We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates Part 1

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 25, 2018

After writing “Analog Reading in a Digital Age” last week, I decided to try harder to get deeper into what I read. I’m tired of consuming so much knowledge but retaining so little. I have a two-person book club with my friend Linda where we read a nonfiction book together and discuss it a section at a time over the phone. Currently, we’re reading We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first essay comes from May 2008, “This is How We Lost to the White Man.” It is subtitled “The audacity of Bill Cosby’s black conservatism.” Writing about race is not something I normally do because it’s very easy to saying something wrong. I know I can’t speak for black people, but in truth, I can’t speak for white people either. I am an introverted person that has always been disturbed by emotionally charged people. Racists scare me with their inflamed ugly feelings. Discussing race in America often sets people off, so I avoid such talks. But I believe all nonwhite people are unfairly treated in our country and it’s a subject everyone needs to know.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in this essay is very hard for me to comprehend. It is easy to understand the unfairness of racism but difficult to evaluate solutions. The idea of black conservatism is new to me, at least in the way Coates used the term. Usually, I see racism discussed as a philosophical/spiritual/moral problem for white people, and a legal/ethical problem for governments. “This is How We Lost to the White Man,” asks what black people can do to solve the problem. That immediately puts me out of the discussion. However, I don’t think it should stop any white person from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, and it makes me want to know more about how other African-American writers feel about what he has to say. Coates summarizes and rejects past efforts, and that history is very informative.

This essay does remind me of something else I’m studying. I’m watching “Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature” by The Great Courses and taught by Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D. In the first lectures, Bedore describes how utopian visionaries struggled for hundreds of years to create the blueprint for a perfect society. As an aside, she said she believed our Founding Fathers were inspired by utopian writing, but they ignored Native Americans, African-Americans, and women in their design.

Their failure to consider everyone for the American dream is why we suffer so many forms of injustice and inequality today. Bedore didn’t mention it, but Nancy Isenberg in her book White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America suggests the Founding Fathers also intentionally ignored the poor white and landless, and their utopian visions were only for successful white males. Despite hundreds of years of social unrest and amendments to the Constitution, our system still favors the same elites. In fact, the rich have rigged our laws making our system into a plutocracy.

What we need is a complete rewrite of our society’s design. To me, conservatives are those people seeking to maintain the status quo because it rewards their fraction of the population. Liberals are people seeking a system of total equality. I would think all minorities would be liberal, so it’s interesting that Coates calls Bill Cosby a black conservative. It is extra hard to read a ten-year-old essay about Bill Cosby on the day he’s to be sentenced for rape. Coates fairly covers Cosby’s successes and contributions to society but faults Cosby on his outdated approach. Coates calls Cosby conservative because his solutions co-opt the white establishment.

The self-reliant solutions offered by Cosby, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan seemed like positive solutions to me, but then Coates says white people will agree with them. Coates calls them conservative approaches. Okay, I can see that. But, what is the liberal approach? This is where the essay gets tough for me to understand.

As a liberal I want our system to be equal and just for all, but I’m not against self-reliant people who want to work hard to improve themselves. I am against a system where the successful game the laws to benefit only the successful. I’ve often wondered if Republicans aren’t closeted disciples of Darwin. (I also wonder how they can reconcile Christian philosophy with Conservative philosophy when they are so diametrically opposed.)

Part of Coates attack on Cosby is because Cosby attacks modern black pop culture. Cosby has old-fashion values and thinks the young are amoral, undisciplined, and an embarrassment to older morality. But don’t a lot of older folks of all races think that about the young?

The trouble is, as Coates knows, is no matter how minorities act in America they aren’t being accepted and justly treated as equals. Nor does it look like they can do anything to correct the system. What makes it particularly worse today is the Republicans leaders in Congress are starting to act like Donald Trump by using whatever methods to take what they want. This administration has clearly proved the system is rigged. Trump followers all want to feel they could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it because they feel completely self-righteous in their beliefs. Why should they change the system?

To most people living in America, the Founding Fathers created a Dystopia. Of course, those who benefit from its inequality revere its ideals and rationalize its faults.

My real takeaway from Coates essay is how do we redesign the system? How can we amend or rewrite the Constitution, so it creates a society that is equal and just for all? Coates is right, the black conservative solution won’t work, it’s only an appeasement to white conservatives.

I have no idea how to design a utopian society. The conventional wisdom is they are impossible, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. My theory is any system that benefits only a fraction of the population is doomed to fail. A successful utopia doesn’t mean everyone must succeed, but it should absolutely allow all citizens the same chances of succeeding or failing.

In my plans to write about what I read I intended to use a lot of quotes. “This is How We Lost to the White Man” doesn’t allow that because of Bill Cosby current issues. Documenting Coates eight-year-old case against Cosby would be like beating a dead horse. It’s tragic that a man who worked so hard to be publicly good turned out to be so privately bad. I should have picked an easier essay to start my new reading program. I had planned to start with the nine essays in Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, the last book Linda and I read together, but she was ready to begin the new book. Still another dangerous topic for a white male to discuss, but if I’m going to read great essays they will probably cover controversial topics.

The key to understanding our problems is imagining ourselves being other people.

Reading both books vividly illustrates how unjust our system is to minorities and women. Because the top news story for many days has been Brett Kavanaugh it shows Solnit’s older essays are also just as valid now. Reading Solnit and Coates together is heavy on my soul. I picked these essays because they do require deeper reading. It is a challenge to grasp the subtleties of their messages because I am neither female or black. I am not even sure I should write about solutions to their problems. Sometimes I think us old white guys should just step aside and let others have a turn designing society. Sometimes I feel I should retreat into writing fiction.

JWH

 

 

 

Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek has a wonderful reputation for presenting a positive future, but do we actually see that utopia in the television shows and movies? In the new film, Star Trek Beyond, we get a few minutes viewing life on Yorktown, a space city and rest stop for the crew of the Enterprise. It represents the utopian civilization of the Star Trek universe. However, if the future is what we see from the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s quite bleak indeed. The Earth, the Federation, the galaxy are always under threat from madmen and alien beings that don’t agree with the Federation’s view of how the galaxy should be ruled.

YorkTown

In the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, William Shatner interviews many of the principle individuals who created Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many of the stories told were about Gene Roddenberry’s new utopian vision for Star Trek. Writers found utopia hard to dramatize. The writers wanted violence, and Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to showcase what humanity could be at its best. The creative battle to create ST:TNG was quite dystopian itself, with one interviewee admitting he thought about pushing Roddenberry’s lawyer out an open window. The solution for providing conflict to the utopian Federation of the 24th century, was to create the Borg. A challenge from outside the utopia. This gave the actors something to do physically, and writers an antagonist for their plots. The show became a success.

But what about Star Trek’s reputation for presenting a positive future? To the crew of Star Trek Beyond, the future is hell, even though they’re defending an idyllic civilization. This time the attack is from within, a terrorist with a bioweapon. But if you look at the history of Star Trek shows, why are there so many internal and external attacks on the Federation? It’s hard to justify you’re painting a rosy picture of the future, when so many want to destroy it.

Aren’t there ways writers could show the future with fewer threats and more civilized activities? What if Star Trek Beyond had been a different movie. Imagine no galactic terrorists, but instead, a story about how the crew  spent their time at Yorktown. Could the writers have presented a view of the future that Roddenberry wanted? One where we felt that things would turn out all right. One that gave us hope for the future. Right now, all indications are the future is going to suck big time. My most successful essay on this blog for the last two years has been “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” I’m not sure most of us believe humanity will solve its problems. Is science fiction confirming our pessimism, or generated it?

I don’t ever expect a real utopia. But if we eventually create a sustainable society without violence, want and environmental self-destruction, I’d call it good enough for the label utopia.

If Star Trek is a positive view of the future, should we see so many phasers and space battles in a 24th century? Think about this. How many TV shows and movies do you watch that have guns? And how many that don’t. Guns are an easy way to drive the plot. But there are plenty of entertaining shows without guns. Should we consider The Big Bang Theory utopian? Look at the 100 most-watch shows of 2015-2016 season. If you subtract comedies and reality shows, it’s not easy to find shows that don’t involve violence as a plot driver. And the ones that do, like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, generally don’t appeal to guys. It’s easy to see why writers fought Gene Roddenberry over story ideas.

Of course we have to ask what we really want. Do moviegoers plunking down ten bucks want to see Sing Street, Love & Friendship, Brooklyn, or do they want to see computer generated space battles? (By the way, try and find a blockbuster movie for adults that don’t have violence.) Why are so many escapist blockbuster movies about extreme violence? When we walk into a movie theater we’re paying to leave the real reality and experience an artificial reality. Our society is far from utopian, but many people live near utopian lives. Sure a large segment of our society also live unhappy, miserable lives. But why would either type seek out escapism that involves mass killing?

Do we even want utopias in our entertainment? Fiction is driven by conflict. The easiest conflict to create is violence. That explains most television and movie plots. But what about Roddenberry’s vision? I need to rewatch the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many claim those seasons are the worst of the series, but yet they were the ones when Roddenberry had the most influence.

Other Takes

JWH