This is the last of two posts under the same general title.
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Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the African-American father of a teen-aged son, as well as a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The lines above come from his recent book Between the World and Me (Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2015, page 7), which is cast as a letter to his son. They address what Coates presents as the second “ideal” that has defined the United States of America in its historical reality. That “ideal,” Coates writes a few lines earlier (pages 6-7) is “one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” As his next lines make clear, what is at issue in that second “ideal” is American racism. He writes:
Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism, the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.
As I have already said, this rarely acknowledged ideal of race and racism is actually the second definitive American ideal Coates discusses at the very opening of his book, his long letter to his son. The first is the ideal of democracy itself, as paradigmatically articulated by Lincoln at Gettysburg, concerning which Coates writes (page 6):
Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared in, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.
“This,” he writes in his very next line, “leads us to another equally important ideal,” the second one—the racist one that, as I’ve already quoted, “Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” It is in pursuing that second ideal, however unacknowledged the pursuit, that so many people in America have been historically excluded from “the people” of, by, and for whom the United States was founded and preserved, according to the first, most deeply foundational ideal of America. In what I’ve also already quoted, Coates suggests that the presumed “reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” is itself used by the powers that be in America who take themselves to be to be white—precisely to justify racism as “the innocent daughter of Mother Nature.”
Against any such racist self-justification, however, Coates reminds his readers that “race is the child of racism, not the father,” and points out that “the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” He then adds the lines I quoted to begin this post, in which he speaks of needs to happen among the “new people” of America, if that same America is ever to fulfill its “national hopes.”
Exactly one hundred pages later, Coates writes to his son concerning these “new people” of America: “And I would not have you like them.” He writes that (on page 107) to his son, despite everything that would seem to speak against any such wish for someone he loves—that is, despite all the death, destruction, and misery inflicted on the black American community by the racism, rarely even acknowledged, of “those Americans who believe that they are white,” as Coates first puts it back at the very beginning of his book. “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heel,” he continues in his letter to his son. “And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” Coates’s son’s own true privilege, the one that gives Coates reason not to wish his son could have been born white, does not lie in the ignorance that grounds white privilege. Rather, Coates’s son’s genuine privilege lies in knowledge. That is a knowledge taught only by centuries of cruelty, but which nevertheless brings with it a genuine potential of liberation, as does all true knowledge, however painful to acquire.
The knowledge to Coates’s son is heir by right of being born black is precisely the knowledge we all need, in fact, if we Americans are ever to attain genuine peace among us all, and fulfill the true potential of America’s first ideal by creating a real democracy as the rule of, by, and for all the people of America.
The peace we really need in America today to fulfill that first ideal is not the peace of mutual respect between “blacks” and “whites.” What we really need is mutual respect between all the various peoples who make up the one American people, once we finally succeed in defining “the American people” in a way that excludes no one who lives here. For any such anxious peace to break out, however, “white” unity must first be destroyed. For America’s national hopes ever to find true fulfillment, the “white” community must first be fragmented into pieces. Or, rather, since “the ‘white’ community” does not actually succeed in naming any unified community at all in the first place, the illusion that there is any such thing must first be shattered.
There will never be any final peace between “whites” and “blacks.” There can only be an anxious peace between peoples, and for that, there must first be some peoples—more than just one—“divorced from the machinery of criminal power.”
That is itself one worthy ideal we can glean from reading Coates’s book, in fact. In turn, it leads us to another equally important ideal: of an America freed from the belief in magic.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and case out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers.’
—Matthew 7: 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)
We live in a “goal oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. The rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live in this black body? It is a profound question because American understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. [. . .] The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (page 12)
The magic from belief in which his grandparents’ gift freed Coates is magic in the sense of the endeavor to control events through the manipulation of supernatural or occult forces by way of charms, spells, incantations, rituals, or the like. To believe in magic in the sense at issue is to believe, for example, that one can assure oneself victory in contests such as are involved in war, love, or football by more properly invoking the name of God before the contest than do one’s opponents.
Such belief is a form of superstition, and as such is based in ignorance and fear—just such fear as love drives out, at least according to Christian scriptural tradition. According to 1 John 4:18 (NRSV): “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
A few centuries later, John Cassian relayed, from the early Christian desert solitaries, the teaching that there are three kinds of “obedience.” First, there is the obedience of the slave, who obeys out of fear of punishment for disobedience. Second, there is the obedience of the servant, who obeys in hopes of reward—of getting paid for obeying. Third, there is the obedience of the child, who obeys out of love.
It is only in that third and final form, where obedience and love become indistinguishable, that each at last comes into its own. Either to love or to obey—and most especially to obey the command to love, that most, if not only, divine command—either out of fear of punishment if one doesn’t, or out of hope for reward if one does, is neither to love nor to obey at all, really. It is to confuse love and obedience with acts of magic, or at least magic-acts: attempts to manipulate forces beyond one’s own, or at least to engender the illusion that one can do so. Both acts of magic and magic-acts engage superstition, not faith. They are among the childish things that St. Paul (to remain within the Christian tradition) advises us to leave behind with our childhoods when we grow up.
In the Jewish tradition from which the Christian one grows—that tradition to which Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, for example, belong—belief in magic is just a form of idolatry. It confuses God with what is not God, but just the work of human hands (Psalm 135:15).
By their gift, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s grandparents helped him grow up, and leave idolatry behind.
What confuses the most is that everyone everywhere more and more agrees on one way of thinking, which counts as giving the only standard.
—Martin Heidegger, “Confusion” (“Die Wirrnis”), in Gesamtausgabe 76 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2009, page 269)
Contradiction tends to be negatively viewed in an intellectual milieu dominated by positivistic empiricism. Thus the demonstration that there are contradictions in a body of theory is likely to be understood as a refutation of the validity of the theory. The reader should not conclude that this is the author’s view.
—A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism: Theory and Practice in France and the United States (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, Inc., 1988, page 250)
Become who you are!
—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Only if we grow up can America ever become what The Pledge of Allegiance—which was not formally adopted by Congress until1942 and not formally given that name until three years later, in 1945—says that we are (or at least has so said since the last formal change was made to The Pledge in 1954, adding the invocation of God’s name). That is, only by finally growing up can America truly be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Until then, America will remain many nations and no nation, superstitious, conflicted, with privilege for some and justice for none. Properly understood, truly to pledge allegiance to what The Pledge says we are, is really to pledge to work to change who we really still all too much are. Truly pledged, The Pledge has to be taken as a promise still demanding to be kept, and not as a boast of past achievements that establish how exceptional we already are.
I don’t know if it is still fashionable in some right-wing circles, as it was a few years ago, to insist that America is a “republic,” and not a “democracy.” At any rate, at least the last part of that does hold: America is indeed not a democracy, if by “being” one means current actuality, stripped of any not yet actual but still definitive potential. American is not a democracy in the same sense that an acorn is not an oak. That means that America still is a democracy, in terms of the promise that in effect defines that name, and challenges what bears that name to become worthy of it, just as an acorn is, so to speak, an oak, only an oak to be.
The manipulative proliferation of ever more cheeply maintained and ever less deeply grounded “opinions” and “views” on everything under (and over) the sun, a proliferation so characteristic of our current American system of governing the diverse peoples of America, has made what America is as a pure actuality void of all promise into what might best be called, not demo-cracy, Lincoln’s “rule of, by, and for the people” (from Greek demos, people), but doxo-cracy, that is, rule of, by, and for opinion (from Greek doxa, opinion). And if America remains satisfied to be no more than such a doxocracy, it will only betray itself and what it most truly has always been—been as that “last, best hope” for humankind that Lincoln also famously said it was.
What is needed if America is to evade such self-betrayal is no politics of consensus. The solution does not lie in the promotion of dialogue in search of areas of agreement between the proponents of fundamentally different positions on divisive issues—for example, the search for some supposed “common ground” between so called “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates. The ever-growing confusion of “opinions” and “views” among the diverse population in the United States (and increasingly globe-wide) cannot be dispelled through any push to “come to an agreement” about the matters about which those opinions and view are maintained with ever-growing rancor and contentiousness. That just makes the confusion by which the doxocracy governs grow worse, and the governing all the easier.
The politics of consensus is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to borrow a useful popular way of putting the point. As opposed to the politics of consensus, what is really required is something such as the politics of dis-sensus for which contemporary French political philosopher Jacques Rancière, for one, has called. The politics of consensus has always ended up, regardless of the intentions of those who pursue it, keeping everything going along smoothly on an even keel. Politically considered, that means it always works to serve the already powerful, and to protect their special privileges, rather than to serve and protect everyone, equally and justly. In contrast, a politics of dissensus would strive to rock the boat. It would seek to disrupt “business as usual.” To use a different metaphor, it would seek to point out that the king has no clothes, and thereby to make of the king a laughingstock.
What is sorely needed for America to fulfill its own defining promise as America is not the formation of any consensus of opinion out of the swirling proliferation of them. What is needed is to replace the proliferation and protection of opinions with the proliferation and protection of all the peoples of America, whether they be Sioux or Navaho, Aleut or Afghan or African, Coptic, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, or Zen, and including even all us uprooted, thoroughly assimilated, people-less folks who have been taught to think that we are nothing but white, and may not have one single clue among us all about how to find our way home again.
What we need in America, as all around the planet, is no peace in the sense of “the repose of a self within itself,” as Levinas puts it in In the Time of the Nations, that pseudo peace that lets us feel secure and safe in our supposed “autonomous self-sufficiency.” We need no such easy, self-satisfied simulation of real peace. We need, instead, “an anxious peace,” the sort of true peace that Levinas characterizes purely and simply as the peace of “love for one’s fellow man.” We need the peace of a love anxious for the wellbeing of others—and anxious not to betray itself.
If America is what The Plede of Allegiance says it is, then America can only be the place of such peace. If America is what The Pledge says it is, then America is not yet. It remains an open question whether America ever will be.