Thursday, August 6, 2015

Muder on Coates and Brooks: He Speaks for Me

I never wrote up my thoughts on Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me or anything about the critical reaction to it. I heard that David Brooks wrote about it, but didn't bother reading his column, knowing it would be clueless.

Doug Muder over at the Weekly Sift took the time to read both, and write about it. I so appreciate it that I will quote him here and (once again) urge you to read this guy:

David Brooks took a lot of heat two weeks ago when he wrote his response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me.... And I had a prior opinion: Coates is a valuable voice I frequently quote on this blog, while Brooks’ NYT column is usually a waste of one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in all of Journalism. But I decided not to pile on, because I hadn’t read Between the World and Me. For all I knew, Coates had overstepped and Brooks had a valid point.

OK, I’ve read it now. BtW&M is a beautiful piece of writing. It’s hard to read at times, particularly if you’re white, but it communicates a view that whites are not going to find in a lot of other places.

Also, it’s rare that a writer this talented just lets it rip. Coates’ pieces for The Atlantic have a measured, let-me-lay-out-the-facts tone (similar to what I aspire to here). But BtW&M is written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, and Coates just doesn’t worry about whether he sounds too sentimental or too angry or too anything. He’ll throw an ambiguous image or metaphor out there and let you figure it out. He’s on a roll, and he’s not slowing down for you.

One of the not-fully-explained terms in the book is “the Dream”. The Dream starts out as the idealized white suburban world Coates sees on TV as he’s growing up. It’s a place where people are secure and the institutions of society work almost all the time. Fears are isolated and often irrational; they get resolved before the credits run. It contrasted with the black urban Baltimore Coates was living in, where you had to choose your path to school carefully, and always be aware of who you’re walking with and whether there are enough of you. In Coates’ world, you didn’t solve problems by appealing to the proper authorities, because the authorities were a source of danger in themselves. So you lived in constant fear — everybody did. Whether you hid in your room or joined a gang and bullied others or escaped into drugs or escaped into books, you were responding to that pervasive fear.

As the book goes on, “the Dream” grows to include the self-serving, self-reinforcing, reality-denying worldview of the people who believe that the white suburban world is the whole world, people who don’t understand why everybody doesn’t just solve their problems in the easy ways they would. In the Dream, nothing is fundamentally wrong with America, it’s just that some people don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

In other words, the Dream is where David Brooks lives. And he responds in the way that has become typical for the privileged classes: He acts as if Coates had claimed universality for his experience, and he denies that claim. It’s like the "not-all-men" response to the Isla Vista murders. Brooks writes:
I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.
But why even stop there? The abject lives of the slaves was not the totality of the plantation, which also included the cultured, genteel lives of the masters. I’m sure many in the KKK lynch mobs were (at other times) good decent family men. For that matter, why do we focus just on the monstrous side of historic figures like Hitler or Stalin? No doubt there were moments in their lives where they were kind and generous and fun to hang out with. Why don’t we ever tell those stories?

The point is: You don’t have a complete picture of America if you don’t include the experiences of its underclasses. You don’t even have a complete picture of white suburban America if you don’t see how it sits next to and interacts with and (yes) oppresses those underclasses. If your knee-jerk reaction to any confrontation with underclass experience is to start waxing eloquent about Abe Lincoln and cute puppies, then you’re living in a dream world.


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

This is so worth reading. Thanks.

Gina said...

Because of you, I'm now reading The Weekly Sift. Lots and lots of food for thought from Doug Muder. Thank you!