If reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015) is like reading the Book of Jeremiah and watching The Wire on acid, reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) is like reading The Grapes of Wrath and watching Breaking Bad on oxy. I just finished reading both of them back-to-back and my head’s spinning.
In Numbers 14:18, we learn that the LORD punishes children for the sins of their forefathers “unto the third and fourth generation.” If the idea that children are born guilty was central to the doctrine of Original Sin, and the notion of collective guilt was central to Puritan theology, belief in the Curse of Ham was a central feature of the pro-slavery argument. According to this bizarre view, black Africans are the descendants of Ham, Noah’s youngest son, who was cursed for the unpardonable sin of seeing his father’s junk.
Noah got wasted one night and passed out naked in his tent. For walking in on this pathetic Manchester-by-the-Sea scene, Ham was cursed thus: “And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.”
One of modernity’s greatest achievements is the rejection of notions of collective guilt. We hold individuals responsible for their actions, not groups. We punish individuals for their actions, not groups. If Between the World and Me has an overriding message, it’s that we need to revisit the notion of collective guilt.
Coates proudly proclaims his freedom from the religious superstitions of his forefathers, but he’s written a remarkably biblical book. And by biblical I mean Old Testament. Coates believes that white babies in America are born guilty. He believes in collective responsibility, community guilt, and reparations payments. Individuals aren’t individuals in this book (unless they’re Coates or someone close to Coates); they’re group representatives. As Cornel West rightly observed in The Guardian: “Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.”
The upshot of this is that nobody is responsible for anything in Coates’s community. If his father was violent with him, it’s not his fault. He meant well. If a black police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager, it’s not his fault. He’s just a mindless drone acting on behalf of the American white racist majority. By contrast, Vance can see how a fucked-up family and a fucked-up community created his fucked-up mom, but that doesn’t mean she’s off the hook for being such a horrible, abusive, heroin-addicted parent.
If Hillbilly Elegy has an overriding message, it’s that there’s something wrong and dysfunctional at the heart of hillbilly culture, something which can’t be blamed on Obama or the mainstream media. The problems of Vance’s people cannot be blamed solely upon outside forces. Coates is preaching a very different message.
The most powerful parts of Between the World and Me (2015) have to do with the everyday vulnerability of the black body (especially the black male body). This is the beating heart of Coates’s fiery epistle. And it’s as riveting as it is horrifying. I have never felt as naked in my own city, my own country, as Coates does on a regular basis.
I might be tempted to write Coates off as paranoid, for all of the most pathetic reasons, if I hadn’t heard the same thing from dozens of others black guys and Mohawks over the years; if I hadn’t lived in Baltimore for a good chunk of my twenties; and if I didn’t know far too much about that nightmare known as American History.
I’m a direct descendant of Maryland slaveholders, which makes me connected to Vance and Coates by blood or history. Maybe both. If Coates’s ancestors were the slaves, and Vance’s were the poor white overseers, my ancestors were the slaveholding planters who owned Coates’s ancestors and used Vance’s ancestors.
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
If you wish to learn about Australia, talk first to Australians and those who’ve actually been to Australia; if you wish to learn about war, talk first to people who’ve actually been to war; if you wish to learn about parenting, talk first to people who actually have kids; and if you wish to learn about racial profiling, talk first to people who’ve actually experienced it. What these people have to say doesn’t have to be accepted as gospel truth. It can be criticized, even rejected; but it deserves special consideration. While it’s true that all men are created equal, it does not follow that all men’s perspectives are created equal.
Few communities are less diverse than that which clamors for diversity. And I say this as a member of that community. Most of my friends who celebrate diversity think they’re looking at real diversity when they look at a Benetton ad. These are the same people, incidentally, who’ll say a Facebook thread is insufficiently diverse for similarly superficial reasons.
We tend to think of diversity only in terms of race, gender, and, to a lesser extent, class and sexual orientation. This is a remarkably blinkered view of diversity. What about religious diversity? After all, white Pentecostals tend to have far more in common with black Pentecostals than they do with white atheists or white lesbians. What about political diversity? Ideological diversity? Linguistic diversity? Geographical diversity? Even diversity of brain function! I’ve had long conversations with the neural atypical (people with high-functioning forms of autism). Their view of the world is radically different and thoroughly fascinating: it’s like meeting a talking salamander! Our elders, the very old amongst us, are also often in possession of some much needed perspective. Same is true of the mentally ill, especially those who struggle with schizophrenia. Any comprehensive conception of diversity ought to include their views too.
Demanding diversity for diversity’s sake is about as silly as demanding art for art’s sake. We need to remember that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about diversity in and of itself. It’s important solely because different people bring different things to the table, and people unlike ourselves often notice things we miss. If we’re ever going to make sense of this world of ours, we’ll need a real diversity perspectives, a diversity of perspectives not presently found amongst those who celebrate diversity.
If you’re talking about diversity, “Should we or should we not be a multicultural society?” isn’t the right question. Because nobody’s trying to make our great metropolises multicultural, they already are multicultural. And they’ve been multicultural for well over a century. As such, the right question to ask is “What do we do about all of this diversity?” In the first half of the twentieth century, the prevailing solution was to enforce majority norms. Among other things, this led many immigrants to change foreign-sounding names to English-sounding names. Jerome Irving Cohen became J. I. Rodale. Charles Dennis Buchinsky became Charles Bronson. The more recent solution is to celebrate diversity. There are obvious advantages and drawbacks associated with both of these strategies. But that’s besides the point. Diversity is a fact on the ground. Anyone who fails to acknowledge that is arguing in bad faith.
Although it seems obvious to me that the over-representation, or under-representation, of certain groups in our institutions is to some extent a function of discrimination; it does not seem obvious to me that a fair and just society would necessarily eradicate all of these differences. It doesn’t seem obvious to me, for instance, that in a fair and just society, with a level playing field, Jews, who are a mere 1% of our population, would constitute close to 1% of our doctors, lawyers, journalists, editors, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Jews would, I suspect, continue to punch far above their weight in all of those fields.
We often assume that if there’s an unequal outcome it must be because someone’s putting their thumb on the scale. But that fails to explain some rather bizarre outliers. The Jews are perhaps the most obvious example. But they’re by no means the only one (e.g., Coptic Christians, Mormons, Han Chinese, Indian Hindus, etc.). A statement like “we need to do something about white privilege” is made palatable, in part, by conveniently gerrymandering “Jews” into the broad category of “Whites”. If you disaggregate Jewish from White, the story gets considerably messier. Consider, for example, how utterly different these two statements sound:
(1) It really bothers me that we live in a world where publishing is largely decided by a bunch of white guys in suits. Because they feel more comfortable with and understand other white guys in suits, and white people in general. We need to diversify the Canadian media. And this means, in practice, that white men should no longer be over-represented. At present, white men constitute about 35% of the Canadian population. As such, I propose that we limit the percentage of white men in news organizations to 35%.
(2) It really bothers me that we live in a world where publishing is largely decided by a bunch of Jewish men. Because they feel more comfortable with and understand other Jewish men, and Jewish people in general. We need to diversify the Canadian media. And this means, in practice, that Jews should no longer be so ridiculously over-represented. At present, Jews constitute a little over 1% of the Canadian population. As such, I propose that we limit the percentage of Jews in news organizations to 1%.
The second statement would, I hope, make the vast majority of the people who approve of the first one cringe. But it’s actually truer and more accurate than the first. Jews are vastly over represented in journalism, law, medicine, academia, entrepreneurship, and much else. And you don’t need to go to some crazy neo-Nazi site for those stats, Wikipedia will suffice.
Does pursuing social justice and equality of result mean we have to bring back Jewish quotas? That would seem to follow. Because Jews were over-represented in many of these fields even when antisemitism was still a potent force to be reckoned with. Indeed, McGill instituted Jewish quotas precisely because Jews were doing so well. If a program of mandatory equality of result were implemented tomorrow, no group would lose more than the Jews. If this doesn’t give you pause, you haven’t thought it through. Or you’re not welcome in my house.
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2018)