Saturday, October 07, 2017

Thomas Chatterton Williams: "How Ta-Nahisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power

This is good, IMO. Of course I don't agree with all of it:
   Amazingly, despite his near godlike status within white liberal circles, in the collection’s finest essay, “The Case for Reparations,” originally published in The Atlantic in 2014, Mr. Coates worries that “today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.” It is a jaw-dropping sentence if you take even a moment to consider the current discourse in progressive circles.
   “We Were Eight Years in Power” can leave a reader with the distinct impression that its author is glad, relieved even, that Donald Trump was elected president. It is exhibits A through Z of Mr. Coates’s national indictment, proof that the foundations of the United States are anti-black and that the past is not dead — it’s not even past, to echo William Faulkner.
   This argument, which would have been much harder to prosecute had Wisconsin and Pennsylvania stayed blue, is compelling because there is much disturbing truth in it. Pent- up white racism did fire Mr. Trump’s candidacy, and he happily fanned the flames. Yet that alone cannot explain why, in 2016, of the nearly 700 counties that voted for a black president twice, over 200 opted for Mr. Trump rather than backing a member of the white Washington establishment.
   In “The First White President,” Mr. Coates’s blistering jeremiad that serves as the book’s epilogue, he momentarily gestures at this greater complexity. “The politics of race are, themselves, never attributable ‘just to the politics of race,’ ” he writes. Yet despite this throat-clearing, he continues to argue as though they are. “White tribalism haunts even more nuanced writers,” he argues, training his sights on The New Yorker’s George Packer.

   This was an incredible accusation to which Mr. Packer was forced to respond. “The style of no-compromise sacrifices things that are too important for readers to surrender without a second thought,” Mr. Packer persuasively cautioned. “It begins with the essential point that race is an idea, and ends up just about making race an essence.”
   For having the temerity to defend himself, Mr. Packer was accused on social media of “excusing racism” and “whitesplaining.” Such logic extends a disturbing trend in left-of-center public thinking: identity epistemology, or knowing-through-being, somewhere along the line became identity ethics, or morality-through-being. Accordingly, whiteness and wrongness have become interchangeable — the high ground is now accessible only by way of “allyship,” which is to say silence and total repentance. The upside to this new white burden, of course, is that whichever way they may choose, those deemed white remain this nation’s primary actors.
   Given the genuine severity of the Trump threat, some readers of this essay may wonder, why devote energy to picking over the virtue and solidarity signaling of the left? Quite simply because getting this kind of thinking wrong exacerbates the very inequality it seeks to counteract. In the most memorable sentence in “The First White President,” Mr. Coates declares, “Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”
   I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.
   This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.
   You don't have to excuse yourself for criticizing the left. Especially when it goes crazy, as it periodically does, and says especially dumb things. Like "Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything." when that is, in fact, almost all they ever do anymore. And you don't always have to ground your criticisms of the left in counterproductivity arguments about how dumb leftiness empowers the right. Sometimes the left is just wrong. Bad wrong. Bad, bad wrong. Helping the right is not the only way to be wrong. And that's not even to mention anything about all the ways in which the right is righter than the left is...
   But overall, I like the piece. But, then, overall, I like Coates, too...even if I think he may have finally looked too long into the abyss.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home