Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the Civil War was exactly tragic, or not, depending

I'm never quite sure what to take from Ta-Nehisi Coates's series on whether the Civil War was tragic. It has the classic Coates trademark of at once wrestling with contentious issues while scolding anyone else engaged by them for doing similar wrestling. I never find a similar combination of interest in a showy search for truth and aggrieved huffing at others who are searching. We're talking about thousands of words written in pursuit of an interesting and fertile question, undertaken by someone with a deep knowledge and abiding passion for the subject matter, unspooled in a long and complicated progression of analysis, which ends, I'm sorry to say, with the insistence that anyone who considers the opposite conclusion is engaged in an act of terribly amoral privilege This might even be the path to truth, but Christ, it's cruel.

Look, the truth is that this is an argument in search of someone to be argued at; it's the kind of stance you take when you're most interested in sorting actors rather than defining correct action. There's no answer to whether the Civil War was tragic because the question is embedded in shifting definitions. It is a semantic argument that pays too little attention to semantics. I'm consistently disappointed that he doesn't spend more time considering the classic definition of tragedy, that the tragic is the downfall that springs from character, that tragedy occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable. In this sense I would say that the Civil War is precisely tragic: given the character of the early United States, it was both inevitable and necessary. That equality was codified in so many of our foundational texts while simultaneously denied to many millions of the country's people isn't merely an ugly contradiction but one which made violent correction inevitable. And it is the same elementary truth that constantly plays out in our conduct today: the United States pays lip service to a set of righteous values while acting in a way totally contrary to those values, and expects the world to judge it by the values and not the action. Killing innocent children with drones while we claim to hold values that renders that conduct unspeakable is how we operate. The Civil War killed 600,000 people because of the hypocrisy that is the living definition of the American heart; that same hypocrisy kills today. You could call that tragic. I don't know if I'd go along with you but I'm damn sure I wouldn't peer down from the mountain and declare monstrosity.

As I said, given the United States's character, the Civil War was inevitable, and given the alternatives, the war was preferable to the continuation of the violent apartheid state that existed. But the United States didn't have to have that character; that history unfolded in the way it did could itself be regarded as tragic.This is the problem with the way the blogosphere conditions Internet liberals to seek favor from one another: they're constantly looking for crosses to die on, boundaries of the acceptable that they can define and place themselves on the correct side of. In doing so, they dramatically shrink the bounds of the possible. So when Adam Serwer insists the moral equivalence of pacifism and barbarism, he does so by denying that there is an actual path of peace within the possible. But most of the evil in the world isn't done by people who know that they're committing evil. Most is done by people who think that they are the ones protecting the innocent from barbarism. It's practically tautological the way critics of pacifism insist violence is inevitable and thus must be opposed with same. Keep looking for it and you will always find it.

Perhaps whether the slaves could have been freed without bloodshed is just fodder for the dorm room. That the slavery state must have been ended is obvious, and given the past we've got, I much prefer the war to the continuation of slavery. But once you ask the question you invite the counterfactual, and any action undertaken by humans could have been replaced by better action.

I mean, Coates drops this.

"Slavery was an actual thing. All else is garnish."

If your primary interest in writing is to come up with zingers, this is satisfying. If not, less. If all of that is garnish, why are we here? Didn't I just read some of that garnish? What's the buzz? If this is all garnish, what's the point? Why is he writing it and not out enjoying life? Or has it only been rendered garnish by his declaration that the conflict is solved and the issue decided? I can't find a coherent reading of that other than "I, Ta-Nehisi Coates, have taken the tasty and filling lettuce that was this argument and rendered it shameful parsley through the benevolent powers of my mind." If you're just in the garage working out truth, without letting the rest of us see the moving parts, keep it to yourself. There's no value in it. Garnish is garnish on anyone's plate. Take it from a bullshitter: that line is bullshit. It mocks those who take the argument of which it is a part seriously. It congratulates its author for his position while it mocks those who are following along.

Coates has always struck me as a man who accesses nuance out of a desire to be given credit for it. But the trick isn't to wade through nuance like it's a swamp but to reside there, to rest in the discomfort of negative capability and accept a certain indeterminacy as the sad reality of the life of the mind. But you've got to be cool with wading alongside everybody else, and if there's one thing that Coates's corpus suggests to me, it's that he's unwilling to accept standing on the same morally queasy level as anybody else. He's self-critical, and to his credit, but he's not willing to be covered in the same grime of dirty argument that the people he's criticizing are.
It is a privilege to view the Civil War merely as four violent years, as opposed to the final liberating act in a two and half century-long saga of horrific violence, a privilege that black people have never enjoyed, and truthfully that no one in this country should indulge.
It's also a privilege to be able to reduce those for four violent years to the phrase "four violent years" rather than to lie dead in the mud during them. If one person dies in the commission of good, that is evil. That it happened to end another evil, that we often have to chose one evil over another, that calling two seemingly opposing actions both evil is so unsatisfying-- this is what we call the human dilemma. If you want to define terms so that the Civil War isn't tragic, go right ahead; it's your dime.

I just see no service, public or private, in regarding a question as vexing and vexed but insisting on arriving at an untroubled answer, and worse, for casting the cheap currency of privilege onto those who aren't similarly self-assured. I'm sure it's fun to abide above the fray like a Buddha but frankly I always found the idea unpalatable. The process of edifying oneself is important. To set it against edifying those who are reading you is a cynical, cynical thing to do. Maybe I just expect too much in thinking that putting something in a public forum means that you're willing to give a little of yourself and to accept the equal humanity of equivalent questions. The thing about real, profound, intractable problems is that there is no percentage in merely being right about them. But if your preference is to occupy wisdom rather than merely working with others to spread it, cool. Just don't expect everyone to watch you play by yourself. There's a lot of living to do out here.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Coates has always struck me as a man who accesses nuance out of a desire to be given credit for it.


winner

paul h. said...

I really feel like Coates is one of the most overrated bloggers in the universe ... I know you took a lot of crap for it when you said he wasn't ready for the majors (i.e. the Atlantic), but, well ...

Anonymous said...

This is sort of a weird misreading of TNC's post, isn't it? "The Civil War Isn't Tragic" is a flip headline, I guess, but within the post--and, if I remember correctly, within his other posts on the subject--it seems pretty clear that he's not ruminating on the nature of tragedy so much as attempting to refute what he sees as a (the dominant?) narrative about the Civil War:

'The origins of the American Tragedy are rooted in the Civil War denialism of historians who held that the war wasn't about slavery but, in the words of Charles Beard, "a sectional struggle" between two powers divided by "accidents of climate, soil and geography."'

That is, he's not "engaging in a semantic argument"; he's trying to dispute a specific, and inaccurate, reading of the causes--of the necessity--of the Civil War. "Tragic" in this case means something specific: "Avoidable."

Nor can I see anything in the post that indicates that Coates "regards [this] question as vexing." There's no indication that he thinks of the "issue" as "contentious." He seems to think it's pretty clear-cut! That is, indeed, the whole point of the post!

I guess if you want to take him to task for not being more rigorous in his examination of the word "tragedy," or more compassionate in his writing, or more willing to accept that "others are searching" (for what, exactly?) that's fair. But as it stands this is a kind of weirdly passive-aggressive post that doesn't seem to be engaging with Coates at all.

I don't know, you don't like the guy, maybe you have your reasons. Or maybe this is directed at an older post? Usually this blog is a lot better at this kind of thing, though.

Freddie said...

I've just enumerated, in several hundred words, my problems with his post. You've indicated that you find my position unpersuasive, which is fine. I just don't understand how I can be called passive aggressive here. I thought that this was just ordinary intellectually aggressive.

Also, you know, the "you don't like him" thing-- I take on many people on the Internet. It's not any different with Coates.

Anonymous said...

But the trick isn't to wade through nuance like it's a swamp but to reside there, to rest in the discomfort of negative capability and accept a certain indeterminacy as the sad reality of the life of the mind.

Oh, bullshit. Your complaint is that Coates undertakes academic projects but lacks an academic ethos ("It's complicated; we'll never know.").

But, you know, fuck an academic ethos. For the most part "negative capability" is a lie that motivates academics to make nice distinctions, investigate the true meanings of words, etc., and persuade journals to publish their thoughts on the matter under the pretense that they have new and interesting problematics to investigate. [*mimes suicide by shotgun*]

In any case, Coates already has an audience for his writing. I don't see how it's in his interest to lose it.

Freddie said...

Why don't you let me determine my own complaints, friend. Coates is a big boy and in no need of your protection; I am an adult and will keep my own counsel on what my complaints are.

Anonymous said...

I don't care to protect Coates; I don't even read him. I object to your playing dissertation committee, e.g., "I'm consistently disappointed that he doesn't spend more time considering the classic definition of tragedy." Sorry, it's an academic tic I'm all-too-familiar with, and I really dislike it.

Freddie said...

I'm a consumer of his work. I can react to it in whatever way I find appropriate. He's under no obligation to care or even notice. But as long as his work is being published in a public forum, I'm going to react to it critically, as I would expect anyone who follows my work regularly would.

Charles said...

What anonymous at comment #3 said, but also this:

"The Civil War was Tragic" is an esthetic claim. As I read him, Coates' fundamental stance is that the proper way to judge the war is morally; that judging the war like a connoisseur of drama or of tales of epic heroes is a cheap way to dodge moral judgment called for by the war and its place in our history; and that he doesn't get to play aesthete with this history because when he hears someone say "the war was a tragedy" what he hears is "it's a tragedy you aren't property." Your disappointment at his failure to discuss the war in terms of esthetic theory seems to indicate a misreading of his central point.

Since you seem to be inviting criticism, I'll add that your use of 'tragic' as a descriptor for the world, America, political trends, etc. (search your blog for the words 'tragic' and 'tragedy' and you'll see what I mean) has been getting under my skin for months. This post has clarified why. When you say something like "The world is tragic" you aren't saying anything about the world. You're seeming to say something about the world, but you're actually saying something about your own esthetic constitution. I'm emphatically not suggesting that your esthetic constitution is boring or that you shouldn't write about it. But it seems like you often take it for granted that the thing, whatever it is you're writing about, is tragic. I guess what I'm saying is, you drop it left and right, and it bears more examination. If you want to see some writing about tragedy, maybe you should do it yourself.

Freddie said...

Or, you know, maybe I should do what I want with my blog, in precisely the way you assert I should let Ta-Nehisi Coates do what he wants with his blog.

Incidentally-- "When you say something like "The world is tragic" you aren't saying anything about the world. You're seeming to say something about the world, but you're actually saying something about your own esthetic constitution. "-- this is perfectly trivial. You can make that claim about literally any position taken by anyone on issue, ever. "Ta-Nehisi Coates says 'the Civil War wasn't tragic' he's not saying anything about the Civil War. He's seeming to say something about the world, but he's actually saying something about his own esthetic constitution."

That statement has precisely the argumentative value that yours does, which is to say, none.

Matt said...

I'm not much of a fan of TNC and I actually think much of what you're writing here has merit. I particularly like the line, "I never find a similar combination of interest in a showy search for truth and aggrieved huffing at others who are searching." I often find his stuff really difficult to read because he seems to make such a show of wrestling with ideas but never actually says anything - almost like a liberal David Brooks.

That said, you seem a bit uncharacteristically defensive here Freddie. Its not terribly useful to respond to every critique with a, "its my blog and I'll say what I want." You wrote a provocative post (one that I happen to largely agree with) and some people wrote, what seem to me at least, well thought out dissents. Not sure why you found them so bothersome that you couldn't respond with much more than an angry huff.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Matt above. If you didn't want people to criticize your post, you should have closed the comments.

Paul said...

Unfortunately, I think you're undercutting your own arguments. I have to agree with most of the criticism in the comments, but what's more telling is your response.

As you say, you're free to regard Coates' comments in any way you like. But I thought you were making an intellectual argument about what his flaws are as a writer. If that is so, I'd hope you were prepared to defend that argument.

But you make your case, then people point out the flaws in your reasoning, and your defense amounts to "It's my blog and I can dislike who I want."

i think this is the root of the charge of being "passive aggressive."

But, as you say, you're free to say whatever you like.

Charles said...

"Or, you know, maybe I should do what I want with my blog, in precisely the way you assert I should let Ta-Nehisi Coates do what he wants with his blog."

Of course you should. Sorry for suggesting you write about something. That's clearly out of bounds.

"...this is perfectly trivial. You can make that claim about literally any position taken by anyone on issue, ever."

Poppycock. I can (and do) make that claim about anyone who insists on imposing esthetic categories on real events, especially in ways that seem un-illuminating. Because what, really, does "X is tragic" mean? Here are some options:

1) When I see X I become emotionally overwrought.

2) When I see X I experience catharsis.

3) X looks like a Greek stage drama.

4) X was inevitable.

I'll leave the first two alone. The third may be true but isn't interesting, although a stage drama about X might be. The last claim would be interesting if you failed to see that it's a tired-out metaphysical claim, might be either trivially true or false, and is in any case utterly unknowable. Great cocktail-party question, doesn't lead to knowledge, that sort of thing.

I'm out of ideas. I was actually hoping you'd have more, which is why I suggested you write about it.

As for your suggestion that my criticism of you applies equally to Coates -- I'm not particularly interested in defending him, and that wasn't the point of even the first half of my earlier comment. If you'd like to make the argument that he falls into the same trap you do, go for it. (Or, you know, don't. It's your blog.)

abc said...

But, Charles, you can't separate the aesthetic from the ethical, at least not in Aristotle - which seems to be your source here. First of all, your four meanings for "X is tragic" are all part of one big poetic machine. That is, to become emotionally overwrought - or to experience catharsis - is to sympathetically experience the an inevitable fall, a fall which could very much look like Greek stage drama. That one sees this fall and sympathizes with it, as a dramatic enactment of life's process, is the aesthetic tragedy exactly. The aesthetic is a feeling of life that is produced by some object of investigation.

Bearing witness to the fall of the United States, as a drama that culminates in the civil war, is not separable from morality.

Let's say the US is a character in a play and this character announces her belief in universal equality. Yet, she owns slaves. Watching the destruction that follows from the misalignment of values and practices is precisely tragic, if one sympathizes with the character in such a way that produces catharsis (i.e. I understand the feeling of failing to live up to my ideals and I suffer because of that failing, like the United States).

I will grant you that one must not experience the civil war tragically, but bearing witness to it at all must effect some sort of aesthetic experience. To remove the aesthetic from the conversation is to remove one's investment in it as a feeling human being.

abc said...

Sorry to post twice. But what's also interesting is that talking about ancient tragedy through the term "aesthetic" is anachronistic. Aesthetics, as we understand it, is a product of 17th and 18th centuries. It was meant to serve as a hedge against cold understanding by enlightenment thinkers. Faced with the crushing power of an industrializing Europe, these thinkers wanted to establish a way to protect the sanctity of human life from being used (in Kant's terms) as a means to an end.

It's value in talking about Oedipus, for instance, comes from a desire to value Oedipus' life, rather than making a judgment based on mere understanding. Instead of saying Oedipus is evil because he killed his father and married his mother, we feel the tragedy of Oedipus' life because the staged drama shows us that we could quite possibly find ourselves in the same situation. The aesthetic gives a site for discussing our sympathy with life's contingent nature.

A person in bondage is obviously a very different case than Oedipus Rex, but I can't imagine a more important category of thought when considering the implications of slavery. The aesthetic gives us a site to sympathize with others as end-in-themselves, rather than as means to the production of profit for others.

Anyway...

Benjamin said...

Isn't this picking nits? Coates isn't using the classic definition of tragedy, but that's because hardly anyone does. He's addressing 'tragic' in its everyday usage, and the idea that the Civil War was "tragic" because of the hardship and destruction it wrought, and pointing out that such thinking elides the fact that said carnage led to the emancipation of millions of people and may in fact have been the only way to achieve that.

Just about everything Coates has written on the Civil War deals with the contradictions of America's ideals and its actions, so I don't think there's any real disagreement between you two on these points. Like you said, it's semantics. And that's all it is.

Freddie said...

It's best either to conduct a defense of a piece of writing or not to. It's problematic to attempt a critique of a critique that is unwilling or unable to reflect on the piece itself, and, I think, lacking in a certain elementary fairness or mutual intelligibility. I don't understand this reflexive insistence that people are not defending Coates. That's merely a way to imply an argument without having to argue it. I will have a conversation about Coates's piece, but what I won't do is to debate a position that is self-emptying in the way that these are. There is something very, very strange going on in these critiques. If you all had the courage to fill them with content, maybe I could put my finger on it precisely. But you haven't, and you won't, so I can't.

Incidentally-- "you're being defensive" is not an argument.

Matt said...

I didn't say "you're being defensive" is an argument its an observation. I brought it up because I don't think it helps reinforce your argument (the main thrust of which I happen to agree with.)

But as I said, I too find TNC to be a very frustrating writer. In this particular instance, I think your argument and his are kind of talking past each other. But generally speaking I think Coates is a mile wide and an inch deep as a writer. As you write, he makes a big show of his intellectual struggle, but in my humble opinion he never actually comes to any actually meaningful conclusion, making the struggle feel like nothing more than intellectual masturbation. What makes him so frustrating is that he is a genuinely first class wordsmith and on those rare occasions when he makes a decisive argument its usually quite trenchant, but of course very rarely does he actually do that.

TheRaven said...

Coates routinely draws hundreds of comments from an astute, well-educated audience, many whom hold masters or PhDs, some of whom are university instructors. Coates routinely bring brings insight or at least a fresh understanding to various topics, particularly history. You've drawn 19 comments (now 20), some of which refute your refutation. Your time should be devoted to constructive pursuits. Try topics on which you can speak with authority.

Sorn said...

I thought this was the strongest peice of your argument:

It's also a privilege to be able to reduce those for four violent years to the phrase "four violent years" rather than to lie dead in the mud during them. If one person dies in the commission of good, that is evil. That it happened to end another evil, that we often have to chose one evil over another, that calling two seemingly opposing actions both evil is so unsatisfying-- this is what we call the human dilemma.

It would have been better for you as a blogger to develop this into a fully reasoned exploration of the ambiguities inherrent in our narratives. Instead, you threw eggs and voiced your disagreement with a person instead of an argument.

Instead of an attempt to tease out how a collective experience has different meanings depending on the group a person belongs to we get a sentence like this:

"I, Ta-Nehisi Coates, have taken the tasty and filling lettuce that was this argument and rendered it shameful parsley through the benevolent powers of my mind." If you're just in the garage working out truth, without letting the rest of us see the moving parts, keep it to yourself. There's no value in it. Garnish is garnish on anyone's plate. Take it from a bullshitter: that line is bullshit. It mocks those who take the argument of which it is a part seriously. It congratulates its author for his position while it mocks those who are following along.

Personally, I don't care what you're opinion of someone else is as a man, and neither do most people. Hemingway was a selfish asshole and Fitzgerald was a drunk. Hell, my great-grandmother thought Charlie Russell wouldn't amount to a hill of beans.

When evaluating someone's work character doesn't matter. What does matter however, is your assement of someone else's argument on the merits.

Instead we get half-formed assertions with a little meat that could easily have come from a civics, or American history, primer:

There's no answer to whether the Civil War was tragic because the question is embedded in shifting definitions. It is a semantic argument that pays too little attention to semantics. I'm consistently disappointed that he doesn't spend more time considering the classic definition of tragedy, that the tragic is the downfall that springs from character, that tragedy occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable. In this sense I would say that the Civil War is precisely tragic: given the character of the early United States, it was both inevitable and necessary.

All of this could have been fleshed out more fully from the 3/5compromise to the ending of the foreign slave trade, to the Dredd Scott Decision, to Jefferson's adage that America had the wold by the ears, and so on.

Instead we get a bunch of half-formed assertions that don't require any substansive evidence.

You show decent promise as a blogger, but you need to work on crafting your arguments from the evidence at hand. If you address the argument no one will ever call you out on adressing the man because you won't ever need to.

Tyler said...

This isn't substantive *at all*, but I just dropped by after a long-ish hiatus after getting kind of tired of the blog wars/Yglesias, and for what it's worth, this post and the "contempt gap" below are fantastic. Lovely writing, making points that god knows don't get made, but need to. So, I guess here's an anonymous Internet "atta boy," Freddie. Thanks for the good work, it's definitely valued.

Again, apologies for no substance, but I feel the need to note my appreciation.

Anonymous said...

I second Tyler's comment.

And I agree with Freddie's remark that the tenor of some of the critical comments here is notably odd.

My guess is that TNC is a sacred cow, and some people become very uncomfortable if he's denied reflexive, rote admiration and praise.

Anonymous said...

Given the history of our species, the onus is on the pacifist, not the cynic, to say why violence is not inevitable.

ryan said...

Geez. Tough crowd.

I thought that was well put. I have a lot of respect for Coates, but something about his take on this particular issue bugs me. You've illumined the issue sufficiently that I think I've figured it out.

Coates has been writing about the Civil War for a while. I was always inclined to believe that the War really was about slavery, but his yeoman's work with the original sources and subsequent critique of the necromantic attempts of Lost Causers to argue otherwise was really, really convincing.

But from there, he seems to be taking a rather bizarre position. He seems to believe that saying that the Civil War is "tragic" implies that the speaker believes that the Civil War was "about" something other than slavery. Given that belief, it makes a certain amount of sense to say that the War was not "tragic."

But that's a really weird belief to have. It eliminates, for instance, the possibility of believing that the entire institution of slavery was a grave moral wrong, and that this is underscored by the fact that it took four years and half a million deaths to completely debride its presence from American culture.

A position like Coates means it's impossible to characterize the Crucifixion as tragic. Which is something that Christians traditionally believe. I mean, sure, it's the only means by which we are saved, etc., but it still majorly sucked for Jesus, you know? And because Christians are supposed to love Jesus and all, is there not room for regretting that it had to happen at all, even if it was the only just response to human sin?

I think Coates does himself a disservice by conflating his opponents positions the way he does.

ZeSpec said...

First you say this about Coates:

I never find a similar combination of interest in a showy search for truth and aggrieved huffing at others who are searching.

But then:

Look, the truth is that this is an argument in search of someone to be argued at; it's the kind of stance you take when you're most interested in sorting actors rather than defining correct action.

Seems pretty similar to me. I think "aggrieved huffing at others who are searching" is just the sort of stylistic faux pas that tends to fall out when anyone tries to make a difficult argument that they feel strongly about.

Anyway, I'm not really sure this is a semantic argument. I thought Coates was mainly just describing his own emotional reaction to the war, and advancing the argument (such as it is) that his reaction is more appropriate than the typical "what a senseless waste of human life". Using categories like "tragedy" to express this is sloppy, or perhaps deliberately provocative, which is a trait I personally dislike but which does seem to bring the Internet Commenter Dollar.

Unrelated: You say the other comments here are making empty arguments. They don't look empty to me. Perhaps, instead of saying you see no substance in them, you could deconstruct them so I can see why this stuff that looks substantial to me is not?