Packer Responds to Coates

I strongly recommend you read this reply from George Packer to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay in The Atlantic. There’s an undeniable personal edge to this reply since Coates took Packer to task by name and called him to account for infidelity toward ideals which are central to any progressive and humane vision of America’s future. But I think he captures key things that are missing in Coates’ recent writing.

“In this essay and other recent work,” writes Packer, “[Coates has] turned away from the self-examining quality of his earlier writing to a literary style that’s oracular.”

At least the latter part of this sentence captures some of my discomfort with Coates’ recent writing. I would refer to it as totalizing and overwhelming. There are different modes of writing. There’s history. There’s analysis. There’s exhortation. They each have a domain and some of the best writing contains all three. As I noted in my other post about Coates’ essay, I’m generally on Coates’ side of this argument – Trumpism as a phenomenon of declining economic prospects of the ‘white working class’ versus racism. I think Trumpism is somewhere between mainly and overwhelmingly about race, which of course encompasses all non-whites, not just African-Americans.

But race is never an abstract reality without deep roots in class, gender and cultural factors. Coates’ vision and argument is so unitary and totalizing that any ‘excepts’ or ‘buts’ are not only dismissed but actually marshaled as further proofs of the totalizing premise.

Race has been a central organizing feature of American life – specifically the binary subordination of enslaved people of African ancestry to white Europeans – since the middle and late decades of the 17th century when African slaves first became a core feature of the economic order in the emerging commodity export colonies of what we now call the South. As the late Edmund Morgan explained forty years ago, the dignity and standing of middling whites – something like what we’d today call the ‘white working class’ – was not only buttressed by but was in many ways manufactured out of the subordination and degradation of African slaves. But no unitary explanation can ever capture the fullness or messiness or simply the complexity of human societies. There are exceptions and contradictions and complexities that get crushed by any totalizing narrative, perhaps especially by those which are largely true, precisely because they have so much accuracy, coherence and emotive and explanatory force.