See Infra

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Tag Archives: Ta-Neisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Martin Luther King Jr. and Max Weber

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.

Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility

In these last couple weeks, I’ve been circling around a recurring theme of the complexities of responsibility for evil. When we talk about particular evils that are in the world, the stakes and baggage tends to cloud up our discussions, so I’d like turn to the weightless world of video games as a venue to examine evil and who is responsible for it.

In video game design, there is a lot of talk about designing games with emergent gameplay instead of curated gameplay. Curated gameplay is what most people think of when they think of a video games: game designers provide a top to bottom engineered experience, scripted to suit the beginning, middle, and end of the game’s story. When you play, say, Mario Bros., you run through the same levels, interacting with the same enemies, entering the same castles where your princess is still not available for rescue. Emergent gameplay, on the other hand, occurs when designers create a set of game mechanics and rules, and player interaction with those rules and each other causes complex game systems to emerge.

A particularly interesting example of emergent gameplay occurs within EVE Online, a MMPORG best described as a nightmarish combination of multiplayer Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space! and Microsoft Excel. Within the EVE Online game space there have emerged complex societal and financial transactions, specialized roles, and factions made entirely of players creating their own norms and behaviors, without the benefit of the computerized game to enforce them.1 That’s pretty amazing, but it comes with an enormous amount of bad, anti-social behavior, even virtual crimes. Players will often find their in-game avatars killed for the amusement of other players, have their assets stolen by supposed friends, and a whole host of advanced predation. It isn’t just virtual reputation and blood, sweat, and tears at stake either, virtual in-game cash is sufficiently fungible to turn into out-of-game currency.

The game designers respond to all of this predation by smiling and disclaiming responsibility.2 Perhaps this is disingenuous. After all, the designers of EVE Online chose to create a mostly lawless environment, and then they encouraged players to take advantage of it. Surely then, they have some sort of responsibility for the predators they enable. But, wouldn’t there also be a special sort of responsibility, perhaps even an intervening one, for the predators who take advantage of that lawless environment? Aren’t the designers of EVE Online less responsible for the emergent predation that they could not have foreseen compared to the ones they foresaw or even encouraged?

When I criticized Ta-Neisi Coates’ Case for Reparations, I focused on his vague, even incoherent, description of the reparations themselves. This incoherence stemmed from his treatment of the different sorts of predation he cataloged. From slavery, to redlining by Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to contract sellers, to rogue grand juries to lynchings, Coates never paused to dwell on the diversity of bad actors, treating sovereigns and mob members alike. When the contract sellers preyed on Black families in North Lawndale, was the city of Chicago (or the FHA, or the realtors or…) curating that evil, or did it emerge?3 The Case for Reparations clearly demonstrated that the FHA directly and maliciously harmed Blacks with redlining, and redlining gave rise to an environment where predators thrived. It is not clear however, that contract sellers were cultivated or merely emerged as an unhappy accident.

Emergent evils were at work in a different way during Elliot Rodger’s lethal rampage on a UC Santa Barbara sorority. Rodger was apparently spurred on by his misogyny and frustration with his “involuntary celibacy”. Rodger’s evil was emergent, doubly so. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodger was mad, but his madness filtered through a cultural substrate, colored, glossed, and tweaked by the particular sorts of horrors our society produces at its fringes.4 Just as the paranoid take unconscious inspiration from the news and TV shows to imagine themselves the unwitting stars of reality television, Rodger’s rage was stewed in misogyny and a toxic sort of masculinity. In response to Rodger’s attack on women, many women went online to share their perspectives and experience using the hashtag #YesAllWomen 5 The common thread that emerged throughout the tweets was an overwhelming sense of fear of predation by men. Not all men, but not any particular man or group of men either.

The Rogers of the world are not the fault of Patriarchal video-game-of-life designers using the Rogers of the world as their victim-assailants on women.6 The appearance of such a design is illusory, the result of invisible strands of culture taking hold as they tug, shift, and channel ideas, even with the supposed puppet masters of our society. The commonality of experiences do not indicate a commonality of cause, a conspiracy of predation. To what degree are the Rodgers of the world and other threats to women emergent and what to degree are they curated? That is the sort of question that doesn’t get answered much by those advocating social justice, and while I have plenty of uncharitable guesses as to why, the fairest explanation seems to be that from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

It does matter whether the threats from men described in the #YesAllWomen tweets were emergent or curated, and it matters whether the contract sellers emerged or were curated. Not just because that will shed light on who the villain, if any, of the tale is. If social justice advocates speak for the victims, and lawyers speak on behalf of the accused, it leaves the rest of us as third parties. Paying attention to whether evils are emergent gives an accurate and precise description of the how and why of the problem at hand. If you’re in the business of making the world a better place, an accurate and precise description of a problem puts you a well designed and implemented machine away from solving that problem.

That problem has to be solved. Both #YesAllWomen and the Case for Reparations drove home experiences held in common that have infected the very warp and woof of the daily life of too many people. Emergent evil is not satisfying theory of those crimes, and it is not meant to be. To recognize emergence is to recognize that very few are actually guilty. In fact, emergence can produce good as well as evil, so it also denies us many heroes. But if a theory of emergent evil denies an illusory justice for victims, it does not deny that there are victims. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” Emergence denies guilt, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility.


Ta-Neisi Coates and the Wages of Supremacy

Ta-Neisi Coates has written a long and provocative deep-think piece entitled “The Case for Reparations”, his “take on the Atlantic as a Journal of ‘Big Ideas'” and it is a tour-de-force. Please, read the whole thing, summaries can’t do it justice. That goes double for those of you who are not interested in the underlying case, Coates tells a lot of important stories along the way, and his writing is an artistic treasure. Don’t miss it.

I was deeply moved upon reading The Case for Reparations. The article follows multiple threads, historical events as told by both experts and by those who survived them. I now have a deeper appreciation for the damage done to black America by America, in all the meaningful senses of the term, and I can begin to sense the hazy boundaries of how ignorant of it I really am. Much as I was informed, I was challenged; as I was challenged, I was compelled; but despite being compelled, I remain unconvinced. This is because that Coates’ argument is not valid, (in the formal logic sense, not the internet shouting match sense) but his assertions are true.1 He has proven a great deal, just not out what he set out to do. I worried that I was nitpicking – letting a mind shaped by years of formal argumentation training miss out on the substance of the article. The article reads like a documentary more than a brief after all. Coates is not just telling stories, he described his article as “an argument in support of reparations” in a blog posting, describing the evolution of his thinking.
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