Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new novel, “The Water Dancer,” has topped The New York Times bestseller list. I can’t remember ever seeing so much fanfare for a literary novel, particularly a debut one. Coates has been on all the talk shows, including a special edition of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Now, that’s access.
Of course, Coates had to pay his dues first as a journalist. He started off in 1998 writing occasional articles for the Washington Post on hip-hop. In 2008, Coates began writing for The Atlantic, and rode the black Bourgeois Obama wave to professional stardom.
Coates’ success has been a hot topic among black intellectuals. Coates has expressed shock that white people are so interested in his work, since this was not his intent. But regardless of intent, affluent white liberals have become Coates’ most important audience and fan base. White liberals turn to Coates when they want to understand “the black experience.”
Coates’ rise to fame has many factors. His most famous article and first cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” is a perfect example of making the most of opportunities presented. Coates is an eloquent and experienced writer, with a strong and passionate point-of-view. But there is more to this story.
Blacks in the American Two-Party System
The United States has a two-party system. Each party has a political coalition with disparate interest groups to form a majority governing coalition. In his classic, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” Kevin Phillips demonstrates the surprising consistency of these interest group coalitions over centuries, even if the party in which they are seated changes.
After the Civil War, blacks allied themselves politically with the Republican Party, which at that time was the party of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, and the “Eastern Establishment.” In opposition was the Democratic Party. At the heart of this coalition were white Southerners and white ethnic Northerners, particularly Catholics. While there has been fluctuation over time, and interest groups have changed parties, these same political coalitions more or less remain in the 21st century.
In today’s Democratic Party, blacks play a role as “junior partners” to the Eastern Establishment. Their primary duty is to vote for Democrats. In contrast, the Eastern Establishment is responsible for the financing, the “big ideas,” policy-making, foreign and domestic, and for constructing the “intellectual models” on which the Democratic Party’s ideology and policy are based. Within this large domain of responsibilities, a small section is set aside for black intellectuals and politicos to discuss “race matters.”
Many white Americans wonder why black pundits and intellectuals seem to always talk about “racism.” No doubt racial bigotry is real, and perhaps these folks have a bit of a morbid obsession, but it also arises from the role that they are pressed into playing by the Eastern Establishment. Many black intellectuals would like to be involved in creating the “big ideas,” policy objectives, and intellectual models, but there is strong pressure from the Eastern Establishment for black intellectuals to stick to their lane: “race matters.”
Moreover, the manner in which black intellectuals discuss “race matters” must be consistent with the intellectual model that the Eastern Establishment creates. They must not stray from the de facto ideology. This is easily enforced, because the Eastern Establishment has substantial control over the life chances of black intellectuals and pundits. They largely decide who will be funded and promoted, whether they will be published and where, whether they will be celebrated and given awards, and whether they will be on television.
Coates is very much a product of this system, and has thrived in it, to his credit. One can view Coates’ success from different perspectives, but I will spend the remainder of this essay looking at Coates’ work from the point-of-view of the function it serves in “The Great White Culture War.”
Coates at his heart is a “cultural warrior.” He has in part earned his literary status by demonstrating that he is more useful to the Eastern Establishment’s side of the The Great White Culture War than any black intellectual of his generation. In fact, if you look at the black intellectuals being promoted today by the Eastern Establishment, they are generally battle-hardened cultural warriors.
Black Intellectuals’ Role in ‘The Great White Culture War’
Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican Convention was divisive, but prophetic. The Cold War with the Soviet Union had come to an end, but a domestic Cold War within the United States, a “cultural war,” was on the rise. Today, that “Great White Culture War” is ripping the American republic apart.
This culture war exists within white America. There is no culture war in black America. There are not violent debates about immigration, abortion, feminism, or LGBTQ rights tearing black America apart. These are peripheral political concerns for the black demos. Yet intellectuals and pundits of color are able to make careers out of fighting on one side or the other of this Great White Culture War as “mercenary soldiers,” or sometimes a more important role.
Black intellectuals and activists serve two basic functions on the left side of the Great White Culture War. One, they are tasked with “exposing” the “logical contradictions,” “moral hypocrisy,” and hidden “violence” and “domination” that underlies traditional Anglo-Protestant culture, thus discrediting it. It’s a task to which they are extremely well-suited.
Second, they are the “keepers of the legacy” of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, and the tremendous moral authority that movement carries. Consequently, they can “loan out” the moral authority of the civil rights movement to contemporary left-leaning political movements, which are aiming to gain political legitimacy.
The problem is that these roles that black intellectuals play in the Great White Culture War tend to undermine each other. This is particularly clear with the LGBTQ movement. Let me explain.
From the ‘Protestant Ethic’ to ‘Post-Structuralism’
Both the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century were rooted in what might be called the “Protestant ethic.” King’s April 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” meant as an appeal to white Christian ministers across denominations, gives one a sense of the moral consensus of the day.
Ultimately, these movements were ideologically based in an American version of the Pauline doctrine of human equality: blacks and whites are equal, because they can both become Christians, and thus achieve eternal salvation. It is important to note that political movements for racial equality have only been successful in this country when rooted in some such Christian ideology and theology.
The success of the black revolution that MLK led spawned many imitators. Notably, that includes the sexual revolution, which gave rise to two political movements, which are pillars of today’s cultural left: “third wave feminism” and “gay liberation,” today called LGBTQ. These movements sought to imitate the success and draw moral authority from the historical example of the civil rights movement. They adopted its language as much as possible.
But they wholly rejected the ideological basis for MLK’s movement, the Protestant ethic. In fact, these movements saw Christianity as “the enemy,” as one of the central institutions that had caused their historic “oppression.” Consequently, they looked for a new philosophical model, and they found it in Paris, France. It has many names, but we will call it “post-structuralism,” and its most important exponent was the late Michel Foucault.
After World War II, what might be called “structuralism” dominated Parisian intellectual life, a school of thought rooted in the idea that human phenomena can and must be understood with respect to a well-defined and permanent “structure” that underlies human life and society. The most fashionable school of structuralism was Marxism. Alexandre Kojeve and Jean Paul Sartre reigned supreme.
Note that “structuralism” is an attempt to provide a model of human life and society without referencing any fixed concept of “human nature.” In fact, Karl Marx denied the existence of a permanent “human nature,” but instead teaches that what we call “human nature” has in fact been historically constructed by “human work” over time.
Foucault was of a younger generation, and while he initially was a dedicated Maoist, he eventually turned to a new radical intellectual pose in the form of what we are calling “post-structuralism.” He maintained his disdain for French “bourgeois” norms, but instead of advocating for proletarian revolution, his attacks turned to French bourgeois morality and ethics, utilizing a clever critique of French institutions to discredit them.
Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, he developed an historical or “archaeological” method, conducting a series of “studies” on a variety of topics: madness, the medical profession, the prison system, the human sciences, and human sexuality.
Like Marx, Foucault teaches that human nature is historically constructed, but he turns the discussion in a different direction. He looks at how “men of science” have historically constructed the “concept of human nature” over time. He sees a “will to power” within the scientific project to impose the concept of a fixed “human nature” on society, historically enforcing its intellectual model through the “violence” and “domination” of society’s powerful institutions.
One of Foucault’s main themes is debunking the notion that modern bourgeois French society has made moral or ethical “progress” in its practices and institutions. For Foucault, we may perceive our institutions and practices to have become more humane over time, but we are in fact simply blind to the hidden “violence” and “domination” within them. We have not made moral or ethical progress. We are just better at hiding the “violence” and “domination” from public view and public consciousness.
What’s Wrong with Foucault
No doubt, Foucault has some interesting ideas. But as Noam Chomsky notes, the problem with Foucault’s work is that he “throws the baby out with the bath water.” Just because there are logical contradictions, moral hypocrisy, and even outright bigotry in institutions does not in itself discredit these institutions, nor their overall doctrine, methods, and mission. It doesn’t take away from the overall benefits they have brought to human society. Internal reforms simply need to be made.
Chomsky gives the example of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most scientists are men. Some in the scientific profession have acted in bigotry towards women. And power dynamics do play an important role in determining which scientific projects are pursued. But this in no way discredits MIT or other major scientific institutions as pillars of our material progress and prosperity, not to mention our physical health and national defense. It in no way discredits the “scientific method.” Internal reforms simply need to be made.
Today’s LGBTQ movement’s critique of American Christianity, which takes its inspiration from Foucault, is similarly bankrupt. While it is undeniable that Christian institutions, doctrine, and methods have historically been wrought with logical contradictions, moral hypocrisy, and outright bigotry, this in no way discredits their important role in the progress of our society. It in no way discredits their important role in the progress of humanity. Internal reforms simply need to be made.
The post-structuralist model is the current fashion of the intellectuals of the American Eastern Establishment today. Consequently, if a black intellectual wants to get ahead, he must adopt it in some fashion, consciously or unconsciously. He must interpret the civil rights and abolitionist movements through a post-structuralist lens, so that their moral authority may be seamlessly leant to other “liberation movements,” like the LGBTQ movement, which uses this model. This is the price of entry to the black intellectual elite.
This is a steep price. The moral authority of both the abolitionist and civil rights movements rests in the American Protestant ethic, and the Pauline doctrine of human equality. To reinterpret these movements and ground them instead in some kind of post-structuralist ideology undermines their moral credibility—especially since this ideology is hostile to the American Protestant ethic.
Here we see the special value of Coates to the left-side of The Great White Culture War. For Coates, Anglo-American civilization is entirely discredited because of African chattel slavery. This is nothing new or original.
But what Coates also contributes is his doctrine that African-American Christianity is also entirely discredited because of its central role in African chattel slavery. This puts his work wholly in line with the cultural left. No other preeminent contemporary black intellectual has so strongly dissociated American Christianity from the successful acquisition of equal rights for black Americans. This is why Coates is a perfect black cultural warrior for the Eastern Establishment.