The Birthmark of Damnation
June 1, 2017 7:48 AM   Subscribe

"To imbue race with an ontological meaning, to make it a reality all its own, is to drain it of its place in history and its indelible roots in discrete human action. To deny the role of life and people — of politics — is to also foreclose the possibility of liberation" - R.L. Stephens on Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Black Body.
posted by R.F.Simpson (49 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Was just listening to the most recent Chapo premium episode, where they interview R. L. Stephens on this article. It's a compelling listen.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:08 AM on June 1 [4 favorites]


I saw that they were interviewing him, so before I got a chance to listen I did a deep dive on a lot of his work and holy shit is he a formidable thinker/writer.
posted by R.F.Simpson at 8:21 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


"Harvard has a $37 billion endowment. Mere months before Coates’s appearance, dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves, but the university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today."

Yup, that's about right.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 8:40 AM on June 1 [11 favorites]


I don't know—to me, it read like a very eloquent version of "it's all about class, not race!" Which I thought we'd agreed was... not helpful.
posted by languagehat at 8:41 AM on June 1 [7 favorites]


The closing anecdote strikes that chord for me too, languagehat, but the bulk of the essay seems to be more about how to frame the struggle. Stephens believes in direct action, and I think he's claiming here that Coates does not.

I've been uneasy myself about Coates after hearing him on, I think it was, This American Life. He seemed absolutely class-blind, for sure, talking about how comfortable he was eating at fantastically expensive restaurants, etc., now that he has money. Stephens' critique mines that vein.
posted by dbx at 8:54 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


I don't know—to me, it read like a very eloquent version of "it's all about class, not race!" Which I thought we'd agreed was... not helpful.

I read it more as arguing against the most extreme conclusion of the inverse of that idea — that if it's all about race and not class, the struggle is pointless, because white supremacy won't ever allow you to not be Black anymore. Coates's framing of his struggle against racism in the terms of natural disaster, gravity, physical laws, etc., might be emotionally understandable but make improving your circumstances seem even less attainable.

I think Stephens under-estimates how much Coates's context of his book as a letter to his son creates a situation in which the emotional resonance (and frank anguish) of his writing might be centered a little more than the call for political/social action. And clearly 100% class/0% race isn't the answer either — viz. the fucking travesty recently done to Lebron James. In the eyes of white America, there's no such thing as a Black person being rich enough to be above hate, beyond ownership. But as someone deeply affected by Between the World and Me and also someone trying to find a way to reorganize my life for more direct political action, I found this essay very insightful.
posted by penduluum at 9:01 AM on June 1 [10 favorites]


In Marx's view, American blacks are the spearhead of the new order:
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.--Marx to Lincoln
Race is the ground upon which the old order shall die.
posted by No Robots at 9:18 AM on June 1 [4 favorites]


I don't know—to me, it read like a very eloquent version of "it's all about class, not race!" Which I thought we'd agreed was... not helpful.

Yes, there are really two critiques (excessive fatalism and insufficient class consciousness) mashed together here, and while I think there's some value in the one, the second I saw the other peeping through, I sighed. It's not as if they're inherently linked; many people feel equally helpless in the face of the tides (see! natural metaphor!) of global capitalism. "Them that's got will get, them that's not will lose, so the Bible says, and it still is news..."

It's also weird to me that Stephens doesn't seem to have read (or at least doesn't reference) Coates's first book, his memoir, which deals, among other things, with the political activism of his family. It also, while honestly acknowledging some of its limitations and potential absurdities, recognizes that separatism is not necessarily identical to quietism, as Stephens rather blindly assumes in his section on Coates on Howard. (From his treatment of the subject, I would've concluded he was white, but, glancing at some of his other writings, I think he just finds a distinctively black identity necessarily to be one of failure and rather distasteful.)
posted by praemunire at 9:29 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


languagehat, it's interesting that trend to "classify" the "racial" since one of the legacies left behind the uber classist British society was the caste system, where it's further interesting to note that shades of indian - from pale beige all the way through to indigenous tribal aborigines - follow the same caste hierarchy.

tl;dr - call it banana, but we all know what's going on here (the brits called it divide and conquer)
posted by infini at 9:38 AM on June 1 [3 favorites]


It's tempting to say it has to be this or that, but to ignore that race in America is entangled from its foundations with broader class and economic justice issues is a mistake. How you make that point and give it the right weight without denying the sociological realities of constructed racial identity is a mystery to me. It's just a big complicated mess of both, most likely, in independent reality. It's a tough needle to thread without dropping a stitch.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:38 AM on June 1 [6 favorites]


No matter how carefully stated the case, it's easy to brush off "It's about race and class" as vulgar nonsense like "It's about class, not race." I think the essay's conclusion, in which Stephens describes a successful union campaign for "Dignity and a Doctor" is put very well:
I’m a former staffer for UNITE HERE, a hospitality union. Last year, I worked on a campaign in a multiethnic, multiracial university cafeteria in Chicago. The campaign’s primary demands were for wage increases and healthcare, using the slogan “Dignity and a Doctor.” Negotiations with the subcontractor had stalled, and strike preparations were under way. Pressures ran high. Workers were afraid. However, just as stories catalyzed resistance for Civil Rights leaders, stories anchored the worker organizing in our campaign. Though workers’ struggles with poverty wages and a lack of health coverage were crucial, one story stood out above the others. Workers continually shared stories that their Chinese colleagues were being abused for speaking Chinese on the shop floor. Managers would walk past, and upon hearing Chinese, they’d smack the speaker on the back of the head commanding the worker to “speak English!”

Most of the workers were people of color, but the majority were not Chinese. The largest plurality in the workplace was made up of African-Americans, virtually all of whom only spoke English. But everyone could identify with the indignity of the story, the asymmetrical relations that empowered the bosses to abuse any one of them for any reason. Workers from a whole range of identities fought in solidarity with the Chinese workers. Discrimination on the basis of language became a central demand in the broader campaign. The campaign attached the specificity of the Chinese workers’ situation to all the workers’ common struggle against the boss. It was class struggle; not enough to overcome racism the world over, but a brief glimpse of solidarity across backgrounds and experiences, through acknowledging the shared indignity of class exploitation.

In the end, the workers won. As the campaign victories were listed, the excitement in the room was overwhelming, a type of energy that I’d only ever felt at a particularly intense church service or while attending a high-stakes game in a packed stadium. The organizer announced that healthcare had been won. We clapped. We celebrated as the wage increases were added up. But when the organizer revealed that the contract guaranteed the right to speak non-English languages in the workplace, the room erupted. The Black workers were palpably just as invested as the Chinese workers, and everyone was ecstatic.
There's a lot to think about here. I appreciate penduluum's comment above. Thanks for posting this, R.F. Simpson!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:45 AM on June 1 [13 favorites]


I think there's two bigger things in play:

One is that the election revealed that the popular social justice consensus about race was wrong, that things were far worse than we'd noticed and that there was a far harder struggle ahead than people had thought. Basically, the social justice consensus as of let's say two years ago was that America was racist, really racist, but not "about to erupt into mass Nazi violence" racist. Not "lots of people who will stand up for white supremacy under the name of white supremacy" racist. Not "we can still have open white supremacists at the highest levels of government - people who would be too racist for, like, 1985 and probably too racist for Lyndon Johnson" racist.

I think people felt they had a lot more space for affect and racism - that it was okay to talk about terror and sadness and victimization instead of talking about armed struggle. I don't think this is, per se, a thing about class - I think you saw a lot of sorrow and mourning in mass culture at the same time.

As a result, Coates feels oddly old-fashioned in some ways now.

Second, I think that Afro-pessimism does something very different from mobilization-oriented stuff. I'm not super familiar with the whole body of Afro-pessimist work, but we did read and discuss some Barlow and Wilderson in conjunction with reading NK Jemisin's Fifth Season and some Octavia Butler, so I have sort of a loose sense, to the extent that a white reader can, of where they're coming from. In a weird way, they remind me of HP Lovecraft, in that they're kind of saying that there is this cosmic horror that will break your brain if you understand it - the cosmic horror of centuries and centuries of Black death and injustice that just seems to be defeated momentarily and then return and return and return. And isn't that true? I feel like Afro-pessimism is about horror, and I think horror is something that we don't admit or do very well in respectable middle class writing.

Mainly I think that there are a lot of explanations for the world, and the one that works depends on the person and the times. There are some provably false explanations for the world, but the world exceeds our explanatory power, especially in matters of horror and large spans of time. In a way it's like "Can one write poetry after Auschwitz" in that, like, people can't, but people do. It's a tension that you can't really resolve because it's a tension about two different real ways of experiencing the world - it's true that comradeship and heroic struggle and courage and art are all warm, good things that can lead to a better world, but it's also true that no amount of comradeship and heroic struggle and courage and art can bring back the dead.

Like this Brecht, for me at least:

Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I've been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving, and
My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.

posted by Frowner at 10:50 AM on June 1 [27 favorites]


The campaign attached the specificity of the Chinese workers’ situation to all the workers’ common struggle against the boss.

I have to tell you, this sounds an awful lot to me like "identity politics are demands by individual separate minority groups that will never win, but the class struggle is universal; only by subsuming identity politics to economic progressivism will we unite and prevail."

His anecdote is nice, but, historically, many white-dominated unions have been willing not just to look away, but actively benefit, from minority workers getting far worse than slaps on the head.

The more I think about, too, the weirder I find the characterization of the call for reparations as reflecting a sense of pessimism and futility and lack of interest in political struggle. Reparations is a political issue, and the demand for them is profoundly radical and potentially transformative. In some senses, it's fair to say that Coates is advocating a more radical program than any other black guy they'll put on NPR.
posted by praemunire at 10:56 AM on June 1 [4 favorites]


I have to tell you, this sounds an awful lot to me like "identity politics are demands by individual separate minority groups that will never win, but the class struggle is universal; only by subsuming identity politics to economic progressivism will we unite and prevail."

this seems like an uncharitable misread at best, an intentional misread at worst. one of the points of the anecdote was that different races uniting achieved victory for all without subsuming identity politics to class struggle - a particular example was made of the way in which chinese workers' struggles were specific to them, but that the way to ameliorate those would benefit everyone. class and race are intertwined, and the class struggle is indeed universal. acknowledging class doesn't mean race has to or can be discarded, and that's certainly not what stephens is arguing here at all.

it's fair to say that Coates is advocating a more radical program than any other black guy they'll put on NPR

NPR isn't exactly known for being super radical or non-white so i don't think that's saying much
posted by burgerrr at 11:24 AM on June 1 [6 favorites]


If you are not familiar with the specific way in which, since the election in particular, certain elements of the left have been disparaging "identity politics" as divisive and insufficient to unite people for political action in comparison to the universality of economic issues, generally as a backhanded way of attacking Hillary Clinton for having been a woman, then...you haven't been paying a ton of attention.

the class struggle is indeed universal

Yeah? Tell it to, e.g., black railroad workers. Tell it to the subset of poor Trump voters who were more than willing to torch themselves economically if it meant they got to enjoy more of the psychic dividends of whiteness. Calling one set of concerns "universal" while another is merely specific or individual or special is such a basic kyriarchical rhetorical move that I feel kind of embarrassed to point it out.

NPR isn't exactly known for being super radical or non-white so i don't think that's saying much

What it says is what I said: calling for reparations is a far cry from defeatist political quietism.
posted by praemunire at 11:36 AM on June 1 [9 favorites]


> I've been uneasy myself about Coates after hearing him on, I think it was, This American Life. He seemed absolutely class-blind, for sure, talking about how comfortable he was eating at fantastically expensive restaurants, etc., now that he has money.

Well, this gets into another bit of progressive knee-jerkery I get tired of seeing here at MeFi: the idea that it's wrong to enjoy anything that the most ill-paid worker can't enjoy. That's bullshit, and I enthusiastically support Coates's right to enjoy eating at expensive restaurants.
posted by languagehat at 11:57 AM on June 1 [8 favorites]


The more I think about, too, the weirder I find the characterization of the call for reparations as reflecting a sense of pessimism and futility and lack of interest in political struggle. Reparations is a political issue, and the demand for them is profoundly radical and potentially transformative.

One of my takeaways from "The Case for Reparations" was that the political struggle for reparations - arriving at a place politically where that was possible and grappling with the history, with the details of implementation - that that was as important if not more so than the actual reparations that might result. That there's a lot of consciousness raising packed in the process of getting there.

So I found this essay's characterization of reparations as a top-down process that seeks "not to change the world, but to condemn it" as really weird. Like the author read a different essay than I did weird.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:20 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


What we find all too often in Coates’s narrative universe are bodies without life and a racism without people.

I got to here and felt very disinclined to continue; certainly in Coates' writing for the Atlantic he very much treated racism as a thing that was carried out by people with agency. In fact I would claim that is the one of his central theses of despair: that for a white person to honestly confront one's role in the reproduction of white supremacy is beyond most people's capabilities. And so they will carry on with the reproduction.

I skimmed the rest and I gotta agree with those above saying this is a bog standard Jacobin piece, with the usual glaring weaknesses thereof.
posted by PMdixon at 12:43 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]


In fact I would claim that is the one of his central theses of despair: that for a white person to honestly confront one's role in the reproduction of white supremacy is beyond most people's capabilities.

Which unintentionally proves the opposite point: the one take-away that gets repeated is one that de-centers and makes it about White people again. I'm Asian American and this "thesis" is fucking obvious; none of us needed TNC to write volumes on this point, and so the only reason it needs to be dressed as such is for whom? Precisely as sweet words for the class-unconscious, in particular those White allies and/or neo-liberal PoC to hear. Which may seem harsh to some, but is part of my lived experience, that there are people not woke to PoC oppression, and others not woke to class oppression. That's how it's both.

Also, I'm beyond sighing. I don't want the symptomatic, vulgar meta-debate about whether and how much of class vs. race. I think that's the wrong mental model (scalar quantity fallacy) constitutive of a mode of discourse that doesn't resonate for me.
posted by polymodus at 1:30 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]


this is a bog standard Jacobin piece

weird how it wasn't published by Jacobin, then
posted by RogerB at 3:01 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Many of the comments, here and elsewhere, that strongly believe that race/racism is the #1 issue and that any discussion of class is either missing the point or rooted in privilege never seem to offer up any concrete ideas about how to practically end racism. And I suspect the strongest voices with the least qualms about dismissing any discussions of class are not entering the debate in good faith.

Racism and class oppression are intertwined; the most articulate ideas about solving the former (that I've read/heard) always deal with the latter. Reparations is an economic issue. And Stephens, from what I can gather here, has no problems with it as an idea/goal and he's certainly not downplaying racism. He's just uncomfortable with the language Coates uses and the way this language often trends towards the literary and fatalistic rather than the concrete and practical.

And, for what it's worth, Stephens' critique made me want to read Between the World and Me more than I had before. Coates' ideas/language will truly become useless and counterproductive once they're considered above serious criticism and consideration.
posted by AtoBtoA at 4:17 PM on June 1 [8 favorites]


this is a bog standard Jacobin piece

weird how it wasn't published by Jacobin, then


Nor in a bog.
posted by Etrigan at 5:27 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


No matter how carefully stated the case, it's easy to brush off "It's about race and class" as vulgar nonsense like "It's about class, not race."

The thing about this to me is just - how often do people really talk about class in this country? Who sells more books these days - Coates or Marx? Perhaps people here move in lefty/academic circles where you do encounter a lot of old-school doctrinaire Marxists - I have personally argued the other side of this with dudes so I'm not saying it isn't a thing - but sometimes I feel like anybody who tries to center class at all gets dismissed with that caricature. Which does make me ask - why does that happen?

Would it be controversial to suggest:
a.) issues of race and issues of class are simply not fully separable?

b.) the interests of the Black working class, Latino working class, Asian working class, and white working class are not identical - but there's more potential for real change in a coalition of all those (if such a thing can be built) than a coalition of... the black working class and white people who read The Atlantic, say?
posted by atoxyl at 6:10 PM on June 1 [3 favorites]


I'm not trying to go after Coates though - I actually thought they were a little unfair to him. I do sometimes wonder whether his pessimism and description of oppression, expressed as elegantly as he expresses things, offers a bit of a voyeuristic thrill to white folks who grew up in comfort (like me). But then the same can be said of most popular depictions of Black struggle so it's hardly Coates' fault. It's just a dynamic I can't shake thinking about sometimes.
posted by atoxyl at 6:18 PM on June 1


b.) the interests of the Black working class, Latino working class, Asian working class, and white working class are not identical - but there's more potential for real change in a coalition of all those (if such a thing can be built) than a coalition of... the black working class and white people who read The Atlantic, say?

What are those two coalitions supposed to represent? I mean, who's clamoring for a coalition of the black working class and white Atlantic readers? I'm black and I read the Atlantic. Why am I gerrymandered out of this?
posted by xigxag at 6:43 PM on June 1


I wasn't meaning to imply that one has to be white or well-off to read The Atlantic. It was a somewhat cheap shot at who the Democratic Party seems currently to aim to include.
posted by atoxyl at 7:24 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Oh man, in my half-asleep state I first read this as "R.L. Stine" and was deeply confused.
posted by retrograde at 7:57 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


The Chapo crew have put this premium episode on to their free feed after getting a really strong response, so everyone can listen to it.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:04 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]


On the topic of the curse of Ham and curse and mark of Cain, (which I assume the OP article's title, seemingly a quote from Coates, alludes to?) I recently read an article by a former Brigham Young University professor in which he relates that even black Mormon students there frequently accept that mythology as the rationale for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' prohibition against black clergy which lasted until 1978: “These House-Negroes Still Think We’re Cursed: Struggling Against Racism In The Classroom” by Darron Smith, Journal of Culture Studies published Vol. 19, No. 4 July 2005 pp. 439-454, doi 10.1080/09502380500219456 (found via this deadlinked MeFi comment by long haired child)

btw this seems to be the LeBron James story which penduluum mentions above
posted by XMLicious at 9:29 PM on June 1


I wasn't meaning to imply that one has to be white or well-off to read The Atlantic. It was a somewhat cheap shot at who the Democratic Party seems currently to aim to include.

I did phrase that in an offensive way probably so I apologize. I guess I was also was taking kind of an oblique swipe at the white liberal professional class (myself perhaps included) and whose side we tend to want to think we're on. There's probably a much better way to say what I was trying to say.
posted by atoxyl at 10:29 PM on June 1


Ctrl+F "intersectionality"

0 results

Would it be controversial to suggest:
a.) issues of race and issues of class are simply not fully separable?


Oh right, here it is, the poster just didn't call it that. No, this is the intellectual core of the modern left movement, and intersectionality is its name-o: issues of race, issues of class, issues of gender and sexuality and disability cannot be fully separated from each other because they reinforce each other.

It's interesting that Chapo Trap House turns up here because their political views are a wholesale rejection of intersectionality mostly on the basis of 'it's funnier to push transgender people down the stairs'.
posted by Merus at 4:59 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Insisting that class be included in intersectional analysis of a situation, and insisting that intersectionality not be abused in the service of conservative arguments, doesn't amount to the wholesale rejection of intersectionality. For better and for worse - they like to use nasty words because it pisses people off, and it's understandable and fine if that turns people away - I think the episode linked above speaks for itself.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:56 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Okay, wait, what about trans people and CTH? I have been generally skeptical of them because of the bro-y atmosphere but have tried to engage on the theory that this doesn't mean they're wrong, but if it's actually "we can make lulzy jokes about violence against trans people because we're socialists and pissing off the uptight non-socialist leftists is important political work!!!" then....I really don't even know what to say.

I don't even like to hear jokes about violence against trans people from, like, actual fellow trans people, and if it's some token trans person sharing this special moment with a bunch of straight boy brocialists, that doesn't make it any better.
posted by Frowner at 6:08 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Also, CTH are, like, practically my age and I'm basically an Old. I like to think that we age out of pissing off the squares as our major political practice, but maybe not.
posted by Frowner at 6:10 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Insisting that class be included in intersectional analysis of a situation, and insisting that intersectionality not be abused in the service of conservative arguments, doesn't amount to the wholesale rejection of intersectionality.

A thousand times this. It's always so odd, from the perspective of a Brit in the US, to watch a few people raise their heads above the parapets and suggest that maybe we need to discuss class as part of the question of what's wrong with America, and see them instantly characterized as wanting to talk only about class – and this criticism made in the name of intersectionality, too!

Believe me, America's problem with discussions of class is very much not that you guys talk about it too much.

It is obviously not for me to say whether Coates is right to be as fatalistic as he is about racism in America, from his perspective. But there's no doubt in my mind that this fatalism serves an ulterior psychological motive in the minds of at least some white readers. It's a message that enables deep sympathy but also a kind of resignation that means you don't have to think too hard about your own obligations to participate in structural change.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:40 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of history that makes the US socialist movement different from Europe, and that causes some skepticism by other parts of the left when socialists bring up how we all need to talk about class now.

US socialism doesn't have the political or intellectual roots that European, Mexican or South American socialism does, so the culture of the movement is really different. Socialism was much more completely suppressed here during the 20th century than it was in, say, the UK, and as a result there's not the same....I dunno, stability, intellectual tradition, diversity? And there certainly isn't much history of serious socialist attempts at governance. There's also a tendency toward a culture of secrecy that's far more pronounced than in other left social formations - there's what you tell the normies (who include the rest of the left), which is always super on-message, and there's intra socialist discussions, and there's not a lot of conversation between socialists and people of other tendencies.

There's a lot of stuff here - the Palmer raids, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, the way that slavery and the frontier modulated socialist movements here, the Cold War, etc. There've been many fantastic US socialists who have done really good work on race and gender, often when no one else was doing it - but there's also this history of being extremely shitty.

So the backdrop to this is, actually, not that great a track record by socialists in the US on gender, race, sexuality, etc, and a really-existing track record of platformist socialist organizations trying to establish front groups, coordinating in ways that are against the spirit of the orgs they join, etc. (I mean seriously, this is something that I have actually seen - not a joke!)

Times are changing, Socialist Alternative and DSA and so on are becoming very different from the platformist Marxist orgs that were around in the eighties, nineties and early 2000s. But there's a lot of history.

I admit that my experience with socialist groups has been almost exclusively negative on the personal level, even when I've admired the work that was done. But because I've experienced so much authoritarianism, secrecy, misogyny, tokenism and just general creepiness from socialist orgs, it makes me very sensitive to when they start running down what they think of as "identity politics".
posted by Frowner at 7:14 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]


It's interesting that Chapo Trap House turns up here because their political views are a wholesale rejection of intersectionality mostly on the basis of 'it's funnier to push transgender people down the stairs'.

This is ridiculously false.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 7:22 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]


> I like to think that we age out of pissing off the squares as our major political practice, but maybe not.

Some do, some don't, and those who don't irritate the hell out of those who do.

> There's a lot of history that makes the US socialist movement different from Europe, and that causes some skepticism by other parts of the left when socialists bring up how we all need to talk about class now.

That whole comment is brilliant. Thank you.
posted by languagehat at 7:30 AM on June 2


I would love some actual cites about CTH that:

1. Shows why someone could assume transphobia/general "trans issues don't matter" on their parts, since I assume that this is at best a misunderstanding or a willful misreading rather than a total fabrication

2. Shows some kind of commitment to trans issues that isn't just "we would like trans people to be socialists, so we will add their issues to our laundry list of why capitalism is bad"

Unfortunately, "this is obviously false, end of sentence" style defenses don't convince me, because I've learned that a lot of brocialists/manarchists can and do say stuff like that.
posted by Frowner at 7:37 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]


In DC the average white family has 81 times more wealth than the average black family. This always astounds me. It's as much a monument to slavery and racism as the confederate statues removed from New Orleans. I guess if you're an optimist you could call it two and a half centuries of progress.

I have a couple problems with Stephen's essay. But most fundamentally, you can't address the legacy of ongoing white supremacy (the wealth gap) without making race explicit. (And Coates is very clear on this.) There's a moral simplicity to reparations: if the material impact of a racist system is gross wealth disparity then the solution is race based wealth redistribution. It's why activists on my social media tell whites to give money directly to black people.

Is this good policy? Is it a good model for activism? I don't know. But it's a skintight moral argument, and not at all incompatible with Stephen's politics.
posted by pomomo at 10:04 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]


2. some kind of commitment to trans issues that isn't just "we would like trans people to be socialists, so we will add their issues to our laundry list of why capitalism is bad"

I can't recall that they've ever talked seriously about trans issues on the podcast, which I don't think is surprising given their format—they've never talked seriously about UBI or union organizing, either. Mostly they address the issue through merciless ridicule of transphobes. They've devoted many segments to mocking Rod Dreher in particular (e.g. in episodes 18 and 43), and they have obvious contempt for "bathroom warriors" like David French.

I definitely can't recall any transphobic humor on the show, though if anyone has a reference I'd be happy to correct myself. My perhaps uncharitable impression is that a lot of people just assume they must be transphobic/racist/otherwise problematic, because white dudes who make jokes and talk about socialism -> class-only brocialists -> transphobes/racists/etc.

That kind of easy elision is a huge problem in our political discourse, with bad effects that go way beyond anyone's opinion about some fucking podcast. The same kind of thing is evident, I think, in some of the responses to Stephens's article, where people are talking as if Stephens wants to push race into the background in favor of class, when the explicit point of his critique of Coates is that Coates's approach mystifies racism in a way that, in effect, depoliticizes it. This is also the point, I think, of his remarks on reparations; his problem with Coates isn't reparations per se (in the CTH interview Stephens says he supports reparations), it's that Coates's idea of how to actually get reparations seems to involve a lot of moral exhortation directed at magazine readers and elite institutions, and not much in the way of grassroots struggle. In a sense, Stephens is saying that Coates isn't anti-racist enough, because his melancholy, "ontological" view of racism precludes any really effective political struggle against racism. One can question whether this is a fair critique of Coates, but I don't think one can say in good faith that Stephens's approach is anything like "class not race."
posted by DaDaDaDave at 10:30 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]


Criticizing Coates for his pessimism seems strange to me. By temperament he's a historian, and a historian's job is to tell the truth as they see it, not to make people feel good about Progress.

Coates's message for years has basically been "racism is far worse than white people think. Yes, today." (With incredibly more detail, of course.) In the Obama years, maybe that felt too harsh or hopeless to a lot of people. With Trump it's clear that he was completely right.

It's simply not true that Coates somehow absolves white people of the need to do anything. He's asking plenty of white people: e.g. reform your police departments, pay reparations, expand Medicaid in states with large black populations, just to mention things he's discussed in the Atlantic.
posted by zompist at 10:57 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]


I will be radically honest and say that I am always really skeptical of white socialists on race, gender and sexuality, and that this is the direct result of being on the inside a few times in socialist circles. I am skeptical of white socialists even when they say the right things in public.

Anarchists have their own problems, but one thing we're not is secretive. You want to know what an anarchist group thinks? Ask, and we spill our guts; there's relatively little distance between what people say to each other in private and what they say in public. There's no real emphasis on "only have frank discussions about your doubts, fears, concerns among other anarchists" and there's absolutely no "let's conceal schisms". Anarchists are all about schisms, like the atheist version of tiny protestant denominations.

My experience of the "inside" of socialist circles is almost completely the opposite - a lot of focus on being "on message" when talking to non-socialists, a lot of focus on being persuasive rather than real, hidden groups-within-groups that get the "real" political narrative while the outer circle gets a soft-pedaled, less controversial version. Also, intensely segregated socializing, which is just weird - ain't no party like a socialist party, because a socialist party guarantees that you'll never get sloshed in front of people with different ideological tendencies and go off-message or reveal the dirty laundry.

Those times when I've been "inside", I've heard things that were very, very different from the official messaging, some of which I knew would really disturb the outer ring of the group and any left non-socialists. This is so different from anarchism that it was very hard for me to process.

I've also heard some kinda-TERFY stuff from marxists when I've been "inside" enough to be allowed to hear it. (And I've also had people basically apologize for bringing an anarchist into the room, which was weird.)

I stress that these are things that I have experienced and by no means only when around members of the People's Front Group of Democratic Authoritarianism or some tiny, fringy formation.

My impression has always been that socialist orgs very consciously and directly put winning over telling the truth about their beliefs, and this makes me very, very uneasy when I hear the right language from socialists. It makes it very hard not to feel like I'm being played all the time, unless I'm actually talking to, for instance, a queer marxist org or a feminist marxist org.

I would like this not to be the case, as I have met many non-platformist socialist activists I find very admirable, I think the the work done by socialist orgs around here is in general pretty right-on and I am quite familiar with many Great Socialists of History.

But the point is, this history is real, and it's one reason why it's hard for me to get beyond the "elide white dude socialists with transphobic brocialists" - my experience tells me that I can get totally played and tokenized by people who don't actually care about race or gender but are totally willing to lie in the interests of class struggle.

This is a huge problem for #notallsocialists, because, like, everyone is Schroedinger's Socialist at least some of the time.

My assumption is that as socialism revives, new cultural tendencies will develop and this problem will go away, and I do try to push myself to read socialist news sources, etc, but it's not just based on me (or other people) being hostile to socialists out of, like, hatred of communism or whatever.

I'm not a socialist or communist of any description, but I have, like, what I think are reasonable reasons. On top of that, I feel like I have a lot of cultural, unnecessary reasons to be uneasy around socialists, and I feel like that makes things go all useless.
posted by Frowner at 12:05 PM on June 2 [5 favorites]


The DSA membership has exploded over the past year, ideological and behavioural feuds between people who have been deeply involved in fringe left politics for the past 20 years doesn't strike me as having much to tell us about how the emerging socialist alternative to neoliberalism will shake out or give us a reason to not listen to them.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:04 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


Chapo does have bits that are problematic - ableist insults, perhaps some implicit 'phobias (e.g. leaning too hard on "haha [social conservative] is probably actually gay" stuff) etc. I feel like some of this has been toned down in the time I've been listening (off and on since around the election) so it's possible there was more offensive content early on. But I certainly don't remember anything explicitly at the expense of/making light of violence against trans folks and that doesn't sound like them. They're a little bro-y - and Felix in particular makes a schtick of performing a comically exaggerated version of his own bro-ness - but generally come off well-intentioned? As far as positive representation of trans issues they could certainly could do to have a more explicit conversation and invite some different voices on the show. As per my above comment above it seems slightly silly to me to complain that this particular podcast is primarily focused on the left-wing economic perspective, as if we've been swamped with socialist podcasters for years - but I'm sure there is someone who can discuss the points of intersection.

Anyway CTH - mostly dumb (but often quite funny) political humor and ritual slaughter of pundits, some good interviews, definitely not perfect or to everyone's taste but also not quite a bunch of dudes yelling ethnic slurs at each other (as a few people online seem to believe).
posted by atoxyl at 5:34 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


So … Stephens! Coates!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:20 PM on June 2


The DSA membership has exploded over the past year, ideological and behavioural feuds between people who have been deeply involved in fringe left politics for the past 20 years doesn't strike me as having much to tell us about how the emerging socialist alternative to neoliberalism will shake out or give us a reason to not listen to them.

I do just want to push back on this a little - if I said, "You found the Democratic Party to be really [bigoted] and had bad experiences with them, so you're leery now, but you shouldn't be because everything has changed with the new mobilizations!" I'd be laughed, quite properly, out of the room. Organizations have histories, and the idea that they just shed them at the drop of a hat - especially when the people who've been around for a while tend to be the backbone of new organizing - doesn't seem realistic to me.

The more so because we can see with socialism the very clear imprint of McCarthy, nearly seventy years on!

I'm explicitly not saying "socialism is terrible, no one should do this", and I attend events organized by local socialist groups pretty regularly.

If there is one thing I've taken from spending, like, half my life around radical political projects of various stripes, it is that it is very, very hard to jettison the problems of the past and start with a blank slate, even when it seems like you ought to be able to do so. I've totally learned this to my sorrow, actually.
posted by Frowner at 7:08 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


I guess I'm holding out hope that the emerging phenomenon of an alternative to centrist slow decline is being propelled by people who are outside the core group of folks who join fringe movements because of an attraction to their fringy-ness. But I take your point.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:02 PM on June 2


I hope the same thing - I think it's a plausible hope.

I think I was trying to convey more "this is a real history that socialist orgs have to overcome, not just something that socialist-hating PC thugs made up" rather than "DSA and all other growing socialist orgs are forever tainted by this".

On balance, I'm excited by the new socialist projects, new writing on marxism generally and revival of neglected books and histories.
posted by Frowner at 9:05 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


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