Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Martin Luther King Jr. and Max Weber
05/02/2015Posted by on
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a powerful and much criticized piece criticizing calls for non-violence in the wake of the Baltimore unrest. Once again, NPR has done some stellar reporting. Robert Siegal pushed back hard, as he should have, but he also gave Coates plenty of room to explain his thinking. It’s a good interview, go listen to it.
What struck me the most was Coates invocation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rejection of the Vietnam War late into his life. If you’re going to advocate non-violence, Coates seems to be saying, then you can’t be OK with state violence. Not just abusive cops, but the violent decisions made in law to incarcerate black men.
Look, Coates almost certainly knows what King had to say better than I am. And I’m probably suspiciously similar to the white moderate King lamented. But I think Coates seems to have forgotten something important. King wasn’t just about non-violence. He was talking about non-violent resistance as a form of civil disobedience. The “civil” in civil disobedience is not about polite protest. Civil disobedience is noisy, disruptive and unsettling. But it also (if only implicitly) concedes the necessity and validity of civil order, of law and government.
From Martin Luther King Junior’s famed Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
King was comparing segregationist laws to an external standard of right and wrong, specifically that of God, but what’s important is that he is attacking a law or several laws, not the concept of law itself. The thing is, you can’t talk about earthly law without talking about violence, because all law comes from the power of violence.
If you sue someone (let’s presume they deserved it) under a right given to you by law you are using violence. How you ask? Well the court isn’t giving you money when you win, it gives you a judgement instead and the other guy is supposed to pay up. But if the other guy doesn’t? You go to a sheriff who seizes property from the other guy. Like their house or something. And if the guy doesn’t want to give it up? The sheriff takes it anyway. And if the guy resists, he gets thrown in jail. If the other guy resists violently, he gets shot.
“He gets shot” is the final step in every legal right you have against the world. The court dictates what is yours through law, which also dictates that the state may use violence to enforce that right, and none may use violence against the state’s agents to resist. The state not only is violent, it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. If that legitimacy is lost, the state has failed.
This isn’t some outlandish theory by the way, its the modern definition of the state originally proffered by Max Weber, who among other things, is one of the three founders of sociology. Inexplicably, otherwise well educated young ideologues are unfamiliar with this concept. It’s certainly an idea that King would have tussled with in his time (influenced as he was by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Christian Realist) and in some ways, Coates as well.
There are many problems with expecting people trained in crime-fighting to be social workers. In the black community, there is a problem of legitimacy. In his 1953 book The Quest For Community, conservative Robert Nisbet distinguishes between “power” and “authority.” Authority, claims Nisbet, is a matter of relationships, allegiances, and association and is “based ultimately upon the consent of those under it.” Power, on the other hand, is “external” and “based upon force.” Power exists where allegiances have decayed or never existed at all. “Power arises,” writes Nesbit, “only when authority breaks down.”
African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority. The dominant feature in the relationship between African Americans and their country is plunder, and plunder has made police authority an impossibility, and police power a necessity
No one can usefully deny Coates’s observation that police legitimacy has eroded or never existed within many, if not most black communities, but this notion that legitimacy is impossible is not merely depressing. It means that the eventual end to create a society that can treat African Americans justly is to eliminate “this country”. And Coates forgets or ignores that authority is the authority to use force, and in the use of force, one can create legitimacy. You shoot someone that’s a genuine and imminent threat to your neighbors and you will gain legitimacy as an authority.
But perhaps more to the point, I don’t think most black Americans actually agree with Coates that the state is illegitimate. Whatever their frustrations, it seems like most black folks don’t want the state destroyed or gone, they want it to work. I know of no other way to explain the veritable relief that seems to reverberate, live, on television, when it’s announced that the Federal government is intervening, a civil rights lawsuit is coming, a better cop has arrived.
We can’t and we don’t treat violence by cops and violence against cops the same, whatever the intelligentsia manage to slap together in an angry Sunday column or whatever a punk white kid slaps together on a sign denouncing “AmeriKKKa”. If they are morally equivalent, if cops just happen to be an incumbent gang of thugs with badges, then why bother being angry? No, the offense is that we sense that the cops have betrayed our trust, and threatened the legitimacy of the state’s hold on violence, on which our lives are all ordered. I mean, if you’re reading this, you have the internet and thereby a stake in functioning states. And we have a stake in America, not in AmeriKKKa. The rage is in people failing so badly to meet the standards of America. The rage is the satire of Jon Stewart, the comic who loves what America ought to be, and is at its core that he tore it to shreds four nights a week.
And that’s why I’m pushing back on Coates, and I think why Robert Siegal pushed back. I don’t know Coates, person from a hole in the ground, but I love Coates, writer and social critic. And I love this country. I think Coates does too. And disobedience in pursuit of justice is an action of love.