Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ta-Nehisi Coates's Case for Reparations: Do We Really Want to Know about the Experience of African Americans (or of Women) in the U.S.?

John Stewart cleverly suggests that we don't want to know the truth — not about the recent Isla Vista shootings and the deep roots of misogyny that constantly fuel violence in American culture. The "we" on whom Stewart is focusing in the clip to which this link points is largely the mainstream media with its big talking heads, who have now so thoroughly befouled all conversations about mass shootings in this country that "we" have ended up throwing up our hands in defeat and concluding, "Well, these things do happen, don't they?"

"We" have ended up at this point because some of us — notably, the powerful gun lobby, many craven politicians in the pocket of that lobby, and many, many men who feel their masculinity is threatened and that their guns have become their threatened phallus and no one is going to deprive them, by God, of their phallic equipment!— don't intend for us to get beyond the point of throwing our hands up in despair in discussions about guns, mass shootings, or misogyny.

That's where we are as a culture, in the U.S.: throwing our hands up in defeat in discussions about guns, men, God, and violence towards women. That's where we've ended up, when hardly any other "developed" nation in the world has ended up at this place, and would be horrified to do so. We've ended up here because the media have placed us here. Because they are doing the bidding of powerful constituencies who do not want the discussion to go any further than this. 

Because any time any opening to real discussion of these matters occurs, a whole world of angry men who feel their phallic power is at stake in this discussion circle the discussion, mark and besmirch it with their diversionary rhetorical ordure ("Yargle bargle! Blargh!"), and render it impotent (though the response to the Isla Vista shootings suggests to me that those who may ultimately be rendered impotent in this crucially necessary cultural discussion about violence against women may well turn out to be men who have refused to listen carefully and engage the discussion honestly, because they are intent on controlling it and not listening, after all.

Because they're intent on not knowing the truth.)

Believe it or not, I've just written all of this as a lead-in to an entirely different cultural discussion now underway in the U.S., one that is, to my way of thinking, equally important — of as much importance for our future as the discussion of misogyny now underway following the Isla Vista shootings. I'm referring to the discussion that Ta-Nehisi Coates has sparked with his powerful, candidate-for-instant-classic-status essay "The Case for Reparations" in this month's Atlantic.

I'm not going to try to summarize this lengthy, exhaustively researched, lucidly written piece making a case for open discussion of reparations to descendants of slaves in the U.S. I'm not going to attempt a summary because I can't summarize something so packed with dense meaning.

I do hope you'll read it, though, in its entirety. And then read it again. My prediction: down the road, this will be regarded as one of the key cultural artifacts, as one of the key intellectual documents of American journalism, in the first part of the 21st century. 

I also highly recommend Amy Goodman's and Juan Gonzalez's interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates at Democracy Now, the first part of which is at the head of this posting (the second half is here). Equally valuable: an interview Bill Moyers has conducted with Coates about his case for reparations.

Why do I link Coates's powerful call for consideration of the case for reparations (which is, after all, a call not for reparations per se but for federal study of the case for reparations) to the Isla Vista story and Jon Stewart's dismal conclusion that we don't want to know the truth about mass shootings (and about the depths of misogyny in our culture)? I do so because I'd argue that we don't want to know the truth about what has happened in this country to African Americans from the period of slavery forward. 

As Coates argues persuasively in his intellectual autopsy of his argument for reparations, we — many of us in the U.S., including many people with strong educational backgrounds and considerable influence in the academy and the pundit class — don't even want to know our own history, because that history is so deeply marked by exploitation and oppression of people of color that is intrinsic to and necessary for the generation of wealth for white property-owning men in this nation from its very inception. As Coates notes, "The final thing that happened [as I put together the argument of my essay on reparations] was I became convinced that an unfortunate swath of  popular writers/pundits/intellectuals are deeply ignorant of American history."

We don't want to know. I don't want to know. I find reading Coates's essay with its relentless litany of undeniable facts about the exploitation and oppression of black human beings in order to enrich white property-owning men like myself — exploitation and oppression that have continued right up to the present in the banking crisis of the first decade of the 21st century — almost unbearable to read.

I don't want to know.

Because knowing will then implicate me, and I do not want to be implicated. 

As the descendant of white men who owned slaves, I am, of course, fully implicated — as is everyone else in a nation whose foundations are firmly moored in the slave system, and then in the subsequent continuing denigration of people of color after the shackles of slavery were removed from their limbs, since that denigration was directly related to and necessary for maintaining and increasing the wealth of all the rest of us. 

Whether we choose to know it, whether we like it or not, we're all implicated, we who are not descendants of enslaved Africans (or deracinated native Americans). And what Coates is asking us to do — all that he's asking us to do — is to face this fact and discuss it honestly. 

He's asking for something that is ultimately as utopian, it seems to me, as #YesAllWomen is asking for: forthright, real discussion of seemingly intractable problems in our culture whose ultimate roots lie in moral dislocations that we ourselves have produced as a society, to serve the interests of some of us at the expense of others of us, and that we've chosen to cover over with frills, frippery, and plain denial. 

And if John Stewart is right about the response to the Isla Vista shootings (and I suspect he is), Ta-Nehisi's impassioned plea to us, the American people, to serious discussion, with serious moral intent, of a serious moral issue affecting our entire culture may not go anywhere — not when those with power in their hands don't want that discussion to go anywhere productive at all. Not when they don't intend to have their ways of wielding power and controlling others exposed to public scrutiny, along with their unmerited claims to rights that trump the rights of everyone else in the universe.

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