Tuesday, October 10, 2017

With or Without Feathers

There are many places to part company with Ta-Nehisi Coates, and even to do it amicably.  This one is mine:

Any fair consideration of the depth and width of enslavement tempts insanity. First conjure the crime — the generational destruction of human bodies — and all of its related offenses — domestic terrorism, poll taxes, mass incarceration. But then try to imagine being an individual born among the remnants of that crime, among the wronged, among the plundered, and feeling the gravity of that crime all around and seeing it in the sideways glances of the perpetrators of that crime and overhearing it in their whispers and watching these people, at best, denying their power to address this crime and, at worst, denying that any crime had occurred at all, even as their entire lives revolve around the fact of a robbery so large that it is written in our very names

That's a quote taken out of context once (where I found it) and taken out of context again by my use of it.  I can only properly put it in the context where I found it, which is Ezra Klein's essay on Coates and the lack of hope Coates has about race relations in America.

“No,” Coates replied. "But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”

I've got to admit that one strikes close to home.  As a pastor, even as seminary student (I was actually the latter longer than I was the former, or near enough for dammit), I was constantly reminded (even upbraided) to bring the hope of the gospel to people.  I struggled with it because I did not want to advocate false hope; because I had come to understand "hope" differently from the way Stephen Colbert did in the interview that elicited that response, or from Mr. Coates, who gave that response, or even from the way Ezra Klein uses the term in his essay.  "Hope is the thing with feathers," Woody Allen quoted Emily Dickinson writing in his book of humorous essays; and that's the way I always took myself:  as without feathers.  But not, I insisted, and still insist, without hope.

This is where things get dicey because I'm going to sound like a fundamentalist preacher if I say Mr. Coates' failure to hope is because he doesn't know God; but that's what I'm going to argue.  We can't always be pressing our differences with those we disagree with; we sometimes have to acknowledge congruities, whether we like to see them or not.  But go back to how Coates defines the crime of slavery:  "The generational destruction of human bodies."  It's a curious reduction, to me.  I think of the American slave trade in particular as an assault on societies, cultures, spirits, bodies, human bonds; so many things of which "body" is only a part.  Perhaps it's latent dualism that lets me separate spirit from body, and Mr. Coates would insist on a more Hebraic reading where spirit is ruah is breath, and not a metaphysical "soul" merely supplying the ghost to the machine.  Perhaps, but I really doubt it.  More likely he means simply to be an atheistic materialist, the easier to get on with the things that really concern him.  He can do that; to me it doesn't matter, I'm not trying to convert him to a particular religious point of view.  But that reduction of slavery to the destruction of human bodies and the "related offenses" is a very curious one.  You could literally use that description alone to deny the treatment of the poor in America of any race or skin color.    Whites were not as subject to the "domestic terrorism" and "mass incarceration" of blacks, except that there aren't many rich or even middle class whites in prison.  On the other hand even middle-class blacks are guilty of DWB, and it is the body of a black man that marks him for surveillance or harassment or even suspicion.  As Ezra Klein notes:

There are two ways of looking at the beer summit. It took place on the lawn of the White House, and the occupant of the White House was black. Hope. But even a black president of the United States still had to genuflect before white America's fear of black men, and its insistence that that fear is innocent and valid. Despair.
White.  Black.  These are matters of the body.  But they are also matters of the spirit, of the mind.  One is not a taproot for the other; but how easily what we see is determined by what we think.  No one much noticed kneeling football players a season after Kaepernick, but now it upsets people down to Meghan McCain.  Why?  Were football players not disrespecting the flag and the military and America before Trump's speech?  Are they now?  And why did you just notice?  Why does this just now bother you?  We are guided so much by what we see; but so much more by what we think we see.

Coates will only believe what he can see:

 "Nothing in the record of human history argues for a divine morality, and a great deal argues against it," he writes. "What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world."

And it is relentlessly about the body:

"We have a 20-to-1 wealth gap," Coates replied. "Every nickel of wealth the average black family has, the average white family has a dollar. What is the world in which that wealth gap is closed? What happens? What makes that possible? What does that look like? What is the process?" 

Which is not to say the opposite of his vision is religion, and the asceticism of the desert monk.  Again, I don't argue for an easy opposition to his statements.  As to a more just world, which apparently would be a more economically equal world, what does that look like, Coates asks?  Maybe it looks like the basiliea tou theou, where the first are last and the last first.  Maybe it looks like Isaiah's holy mountain, where you buy food without money, and purchase wine without price.  Does history show that good people suffer terribly and bad people live happily ever after?  How many roads to hell are paved with good intentions, however?  How many good people are now seen as evil, how many bad people now seen as good?  I'm not arguing for a contrary position, I'm asking for an explanation of his despair.  Who does he call "good," because many a good person does good for bad reasons (I've been watching "The Good Place" on Netflix.  One of the characters finds she's in the "Bad Place" because, while she raised millions for charity in life, she did it for selfish reasons.  It's a fair point, especially from a Christian point of view.).   It's no accident that the Rev. Dr. King said the arc of the universe bends towards justice, and that Mr. Coates can't say the same thing.  It doesn't mean King is right and Coates is wrong; but it does indicate if despair is where you start from, you can't get far away from it.

Ezra Klein says Coates, like it or not, has become a modern-day prophet, and we expect hope from prophets (well, the Hebrew kind, anyway).  But it could be Coates is not a prophet (he doesn't claim the mantle) and that Mr. Klein misunderstands Mr. Colbert.  It could be the TV host is less despairing that Mr. Coates doesn't bring the word of hope with his jeremiad (!), but rather is more disappointed at Mr. Coates' limited vision, at his inability to see beyond the body from the body, to what else is there.

And that's where I part company with Mr. Coates; not because I think he is wrong, but because I think he is not right enough; not because his vision is false, but because it is not clear enough.  I know this is not an argument for my point of view over his; or even a fair critique of his position, established over his oeuvre.  It isn't meant to be.  In some ways our world-views are congruent; but I think his is blinkered in ways that won't allow him to understand what "hope" truly is.  It leaves him in the starting blocks, cursing the darkness, while the rest of us at least stumble to run the race, and light a candle when we can.

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