Remembering the Horde, Cont'd

Depiction of the Golden Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, which contributed to its decline (Wikimedia) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Longreads announced this week their ten most popular exclusives from the year, and Eva Holland’s short history of The Horde is among them. We still have a few excellent emails from Horde members that weren’t included in the first two batches of retrospectives we aired earlier this fall, so now’s a great time to air them. Here’s the reader who goes by “Craig”:

The Horde came about, in my opinion, because TNC had some very clear ground rules for commenting, rules that were not open for debate. The biggest rule, and the one that you could sort of boil the essence of all of them down to, was that it was not a space in which to question someone else’s humanity.

In practical terms, that meant that anybody’s lived-in experiences were to be considered as real, as lived, and not up for discussion. So if a female commenter said the way women are often diminished online is through tone policing, or if a person of color said my experience with the police has often been one of antagonism, anyone who would respond to that person was expected to accept that as real, and learn from it if necessary.

TNC was never a neutral arbiter. He wasn’t looking for a commentariat who fell in lockstep with him politically, but he was looking for one that was willing to see their own privilege and listen to (and learn from) other people. No one was allowed to politely suggest to someone else that they didn’t experience what they experienced. His space was created for people of all walks of life to come together because TNC’s rules made it come into being.

I don’t know if there was truly a triggering event for the Horde’s demise, but if there was, it was the Trayvon Martin case.

TNC wrote a lot about the case, and his writing got disseminated pretty widely, including to some of the darker corners of the internet. Martin was a catalyst for a lot of things in America, including laying some of the groundwork for what would eventually become the Black Lives Matter movement. The idea that the killing of an unarmed teenager could somehow become an issue in which people would choose political sides, like they do for abortion or Obamacare, is insane—but that’s what happened. And when TNC’s writing hit the broader internet, it attracted voices who not only didn’t know TNC’s rules, but had no interest in following them.  

Our moderators did the best they could to cull their nonsense, but it was too much to ask them to do, and eventually many of us simply stopped bothering to fight them. I believe it was these voices, and not our regular conservative commenters, who brought about the demise of the Horde as we’d known it.  

As a group we are, as silentbeep says, very much alive. We talk daily, and we have met up in the real world many times. But the Horde’s time at a major publication like The Atlantic was probably always going to be finite, because TNC’s talent as a writer meant that he was always going to get too big, and draw too many voices who wanted to talk but didn’t want to listen, to be able to continue the dinner party forever.

From the reader who goes by willallen2:

What I miss most about The Horde is the chance to engage with people I disagree with in a thoughtful, and just as importantly, immediate manner. There is nothing like it that I am aware of, and I have little hope that it will be replicated. The reason it won't be replicated is because the qualities Coates brought to the table aren’t coming through that door again, in all likelihood.  

Make no mistake, I had strong disagreement with him more than once (probably none stronger than with his recent analogizing of slavery with the incarceration of violent criminals, which really caused me to miss The Horde as much as anything has), but what made Coates’ salon unique was that, along with having the opportunity for immediate response, which is the primary advantage of a comments section, Coates has a deep-seated respect for observable, verifiable, fact, which one might suppose to be a common feature for people in his vocation, but I can assure you is not. If you wanted to get the attention and time of Mr. Coates, the surest way to do it was to demonstrate how the conventional wisdom, even the conventional wisdom espoused by people he generally agreed with, had the facts wrong, or had ignored salient facts.

This was the quality, I suspect, which has led to so many people, those who generally agree with him, and those who don’t alike, to criticize his work for being too pessimistic. I couldn’t disagree with this critique more. What Coates has is an absolute refusal to be sentimental, and I have a profound respect for this. His frequent (and quite uncommon in a blog) use of original source documents buttressed this quality; the world is what it is, all our gentle, warm-hearted, fervent hopes aside, and nothing is to be gained by ignoring, as Orwell put it, what is in front of our nose.  

Coates combined this hard-eyed approach with a willingness to expend a gigantic amount of energy policing, and enlisting the help of others to police, the cacophonous interactions of The Horde. Imagine running a tavern where dozens of people showed up each day, energized and spoiling for an argument, and your goal is get people to slow down, think, and listen. I know I’d be closing the doors, selling the joint, and retreating to a mountain redoubt in about three weeks. The first time I encountered what Coates was doing, I thought “This won’t last long,” and I eventually marveled that it lasted as long as it did.

Was it perfect? Hell no. But in my view of the world, misery is what accompanies the expectation of anything approaching that state. It was damned valuable, and people would do well to better appreciate that quality.

Update from another Horder:

I thought I would chime in with my own reflections/memories of the Horde. I used to comment pretty regularly under the name “isaacplautus.” As a North Carolinian and centrist progressive in the Terry Sanford/Jim Hunt/Kay Hagan way, I probably leaned a little more to the center than many in the Horde. But it was a group of people that I loved more than anyone else on the web, and there is no group even remotely similar in quality of conversation and depth of thought.  

I was about 22 or 23 and fresh out of college when I discovered TNC and started commenting.  And I was way out of my league in terms of the knowledge that others brought to the discussion. But I never once felt talked down to or condescended to; I looked at so many of those guys with a kind of reverence and awe which an apprentice Jedi has for their master. And I use that nerdy reference in total and glorious sincerity.  

The Horde situation was most certainly unsustainable, especially as TNC grew more famous. But how extraordinary that he had that willingness to be so directly engaged with readers. I still treasure the times when he responded to comments of mine, especially the times when he disagreed with me. There’s no question that he helped refine my thinking on a number of issues around race, the Confederacy, and the Civil War.  

I feel the same about all the times when I engaged in discussion/debate with the rest of the Horde. As TNC himself would admit, you jumped into the Horde as much to hear the other voices there as to hear TNC.  And despite the complaints from conservatives, it was a place where conservative thought could exist. PetefromBaltimore and JohnJMac made a numerous intellectually rigorous comments that TNC allowed to stand. And indeed one could say that TNC’s strict moderation policy was good for conservatives, because it helped them present their arguments in the strongest, most civil, and most intellectual terms.

The thing I regret the most about the loss of the Horde is missing the daily and weekly comments and debates from the extraordinary female voices who regularly posted there. I share the concerns of some over the nature of campus p.c., and indeed I was humbled when you published a Note of mine awhile back on just that subject. But looking back at the Horde, I realize there can be a place for so-called “safe spaces.” The fact that TNC forcefully created a misogyny- and harassment-free zone is part of the reason why we could read so many great and perceptive feminist reflections there. I almost never post elsewhere on The Atlantic because the male voices become so nasty and harassing of progressive female comments that I don’t want to waste my time reading through such angry noise. I love the idea of Notes because I think it does offer a filter to try and recreate the kind of discussion that existed in the Horde, even if it cannot recreate the immediacy and direct back-and-forth engagement that made the Horde so special.  

I will always read everything TNC writes because I love his writing, his depth of thought, and his general style. But dare we say that Rod Dreher had the germ of a point when he said that TNC “gave up” around the time of the murder of Trayvon Martin? Those sorts of killings of unarmed black men are indeed an appalling outrage. So in that sense I refuse to make the presumptions and judgements of TNC that Dreher does. These killings naturally spark feelings of anger, outrage, and despair at the persistence of racial disparities and injustice in the U.S. And yet there is a sort of joy and free exploration that I feel has been absent from TNC’s writing for some time.

(And BTW, I think Dreher is being a little glass house in his judgement. Dare we say that he is as rigid in his view of liberals as lost hedonists as TNC is in seeing white supremacy as endemic to America?)

I think my favorite post from TNC from the Horde years was “The Ghost of Bobby Lee.” His insight that white southerners have romanticized the Confederacy out of feelings of pain, wrongness, and deep-rooted inadequacy, invigorated much of my vision of Southern history. And then TNC goes on to make the radical comparison of such naive romanticism among white Southerners with the feelings of blacks “coping with the fact that people who looked like you sold you into slavery. It’s understanding that you come from a place that was on the wrong side of the Gatling gun. It’s feeling not simply like one of history’s losers, but that you had no right to win.” 

To read a connection like that, which I would never even have considered before, was like electricity surging through my brain. It is the humanistic and intellectual tradition at its finest. It is the embodiment of Tennyson’s great line from Ulysses: “this gray spirit yearning in desire/To follow knowledge like a sinking star.”

All writers have their own journeys to make. I’ll enjoy following TNC wherever his goes. But I miss the Horde terribly and I miss the sorts of posts like “The Ghost of Bobby Lee.” It was something special; and like all things special, one doesn’t truly appreciate it until it’s gone.

One more remembrance for now, from Stephen Matlock (who initially went by BetweenTwoWorlds):

I know you’re collecting memories and retrospectives from The Horde about Coates, T-N, who for some reason is being discussed as if he has passed this mortal coil and ascended to the Immortals. Leaving aside that unpleasant image, I’d like to offer up this as a memory and an observation.

Mr. Coates, then and now, didn’t give a dang about my comfort or my issues or my thoughts, and demanded that I think my own thoughts and hold to my own integrity, even if it led to my own confusion and embarrassment as I worked through my own thoughts. I’d found Coates somewhere back in 2009 when I was attempting to revise my own worldview after being challenged in an encounter to see a black person as “black.” I had no connections with anyone who was African American. I didn’t know where to start, so I used Google.

One thing led to another—Jelani Cobb/Jack & Jill/Average Brother/Field Negro/Chauncey deVega/Baratunde—people I’d honestly never, ever heard of. Google being Google, it watched my changing reading habits, and one day prompted me to try out this guy on The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Funny name, funny hat. I’d never heard of him, but I clicked and read.

I just read and read for the first few months, maybe six months in all, before I commented. Mostly nothing revealing. Then I commented that Coates was publishing on an ultra-liberal magazine filled with ultra liberals, and where were the conservative voices for people like me? Where was he challenged by opposing voices?

He was kind enough to respond in two ways: Don’t be an ass; the list of contributors to The Atlantic is quite varied—and he proceeded to list the people who contributed along with their apparent political positions in the spectrum from left to right.

And then he said: “Think for yourself. Don’t expect me to be your teacher. Find the facts for yourself and come to your own conclusions.”

Those were two very important things for me to hear. He talked to me as if I was worth giving an honest response to, and he did not attempt to make me his “friend.” He attempted to awaken me to my own thoughts. I took that to heart, started reading more widely and participating more energetically. Then I realized that in my attempts to understand my fellow Americans and fellow humans, I was coming to know more and more about people who didn’t fit my life experiences and the life experiences of all the people of my own past, and who were teaching me that perhaps I was living an unexamined life.

I had to leave, I said one day on the blog. I had to go think. I realized that my taking Coates’ directives to look for myself and think for myself was leading me away from my lifetime of a conservative viewpoint. I would need to leave my extremely conservative religious viewpoint and my extremely conservative political viewpoint in order to accommodate the people I was meeting in the larger, real world. I took some time off to think about the implications of living out my own discoveries.

I wasn’t about to leave my faith—I was and still am a deeply committed Christian, attempting to be faithful to the historic Jesus of Nazareth, born under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and buried, and resurrected on the third day, just as I always have. But that faith would have to mean more than a recited creed. It would have to mean action—in my own life, and in my community and my nation. And it would mean my family and friends would likely see me as a crazy person, or a crank, for I was abandoning all that I once held important in the pursuit of living a life that was as honest as I could make it.

I could not go back to what I was before I engaged with the people of The Horde. I was scared to go forward. But—I had to. After a few months of reflection, I decided I would have to go all in, leaving aside anything that was not examined and tested, and as importantly, grasping whatever it was that was true, whether it was agreeable or comfortable.

It has been a wild ride since then. Lots of changes in my personal life, lots of changes at work. I am much more comfortable being as completely sincere and open as I know how to be. I am much more confident in sharing my own faith and values, attempting to encourage people to grow into the people they really want to be, strong and confident and assured of their worth and importance. I am more sure of myself, I have a much wider circle of friends than I ever had before, I am more involved in my community, and I think I am living my life according to my values, after having examined them and found them good.

That is what Coates has done for me. Nothing he did because he wanted to help me. Nothing he did because he needed my approval. He was just being Coates, saying as honestly as he could what he was seeing, and letting me decide whether to see things for myself.

I would not want Coates to be thought of as some minor deity or star. I have never met him, but from what I can gather from descriptions, he isn’t out to be important. He is doing what he’s always done, which appears to be meeting the world as it is and describing it as fully and honestly as he can. What that means to us is up to us.