Ta-Nehisi Coates: “All Is Fog”

October 25, 2017

Multiple Pages
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “All Is Fog”

Which trait most accounts for the spectacular career of Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic’s race blogger–turned–intellectual superstar?

Coates, widely assumed to be America’s foremost public thinker, has published yet another best-seller: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. In his new $28 book, Coates reprints his old magazine articles that The Atlantic had given away for free, sandwiched between what he enticingly labels “extended blog posts” about what kind of mood he was in when he wrote each article.

A couple of years ago, Coates was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant of $625,000 for his best-selling micro-memoir Between the World and Me, in which he recounted not just one but two anecdotes about people he knew who were the victims of white racist oppression.

In one, a black guy whom Coates had vaguely known in college was gunned down by a policeman.

Eventually, Coates admits the shooter cop was black too, which you might think wrecks the moral of his tale. But that’s not the point; the point is that, no matter what blacks inflict upon one another, white people are to blame.

And that’s not all Coates could remember from his first forty years of life. His memoir also included the celebrated story of how Coates let his little boy dawdle upon an escalator and then a white woman about to crash into the lad said, “Come on,” which is racist.

These two thrilling yarns have rocketed Coates to near the top of the college speaker circuit, where he makes up to $1,000 per minute on the nights when he can’t think of enough to say about White Supremacy to fulfill his contractual minimum speech length of 75 minutes.

“Coates has a hard time remembering much besides his feelings.”

What exactly is the secret of Ta-Nehisi’s success? Why has he vaulted over more talented black intellectuals such as John McWhorter and Thomas Chatterton Williams (who have both been unloading on Coates lately)?

It’s definitely not his erudition. McWhorter scoffed recently:

The elevation of that dorm-lounge performance art as serious thought is a kind of soft bigotry, which is as nauseating as it is unintended.

Nor is it that Coates has a charismatic personality. He has zero sense of humor and a sententious prose style. He’s a soft, timid comic-book nerd who emits hilariously white sentences like:

But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.

Coates grew up physically scared of other blacks, which is one reason he has so few interesting stories from his 42 years of life: He didn’t go out much.

So what has made this rather pathetic person so immensely popular with whites?

The secret behind Coates’ appeal to white liberals is that he’s not very smart. He’s not likely to bring up awkward facts that don’t fit The Narrative. Why not? Because he can’t remember them.

Coates’ lifelong worries about his lack of mental retentiveness are a recurrent theme in We Were Eight Years in Power:

...the classroom had always been the site of my most indelible failures and losses…. I wondered then if something was wrong with me, if there was some sort of brain damage…. And like almost every other lesson administered to me in a classroom, I don’t remember a single thing said that day.

Coates sums up:

I’d felt like a failure all of my life—stumbling out of middle school, kicked out of high school, dropping out of college.

His failure to graduate from Howard U. ate away at him for most of the next decade: chief identity, to my mind, was not writer but college dropout...

Fortunately, a loyal girlfriend supported him into his 30s as he failed in various ill-paid journalism jobs:

Kenyatta and I had been together for nine years, and during that time I had never been able to consistently contribute a significant income.

Kenyatta believed in him as a writer, despite his deficiencies of style and substance:

And so I derived great meaning from the work of writing. But I could not pay the rent with “great meaning.” I could not buy groceries with “great meaning.” With “great meaning” I overdrew accounts. With “great meaning” I burned through credits cards and summoned the IRS.

Coates has a hard time remembering much besides his feelings. For example, the last three words of his account of a seventh-grade trip to Gettysburg reveal a repeated theme in Coates’ rise to best-selling memoirist:

Given this near-totemic reverence for black history, my trip to Gettysburg…should cut like a lighthouse beam across the sea of memory. But when I look back on those years…all is fog.

This is not to say that Coates’ memory is worse than average, just that as a professional memoirist he’s not exactly Vladimir Nabokov penning Speak, Memory. Moreover, Coates doesn’t remember much of what has been in the news in recent decades, which is a little odd for a journalist.

Paradoxically, Coates’ forgetfulness has convinced many of his fans that he is an authoritative historian. We live in an age of increasing antiquarianism in which the more historically remote the alleged cause, the more plausible it sounds to moderns. Coates’ inability to recollect much about recent decades provides his politically correct interpretations of the distant past with an infectious confidence.

In his 30s, he discovered that, due to his having largely spent his life in a mental fog, while he was inept at the meat and potatoes of journalism—explaining how the present ties to the recent past—he could be a huge success as an antiquarian who lectures people on how the far past controls the present. Coates’ knack for forgetting recent history is especially well paid because there have been all these embarrassing events during the past half century that would undermine his cherished assertion that all the troubles of “black bodies” today are the fault of “people who think they are white.”

Coates takes great pride in his autodidacticism:

The most precious thing I had then is the most precious thing I have now—my own curiosity.

Indeed, Coates’ career is reminiscent of that of another well-paid autodidact: Glenn Beck.

Because Beck can’t remember anything for long, he’s always wildly excited by whatever book he has just read. It’s all news to him!

This has advantages in promoting theories of historical causality. For example, Beck has been influential in calling attention to the Frankfurt School of German-speaking “Cultural Marxist” highbrows who were subsidized by the U.S. government during the 1940s.

That has some value. Yet, if you actually know more intellectual history than Beck does, it’s hard to be quite so confident when pondering the purported centrality of the Frankfurt School. Granted, Marcuse was a clever promoter who in old age surfed the wave of ’60s sex, drugs, and rock & roll intellectualizing at California colleges. (The Coen brothers amusingly wrote Marcuse into a cell of Malibu Marxists out to subvert Hollywood in Hail, Caesar!)

Adorno, on the other hand, was a stick-in-the-mud snob who hated guitar music and, indeed, any music less austere than Schoenberg’s twelve-tone experimentalism. So it’s hard to be sure how direct was the connection between the Frankfurt School and the post-1968 left.

These are not, however, the kind of reality checks that occur to Beck to bother with.

Similarly, Coates’ extremely hazy conception of the events of the past fifty years, when liberals have largely been in charge of everything race-related, has helped make him vastly popular with liberal whites looking for reasons to blame conservative whites for blacks continuing to screw up.

For example, Coates is much appreciated for his assertion that the reason blacks in 2017 have on average saved so little wealth has nothing to do with what has been happening over the past half century since the civil rights revolution, but instead is the direct result of the FDR administration’s redlining in the 1930s.

This doesn’t make much sense, but few care. White liberal gentrifiers want rationalizations for why blacks should be driven out of potentially valuable inner-city properties and foisted upon suburbs and small towns. To them, Coates’ redlining theory is a license to print money.

Why have blacks failed to build much wealth? Well, African-Americans tend to be the poorest Americans but the richest Africans.

But that kind of subversive insight would never dawn upon Coates, which is one reason he’s made millions.

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