Why white liberals venerate Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the most celebrated author in the US right now, gets defensive when people ask him why he is so loved, worshipped in fact, by white liberals. He bristles, or says ‘I don’t know why white people read what I write’, or occasionally offers an explanation: it’s because he doesn’t sweeten the pill of American history, he says. He shows white people a kind of respect by refusing to ‘soften the history’, by which he means the history of their wickedness — of white supremacy, slavery, Jim Crow, and the original sin of the American Republic, the evil that still stains this land and which might stain it forever, in Coates’ increasingly nihilistic view, which, of course, is racism. This is what Coates writes about, and well-connected whites love it. They cannot get enough of it.
There they are at his talks and book launches, listening intently as he describes everything from being bumped into by a rude white woman to neighbourhood gentrification as acts of racism, or even white supremacy. In his new book, a collection of essays titled We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, he describes gentrification as a ‘storm’ that leads to ‘black people [being] swept away’. He goes so far as to describe the practitioners of gentrification as ‘the beneficiaries’ of the lynching and raping of black people — that is, of America’s uniquely, relentlessly disturbing history, as Coates views it — and yet they’re ‘just going on with their heedless lives’, as if nothing happened. It is a deeply contemptuous view, and yet there they are, those white hip or well-to-do inhabitants of gentrified neighbourhoods whom Coates believes benefit directly from the murder of blacks, buying up his books, tweeting their love for him, waiting with breath that is bated for his next essay in the Atlantic, which they treat like religious missives, or his books, which in their hundreds of thousands they buy and rave about.
Some have noted but never really reckoned with this striking, almost sado-masochistic phenomenon whereby white liberals adore the man who has probably done more than any other contemporary writer to pathologise ‘whiteness’, one of Coates’s favourite terms; he describes whiteness as America’s ‘bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them’. (He really does write like this, in a pseudo-prophetic way, and the possessors of ‘whiteness’ — white people — love it.) As one black writer pondered in relation to Coates’ breakthrough book, 2015’s Between the World and Me, ‘Essentially, the book is written for a black man [it’s in the style of a letter addressed to Coates’ son], by a black man, and about the black experience… so yeah, why do white people dig it?’
And they don’t only dig it — they adore it. The liberal establishment, the white editors of newspapers, the white bosses of publishing companies, the whites (and of course blacks, too) who inhabit America’s gentrified or even rarefied neighbourhoods and cultural spheres — they adore Coates’ work. In the dictionary definition of that word — they venerate him. The (white) New York Times writer AO Scott said Coates’ writing is ‘essential, like water or air’. Hyperbole, much? This goes beyond saying Coates is interesting or insightful or brilliant; it says that without his writing we will die. He is one of the elements that sustains human life, or at least the human life of the influential liberal sets of the east and west coasts of the US. They need him; if they cannot have him, they cannot survive. What is this religious hysteria?
I think this veneration of Coates, this treatment of him as akin to oxygen, is not down to the quality of his writing, which has moments of clarity and even beauty, yes, but which is also patchy in its quality and increasingly self-important, no doubt as a consequence of the air-and-water-like importance that has been foisted on Coates by the liberal establishment.
Nor is it down to his having anything genuinely fresh or new to say. His insights are bleak; they are for the most part an intellectualised version of the 21st-century politics of identity and victimhood, so that, in the words of one of his growing number of black critics, in Coates’ moral universe ‘whiteness and wrongness… become interchangeable’. Indeed, Coates’ obsession with whiteness ends up displacing black agency and autonomy — as the victim-oriented new politics of identity is wont to do — because in his ‘whiteness-as-talisman’ worldview, ‘those deemed white remain [America’s] primary actors’. So ironically — but logically, too, given that the politics of identity in its current incarnation is devoted largely to the diminution of the individual and the folding of him and her into victimised groups to which things happen, rather than the treatment of him or her as an individual who can make things happen — Coates’ anti-whiteness centres white people, makes them the adults of the story, gives them all the potential action — to observe themselves, correct themselves, better themselves — while blacks are mere ‘bodies’ for whom history is a violent act upon themselves rather than something they act upon. (Coates continually uses the term ‘black bodies’ to refer to black people.)
No, it isn’t his style and certainly not his optimism — there is none — that endears Coates to the liberal establishment, and most passionately to the white sections of it. Rather, this increasingly spiritual and needy celebration of Coates speaks to one of the darker, more socially destructive elements of the latest manifestation of the politics of identity: the use of historic black suffering to justify the self-loathing and fear of the future of the late, decadent bourgeoisie; the privileging, indeed, of the painful black experience as a means not of ensuring historic clarity about past events but as a key prop, the starring role, in fact, in the contemporary political establishment’s turning against its founding values and loss of faith in its project.
Coates plays a very important role for today’s American elites: he provides them with an intellectual justification for their growing dearth of belief in their republic and its values; he is an external expression of their internal crisis of historic legitimacy and purpose. He is less an independent thinker, in the mould of WEB Du Bois or James Baldwin, than a literary manifestation of the American establishment’s own turn against itself and its search for a proof that makes sense as to why it is right to do that.
These days we often hear the phrase ‘white privilege’ — a strikingly ahistoric, anti-intellectual term which dumbs down public debate through obliterating the experience of class. But we rarely hear any discussion of ‘black privilege’, which I think Coates’ veneration speaks to. No, black people, as a group, are not privileged, certainly not in the US: they continue to experience inequality, poverty and violence, and these profound social wrongs ought to be seriously addressed. (At the public policy level, not the Coatesian level of fatalistically, nihilistically treating all of that as the inevitable, unfixable horror of a republic allegedly born in and soaked in racism.) No, by ‘black privilege’ I mean the growing privileging of the black experience by those with authority in the cultural sphere; by the opinion-forming set, pop culture, and increasingly the once more traditionalist worlds of publishing and high art too, all of which increasingly see in the historic experience of the African-American both an authenticity that they feel they themselves lack and a horror of the republic that they need in order to give shape, and truth, to their already existing sense of cultural exhaustion and moral doubt. Coates is, right now, America’s prime beneficiary of this new black privilege.
In recent years, particularly from the 1960s, many thinkers have observed the shift of the left’s focus away from class to identity, from social relations and questions of economic power towards narrower, though of course legitimate concerns about inequality among people of different backgrounds. In more recent years, there has been a further shift in the post-1960s rehabilitation of the politics of identity by those who profess to be left — a move away even from the tangible if limited question of inequality towards more therapeutic notions of pain and recognition; of the right of identity groups not merely to have equal access to public life but to feel validated in their self-professed suffering and to be accorded resources or respect on that basis. As Christopher Lasch argued in his 1985 book, The Minimal Self, ‘the victim has come to enjoy a certain moral superiority in our society’; we have witnessed the ‘moral elevation of the victim’. Competing groups now ‘vie for the privileged status of victims’, as Lasch said.
And this creates a situation where they increasingly ‘appeal not to to the universal rights of citizenship but to a special experience of persecution’, Lasch argued. In short, where a society organised around democratic ideals, around the idea of the self-willed individual and his freedom to shape his life and even political life as he saw fit, naturally encouraged people to appeal to the ideal of citizenship — to demonstrate their capacity for citizenship — a society organised around the victim, around the sanctification of having experienced suffering, naturally invites people to disavow their capacity for citizenship and instead to accentuate their frailty, their insufficiency, their helplessness. This ‘moral elevation of the victim’ has intensified, enormously, since 1985, so that the demand and the living of the universal rights of citizenship have now almost entirely given way to the project of cultivating self-weakness and dismantling one’s citizenship. And these shifts in the modern politics of identity have had a particularly profound impact on black politics, and on the cultural privileging of the black experience.
In his brilliant but neglected 1968 essay ‘The Trouble with Black Power’, Lasch analysed the shift from the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, with its appeals to the universal rights of citizenship (and economic rights, too), towards a Black Power movement that seemed driven more by despair (often understandably, as Lasch argued). Lasch argued that Black Power was ‘itself a manifestation of the New Left’, sharing with this new, increasingly identitarian, countercultural left ‘a pronounced distrust of people over 30, a sense of powerlessness and despair, for which the revolutionary rhetoric serves to compensate, and a tendency to substitute rhetoric for political analysis and defiant gestures for political action’. Lasch’s key criticism of Black Power is that it represented a ‘retreat’ not only into community life but into the question of ‘psychological inequality’ — that is, it emphasised a feeling of a lack of worth rather than addressing how to overcome the external world’s imposition of a very real economic and political lack of worth on certain black communities. Citing Harold Cruse’s 1967 classic, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Lasch said Black Power was in many ways a ‘strategic retreat’. In the words of Cruse, ‘It proposes to change, not the white world outside, but the black world inside’. ‘They have reversed the proper order of priorities’, said Lasch, ‘for “psychological equality” must be the product, not the precondition, of cultural regeneration and political power’. That is, to attend narrowly to the self before addressing the problems of society got things the wrong way round.
Lasch was honing in on a significant shift in the 1960s, that was largely a function of the growth of the New Left: a move from the political to the psychological, from a focus on change in the external world to the cultivation of self-worth in the internal world, whether of the community or, eventually, and worse, the self. This subsequently developed into an identitarianism of suffering over citizenship, of a celebration of pain over autonomy. The dramatic shifts in the arena of black politics capture this well. From the universal citizenship demands of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, to the expectation of ‘psychological equality’ among the black consciousness movements of the 1970s, to the growth of the idea of historic pain, even of the historical determinism of the experience slavery on modern blacks, in the 1980s, to the more recent concern over microaggressions, and white power, and the cry of ‘Black Lives Matter’, which has the appearance of a radical movement but which looks increasingly like the militant wing of the respectable, Oprahite politics of recognition — the story of black politics from the mid-20th century onwards has been a story of the diminution of political life and the usurping of universal ideals of rights and autonomy by the focus on the psychic, the self, and primarily the self’s pain and incapacity. (But, as Lasch makes clear, this process was not singlehandedly caused by black activists, but rather was informed by, and ran alongside, the New Left’s embrace of identity over class and self-care over radical change.)
The left’s embrace of identity politics and its moral elevation of the victim both reflected and intensified society’s loss of faith in its founding ideals of citizenship, democracy and national identity. And this means that something very curious happened in the 1970s and 80s: the black historic experience started to be looked upon not only with an instinct for validation by the cultural elite, but with envy, too. If it was good to be a victim, and if it was good to distance yourself from the grand claims of the American republic and other Western societies, then the difficult black experience and aspects of black culture start to look increasingly attractive.
In Culture of Narcissism (1979), Lasch provocatively explored the adoption of the language and culture of ‘the ghetto’ by sections of the American upper middle classes. Taking as his starting point the increasing popularity of the term of abuse ‘motherfucker’, which he noted was being used more and more by whites, he argued that an at-sea cultural set, and even sections of the political class, were using ‘the obscenity of the ghetto to convey a posture of militant alienation’. That is, they were drawn to lower forms of black culture, not from a genuine appreciation of them, but because they saw in their sometimes coarse output and the origins of their creation a climate that they curiously envied — a climate of hardship and alienation and ‘coolness’ (as they viewed it), all experiences that carried greater and greater purchase as the politics of identity and victimhood grew and faith in the universal rights of citizenship waned. The working-class and middle-class white embrace of aspects of black culture — which of course has intensified enormously since the 1970s, so that today black culture is the culture of significant sections of white America — spoke to something of a crisis of confidence in the mainstream, argued Lasch. He wrote:
‘We do not need to minimise the poverty of the ghetto… in order to see that the increasingly dangerous and unpredictable conditions of middle-class life have given rise to similar strategies for survival. Indeed, the attraction of black culture for disaffected whites suggests that black culture now speaks to a general condition, the most important feature of which is a loss of faith in the future.’
In short, the externalisation of the values of ‘the ghetto’, the popularisation of aspects of low black culture and forms of speech, revealed both a sense of difficulty and uncertainty for many working-class Americans and also an alienation from the idea of America, and its future, among elements of the smart set. Fast forward three or four decades and everyone says ‘motherfucker’, fashion is ‘ghetto fabulous’, and the black experience is considered authentic and truthful while ‘whiteness’ has become a term of abuse. To be a ‘white man’ today — in the pejorative sense, rather than simply the accident-of-birth sense — is to lack substance and to have no other history than the history of ‘raping and lynching’, as Coates describes the antecedents to the gentrification he sees in DC and Brooklyn. The American cultural historian TJ Jackson Lears once observed a sense of ‘weightlessness’ — a ‘feeling of insubstantiality or inauthenticity’ — among the American upper middle classes for much of the 20th century. Which is why, in the words of author Doug Rossinow, ‘The search for authenticity lay at the heart of the new left’. And they increasingly found it, society increasingly found it, not in the ideals or origins of the republic or of universal citizenship, but in the suffering of those who, in America at least, had the greatest claim to the status of victim and whose alienation could serve as a muse, or a prop, for others’ growing sense of alienation, too: blacks.
Coates represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of these developments, the embodiment of the privileging of the black experience by those who have experienced a profound and existential ‘loss of faith in the future’, in Lasch’s words. This is why white liberals venerate him and need him like they need air and water: he provides the story for their crisis of belief; his biographical experience gives coherence to their jettisoning of faith in universal values and the project of the American republic; his often pornographic focus on America’s alleged disgust with and ongoing torture of ‘black bodies’ titillates their own sense of self-loathing, and complicity, and guilt. The guilt of the republics, the shame of the Enlightenment — key themes of our misanthropic era.
And so white liberals actively welcome Coates’ chastising of them and their culture and history. Writing in Elle, the white liberal broadcaster Sally Kohn said all white people, especially white women, should read Coates because his ‘sharp edges’ and ‘hard truths’ will force whites to face ‘brutal reality’. It is ‘impossible to read [him] without wincing’, she says, ‘and it should be’. Because ‘discomfort is progress’. ‘Get even more uncomfortable’, she tells her fellow wealthy, well-connected white liberals, and then ‘spend the rest of your life’ thinking about what Coates says. This is not reading for intellectual expansion or pleasure — it is reading as self-punishment, the use of black pain to justify white self-loathing and liberal self-doubt. A perversely symbiotic relationship has developed between Coates and his largely white liberal readership, the former dutifully providing horror stories about ‘black bodies’, the latter dutifully lapping them up and feeling disgusted with themselves for their part in it all. This isn’t intellectualism — it’s a public performance of identitarian S&M.
And this is where the new, post-Sixties politics of identity has taken us: far, far away from the old ideals of universal citizenship and the things that make them possible — belief in free will, the unfettering of autonomy, social trust and, yes, optimism in humanity — towards a constant cajoling of individuals to see themselves as wounded by history, determined by others’ attitudes, incapable of meaningful autonomy, and either as objects against which outrages are carried out or subjects who must self-flagellate forever over what they have allegedly done, or benefit from. Behold the new anti-humanism, in which self-pity or self-hatred are increasingly the only moral games in town. Take your pick: do you demean yourself with the brand of ‘victim’, or punish yourself with the brand of ‘beneficiary’?
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
Picture by: Getty Images.