Cass Sunstein, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Other Public Intellectuals

by Corey Robin on January 24, 2016

I have a long piece up at The Chronicle Review on public intellectuals. It’s an adaptation of the keynote address I gave last fall at the Society of US Intellectual History. Here are some excerpts…

What is a public intellectual?

As an archetype, the public intellectual is a conflicted being, torn in two competing directions.

On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both, the public intellectual is a monkish figure of austere purpose and unadorned truth. Think Noam Chomsky.

On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to possess a distinct and self-conscious sense of style, calling attention to itself and to the stylist. More akin to a celebrity, this public intellectual bears little resemblance to Weber’s man of knowledge or man of action. He lacks the integrity and intensity of both. He makes us feel as if we are in the presence of an actor too attentive to his audience, a mind too mindful of its reception. Think Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yet that attention to image and style, audience and reception, may not only be not antithetical to the vocation of the public intellectual; it may actually serve it. The public intellectual stands between Weber’s two vocations because he wants his writing to do something in the world. “He never wrote a sentence that has any interest in itself,” Ezra Pound said of Lenin, “but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.”

The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself.

To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves….

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

On Cass Sunstein

With all his talk of menus and default settings, Sunstein is aiming for a new kind of politics, where government, as he and Thaler write, is “both smaller and more modest.” This new politics “might serve as a viable middle ground in our unnecessarily polarized society.” It “offers a real Third Way — one that can break through some of the least tractable debates in contemporary democracies.” Sunstein is also aiming for a new self. There are two types of souls in the world, he and Thaler say: Econs and Humans. What distinguishes them is the ability to secure the ends they seek. Econs have a lot of instrumental rationality and are rare; in fact, they don’t exist at all, except in economics journals. Humans have very little of it. The goal of politics is to bring these real, all too real, Humans into some kind of alignment with these fictitious Econs.


It is that desired transformation — of the self, and of the society in which the self becomes a self — that marks Sunstein as a public intellectual. And marks the ground of his failure. For the polity Sunstein would like to bring into being looks like the polity that already exists. Its setting is the regulatory state and capitalist economy we already have. Its ideology is the market fundamentalism we already pay obeisance to: “a respect for competition,” Sunstein stipulates, “is central to behaviorally informed regulation.” And its actors are the consumers we already are.

Consumers, as Sunstein’s utopia makes clear, with no need for a public. In decades to come, Sunstein writes, the choice architect “might draw on available information about people’s own past choices or about which approach best suits different groups of people, and potentially each person, in the population.” So finely tuned to each of our needs will this future choice architect be that “personalized paternalism is likely to become increasingly feasible over time.” Whatever libertarian slippage may be occasioned by the current state of choice architecture — where some serendipity of desire is eclipsed or ignored by the crude technology of the day — will be overcome in the future. Assured by the detailed knowledge the choice architect will have about each of us, each of us will be happily corrected in our choices. We will know that these are truly our choices, inspired by our ends, uncontaminated by anyone else. What we are witnesses to here is not a public being summoned but a public being dismissed.

Set against Sunstein’s nudge, Wickard v. Filburn reads like the lost script of an ancient civilization. Across-the-board mandates like that farm quota, which affect everyone regardless of individual circumstance, are the other of nudge politics precisely because they affect everyone regardless of individual circumstance. But that is their public power: They create a commons by forcing a question on everyone with no opt-out provisions of the sort that Sunstein is always on the lookout for. By requiring economic actors to think of themselves as part of a class “of many others similarly situated,” by recasting a private decision to opt out of the market as a choice of collective portent, mandates force men and women to think politically. They turn us into a public.

That’s also how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.” So are reading publics. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the targets identified by the writer: Think of the readers of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the writer: Think of the readers of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Regardless of the fallout, the public intellectual forces a question, establishes a divide, and demands that her readers orient themselves around that divide.

It is precisely that sense of a public — summoned into being by a writer’s demands; divided, forced to take sides — that Sunstein’s writing is in flight from. And not just Sunstein’s writing but the vast college of knowledge from which it emanates and the polity it seeks to insinuate.

On Ta-Nehisi Coates

Anyone familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates will come to Between the World and Me with great expectations: of not only its author’s formidable mind and considerable gifts but also of a public not often present in contemporary culture. From his blog, articles, and engagement with critics high and low, we know that Coates is a writer with an appetite and talent for readers. And not just any readers but readers hungry for the pleasure of prose and the application of intelligence to the most fractious issues of the day.

Anyone who has read Between the World and Me will find those expectations fulfilled. The first page opens with the body, the last closes with fear. From Machiavelli to Judith Shklar, the body and fear have been touchstones of our modern political canon. Given this marriage of talent and topic, we have every reason to receive Between the World and Me as a major intervention in public life and letters, as perhaps the signal text of today’s civic culture.

Yet it is the very presence of those political themes — the body and fear — that should make us wary. For Coates writes against the backdrop of a long tradition replete with cautionary tales about what can happen to public argument when the terrorized body becomes the site of moral inquiry.

At one pole of that tradition stands Hobbes, who more than anyone made that body the launching point of his inquiry; the end point, as readers of Leviathan know, was the obliteration of politics and the public. Only a sovereign capable of settling all questions of moral and political dispute, and enforcing his judgments without resistance, could provide the body the protection, the relief from fear, it needed.

At the other pole of that tradition stands Marx, who understood the body, laboring in the factory, as the site of a civilizational conflict over human domination and the ends of human existence. Where Hobbes saw in the body a set of claims that might annihilate politics and the public for the sake of peace and security, Marx saw in the body a set of claims that might launch an entirely new form of politics, a new public, into being.

Where between — or beyond — these poles does Coates stand?

For some, the very question will seem like an offense. Here is an African-American writer navigating the African-American experience of white despotism: What has he to do with Hobbes or Marx? Surely a book that begs to be read outside the white gaze has earned its right to autonomy, to be free of the judgments of the white Euro-American canon.

We should resist that move. There’s an unsettling tendency, particularly among white liberal readers, to treat black writers, and the black experience, as somehow sui generis, as standing completely apart from other parts of the culture.

Despite Coates’s atheism and the science of global warming that underlies this vision of destruction, it’s hard to escape its theological overtones. Baldwin derived the title of The Fire Next Time from the couplet of a black spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign./ No more water, the fire next time.” The couplet is a more menacing rendition of the original story in Genesis 9. After the Flood, God promises Noah that he will never again destroy humanity and that the rainbow will be a sign of God’s covenant with humanity. But the spiritual Baldwin cites warns of a different ending: This time, it was the flood; next time, it will be the fire. Though The Fire Next Time was written in 1962, it’s hard not to read it as a premonition of the urban fire that would consume America later that decade.

Coates writes out of an even stronger atheism than Baldwin, yet he conjures a catastrophe more biblical and otherworldly than anything Baldwin, who was reared and steeped in the teachings of the black church, imagined. Baldwin envisioned not a flood but a fire, a fire set by men against men. For Coates, it is the opposite: no more fire, the water next time.

So there will be a rescue from the sky, of sorts. Black America will be delivered by a sovereign from above. Its suffering will come to an end. Only it will end the way all living things come to an end: by death. The answer to black suffering is not a public roused, but as was true of Hobbes, a public annihilated.

Whither Public Intellectuals?

We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear in the face of state repression or social intransigence but instead will dig in and charge forward. And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today. Not tenure, not the death of bohemia, not jargon, but the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.

You can read all of it here.



Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 3:35 pm

I’m glad this

“be read outside the white gaze has earned its right to autonomy, to be free of the judgments of the white Euro-American canon.”

Was dismissed. How is Coates, an American, not part of this Canon?
I often wish Coates would adopt a more comparative approach to African American suffering. I thought he was starting to do this with his forays into 1914-45 eastern european history , but he often drifts back to implications of African American exceptionalism, no doubt driven (as he himself notes) by his upbringing in the black nationalist tradition. To me, personally, the assumptions and perspectives of nationalist traditions are often obvious, and help limit his analysis.


Anarcissie 01.24.16 at 4:07 pm

(The concept of the intellectual is a class concept, and thus (within the class-based state) every intellectual is a public intellectual.)


eric titus 01.24.16 at 4:53 pm

Thanks for the great piece.

I understand that also addressing Coates’s historicism would be a lot of a single piece, but I think it is important to understanding him as a public intellectual. Coates sees the past as a living instrument, constantly reinterpreted to reshape the politics and culture of the present-day. He believes that until the US is able to honestly perceive the past and its injustices, white America cannot be “whole,” and its oppression of others will continue. This leads him in interesting directions. Even as he focuses on the body, he remains convinced that the solution is a spiritual one. This also pushes him in a very different direction from leftist politicians (see Sanders, Bernie) who feel that a national conversation about race and history is beyond reach.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 5:11 pm

@1. Don’t understand the point. Not having read Coates yet on reparations, I thought the argument for exceptionalism is exactly based on a comparative perspective, i.e. on American blacks not having received reparations where others had (survivors of the Judeocide, interned Japanese-Americans, those held hostage at the Iranian embassy, even Native American groups in the US). To add insult to injury, Haitians blacks were made to pay reparations to France and Anglo-American slaveowners were compensated for their loss of “property”. This sense of grievance may not withstand historical scrutiny, and the case for reparations may make for bad politics. But it is certainly based on a comparative perspective, and has little to do with the question of whether Hobbes or Marx offer insight relevant to black life in the US.


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 5:32 pm

?? Who said anything about reparations ? I’m not against reparations in theory but I don’t have the knowledge of the specifics/am not an American, so don’t have a position on them in practice.
My point is about Coates general analysis which has become limited and parochial IMO


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 5:38 pm

OK so Coates’ call for reparations may not be limited and parochial or based on a false sense of exceptionalism; so then what part of his analysis is? And what exactly is wrong with that? And is he unusually parochial? Or is being held to a different standard?


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 5:40 pm

His piece on reparations wasn’t reAlly based on a meaningful comparative perspective afaicr. It was more “well x y snd z got them.” It was evidence used to support his case, with no real analysis of the politics of why some groups got them or others don’t , or what practical pyrpose they serve (afaicr he Largely ignored the role they played in building yhe Israeli state snd dispossesing the natives)


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 5:48 pm

That was cross posted. Is he unusual ? Compared to what ? Compared to people who engage in comparative analysis ? Sure. Is he being held to a differnt standard? Compared to what ? Compared to peope who look at things in comparative perspective ? Prob not?. What’s wrong with that ? As I said , I personally think it only goes so far. The history he tells is interesting , I guess it has resonance in the US, but I think it has a limit in capturing the political or moral imagination.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 5:50 pm

So you are faulting Coates for focusing on American blacks, not Palestinians? And for not developing a general, world-historical theory of necessary and sufficient conditions for reparations to be paid? He should be doing that instead of focusing on black American life, something presumably that Americans already know enough about due in part of course to the sincere efforts made here at Crooked Timber.


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 5:55 pm

Well yes I’m Obviousky faulting him for something approaching that interpretation . But Ill leave elaborating further until I’m off my phone


eric titus 01.24.16 at 5:58 pm

While Robin is talking about Coates’s book, if you’re interested you can read Coates on reparations here:

In the piece Coates is definitely not comparative. His effort is to move away from talking about reparations being only about slavery, and to look at the economic harms to blacks in the 20th century. In the US case, reparations are often dismissed as referring to harms in the distant past, and that part of the debate is what Coates was pushing against.

@Ronan There is a strong case to be made for American racial politics as distinctive. Coates may not share your take on it, but that does not make him “limited and parochial.”


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 6:06 pm

I would not say “definitely not comparative”. American black history is understood in comparison to the history of white immigrants. Coates writes in this piece: ‘In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport. “It was like people who like to go out and shoot lions in Africa.’


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 9:04 pm

Eric , it might be distinctive, but the amount of suffering isn’t exceptional. “Parochial and limited ” are personal opinions rather than set in stone categories , but even in his trips to Europe (admittedly I’ve not read him recently so this might have changed ) there’s little interest shown in how the other half lives there. Of course there no obligation on him to write on these topics , but the lack of interest implies to me a perspective that doesnt extend much beyond his own in group suffering


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 9:45 pm

Got it, Ronan (rf)–you must be thankful for the anonymity that the Crooked Timber collective allows you to have; or are you a member of the CT collective as I suspect so many of the anonymous posters are? The anonymity gives you the ability to bravely imply that Coates does not care about anyone who is not black. Not like you who evidently cares about anyone and everyone who suffers in the world. You are saying that we can’t have anyone focused on the specificities of the American black condition and give voice to its distinctive suffering? Well not here at Crooked Timber because people here just don’t find it interesting. Well, yes, of course.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 10:01 pm

By the way, I also don’t understand Robin’s point about Hobbes. The BlackLivesMatter movement is not moving from recognition of the terrorized black body to a call for a sovereign which “could provide the body the protection, the relief from fear, it needed” since it is the sovereign that is being held responsible for terrorizing the black body. Is this Robin’s point–that Coates’ theorization of BLM can be understood as anti-Hobbesian?


Shmoo 01.24.16 at 10:21 pm

I’ve been reading TNC for years now, and he’s one of the few people who consistently makes me feel like an idiot. The force of his intellect just overwhelms me. I can see how one might want his perspective to be broader, but it doesn’t really bother me – my impression from reading him is that his intellectualism is both deeply personal and highly disciplined, and that discipline is very important to him – important enough that he’d prefer to be deep rather than broad, and very, very few people can be both, and he’s also pretty young, still. Perhaps his primary interest is, as Ronan puts it, “in group suffering”, but that does sound a bit condescending, especially given that his subject matter one of the crucial issues of the day.


djw 01.24.16 at 10:24 pm

On the disputed point here, Rakesh seems pretty much correct to me, and Ronan wrong (as he usually is when the topic has to do with race and America) but this

or are you a member of the CT collective as I suspect so many of the anonymous posters are?

is bizarre, paranoid nonsense.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 10:27 pm

But the CT collective determines who can post anonymously and cannot. I cannot.


Momentary 01.24.16 at 10:34 pm

Given that Coates spent much of 2013-2014 publicly working through Snyder’s Bloodlands and Judt’s Postwar, Ronan’s claim seems entirely ridiculous.


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 10:43 pm

Thanks djw, I’ve decided to read that as a backhanded compliment ; )
Rakesh, I have no idea who or what a ct collective is . My anonymity extends as far as my surname. If you were really intent on knowing my true identity i woukdnt have a huge problem expanding on it.


Corey Robin 01.24.16 at 10:54 pm

Rakesh: “By the way, I also don’t understand Robin’s point about Hobbes. The BlackLivesMatter movement is not moving from recognition of the terrorized black body to a call for a sovereign which “could provide the body the protection, the relief from fear, it needed” since it is the sovereign that is being held responsible for terrorizing the black body. Is this Robin’s point–that Coates’ theorization of BLM can be understood as anti-Hobbesian?”

Did you even read the piece? It pretty much answers your question. And makes fairly clear that nowhere but nowhere do I treat Coates as a theoretician — or his work as a theorization — of Black Lives Matter.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 10:54 pm

I found on the web your true identity, Ronan (rf).
“The details of my life are quite inconsequential … Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a 15-year-old French prostitute named Chloé with webbed feet. My father would womanize; he would drink; he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes, he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament … My childhood was typical: summers in Rangoon … luge lessons … In the spring, we’d make meat helmets … When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds — pretty standard, really. At the age of 12, I received my first scribe. At the age of 14, a Zoroastrian named Vilmer ritualistically shaved my testicles. There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum — it’s breathtaking … I suggest you try it”


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 10:58 pm

@20 Yes but how do you understand what Coates is saying? Where do you think he stands? How would you use Hobbes to illuminate what he saying? It seems to me that what he is saying is anti-Hobbesian. Do you disagree?


Corey Robin 01.24.16 at 11:05 pm

Rakesh: How do I understand what Coates is saying? I give a fairly precise accounting in my article of how I understand what he is saying. If you think my account is wrong, spell out precisely — preferably not with a litany of what seem, at best, rhetorical questions — where you think I get him wrong. I don’t know why in the world you think I would sit here in and write out the argument of the piece when you very clearly haven’t read it. Read the damn thing, tell me exactly where I am getting him wrong, and we’ll take it from there.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 11:12 pm

I read what you posted here, found it interesting:
“Where Hobbes saw in the body a set of claims that might annihilate politics and the public for the sake of peace and security, Marx saw in the body a set of claims that might launch an entirely new form of politics, a new public, into being.

Where between — or beyond — these poles does Coates stand?”

I would think that he stands at the Marx pole because the sovereign is the source of terror, not peace and security. Do you disagree?


Corey Robin 01.24.16 at 11:22 pm

I’m not engaging with your questions, Rakesh. Read the piece or go deal with someone else. I’m not doing your homework for you.


Ronan(rf) 01.24.16 at 11:53 pm

*rakesh clicks on the link and begins to read*


LFC 01.24.16 at 11:54 pm


1) Like others here who’ve already made the point, I have no idea what you mean by “the CT collective.”

2) You seem to misunderstand what anonymity is. Ronan is not posting anonymously. Neither, IMO, is someone who uses his or her initials, as I do (and as djw and some others do). I started blogging and commenting under my initials, and I don’t see the point of switching to my full name now, even though I’d say maybe 90 percent of what I post online I would have no problem putting under my full name. (n.b. There is one blog where I comment under my first name rather than my initials, but that’s an exception.) Some people (or at least one in particular that I know of) think that posting under one’s full name encourages accountability and civil conversation and has other beneficial effects, and by implication people who don’t use their full names aren’t being as ‘responsible’ or something. I disagree with that.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.24.16 at 11:55 pm

Yes, let’s see what others make of your claim that Coates invokes some kind of Hobbesian sovereign that will eliminate black suffering by death. Others may well understand what you mean by a sovereign from above and what relation that has to Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty (also: is the water this time a metaphor for rising sea levels from catastrophic global warming?) I must admit to not understanding the point. For my part–I’ll repeat–I would use your interesting formulation to state that Coates should be considered anti-Hobbesian to the extent that sovereign does not bring peace and security for the black minority.


Ronan(rf) 01.25.16 at 12:17 am

Shmoo @16, I think you’ve only come out of moderation? That’s a fair point. I’ll try reply over the next day or so


Ronan(rf) 01.25.16 at 12:53 am

the ct collective ? .. “I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters…. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return”


LFC 01.25.16 at 1:15 am

Aren’t we having the literary day though? First Eric with the line from Othello (which I confess I didn’t place and had to search on) and now this.


John Quiggin 01.25.16 at 6:24 am

Talking of the CT collective, I think we are, by virtue of what we do here, public intellectuals, and we have an imagined public in mind (though not the same public for each of us(. One feature of that public I try to remember is that the regular commenters here aren’t representative of the readership. In fact, I’d say that a regular blog commenter with an established (even if pseudonymous) identity is a kind of public intellectual.


Shylock Homeslice 01.25.16 at 8:33 am

Well I sure as hell am.


TM 01.25.16 at 12:10 pm

Nobody wants to discuss Sunstein? Aren’t CTers mean ;-)


Anarcissie 01.25.16 at 2:50 pm

What would a non-establishment intellectual be? What would a private intellectual be?


TM 01.25.16 at 2:52 pm

I’d be curious too, what the adjective ‘public’ is needed for when speaking of intellectuals.


Anarcissie 01.25.16 at 3:39 pm

Ze K 01.25.16 at 3:12 pm @ 39 —
Well, Mr. Coates attacked Mr. Sanders for not supporting reparations for Negro slavery. I have not heard about him attacking any of Mr. Sanders’s competitors on the same grounds. Of course Mr. Coates is credentialed in various ways, for instance, he is a published author of books and writes for The Atlantic. I think all this casts an interesting light on his relationship with the Established Order — it seems to be complex, shall we say. Mr. Sunstein, on the other hand, is simply a social engineer who works at plotting ways in which the folk can be more artfully manipulated by his masters or his class. Not much complexity there; he is fully in sync with the E.O. But he, too, has credentials. Are the credentials what make them intellectuals? If so, does this not make them and all like them ‘public’ in a sense?


Momentary 01.25.16 at 4:19 pm

Anarcissie @40 you could easily read his own words at

Hillary Clinton has no interest in being labeled radical, left-wing, or even liberal. Thus announcing that Clinton doesn’t support reparations is akin to announcing that Ted Cruz doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose. The position is certainly wrong. But it is hardly a surprise, and doesn’t run counter to the candidate’s chosen name.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.25.16 at 4:23 pm

I wrote this on another thread:
Coates’ critique of Sanders is actually generating passionate support for Sanders among many blacks who feel that Coates unfairly singled him out. Sanders also comes across as honest because he has not made false promises in response to the controversy; his civil rights record also turns out to be at least as strong as Clinton’s. The Democrats are probably going to need a high black turnout to win the Presidency and several other offices.
On the issues, Clinton’s best chance to win the primary remains ironically enough that she stands for practical, doable health care reform while Sanders’ proposed reforms will only result in confusion and regress. Sanders has Seth Ackerman defending him against the criticisms of Ygelesias and Ezra Klein on health care. If the focus is on workplace issues or taxation or foreign policy, Clinton will have a tough path to the nomination.


LFC 01.25.16 at 4:37 pm

I heard Corey deliver the address last fall from which his Chronicle article is adapted. He suggests a particular definition or conception of ‘public intellectual’ and it might be interesting if TM, Ze K, and others here engaged with that, rather than going off on their own discussion — there’s nothing wrong with the latter, to be sure, but there is an OP here with a link to Corey’s article.


LFC 01.25.16 at 4:44 pm

Sunstein (though I’m not nec. a big fan of his) is not a “propagandist” and Coates is not a “mere ethnic nationalist.” This is just nonsense.


LFC 01.25.16 at 4:46 pm

@Ze K
Just out of curiosity, have you ever read as much as a single word that either Coates or Sunstein has written?


Rakesh Bhandari 01.25.16 at 4:57 pm

@43. LFC. could you clarify what Robin is saying about Hobbes? Who is the sovereign from above? What does the water symbolize? I really am lost, and just gravitated to what I understood.


Cian 01.25.16 at 5:08 pm

I was pretty unimpressed by Coates call for reparations. Not because necessarily I think there’s anything wrong with reparations, but I can’t really see how it could be implemented in a way that would achieve his goals. I mean the administration alone… Unless the goal is suddenly to increase the number of people who identify as black. ‘cos it would sure achieve that. And wow, if you really want to increase racial tension, telling poor whites that they’re going to be taxed more to help ‘well off’ black people seems like an excellent way to achieve it.

I don’t disagree with him about the problem, or the scale. But as a solution its stupid.


LFC 01.25.16 at 5:09 pm

I heard Corey’s speech at the USIH conference and took a few notes on it, but that was last October (I don’t recall offhand much about Hobbes in the speech). I haven’t yet read the Chronicle article. I’ll try to do that later today and then if I have something responsive to your question to say, will do so.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.25.16 at 5:12 pm

@49 LFC, didn’t you say in the course of discussing Ellen Meiksins Wood that your Ph.D. is in IR and that you are not in the academy? So you’re hanging out American Studies conferences just for the kicks:)


LFC 01.25.16 at 5:24 pm

Short answer: yes. Also, that particular conference was in Wash. D.C. (the USIH conference, like most such conferences, is in a different place every year) and since I live in the area I didn’t have to travel, just get on the subway. The 2016 USIH conference will be at Stanford and I have no plans to attend that one.


Anarcissie 01.25.16 at 9:30 pm

Momentary 01.25.16 at 4:19 pm @ 41 —
I think Mr. Coates is probably well aware that Mr. Sanders is not any sort of radical, and that the cost of realistic reparations for Negro slavery would run into trillions of dollars and, as Cian says, would be a political and administrative nightmare. Attempting to lay the burden of dealing with this problem exclusively on Mr. Sanders is rather suspect in the context. People often say things because they think their words will have some effect. What effect was hoped for in this case?


Robespierre 01.25.16 at 10:03 pm

I don’t know the purpose of Coates, but what is the purpose of reparations? Is it symbolic redress? Admission of guilt by whites? (What for?) And mostly, what is supposed to happen afterwards, when reparations will have predictably failed to level the playing field for blacks, or eliminate racism?


Lyle 01.25.16 at 10:12 pm

“I definitely read at least one Coates’ piece, from the beginning to end. It was about Forest Whitaker being frisked at a NYC corner store.”

And there goes any and all credibility when you next have anything to blurt forth about his work.


Anarcissie 01.25.16 at 10:45 pm

Robespierre 01.25.16 at 10:03 pm @ 54 —
When Alice owes Betty a hundred dollars, we don’t expect Alice to ask what good the money is going to do Betty. We just think Alice should pay up. I mean, usually.

However, since reparations for slavery are extremely unlikely to happen, the more cogent question might be ‘What is the purpose of talking about reparations?’ Perhaps a public intellectual might use the issue to try to embarrass a particular presidential candidate for some reason. There could be many other purposes.


js. 01.25.16 at 10:48 pm

Just a PSA: Coates has in fact written a—very long—article making, well, “The Case for Reparations”. If one were, I don’t know, to read it, one would find responses to precisely the sorts of questions people are so diligently raising here.


Lyle 01.25.16 at 10:54 pm

I’ve been wondering why Adolph Reed is so very dismissive of Coates work, and of work against racism in general. Is he really so able to see the significance of BOTH racism and classism?


Rakesh Bhandari 01.25.16 at 11:04 pm

Take Reed’s first book, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon. IIRC, he lambasts black leaders for taking a payout from Coors for minority business development on the condition that the leaders did not join a strike action. Race for him is a way of splitting the working class and weakening it from taking actions from which black workers would benefit most of all. Reed’s always worried those who would position themselves to receive and distribute “reparations” would not be accountable in a legal-rational way to the black masses. Reed has powerful arguments, yet anti-poor prejudice is so shot through with anti-black prejudice in this country–see what is happening at Flint–it’s easy to see why those who claim to be concerned about poverty but do not confront directly and loudly anti-black prejudice are received suspiciously by many African-Americans. It’s also true that there is a high level of active discrimination in the labor market that has to be confronted; so it’s not surprising that blacks who have not been broken by the system would want action here in addition to class-based action.


bob mcmanus 01.26.16 at 12:05 am

58:Adolph Reed can speak for himself

“The psychobabbling bromides that elevate recognition and celebration of black agency rest on an ideological perspective that in practical terms rejects effective black political action in favor of expressive display. It is the worldview of an element of the contemporary black professional stratum anchored in the academy, blogosphere, and the world of mass media chat whose standing in public life is bound up with establishing a professional authority in speaking for the race. This is the occupational niche of the so-called black public intellectuals.”

Reed links to This Piece

“Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement — a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target — black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind — to improve “race relations.”

“Identity politics” is not at all new, and Socialism has been in deadly conflict with other forms (ethnic, nationalist) since their almost simultaneous inception.


Robespierre 01.26.16 at 12:34 am


But no reparations are owed. Education is owed. Health is owed. Safety and dignity are owed. Full and productive participation in society is owed. That goes for any human being, though of course it is much more urgent and unfulfilled for blacks.

Nationalist mindset aside, blacks are not representatives of the black race, whites are not representatives of the white race (and let’s not get in those cases that muddle this neat simplification of race in the Usa). The legacy of slavery and racism is a problem because it holds back actual individual blacks today, not because it represents a moral debt from current whites to current blacks.

This is, of course, all in theory, since there is no way that anything close to reparations will ever actually happen.


Robespierre 01.26.16 at 12:42 am

Not to mention, I think that framing economic grievances on the badis of race is actively harmful – not merely in principle because it reinforces race based tribalism, but because it turns economic issues (all issues really) in a tug of war between races, where it is very unlikely that blacks prevail: to the extent that the mere hint that social programs benefit blacks is enough to make them politically vulnerable.


Anarcissie 01.26.16 at 3:00 am

Robespierre 01.26.16 at 12:34 am @ 61 —
As a person of anarchistic and communistic prejudices, I have not been very interested in reparations — I’d rather see everyone get roughly the same stuff. However, in the course of arguing with libertarians on Usenet back in the day, since they were extremely particular about property, I thought it amusing to raise the issue of the just reparation of slave-produced property according to their classical-liberal lights. In that framework, a substantial amount of labor was obviously stolen from the Negro slaves. One can in fact compute its minimal cost and exchange value and when I did it, it ran into several trillion dollars. At the time I did the calculation, back when a trillion dollars was real money, it seemed to come out to about $200,000 per Black capita, which curiously was at that time the total supposed value of all productive capital in the U.S. divided by the number of inhabitants thereof. Of course my calculations were very rough and could be argued about, but we need not let that detain us here. A distribution traditionally held to be just, if you believe in inheritance, as the libbits tended to, could be per stirpes. Such a program would indeed lead to a considerable interest in genealogy, and not only would White Americans discover how much of their wealth descended from the slaves, but how much of their ancestry as well. One could actually come up with the money value of White privilege. I agree, though, that it’s an idle fantasy, however illustratively colored, and everyone knows that, which makes Mr. Coates’s interview with Mr. Sanders all the more curious.


Will S. 01.26.16 at 3:21 am

I find it amazing how Ta-Nehisi Coates can spend so much time writing about the case for reparations that explicitly have nothing to do with slavery and arefor injustices committed within living memory (reparations for people who are still alive!) and all of his naysayers in this thread all want to talk about the impossibility of reparations for slavery.

At best people are pontificating without knowing a damn thing, and at worst think they know what any black writer is going to say so why bother to read his actual writing or engage with his arguments?

It’s not only here, although the commentary in this thread is an exemplary example, and it reveals the ugly racism still lurking on the left.


TM 01.26.16 at 1:00 pm

I find it strange to distinguish between “public intellectuals” and those that are not public (private intellectuals?). The term intelectual doesn’t make sense to me unless it refers to a person who is active in public life. But honestly, I don’t terribly care about this detail and if CR likes this term, more power to him.


magari 01.26.16 at 2:58 pm

Let’s not over think this. White America is rich off Black America’s stolen labor. White America is rich off of Black America’s stolen goods. White America is rich off Black America’s ghettoization. Reparations don’t need be a check, and don’t need a per capita figure. How about starting with repairing the damage done to Black America by addressing the nation’s drug laws and incentives to incarcerate, better funding and staffing urban schools, and restarting a blue collar economy.


Anarcissie 01.26.16 at 2:58 pm

Will S. 01.26.16 at 3:21 am @ 64 —
The difference between reparations for slavery and reparations for other things is that the former can be at least given some semblance of clear social and financial definition. Everyone agrees that slavery took place upon a population of a certain size, and that, among other things, it constituted a theft of labor which resulted in considerable profits for the thieves and those who traded with them. No doubt there were many other wrongs but they are easier to deny or obfuscate, and harder to compute. I don’t see how attempting the computation in the limited case of explicit slavery is ‘racist’.

Ze K 01.26.16 at 11:57 am @ 65 —
It would not be impossible to estimate the value of the food, clothing and shelter given to the slaves, and charge their estates accordingly, but having examined some of the accounts of slavery, and some of the preserved slave quarters, I think the charges would not much affect the balance. As for your correct observation about being enslaved: we can construe that as a kind of job running 24 hours per day, and assign wages accordingly.


steven johnson 01.26.16 at 3:49 pm

Isn’t the case for reparations is it’s an alternative to socialism?

The OP seems to equate persuasion with alienation. But perhaps it’s demagogy, the evocation of a singular and singularly false self in the public that is the true alienation?


Consumatopia 01.26.16 at 6:06 pm

I don’t want to discourage people from reading “The Case for Reparations”, but I’m gonna spoil the ending: Coates has consistently responded to the harder questions about reparations by pointing at H.R. 40, John Conyers’ bill to create a commission to study reparations.

I think what Coates said about Sanders is a “radical” is a bit silly–that “count me as a radical” Sanders quote Coates offers looks ironic to me. And some of what Coates said about socialism wasn’t quite right.

But ultimately, all Coates is asking for is to create a Congressional commission that wouldn’t even have any real power other than to make recommendations. Backing HR 40 wouldn’t even commit a legislator to support reparations. That seems like a very modest request to me, even for someone seeking national office. If rectifying the wrongs of the past is beyond the power or authority of the government, we ought to at least publicly admit that.

I have to say, though, that even if pointing at HR 40 makes sense as an ethical/political position, as a matter of writing it feels like a cop out. You’ve obviously spent a lot of time researching this issue, and it doesn’t look like that Congressional commission will be created anytime soon. Why not tell us what you think reparations would actually look like? “The Case for Reparations” doesn’t just say that reparations are necessary to relieve black suffering or racial equality. In his view, reparations would redefine America and even end the concept of whiteness. Well, I think it’s totally reasonable for poorer white, Asian and Latino Americans to ask exactly what that means for them–exactly what policy would they all be living under, and what is this new America supposed to look like? “Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and that is perhaps what scares us.” Maybe so, but then, why wait for Congress to start the discussion?


Anarcissie 01.27.16 at 12:48 am

The discussion has already been going on for quite a while, hasn’t it?


Consumatopia 01.27.16 at 1:13 am

Yeah, it has, and I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s it always seems to be at this vague rhetorical level. It’s never “here’s what reparations should look like” vs “here are my moral objections to that proposal”. Or at least the public argument never looks like that, I realize that there are a number of reparations proposals in academia.


Anarcissie 01.27.16 at 1:32 am

I came up with a specific, concrete proposal for computing the amount due, and a specific, concrete proposal for distributing the payment. The liable parties would be those institutions which supported slavery and still exist, chiefly the Federal government and the government of the states which were in existence before 1865. I have seen other specific, concrete proposals as well. I realize that these appeared in the fever-swamps of the Internet, but not all of us have access to respectable publication (‘public’). One could only hope they would drift upward into fairer climes.

The mere fantasy of giving real cash money to the heirs of the slaves, in payment of a just debt, seems to make a lot of people very uncomfortable; which, since nothing real will ever be done, at least affords us a modicum of sadistic pleasure.


Consumatopia 01.27.16 at 2:49 am

Yeah, you’re right, I shouldn’t have erased your argument like that. Sorry.

Also I have to admit that I’m a total hypocrite on this issue, having a different opinion on it pretty much every time I think of it.

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