Humor columnist Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post today argues that Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose latest book is reviewed in today's NY Times, is a prominent public intellectual, using her definition here:
The Internet has busted through many of the old anointing institutions and helped us fracture more easily into camps, which may or may not be good overall, but one thing it does reveal pretty clearly is who gets READ, who gets listened to, and whose ideas are being heard. You can tell who is powering the discussion.*
I think only someone who hadn't been on the Internet in months -- but don't worry, his writing is in bookstores as well now -- could say with a straight face that he hasn't been driving a massive amount of discussions of ideas, one of the key things that for me defines the role of a public intellectual.
Anyone can drive a news cycle and a discussion of personalities, but to generate a discussion of ideas is what makes a public intellectual different from a personality.
This doesn't mean that you need to agree with everything he says, or can't have your own ideas about what people should be discussing, even, or your own Required Reading List for True Intellectuals. But that's your own standard.
I think it's absurd to deny that he's a public intellectual.
But then, she never really talks about the idea
that Coates is promoting:
in a gist, that black people cannot win in today's American capitalistic system, and that the black body is seen by white supremacists and those who benefit by today's system (all white people) as worthy of exploitation and something to visit violence upon.
Personally, I have not heard many people talking about his work, just about Mr. Coates' rapid ascent in the publishing business. Ironically, he is currently living the American Dream (as a black man though, he is loathe to acknowledge it because... there goes his Big Idea
that Ms. Petri views as so worthy of public discussion, yet is reluctant to wade into publicly herself, it seems.)
In fact, using Ms. Petri's definition, I'd argue that Donald Trump is more a public intellectual
, as his ideas are getting more public discussion than anything Mr. Coates has written. Most reviews that I have read, in fact, have been summarily dismissive of Coates' nihilistic attitude about the potential of black achievement.**
I suppose though, Harvard-educated people like Ms. Petri do not know many black people, intellectuals or otherwise
, and she, like so many, has glommed onto the first black writer they have read, who is being talked about (the author, not his ideas). It really does matter if the work inspires changes, or merely enriches the pockets of one man, even a black man, at that.
I wonder too, if Ms. Petri was just joking... hard to tell sometimes where her humor ends, and her preaching begins.
ADDED: Maybe it's a geographic thing, and Mr. Coates' idea is indeed being debated earnestly in Washington DC circles that Ms. Petri swirls in. Elsewhere though, she should know such "The Dream is Dead" cynicism is being roundly rejected -- by black Americans too, thankfully.
He does not speak for all -- merely for himself, from his (not-to-be-impolite but...) limited
personal background, but I can see where some -- like young Ms. Petri, self-described "congressman's kid" * -- might not yet recognize that.
* If this were truly a public discussion of ideas
and not people, Ms. Petri might understand how very little Mr. Coates himself has contributed to the dialogue, and the movements, that have addressed black men and boys left lying dead in the streets of our nation. He was in France, taking up the language, last summer when Michael Brown was shot dead in Missouri; the #BLM organizing movement was not
"powered" by Coates' writings, but by pretty-much still anonymous black women
. Mr. Coates' publisher, in fact, moved up the publication date of his book to take advantage of the recent protests, deaths and work done by others.
Too bad Ms. Petri either does not know, or cannot acknowledge this, as in thrall as she and others seem to be by Mr. Coates' dizzying career rise... She perhaps should read up more on the topic, I would think, if indeed these racial-reconciliation ideas interest her, beyond the short shelf life of a recent bestseller by a newly anointed public ... celebrity
. That -- not "intellectual" -- is the word that is most fitting here, (unless eventually Petri plans to initiate a publicly powered discussion beyond limited exclusive chat roooms herself) of Why Black Americans Cannot Succeed without Racial Reparations and Blaming All of White America for Keeping Blacks Down.
** NYT book reviewer Michelle Alexander
Baldwin, in writing to his nephew, does not deny the pain and horror of American notions of justice — far from it — but he repeatedly emphasizes the young man’s power and potential and urges him to believe that revolutionary change is possible against all odds, because we, as black people, continue to defy the odds and defeat the expectations of those who seek to control and exploit us.
Coates’s letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change, and the dangers of believing in the American Dream.
Little hope is offered that freedom or equality will ever be a reality for black people in America.
“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.”
, Mr. Coates, a message he's taking not to the grave, but all the way to the bank
(former) congressman's kid... if that description is more telling for the current public intellectual discussion...