Ta-Nehisi Coates v. George Packer. The Good Fight.

A pet idea I’ve never let go of is, “Your Debate of the Week”. It would be a televised (or streamed) clash of ideas that would largely prohibit politicians, at least until they’ve retired and can say something candid and provocative.

The concept is pretty obvious. Get a climate scientist, (or even our own Paul Douglas), and a denier, turn the camera on and give them 90 minutes to thrust and parry. Likewise, two economists arguing over the hoary, time-refuted notion that corporate tax cuts (excuse me, “reform”) will — this time — translate into good-paying middle-class jobs and raise all boats.

Or, to exploit the most relevant topic currently trending in the elite media micro-verse, Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Packer breaking down the concept of white supremacy and how it explains Donald Trump in the White House.

Coates, now a contributor for Atlantic magazine, is by my estimate and quite a few others, the most eloquent and cogent writer going on the topic of America’s “great shame”. He may be The Intellectual of the Moment. He writes with remarkable precision and passion, which is (a lot) different from just being angry, although god knows he’s that, too. Packer, who is often featured in The New Yorker, (I mentioned the “elite” thing, right?) also authored a terrific book, “The Unwinding”, on how easily America could lose/is losing its moral bearings and spiral(ing) into complete dysfunction.

Coates and Packer are now engaged in a very interesting and very valuable debate — accented by respect, accusation and counter-charge — on what IMHO is the critical factor in the control slack-jawed stupidity has over the once-exceptional US of A.

Coates has a new book out, a section of which is excerpted in the current issue of The Atlantic. Titled “The First White President”, Coates makes several highly relevant, provocative points, among them that Trump owes his ascension to white reaction to Barack Obama’s successful presidency. Namely, the need to refute it, dismantle it and redefine it for history in order to protect the foundering entitlement of white Americans.

But he also argues, as he has often before, that American journalists are complicit in this supremacy narrative either through laziness, cultural blinders or professional group-think, which in practice aren’t all that different. Coates has made a (deserved) name for himself by pushing themes that would produce high anxiety acid reflux in the editors of the average newspaper editorial page.

Face it, much of what passes as “robust” opinion exchange today is really little more than highly moderated/modulated, widely-accepted wonkery. The stuff of snoozy, homogenized, self-satisfied seminars. (In local terms I describe this edge-less, bland, vanilla exchange of conventional rhetoric as The Tom Horner – Tim Penny Paradigm. Authoritative-sounding arguments that turn no new ground or risk any significant blowback. ) By stark contrast, the quality Coates’ brings to a vitally important issue is fueled by the combination of his life experience, his scholarship and his willingness to take the fight to otherwise sacred cows, such as his journalistic peers.

In his “First White President” piece Coates, writes at length and without flattery about liberal politicians’ and journalists’ constant preference to view the Trump phenomenon as a “class” issue and his election as due to the “frustrations of blue-collar whites”, otherwise known as “the left behind”. (I suspect Coates is no fan of J.D. Vance’s “Hillybilly Elegy”.)

Coates says, “One can, to some extent, understand politicians’ embracing a self-serving identity politics. Candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths. But journalists have no such excuse.”

Soon thereafter he turns to Mr. Packer.  “White tribalism haunts even more-nuanced writers. George Packer’s New Yorker essay ‘The Unconnected’ is a lengthy plea for liberals to focus more on the white working class, a population that ‘has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban ‘underclass’. Packer believes that these ills, and the Democratic Party’s failure to respond to them, explain much of Trump’s rise. Packer offers no opinion polls to weigh white workers’ views on ‘elites’, much less their views on racism. He offers no sense of how their views and their relationship to Trump differ from other workers’ and other whites.”

Thankfully for us, George Packer is not defenseless and sees value in a clash of ideas with someone of Coates’ caliber.

In a response, in The Atlantic, Packer writes, “There’s a lot to admire in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay. It’s one of those pieces that grabs you with its first paragraph and never lets go. The argument keeps gathering force, building on the striking imagery (“Trump cracked the glowing amulet open”) and the caustic scouring of the polemics (opioids are treated as a sickness, crack was punished as a crime), to the very end. At its heart is the undeniable truth that racism remains fundamental in American politics.”

He agrees with much of Coates’ essential premise. “At the heart of American politics there is racism. But it’s not alone—there’s also greed, and broken communities, and partisan hatred, and ignorance. Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters. Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them, without waiting for the day of reckoning first to scourge white Americans of their original sin. This effort is one of the essential tasks of politics.”

But then he drops his hammer. “When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban-rural divide is a sham.”

The palpable sexism involved in the loathing of Hillary Clinton by conservatives and a certain strata of liberals is a fascinating reality that suggests Coates should consider appending the word “male” to his “white supremacy” references.

I could go on (and on). But my points are these:

1: In the event you were looking for one, this is a distinctly valuable and enlightening debate, both because of the fundamental issues and the lucidity of the intellects involved.

2: And yet it is pretty much sequestered in the (elite) liberal-intellectual thought arena. (Try imagining any of the current crop of conservative thought-leaders/provocateurs, your Ann Coulters, Sean Hannitys or Laura Ingrahams daring to get into the ring with Mr. Coates.) Coates did make an appearance on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show last week, and it was striking to see how much more animated and intellectually invigorated Hayes was talking to Coates than the usual partisan pundits.

Our rancid polemical air would be cleaner and healthier to breathe if debates of this quality were given a more prominent platform by … the mainstream media.



Complicity in the Bill Cosby Cover-Up Runs Deep

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterThe “outing” of Bill Cosby as, well what else can we call it but as a “serial rapist”? has kicked off a moment of journalistic soul-searching. It isn’t all that widespread and it won’t last long, but it’s a flicker of light worth prodding toward something more substantial.

But first, my one and only inter-raction with the man. It 
was the late ‘90s if I recall and Cosby was in town to give one 
of his ministerial speeches on the topic of family/male/black male responsibility. After more than the usual back and forth with his people I was granted a 10-minute window for an interview. As a lifelong fan as far back as his “Wonderfulness’ LP, which I wore out on the old Lambert family Magnavox, I was still expecting if not an affable, good-humored pro of the show biz game, a kind of Bob Hope with street cred, at least something other than a self-important dick.

It didn’t go well. Cosby clearly found the whole … 10-minute chat … a tedious ordeal (admittedly, I get that a lot), and his “person”, a middle-aged male toadie who looked as though he’d be beheaded if the boss were asked something he didn’t want to answer, interrupted virtually every (harmless) question for re-phrasing into something Bill would rather talk about, which, frankly was very little beyond his usual boilerplate of “pull up your pants and be (my idea of a) man”. Put another way, the interview lasted about eight minutes too long.

The broader point to this whole still unfolding saga, a multi-pronged tragedy, is again both how little we the public truly know about celebrated public figures and how our culture’s myth-making machinery sends down roots far deeper than reality. (For regular readers, this is an echo of my embarrassing infatuation with John Edwards.)

The media mea culpas going around include one from one of black culture’s most inightful and provocative critics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cops to not pushing Cosby hard enough, in a story seven years ago, on assertions already made against him by over a dozen women. Says Coates in his recent Atlantic web piece, “ … it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.

One of the great revolutions in American cultural consciousness-raising would be a campaign to demystify celebrity myth-making. But rational skepticism about the show biz famous is not particularly welcome, even in places supposedly committed to it. If you ask, almost every pop news consumer understands fairly well the business plans of celebrity magazines/media and all their inanity-worshipping stepsisters, the “lifestyle” outlets of one silly sort or another. Not that the average consumer thinks about it much, but if you ask they’ll concede it’s all just a selling game.

A game they consume voraciously.

But as bad as the vast mass of all that celebrity silliness is, clogging our cultural arteries with stupendous flows of irrelevant non-news at best and pure, free publicity at worst, the problem is compounded by an unwillingness of so-called “serious” journalism to apply even the most minimal counter-balance.

I spent more time than I care to remember playing willing shill for the Hollywood hype-machine, interviewing the famous and beautiful with only rarely an untoward or impertinent question. (OK, I was thrown off the so-called “junket circuit” three different times for such transgressions. But because I “gave good profile”, I was eventually invited back.) But that was while working for a free weekly. When I arrived at a supposedly bona fide daily newspaper I had some (seriously misplaced) expectations that, at long last due skepticism would be encouraged … rewarded … cheered.

A guy has rarely been more wrong. The sad fact is that the features departments of mainstream newspapers, even the good ones, (and I wasn’t working at one of those), exert little to no skeptical energy on their show biz subjects. More to the point, they don’t tolerate “cynical”, “negative” rogue writers applying it independently.

From (long) direct experience I can tell you the features end of daily newspapering is completely happy and comfortable serving as yet another layer of the show biz publicity machinery. (If only those cash-strapped papers got a cut of the tickets they helped to sell.) The guiding (focus-group tested) rationale being that readers want the paper to reflect and enhance their excitement and delight in “the stars”, which is to say, the paper’s job is to magnify what “the stars’ ” publicity machinery has already established. (It goes without saying that local TV news, a show biz sales game in itself — morning, noon and night — hasn’t even imagined a skeptical thing to say about celebrities, other than an errant choice of a red carpet gown, or a Justin Bieber-like meltdown.

It’s easy to understand Mr. Coates’ dilemma. Here’s a prominent figure among the black intelligentsia (Coates) conflicted over a direct attack on a revered black icon, (Cosby). The record will show there are plenty of people undermining influential black leadership figures, so why would a young black intellectual add his name to that barrage?

Ironically, the predominantly white managers of mainstream news organizations, no doubt assessed the racial liabilities of reporting the accusations against Cosby as well, and demurred … until the tidal wave granted everyone cover to “reassess”.

But that’s Cosby. What of the mega-tonnage of so-called “journalism” heaped on show biz personalities of all persuasions with for all intents and purposes no application of skeptical perspective at all? Obviously, serial rape is a special level of depravity. But I can assure you that Bill Cosby isn’t the only revered celebrity icon who has successfully marketed a persona wildly out of step with his true nature, and marketed it with the full, albeit unwitting complicity of the allegedly responsible professional media.

Would we really be worse off if professional journalists refused to be a part of the bullshit brigade?