Saturday, January 13, 2018

John Halle linked to an interview with Adolph Reed and Ta-Nehisi Coates regarding, among other things, reparations

One of my semi-regular/regular commenters mentioned Adolph Reed in connection to a post I made where I expressed, to put it nicely, reservations about the viability of Ta-Nehisi Coates' case for reparations.  The short version is that the Coates argument depends on what I consider to be so literally as well as metaphorically a black and white conception of racist that groups like Asian Americans or, more particularly, Native Americans, don't even rate in his symbolic universe.  Yet if reparations of the sort Coates wants were going to work couldn't we start with the American Indians who nearly wiped out?  There's not likely to be a Spokane Indian Renaissance of a sort to correspond to a Harlem Renaissance.  Peculiarities about the history of things as mundane as probate might have played a small role in some of that, but in any case, there's no contesting the emotional power of the appeal to rectify an injustice but I questioned whether reparations based on race didn't create a double bind in which the State paid blood money to make guilt go away or whether the State paying reparations wouldn't implement a cure predicated on a racial account that continued the nature of the problem.
Which, it turns out, might not be anything more than a less articulate version of ideas that had been better stated by Adolph Reed (with a hat tip to commenter chris e for mentioning him, and since Halle (whose blog I read consistently enough to have found this) has mentioned Adolph Reed's critique of Coates ... :
DH: I’m not Ta-Nehisi Coates but I imagine he and others favoring reparations would respond by saying that it’s meant to address wounds that were specifically racial in their origin.
AR: The logic fails on its own terms. If you grant for the sake of argument that the injuries were highly and explicitly racialized, it does not follow from that that the remedy needs to be of the same coin. [emphasis added] And I have not seen Coates or others who make that assertion actually argue for it-i.e. give a concrete and pragmatic explanation of how (the remedy is supposed to) work. That is to say, what the response, or atonement, I suppose, for past harms would look like and what they imagine the response would actually be.
Coates makes this stuff up as he goes along: by his own account, he read Baldwin and wanted to write like Baldwin and his editor would check him and say “Look, you’re writing these passages which don’t mean anything whatsoever” since he was so focussed on wanting to write like Baldwin absent having anything in particular to say.
So the first question for me has always been how can you imagine putting together a political alliance that would be capable of prevailing on this issue. And what you get in response is a lot of “What black people deserve” because of the harms that have been done to them. I just think it’s fundamentally unserious politically.
But I’ll say this and I’ll say this as a Sanders supporter-I’ll come clean on that. The idea that Bernie Sanders becomes the target of race-line activists now, and not Hillary Clinton, is just beyond me and it smells. It smells to high heaven.
You might say, well, she’s not the one who pushed through NAFTA or signed the omnibus crime bill, or ended the federal government’s commitment to direct provision of income support or housing that her husband did. But she supported all that stuff then. My mind is blown by the understanding of politics that undergirds this perspective that people like Coates and proud TFA alum Deray McKesson and holy roller Marissa Johnson and all those others embrace. It’s fundamentally anti-left. The only thing you can say is that this is a class program. That this is a program that expresses and connects with the interests, or the world view, if not interests-although they do come together-of an aspiring or upwardly mobile stratum of the black and other colored PMC (professional managerial class) that scoffs and sneers at programs of material redistribution.
DH: One of the points you made in your Progressive piece back in 2002 was that whenever universal class based politics rears its head, the reparations call pops up. One doesn’t want to get too conspiratorial about this but what were you thinking of?
AR: I was out of the country for a while back then and hadn’t paid much attention and the reparations thing had blown way up while I was away-there were conferences all over C-Span-Ron Karenga, Kimberly Crenshaw and Charles Ogletree. Because it’s the kind of thing that lawyers dine on. I was bemused-I couldn’t figure out what was going on. When (James) Foreman and the Black Manifesto group raised the reparations issue back in the 60s, it was connected with something like the freedom budget and what Whitney Young had described as a Marshall Plan for the ghetto, so in that sense reparations were a hook which expressed Forman’s cleverness and engagement with the soap box nationalists up in Harlem who had been talking about that stuff for a long time.
It seemed to me that clearly was a response or an alternative to the possibility that a more universally, class based redistributive agenda would gain currency. Part of the problem, and I think this is a big chunk of the appeal of reparations since 1965 and into the 1970s, is that it appeals to people whose political commitments is to maintain the centrality of a racial interpretation of every form of inequality or injustice that affects black people. So the commitment is to a race politics. And so the race politics could be challenged by what they imagine to be post-racial politics (which nobody other than them has ever talked about, anyway) and by a class politics. [emphasis added]
What the race discourse does is it forces a racial interpretation onto any manifestation of inequality or injustice to be associated with black people on the receiving end. So in that sense, the demands aren’t even that important. The discussion of the program isn’t even that important. The real objective is to maintain the dominance of the racialist interpretive frame of reference and that goes back to my contention that this is a class program because part of the material foundation of the class has been, since the class began to take shape at the end of the 19th century, a claim to be representatives of the aspirations of and of the voice of black people writ large.
Halle has blogged in other contexts about how as the post-Weinstein moment has unfolded a handful of "Bernie bros" have been implicated but that for the most part the men implicated have tended to be men associated with backing Clinton, which has had Halle suspicious about the integrity and seriousness of journalists who during 2016 were talking about the misogyny and abusiveness of "Bernie bros".  Remembering how twenty years ago a Democratic defense of Bill Clinton was to say that how a man behaves in his personal life should have no bearing, however unpleasant his conduct may have been, on his ability to execute public office in a governmental role makes it hard for me to take mainstream/Clinton-backing objections to Trump's moral compass for the simple reason that it's not possible to condemn Trump for being a bad person at the level of personal conduct when it was precisely this sort of objection that defense of Bill Clinton dispensed with twenty years ago.  Which is to say that I take the old left more seriously than the new left or neoliberal/center on this stuff because whether or not I always agree with everything I've read from these or any other part of the political spectrum, a guy like Chomsky seems to have been consistent in objecting to a Clintonian approach. 
Not that I would tend to think of myself as very left but as I read stuff from the liberal/left side and compare notes with what's been written on the right it seems that to the extent that I can empathize with a stratum of the left it's more the old left than the new left, and for the fairly simple reason that people who want to keep the New Deal solvent for as long as possible and want things improved for working class people across the board without necessarily conflating those concerns with narratives of race that are literally and figuratively black and white make sense to me.  If there's a possibility of doing something across the board to help working class people that sounds better than Coates' case for reparations for blacks because, per Reed, it seems counterproductive to reduce all the inequalities that blacks and other people of color and working class whites or poor whites run into as being entirely the result of systemic racism.  Not that that hasn't been a variable.  Italians weren't even necessarily considered white all the time.  Or take Gal Gadot, the actress/model who's playing Wonder Woman.  She tends to get described as white now but would she have "read" as white fifty years ago?  Not necessarily. 
One of my American Indian relatives told me decades ago that American Indians didn't have a figure who managed to formulate a narrative of Pan-American Indian identity or cohesion.  So while for whites and blacks there are tropes of cohesion that belie histories of conflict between English and Irish or between Russians and Ukrainians, in America there's some useful fiction that a mere white or black narrative trope satisfies a sense of social identity derived from historical practices. 
But that isn't necessarily applicable to an American Indian context where, say, a Hopi friend of one of my siblings found Dances with Wolves impossible to get into because, as he put it, "How can I root for this tribe in this movie?  They kept trying to kill my people and enslave us.  They aren't the good guys to me."  But for a noble savage/righteous Indian trope into which a white character can join, hey, who needs to know stuff like that? 
Now speaking in Christian terms I would think that "there is none that is righteous, not even one" could tell us that there's no "team" that is innocent of an atrocity that needs to be repented of but that's apparently the point at which a Coatesian narrative may differ.  Threading the needle of appreciating the positive things and the noble ideals that have been betrayed by actual conduct in history while not neglecting the reality of the myriad ways in which men and women and children have acted and spoken in ways that betrayed the ostensible ideals is a lifelong discipline. 
For people from a Judeo-Christian milieu this is why, in a phrase, a book like the Book of Judges is in the Bible and why we should soak ourselves in it and reflect upon it.  In an era such as ours the conviction that if we embrace the right ideological position or endorse the right narrative in mythological or historical terms that we get moral licensing on the set of some cosmic ethics equivalent of a carbon offset is very probably how we got to the point of  a "post-Weinstein" moment in the entertainment industry, a moment that, it would seem, isn't even close to happening in the Christian industrial complex in the United States. 
That's not to praise Hollywood for finally deciding that a guy famous for backing the Clintons can be cut loose now that Hillary Clinton's campaign has been shown to be a failure a second time (first against Obama and secondly and more humiliatingly against Trump)--The Democratic party machine is not exactly known for giving failures second chances at such a high level. 
If anything the post-Weinstein moment makes it seem that Hollywood can keep making a Spotlight or two about a culture other than itself and feel pretty good about itself.   We can get a movie like The Post which is about the aristocracy of the mid-20th century American press struggling about things brought to light about friends who throw fancy parties.  It's Spielberg so it's expertly made and I was convinced by the pleasure of hanging out with old friends to catch it but I felt that this feel-good, cute movie that celebrated the power of an adversarial press could have been conceived around Ellsberg and Bagdikian and would have been far more interesting to me.  But journalists at the writerly level may not be as easy a sell for one aristocracy in making a film about how one aristocracy did battle with another aristocracy and prevailed.  I mean, I like Batman stories so I don't mind this sort of set up on principle.  :) But in a film like The Post the story is cast as journalists and publishers and editors against the Nixon administration as if the former set of people is in some way fundamentally not part of an aristocratic caste.  Per Jacques Ellul on the classes of propagandists, his observation was that these people are functionally an aristocratic class.  Coates is among their number, for that matter.  Anyone who can write Black Panther comics and have a few books published and be able to be told personally by Obama that it's not clear that there's been a case where reparations has worked is part of a ruling class.  It's just that in the last decade or so, as I've written a bit over the last year and a half, there's a temptation for those in the upper 20 percent to think of themselves more by dint of not being in the top one percent than in terms of being in the top 20 percent. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

I guess the difference between The Post and Batman is that, besides being a near-psychotic who dresses up like a bat and fights crime, Bruce Wayne knows he is not like regular people, whereas movies like Spotlight and, I'm guessing, The Post dress up the protagonists are regular folks sticking up for the little guy. Spotlight is full of scenes that show how Michael Keaton, Amy Adams, etc. are all normal people, with home lives and "towny" upbringings. Funny thing is that the only alien in the movie, Liev Schriebner, gets almost no coverage, but is the actual wedge for the plot. Without him, nothing would've ever happened. But I digress.

Batman, on the other hand, always keeps himself distant, not only from wealthy philanthropists, but even the charity operations he engages in. He never thinks much of these things, only as necessary duty. Bruce never tries to personally make things better, but always passes power down into the hands of people who actually live among such people. Sometimes that gets him in trouble, but even then, in the cartoon at least, he has this grim penitent sense of it all. He doesn't feel guilty for the money, but he feels obligation to use it wisely. This is another reason I prefer Batman to Superman. The latter tries to masquerade as a normal person, even when he is clearly not. Maybe it's not a coincidence that the only person who knows both sides of the coin, Lois Lane, is a journalist; in fact, maybe it's fitting that Clark Kent is a journalist! I think if Metropolis knew who Superman really was, they'd laugh at him playing makepretend as Clark Kent the shy Kansas boy. If you take Superman as more of an analytic trope than an actual character, he's pretty fascinating. He only maintains his naivety when his personality is bifurcated between demigod and aw-shucks reporter.

Also, thanks for tuning me into Adolph Reed. While I think Chomsky and folks like him would make a more just society, I lack the pure political stance these guys take. Christ's kingdom is far more important, and I don't have such utopian aspirations that forging a leftist government would solve the real problems, namely man's sin.

2 cents,

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Yes, The Post presents Graham and Bradlee as a kind of "regular people" even if they've hobnobbed with presidents. As a feel-good film The Post is less morally ambiguous about power and prestige and good vs evil than ... actually either Spiderman: Homecoming or Wonder Woman now that I'm thinking about this. Even Guardians 2 and Logan had more nuanced depictions of heroes having broken minds or moral compasses than The Post. But then Hugh Jackman said later last year he wanted to do an Unforgiven for Wolverine as his final curtain so there's that. But I digress, the larger observation being that The Post is more cartoonishly good vs evil than any of the tentpole superhero films that came out just last year.

A friend of mine who saw Spotlight thought it was interesting that all the male reporters look plausibly like middle-aged or old guys and then the ONE female reporter is played by ... Rachel McAdams. Not that McAdams was bad, it's just that as C. S. Lewis wrote in a story, come now, we all know what she looks like. :)

I've floated the idea here that the popularity of Batman may lay partly in his being an American folk trope (albeit in trademarked guise!) of an ideal one percenter. If we know we're going to have a one percent anyway the superhero genre lets us play with what we want that one percent to look like. Sociologically speaking, that can make the genre more honest about the socio-political implications of an American elite than a film like The Post, though bad superhero films and bad films that pretend to be about journalism do still abound. :)

I've got chris e's comments to thank for the stuff about Adolph Reed on the subject of Coates so, thanks chris e. Those were helpful comments. :) And the previously sliced finger has healed up enough that I can get back to comment moderation and stuff.

chris e said...

"If there's a possibility of doing something across the board to help working class people that sounds better than Coates' case for reparations for blacks because, per Reed, it seems counterproductive to reduce all the inequalities that blacks and other people of color and working class whites or poor whites run into as being entirely the result of systemic racism"

I think it's fair to say that Reed has a more holistic view of the causes of inequality than Coates, but on the other hand he also has a fairly keen understanding of the racism inherent in the system - after all he also wrote "modern black Republicans have been more tokens than signs of progress". In terms of remedies I think he's driven both by a sense of pragmatism (obvious in his initial answer to Henwood) and also by his own suspicion that reparations under neoliberalism would ultimately amount to very little other than the redistribution of resources between various sub-altern classes.

"Now speaking in Christian terms I would think that "there is none that is righteous, not even one" could tell us that there's no "team" that is innocent of an atrocity that needs to be repented"

"Christ's kingdom is far more important, and I don't have such utopian aspirations that forging a leftist government would solve the real problems, namely man's sin."

Whilst this is true in the theological sense; God also appointed secular authorities to rule make moral judgements in an environment that on the terms described above are highly morally ambiguous to begin with. So I don't think that this can necessarily - or should necessarily - be used to justify some kind of quietism by a Christian as citizen, even if the place of politics cannot be within the sphere of the Church.

I think Reed would see 'repentance' in this sense as somewhat irrelevant at best and a self indulgent luxury at worst. The former at least would be very much in keeping with the desire to keep both kingdoms separate.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, I'm ... relatively confident Cal isn't advocating for quietism as such, since he's advised me not to read Ellul in too quietist a set of terms. :)

There's some offline stuff I've been tackling late so I won't have as much to comment for a bit.