May 29, 2008: Ten Years Ago on Grasping Reality

The Public Sphere and "Civility"

"Civility" looks very different depending on where you stand...

From here I have excerpted three short paragraphs very much worth reading and thinking about:

Andrew Sullivan: "This bloggy exchange Ta-Nehisi and I had in 2009, on the very subject of identity politics and its claims.... there was a civility about it, an actual generosity of spirit, that transcended the boundaries of race and background.... The Atlantic was crammed with ideological opposites then, jostling together in the same office, and our engagement with each other and our readerships was a crackling and productive one. There was much more of that back then, before Twitter swallowed blogging, before identity politics became completely nonnegotiable, before we degenerated into these tribal swarms of snark and loathing. I think of it now as a distant island, appearing now and then, as the waves go up and down. The riptide of tribalism can capture us all in the end, until we drown in it..."

Ta Nehisi Coates: "I got incredibly used to learning from people... quite good at their craft, who I felt, and pardon my language, were fucking racist. And that was just the way the world was. I didn’t really have the luxury of having teachers who I necessarily felt, you know, saw me completely as a human being.... You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand? I couldn’t speak in a certain way to Andrew. I couldn’t speak to Andrew on the blog the way I would speak to my wife about what Andrew said on the blog in the morning when it was just us.... I learned how to blog from Andrew. That was who I actually learned from. That was who actually helped me craft my voice. Even recognizing who he was and what he was, you know, I learned from him..."

Henry Farrell: "In juxtaposition, Sullivan’s and Coates’s pieces provide a miniature history of how a certain variety of self-congratulatory openness to inquiry is in actual fact a barbed thicket of power relations. What Sullivan depicts as a 'different time' when 'neither of us denied each other’s good faith or human worth', is, in Coates’ understanding, a time where he was required to 'take seriously' the argument that 'black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people' as a price of entry into the rarified heights of conversation at the Atlantic. The 'civility' and 'generosity of spirit' that supported 'human to human' conversation is juxtaposed to Coates’s 'teachers' who didn’t see him 'completely as a human being'. What was open and free spirited debate in Sullivan’s depiction, was to Coates a loaded and poisonous dialogue where he could only participate if he shut up about what he actually believed. Juxtaposing these two gives us a very different understanding of Sullivan’s claim that 'identity politics [have become] completely nonnegotiable', and we are all being pulled down by the 'riptide of tribalism'..."

Finished? Good. Perhaps I should simply say that Henry Farrell has written everything that needs to be written here.

Or perhaps I should note that, back in The Day, it was not us, their adversaries on, say, the 2001 tax cut, who were denying George W. Bush's and Andrew Sullivan's good faith in the debate. It was Andrew Sullivan himself glorying that neither George W. Bush nor he was arguing in good faith:

The fact that Bush has to obfuscate his real goals of reducing spending with the smoke screen of 'compassionate conservatism' shows how uphill the struggle is.... A certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state.... I just hope the smoke doesn't clear before the spenders get their hands on our wallets again...

Sullivan felt himself under no obligation to be honest or civil back when he thought he was riding high. Rather the reverse. And it was not just Black people—although it was far stronger there. Those of us who thought that, like, arithmetic in the public sphere should be accurate were also not worth engaging in good faith.

Let me venture to generalize: Andrew Sullivan was always an interesting thinker, in that "civility" was something that others needed to extend to him but not that he was under any obligation to extend to anybody else. Most of all, we remember Andrew Sullivan after 911:

The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column...


We might as well be aware of the enemy within the West itself-a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column that will surely ramp up its hatred in the days and months ahead...

It was not just Ta-Nehisi Coates but everybody who had doubts about the rush to conquer Iraq who had good reason to think they were regarded by Sullivan as something less than partners in argument and discernment.