An online intellectual fight shows the limits of the historical perspective in politics.
Over the last two weeks an online intellectual battle raged between New York magazines’ Jonathan Chait and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. It all started after Coates wrote an article criticizing liberals who attacked Congressman Paul Ryan’s comments about culture causing poverty. As Coates saw it, there wasn’t much difference between what a conservative like Ryan has said and what a liberal like Obama has said over the years, “But Ryan’s point—that the a pathological culture has taken root among an alarming portion of black people—is basically accepted by many progressives today. And it’s been accepted for a long time.”
Chait responded by arguing that there are very real differences between what Ryan and Obama has advocated and that at the very least President Obama’s historical position as the nation’s first black president gives him a pretty big platform on which to speak to his own community:
There are points of overlap, to be sure, but the Ryan argument is dramatically different. Ryan’s analysis — or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda — is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor. He attributes that culture to incentives put in place by the government not to work, and believes that removing those harmful incentives, in the form of cutting benefit programs, would teach poor black people to fend for themselves.
Figures like Obama, Clinton, and (I think) Cosby make a very different argument. They share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don’t equate them with the entirety of it.
This sparked a huge blog fight over culture, race, and American history. (You can read Chait’s follow up pieces here and here and Coates’ pieces here and here). And a number of other public intellectuals piled in including Andrew Sullivan who criticized Coates’ overall pessimism about American society and Ross Douthat who offered a conservative perspective arguing lots of groups could stand some changes in their culture, or at the very least leaders in those groups giving members some Obama-style “tough love.”
According to my social media feeds, a majority of folks seem to think that Coates “won” the dispute on debating points, and perhaps they are right. But I’ve always been skeptical of that kind of analysis. In the winter of 2002 I went to a debate over whether the US should invade Iraq or not and it seemed to me that the pro-war side “won” the debate on debating grounds. But that doesn’t mean they were necessarily “right.”
The problem here as I see it with Chait’s and Coates’ argument is that they are really talking past each other because they are coming from two very different perspectives. Chait is arguing from an on-the-ground political perspective looking at what liberals and politicians like Obama are trying to accomplish. From this perspective Obama and Ryan may be arguing similar things, but there are still important differences between the two, and conflating the two points of view is a big mistake. He’s also using this perspective to look at policy merits of things that might not roll back history or radically change American society, but are still nonetheless worth the effort. Things like charter schools that try to teach children from impoverished backgrounds middle class norms like the KIPP Academies. From this perspective there are real differences between Ryan’s conservative way of talking about race and Obama’s liberal way, even if those differences are not as stark as Coates might prefer.
Meanwhile Coates is taking a grander historic view (one often taken by political radicals) that argues that, whatever the differences, the similarities between Obama’s and Ryan’s rhetoric makes the view and policy prescriptions of main-stream political liberals hopelessly compromised. Not unlike Ralph Nader’s claim that there would be “no difference” between a President Bush or a President Gore. This is probably best summed up with his opinion that, “I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.”
A lot of people online seemed to think this represents some sort of new and revolutionary way of looking at history, but it really isn’t. Historians have been pessimistic about humanity and the limits of progress since the first ones started wielding the pen (or chisel). To cite just one of my favorites: the French Medieval historian Edouard Perroy wrote during World War II, while he was both working on a book on The Hundred Years War and on the run from the Gestapo, that, “Certain ways of behavior, certain reactions against fate. Throw mutual light up on each other.” In other words some things never change.
But as Noah Smith pointed out that doesn’t mean nothing ever changes:
In fact, history and current events seem to favor that outcome. To say that white supremacy is as powerful today as in America’s past is to deny rationality. The clearest piece of evidence of this is the election of Barack Obama…
The election of a black president obviously doesn’t mean that white supremacy is gone from America. But would it have been possible in 1868? In 1968? Even in 1998? I don’t think so. Obama’s two elections don’t show victory, but how can you deny that they show progress? They mean that a majority of Americans (who are increasingly less white) has twice been willing to make a black person their chief executive, their representative to the world, and the commander-in-chief of their armed forces. When enemies attack the United States, it is to a black man that Americans must turn—have chosen to turn— to defend them.
The problem here as I see it is that Coates is holding to an ideal version of what America, or human beings in general, should be. And Coates isn’t new in this approach. In fact a number of historians have taken this ideal tack in recent years when looking at the difficult issue of race in American history. And under this analysis if America fails to live up to the ideal, if it turns out Lincoln’s views on race differ from our own or The New Deal didn’t treat blacks and whites equally then they are terrible failures (even if it was better for four million slaves that Lincoln became president instead of Stephen Douglas or The New Deal was heavily popular with African-Americans at the time). In this case it’s a terrible tragedy if Obama and liberals in general don’t live up to certain ideals when it comes to talking about race, or if they embrace less than ideal policy prescriptions when it comes to dealing with the issue of racial justice. Indeed Coates’ quotes Malcolm X to deny the idea that any progress over the issue of racial justice in America has ever been made or is even possible, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches…and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”
This sort of fatalism when it comes to the failure of actual human beings to live up to the ideal is fine for many walks of life, being a historian is certainly among them. But bluntly put this sort of analysis of the ideal has no place at all in the world of actual politics, if only because politics without accommodation and compromise is impossible. Which by definition means whatever your political beliefs, politics in the real world will never live up to your ideal. But don’t take my word for it, read Arendt, read Machiavelli, read Plato. Hell, watch Game of Thrones and ask yourself what happened when Ned Stark followed his own an ideal theory of politics based on upholding personal honor no matter what.
When idealists like Coates come into contact with the inevitable major disappointments that everyone in the world of politics will experience, in this case Barack Obama turning out to be a centrist Democrat rather than some sort of revolutionary or left-wing radical, usually one of two things happen. The idealist either sheds their ideals and opens up to compromise over things they once sought were sacrosanct or they just abandon the world of politics altogether. Coates has appeared to have chosen the latter, and that’s fine, to each his own. But this just proves to me that his criticisms of Obama are, at the end of the day, pretty weak tea. It’s easy for a writer to dismiss politicians for the terrible crime of behaving within the constraints of being a politician. It’s easy for a writer to dismiss a whole class of ordinary people, in this case liberals, for failing to adhere to someone else’s political analysis or agenda. But then again it’s easy for anyone actually involved in the hands on business of actual politics and social change to dismiss a writer, no matter how talented, for never really having much an impact on anything. Or for refusing to offer reasonable alternatives to the policies and rhetoric they are criticizing. And I think that Coates would have to agree, indeed he’s said it himself, “I never expected a single thing I wrote to change anything. Writing rarely does. I never expect to make any white person see anything.”
And that’s just fine, but it means that Coates isn’t in much of a position to criticize politicians or political folks who fail to live up to his expectations when they do things like make compromises or embrace political realism instead of idealism. He never would have been happy with their choices anyway.
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