The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote something exceptionally silly the other day. He referred to MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry as “America’s foremost public intellectual” – an assertion without any discernible merit. Coates was then called out (justifiably) by Politico’s media reporter Dylan Byers. No big deal. Writers can get a bit exuberant from time to time.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s claim that “Melissa Harris-Perry is America’s foremost public intellectual” sort of undermines his intellectual cred, no?
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) January 7, 2014
So Coates decided to defend his initial overstatement with an even lazier piece. And within the pleasant prose of his follow-up is the type of transparent and ugly race baiting that depreciates anything else he has to say on the topic. Accusing others of racism to deflect attention from your own indefensible contention is especially pathetic.
In his follow-up piece, Coates, after informing us he speaks French, lays out Harris-Perry’s impressive resume: she has Ph.D. from Duke, she’s taught at Princeton and Tulane, she was a Du Bois lecturer at Harvard, wrote two books, and is trustee at the Century Foundation. Even more, “I made this claim because of her work,” Coates goes on, “I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.”
Harris-Perry’s accomplishments are impressive, and Coates may very well deem Harris-Perry the sharpest interlocutor of the Obama era — but none of that makes her the or even a foremost intellectual in America. “Foremost” is to be of “first rank or position: preeminent.” It seems that Harris-Perry has yet to offer the kinds of ideas or hold the kind of audience that puts her in the first rank of intellectuals. There are few people who would argue otherwise. Well, maybe one.
That’s fine. And maybe I’m wrong. It is at the very least an arguable assertion. Coates couldn’t even concede that it might be debatable, or try to genuinely defend his position. He chooses to comprehend all things through one prism. Byers must be a racist. Perhaps a latent one; perhaps it’s his obliviousness rather than his intention. No matter. Coates goes on to lament, ironically, that others do not have a wider appreciation for what goes on in the world around them. While wagging his rhetorical finger at Byers, he explains his own worldview quite well:
…the privilege of being oblivious to questions of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance.
Then again, that might be a charitable take. It’s more likely that Coates is aware of what he’s doing. Why else does he move goalposts in the piece — content, by the end, to argue that Melissa Harris-Perry is merely a shunned black intellectual? The headline of his response to Byers is titled “What It Means to Be a Public Intellectual.” Interesting question. Also, not relevant to the criticism. And when the white Byers is asked to come up with a his own list of intellectuals, he rattles off a few ancient white guys and one dead white woman — all of them on target, incidentally — as to further confirm unwitting bigotry.
Now, I hadn’t heard of Harris-Perry before she was on TV. That means nothing. Apparently I have genetic and pigmentary disposition towards obliviousness. So I turn to a specialist: Coates. As far as I can tell (via Google)
he didn’t see fit to mention the barely mentions America’s foremost intellectual until she was on television. Maybe I missed something. I scanned an array of liberal publications. Other than The Nation, where she writes, Harris-Perry was barely mentioned anywhere until she was on television. In these liberal publications, she is never (as far as I could tell) referred to as a leading intellectual, much less a foremost intellectual. That’s certainly no way to treat the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era.
In fact, using Coates’ criteria Rachel Maddow has a far stronger claim to the throne of foremost intellectual. And if you disagree, you’re a homophobe.