Why are critics so deferential to the radicalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Christopher Caldwell writes: Coates has written a provocative book about one of the pivotal issues of our time: the confrontation between black youth and forces of order. With an Internet and grassroots campaign having arisen to delegitimize the latter, it would be surprising if the issue did not gather intensity in coming months. Coates’s contribution to the discussion is not well written or well reasoned or trustworthy. But it is politically engaged, and exhilarating in the way that political engagement is exhilarating. If the book itself tells us little about the issue, the reaction to the book among intellectuals tells us a lot. It is evidence that something is changing at the core of our literary culture. Either critics have lost sight that there is such a thing as an unworthy book on a worthy subject; or they are too terrified of being tarred as racists even to give an accurate description of a book about race.

Coates’s book sets a mood rather than conducts an argument. Feeling demonized himself, he offers a counter-demonization that will convey forcefully to whites (or at least those who read it) that blacks (or at least one black author confident he speaks in their name) think white culture worthless and predatory. It will convey, too, that he considers the measures put in place to secure racial equality since the civil rights legislation in the 1960s laughably inadequate.

Both races believe race relations have deteriorated in recent years, a New York Times poll has found, with two-thirds describing them as “generally bad.”

…So the lavish praise—and even gratitude—that Between the World and Me has elicited from white elites is surprising. Truculent, aggrieved, allergic to compromise, Coates has nonetheless seen his book blown to the top of the bestseller lists on a powerful tailwind of antiracism. The cynical way of explaining its success is to note that the interests of privileged minorities (royal families, oligarchies, coteries of literary critics) are often the same as those of underprivileged minorities. Both of them distrust and seek protection against electoral majorities. In this light some of the most impassioned passages in the book are revealing. “The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs,” Coates writes at one point, “but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.” Coates returns to this rare word in his closing pages. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America.” A median voter might find such statements appalling. A New York literary critic, with his own misgivings about majoritarian views on gay rights and guns and school prayer, might find them consoling.

A less cynical explanation is to say that McWhorter is right about antiracism’s having become a substitute religion. In demanding from whites a program of infinite penance, Coates is offering them a metaphysical purpose. Many seem to welcome it, as did the Germans who flocked to the lectures of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen when he published Hitler’s Willing Executioners in 1996. Coates’s book runs whites down—but at least it gives them a role. In our day, the peer pressure to join the procession of penitents gains momentum online, from what students of Internet memes call “virtue signaling.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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