur grant based on the Arrested Development and Yeah Yeah Yeahs alone, but then again I’m not on the panel, and I suspect my absence from it has contributed to many great advancements in science and literature.

I wanted to pass along a story that I think reflects the level of commitment Coates has to his commenters, which I think has been a mutually engaging and beneficial relationship. Back in early 2010, I was stuck in a job I absolutely hated, but did allow me frequent TNC’s blog. Frankly, interactions with the Horde and TNC were what got me out of bed in the morning on a lot of days. My girlfriend at the time started commenting too, and we’d talk a lot about interacting with the commenters, how Cynic or Citizen E would write stuff that would blow our minds, how TNC took to her sense of humor, etc.

Eventually, she hatched up a plan: she would email Coates and ask if we could all grab some drinks and talk about stuff for my birthday. To my surprise, he said yes, and we booked bus tickets to New York.

Somewhere along the way, the plan changed from drinks to soul food, to soul food and drinks (lots of drinks). We basically went on a double date with him and Kenyatta.

I guess at this point we should pause: this was 2010, before the Horde was even really the Horde, if I recall correctly. One would hope that the MacArthur committee would not reconsider this “genius” designation if they were to learn that not only did this man agree to meet up with internet commenters, he decided to bring the mother of his child along for that experience too.

Luckily for everyone involved, the only damage done was to our speech and sense of balance, as we talked about journalism, writing, music, and commenting for hours. We talked about commenters as if they were coworkers, which I think is how Coates saw them.

It’d be easy to write this off as a great cocktail party anecdote—and it is—but I think inviting us to hang out with him is really an example of what makes Coates' such a rare talent: he’s willing to dive headfirst into anything and engage with it on an extremely human level, perhaps better than anyone alive at the moment. Whether it be reparations, a foreign language, the Civil War, or mass incarceration, Coates has a preternatural gift to approach topics and people as a professional amateur, in his words.

It doesn’t matter to him that a lot of people think internet commenters are crazy, or that reparations are impossible; if there is wisdom there, he will find it. I think of how he was able to teach me and so many others, not through dry textbooks necessarily, but through primary sources and personal stories.

I don’t mean to take anything away from the generosity Coates displayed in his willingness to hang out with me. I’ll remain eternally grateful for that night. But I think we often think of a genius as one who is able to do complex math problems in their head or recall the meaning of arcane word from Olde English. It’s worth keeping in mind that Coates’s ability to engage is a sort of genius as well. I’m very glad the MacArthur folks recognized that, and as a member of the Horde, I’m proud to be a part of it in some small way.

Jordan Devereaux:

Long-time commenter at The Atlantic, though less recently. The problem with comments on Coates’s blog wasn’t that the Horde became sycophants; it’s that maintaining a highly visible blog that deals with difficult, contentious issues requires paid moderators to keep things in line. No one has figured out how to do that in an economically viable way, so this is what we’re stuck with.

We’re currently trying to figure that out, so your input is invaluable. If you have any of your own Horde stories, email Ta-Nehisi is crafting his own response, so stay tuned. Update from another reader:

I was a regular reader of Coates’s blog, back in the heyday of the Horde. I commented rarely, but I almost always read the comments, and these days when I read a piece of writing that I find particularly thoughtful, I often scroll down to the comments on impulse, scanning for the distorted echoes at new angles that rarely appear these days, before giving up and clicking around instead for any above-the-comment-line response I might be able to find from some other blogger.

If I was a mostly-silent member of the Horde, that didn’t stop me from bristling like the others at Wells’s and deBoer’s insinuation that we were there for some sort of redemption from guilt—though I will freely say that Coates and the Horde taught me to move beyond the white guilt that I was accustomed to meekly accept by rote.  I was wide-eyed, yes—eyes as wide as I dared, vulnerable to stray particles in exchange for the ability to see a little more clearly. The knowledge is primary. Any emotional response, be it guilt or despair or exasperation, is secondary.

I was a graduate student in the sciences, back in those days, struggling with the transition from the status of brilliant undergraduate at a medium-tier university to that of merely acceptable PhD student at a top-tier university.  I was accustomed to shaking off any lingering prejudice against women like an invulnerable superhero.  I thought it was my duty to overcome any instance of sexism with a single effortless punch.  I thought I was failing.

People sometimes still criticise Coates for allowing so much room for despair.  Sometimes you can click straight from an article that says Coates’s outlook is too depressing to one which says he is obviously far too hopeful if he thinks a call for reparations is in any way realistic.  But if I had a hope at all of surviving as the only woman in the department, it was only by accepting despair first.  Some things cannot be changed, at least not right here and now.  Sometimes you can’t just make people respect you.  I shouldered up the courage to look that in the eye, and then I shouldered up the courage to carry on regardless.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wasn’t the only one who helped me rearrange my outlook on how to face prejudice.  Trudy of Gradient Lair was pretty important, too.  I’d ask why it is that black Americans seem to have better insight on this, but we all know why.  The best thanks I can offer is to listen to people’s stories even when they aren’t so directly applicable to me as this one was.

Coates made a space where ignorance was acknowledged to be something that could happen to anyone. Then we all worked together to fix that. We weren't looking for redemption. We were looking for enlightenment. We are still finding it.