Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Limited Art of Interpretation

September 22, 2017
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Among the least persuasive writers on contemporary politics, for me, is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Mind you, I often agree with him, but only because I agreed with him before reading him.  If I go into a piece of his with a different perspective, nothing he says has an effect on me.

Now, if I were intellectually stubborn, the sort of person who rarely changes his mind, that would be a statement about me, not Coates.  In fact, I’m always changing my mind.  Nearly every day my views are shifting, sometimes only slightly, sometimes a lot.  When I go back and read what I wrote several years ago, my first instinct is to grab an editor’s pen.  Maybe I’m too susceptible to persuasion.

But not by Coates.  The thing is, he seldom makes arguments in the sense I understand that term.  There isn’t extended reasoning through assumptions and implications or careful sifting through evidence to see which hypotheses are supported or disconfirmed.  No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it.  He is obviously a man of vast talents, but he uses them the same way much less refined thinkers simply bloviate.

But that raises the question, why is he so influential?  Why does he reach so many people?  What’s his secret?

No doubt there are multiple aspects to this, but here’s one that just dawned on me.  Those who respond to Coates are not looking for argumentation—they’re looking for interpretation.

The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture.  This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports.  Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism.  A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  I read criticism all the time to deepen my engagement with music, art, film and fiction.

But criticism jumped channel and entered the political realm.  Now events like elections, wars, ecological crises and economic disruptions are interpreted according to the same standards developed for portraits and poetry.  And maybe there is good in that too, except that theories about why social, economic or political events occur are subject to analytical support or disconfirmation in a way that works of art are not.  How should we hear The Rite of Spring in the twenty-first century?  Colonial or pre-postcolonial?  Racist or deracializing?  These are meaningful questions, and thoughtful criticism can help us explore them more deeply, but neither evidence nor reasoning can resolve them.  If you want to know why the US election last year turned out the way it did, however, reasoning and evidence are the way to go.

Coates is an interpreter.  His latest piece in the Atlantic, The First White President, reads the election the way a film critic would read a film.  There are references to factual events, like quotes taken from the campaign trail, but they serve the same function that references to camera angles serve for a critic interpreting the latest from Darren Aronofsky.  In the end, Coates wants to convey his sense of what the election means, that it is a reflection of the deep racism that was, is and will continue to be the core truth of America.  If anything was different, it was that eight years of a black president ratcheted up the racism and allowed a sociopathic white extremist to prevail.  Post-election concern for the well-being of the white working class by white pundits is itself a further reflection of this truth, a turning away from the ugly reality of bigotry. This is a reading of the election as a cultural artifact.

The problem, of course, is that much about the election is subject to social science investigation.  We have opinion polling and the factual record of specific campaign strategies and tactics.  We have a variety of models that predict voting behavior—testable models.  If you go through Coates’ article, you’ll find statements (especially sweeping generalizations) that are dubious in light of the evidence or even flatly refutable.  This isn’t because Coates isn’t well informed or unable to examine the data, but because he is applying the method of cultural interpretation, not evaluating hypotheses.

In the end, Coates is expressing how the election feels to him, and that’s OK.  But his feelings tell us little about why Trump, and not somebody else, is sitting in the oval office.  Is there massive racism in America?  Yes.  Could someone like Trump be elected president if racism were not so widespread?  Almost certainly not.  But like the man says, racism has been a major factor in every election, yet they don’t all come out the same.  It looks like other factors were at work too, especially since Obama outperformed Clinton across most demographics.  Time to get deeper into the data.

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