Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Between the World and Me: a review

Dear Hannah,

Fear is the basis of this book.  Fear of the streets, fear of the schools, fear of the police -- fear of losing control of one's body, of one's life, of one's family.  Lots of men have lived and died under this kind of fear, but few of them so bright and eloquent as Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Lots of men living in the Baltimore ghetto have asked why their lives are full of fear; and seeing the white world going on safely beyond them have asked why others' lives aren't.  Between the World and Me is a painful search through race and history to understand the suffering of the black American.  Like most of us Americans, Coates quickly finds the reason for the suffering.  Like most of our Democrats, his cure is worse than the cancer.

We find it difficult to blame Mr. Coates for getting angry at an ugly situation; but like the judge sentencing the junkie in Trainspotting, we believe Ta-Nehisi's answer helps explain black behavior better than excuse it.  Centuries of almost unspeakable abuse, of systematic torture, rape, and indignity in general, and then being redlined into an insufferable ghetto and persecuted by Jim Crow will eventually have an effect on a people brutalized not for their grades or their manners or their criminal records, but for their unchangeable color.  Whether redlining and segregation and lynch mobs are now illegal is far beyond the point.  The point is that they've had their effect.  The point is that generations of life without liberty ruins a people for generations, and divorces the concept of morality from the concept of prosperity.  That whites can expect any more than a horrible ghetto proves our unfairness.  That anyone expects whites to personally integrate with this ghetto proves activists' stupidity.

What can't be denied after reading this book is that the biggest problem black people face today in America is other black people.  Mr. Coates's unmissable description of the Baltimore streets and the danger they posed is enough to create sympathy for good blacks in bad places -- and worse, to justify the worst of white prejudices.  The purpose of this book is understanding the indescribable barrier that kept him stuck in the ghetto.  He could have found the answer by making a white friend and asking him kindly.  The reason was, is, and will be fear.  White fear of the same things Mr. Coates was explicitly afraid of.  Fear of robberies and broken ribs and rapes; of street fighters and armed bandits chasing you on the streets; of dead children and devastated parents; and losing the one thing our entire bodies were engineered to not lose, which is our life.  The fact that things are going swimmingly in white neighborhoods doesn't mean white people have nothing to fear.  It only means that we're afraid someone is going to ruin all of it.

There are portions of the book where he almost admits as much.  If it was Mr. Coates's goal to describe the barrier between himself and the white world, he did the best job of it when explaining the barrier between himself and the well-to-do blacks.   The existence of the middle-class, black-owned, black-run, and oftentimes black-policed Prince George County (as described in his own book) is a testament not only to the fact that exceptional blacks can in fact succeed in America, but also to the fact that lower class blacks are often incapable of getting along even with middle-class blacks.  A long and sordid history of black encounters with the PG police, culminating but not ending in the murder of Coates's saintly acquaintance Prince Jones, proves that even the blacks who escaped from the ghetto are terrified of the ghetto, and beyond this are willing to profile in order to protect themselves from it.  Yet Coates blames whites supremacy when black men are shot even by black cops.  To Mr. Coates and Black Lives Matter, whites are Hitler's Jew: guilty if we did it, guilty if we didn't.  He complains of being profiled right before he commits an intolerable act of profiling; right before he saddles every white man with a crime indisputably committed by a black.

This hypocrisy could have been too much for any author, but Mr. Coates seems to have an insatiable lust for double-dealing.  Aside from refusing to let others protect themselves from the same things he's terrified of, and saying black is most beautiful without giving anyone the right to say otherwise, he requires a black history without wondering whether the same thing that makes him want a black history makes other people want a white history.  He says the American Dream is the enemy while trying to escape into the world that is living it.  He blames white Americans for benefiting from the plunder of innocent blacks, while supporting the plunder of innocent whites. He says that hate gives identity, not only without admitting it's impossible to live without positive and negative generalizations, but while calling whites those who think of themselves as white.  He says that we're liars for having failed our ideals, not only without giving us a better ideal, but while not even keeping to his.  In short, the entire book is him being the thing that he hates.  We can't really blame him for being upset with us.  But we wonder how he can do the same things as us and not be upset with himself.  The truth is Mr. Coates is full of shit.

The best of us after reading this want Mr. Coates and his family out of the ghetto, just as we wanted the great-souled James Baldwin out of post-war Harlem.  But I hate to admit that Coates, whose Between the World and Me seems an unworthy successor to Baldwin's The Fire Next Timeis Baldwin's inferior in humanity*.  While we could see in Baldwin's philosophy glimmers of the Whig Macaulay and even the conservative Edmund Burke, Coates's bleak existential struggle mirrors Nietzsche more closely; and while men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Baldwin give us the impression that we could possibly be friends, Coates leaves us with the impression that he could never take us as anything more than an enemy.

Coates isn't a criminal or a gangster or a brute.  You can look at his picture and see in it the face of a friend, with honest eyes and a kind smile, and immediately regret that things have gone wrong between you.  But a sane white man wants Coates nowhere near his family.  Coates won't defend our names.  He won't defend our property.  He won't allow us to defend or distinguish ourselves from thugs or illegals or even fight against terrorists.  He won't allow us to be human -- to love as we really love, to fear as we really fear, to judge with good judgment and to trust who we trust.  If anything bad happens, he's likely to side by his color than by facts and by persons rather than principle*.  He makes rules for us and then breaks them all himself, and then asks us what the barrier between himself and the world is.  Yesterday we would say it was Jim Crow.  Today we would ask him to place himself in our shoes, and then ask the question again.

Your father,

*There's nothing more obvious about the modern era than that our political discourse is concerned primarily with how we feel about certain kinds of people.  And the problem with this is that a policy in which you're primarily concerned with attitudes about people is a policy in which you're unconcerned with reasonable reasons. Whoever has the best publicists and the means of stirring our emotions has the best chance of running our government; and if we complain that the special interests of businessmen are responsible for corrupting our legislature, we're oftentimes quick to ignore that the special interests of races and religions are capable of corrupting our political executives.  The man who does poorly doesn't have his behaviors called into question, but his ethnicity or his creed; and if we believe not that his creed is right, but rather that it's been unpopular, then we pass judgment not on the unpopular man, but on his judges for rightly making him unpopular.

And so a slew of all kinds of minorities are the center of our attention; as if there was nothing in the world but oppression and nobody worth listening to but the underdog. The philosophy of the day concerns neither whether anyone has built anything good, nor whether they've said anything profound, nor whether they personally deserve what they've got, but whether they've experienced the distaste of society, and the insecurities of poverty.  There is no rule of right but a transfer of power, and no God of goodness but an outlay of empathy; and as empathy requires discrimination, there is no empathy except to chosen peoples and chosen races.  Nobody is in the right -- unless we feel he ought to be in the right. Nobody has a superior claim -- unless we feel he ought to have it.  We're a thoroughly corrupt people by the strictest definition of corruption, and the reason for our corruption is our unbridled passion for acceptance.  If we tried to play a game by these rules someone would throw the pieces in the air and say we were cheating.  When we try to run a government by these rules we pat one another on the back and say that we're holy.

1 comment:

  1. Jeremy:
    my long years of human observation suggests that the American Black in poverty suffers from a common impediment to happiness. He is afraid to try to move past his ingrained scapegoat, despite many, many public support efforts (Head Start, subsidized housing, affirmative action, etc.) and the notion that somebody else needs to recognize his insecurities and salve every multi-generational wound. There is also a perennial strain of indignation for crimes against his forefathers, but of course, it is general human nature that power by force is in civilization's past, and his own ancestors subjugated rivals by force (and never paid reparations to others for these historical crimes).

    I think that your analysis is thoughtful and on point, in rebuttal to a young black writer's view of his world and the world outside his ghetto. The prison walls are those placed inside his own mind by irrational emotion that apparently squelches the desire to escape. It is out there, young black person, if you will only listen to your inner optimism and wall out the baiters.