Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has turned what could have been a routine re-publication of old essays into a genuine work of art.

The bulk of this book consists of eight essays, all published in The Atlantic, one per year of the Obama presidency. But Coates frames each one with a kind of autobiographical sketch of his life leading up to its writing. The result is, among other things, a surprisingly writerly book—and by that I mean a book written about writing—a kind of Bildungsroman of his literary life. Even on that narrow basis, alone, this book is absorbing, as it shows the struggles of a young writer to hone his craft and find his voice. And that voice is remarkable.

But this book is far more than that. Though the essays tackle diverse topics—Bill Cosby, the Civil War, Michelle Obama, mass incarceration—they successfully build upon one another into a single argument. The kernel of this argument is expressed in the finest and most famous essay in this collection, “The Case for Reparations”: namely, that America must reckon with its racist past honestly and directly if we are ever to overcome white supremacy. Much of the other essays are dedicated to criticizing two principal rivals to this strategy: Respectability Politics, and Class-Based Politics.

First, Respectability Politics. This is the notion—popular at least since the time of Booker T. Washington—that if African Americans work hard, strive for an education, and adhere to middle-class norms, then racism will disappear. Though sympathetic to the notion of black self-reliance, Coates is basically critical of this strategy—first, because he believes it has not and will never work; and second, because it is deeply unjust to ask a disenfranchised people to earn their own enfranchisement.

His portraits of the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—are fascinating for Coates’s ambivalence towards their use of respectability politics. Coates seems nearly in awe of the Obamas’ ability to be simultaneously black and American, and especially of Barack Obama’s power to communicate with equal confidence to the black and white communities. And he is very sympathetic to the plight of a black president, since, as Coates argues, Obama’s ability to take a strong stance regarding race was heavily constrained by white backlash. Coates is, however, consistently critical of Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on hard work and personal responsibility (such as his many lectures about black fatherhood), rather than the historical crimes perpetrated against the black community.

Coates’s other target is the left-wing strategy of substituting class for race—that we ought to help the poor and the working class generally, and in so doing we will disproportionately benefit African Americans. The selling point of this strategy is that, by focusing on shared economic hardships, the left will be able to build a broader coalition without inflaming racial tensions. But Coates is critical of this approach as well. For one, he thinks that racial tension runs far more deeply than class tension, so that this strategy is unlikely to work. What is more, for Coates, this is a kind of evasion—an attempt to sidestep the fundamental problem—and therefore cannot rectify the crime of racism.

The picture that emerges from Coates’s book is rather bleak. If the situation cannot be improved through black advancement or through general economic aid, then what can be done? The only policy recommendation Coates puts forward is Reparations—money distributed to the black community, as a way of compensating for the many ways it has been exploited and disenfranchised. But if I understand Coates correctly, it is not that he believes this money itself would totally solve the problem; it is that such a program would force us to confront the problem of racism head-on, and to collectively own up to the truth of the matter. Virtually nobody—Coates included—thinks that such a program, or such a reckoning, will happen anytime soon, which leaves us in an uncomfortably hopeless situation.

The easy criticism to make of Coates is that his worldview is simplistic, as he insists on reducing all of America’s sins to anti-black racism. But I do not think that this is quite fair. Coates does not deny that, say, economic inequality or sexism are problems; indeed, he notes that these sorts of problems all feed into one another. Furthermore, Coates reminds us that racism is rarely as simple as a rude remark or an insult; rather, it is as complex, diffuse, and widespread as an endemic disease. Coates’s essential point, then, is that racism runs far more deeply and strongly in American life than we are ready to acknowledge—mainly, because persistent racism undermines most of our comfortable narratives or even our policy ideas, not to mention our self-image.

For a brief moment, after Obama’s election, we dreamed of a post-racial America. But, as Coates shows, in the end, Obama’s presidency illustrated our limitations as much as our progress. This was apparent in the sharp drop in Obama’s approval ratings after he criticized a police officer for arresting a black college professor outside of his own house. This was shown, more dramatically, in the persistent rumors that Obama was a Muslim, and of course in Trump’s bigoted birtherism campaign. And this was shown, most starkly, by the fact that Barack Obama—a black man entirely free of scandals, of sterling qualifications, fierce intelligence, and remarkable rhetorical gifts —was followed by Donald Trump—a white man with no experience, thoughtless speech, infinite scandals, and who is quite palpably racist.

As so many people have noted, it is impossible to imagine a black man with Trump’s resumé of scandals, lack of experience, or blunt speaking style approaching the presidency. Even if we focus on one of Trump’s most minor scandals, such as his posing with Goya products after the CEO praised Trump’s leadership, we can see the difference. Imagine the endless fury that Obama would have faced—and not only from the Republican Party—had he endorsed a supporter’s product from the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office! Indeed, as Coates notes, Trump’s ascension is the ultimate rebuke to Respectability Politics: “Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive—work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.”

Whether or not Obama’s optimism or Coates’s pessimism will be borne out by the country’s future, I do think that Coates makes an essential point: that racism is deeply rooted in the country, and will not simply disappear as African Americans become less impoverished or more ‘respectable.’ Communities across America remain starkly segregated; incarceration rates are high and disproportional; the income, unemployment, and wealth gaps are deep and persistent; and we can see the evidence of all of these structural inequalities in the elevated mortality suffered by the black community during this pandemic. The intractability of this problem is bleak to contemplate, but an important one to grapple with. And it helps that this message is delivered in some of the finest prose by any contemporary writer.



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Review: The Speech

The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle ClassThe Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed & the Decline of Our Middle Class by Bernie Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Greed, in my view, is like a sickness. It is like an addiction.

Say what you will, this presidential race has been, at the very least, an intensely interesting affair. Of course, there is the debacle of the Republican primaries; but those are mainly interesting in the same way that a car accident is interesting—you can’t help but rubberneck, even if you’re a bit disgusted with yourself for doing so. Much more engrossing, for me, has been the rise of Bernie Sanders, something which seems to have surprised everybody, even Sanders himself.

I should admit, right off the bat, that I like Sanders; but I’m going to try my best in this review, however ineffectual that may be, to maintain some skeptical distance. I suggest you do the same for me.

This book was first released in 2011. As its back cover will tell you, it is a transcription of Sanders’s long filibuster speech, delivered on December 10, 2010, on the eve of a deal, brokered by Obama and the Republicans, which extended the Bush tax cuts on the super-rich, among other things. The whole speech is on YouTube, if you’re interested, all eight-and-a-half hours. This book is just a transcription of the speech.

As Sanders warns in the beginning, this speech is quite repetitive, deliberately so; he expected viewers to turn in for only a few minutes on CSPAN, and not to stick through the whole thing. This redundancy is probably the worst aspect of this book. I don’t see why it couldn’t have been edited and neatened up. Even so, despite the recurring sections, there is just enough new material scattered throughout the speech to keep the reader’s interest—or at least, to keep mine.

The subject of Sanders’s speech is most immediately the financial legislation in question and its shortcomings; but Sanders uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss what he sees as the pressing and dire problems facing the United States. Sanders is a remarkably consistent politician, and you will see him focused on the same issues, often using the same language, that he’s employed during his presidential bid this year.

The core of Sanders’s campaign, and this speech, is income inequality. Truly, the level of income inequality in the United States is staggering and hard to wrap one’s head around. Sanders does his best by hammering his listeners with statistic after statistic, numbers so big and so stark that they baffle the mind. After about five repetitions, they start to sink in; and after ten, your own moral outrage begins to simmer along with Sanders’s.

It’s worthwhile to compare Sanders’s speaking style with that of Obama. Obama is, I think, certainly the stronger and more versatile speaker. He is capable of sharp wit, of passionate outrage, of good-natured jocularity. But where I think he most excels, and what was his biggest asset when he ran for president, was his ability to inspire. He does this mainly through the use of anecdotes. He makes his speeches very personal; the way he speaks of nurses and teachers and firefighters is not at all condescending or pandering, but really makes you feel he knows them, knows them personally and intimately.

Sanders’s approach is quite different. For one, he is certainly more narrow in ability and focus. What Sanders conveys, with his voice, with his words, with his thrashing body language and unkempt appearance, is moral outrage. Indeed, I find something Biblical about Sanders’s speeches. He shouts until his voice cracks, until he is absolutely hoarse, detailing in a long, grotesque list how unfair and unequal our society has become. You don’t so much feel inspired as galvanized, jolted with a mixture of desperation and indignation.

To create these feelings, he does not tell stories, but recites facts. It’s astonishingly simple, really; he just has to read off a long list of ways that America is doing poorly—our shamefully huge prison population, our crumbling infrastructure, our soaring college tuition and health costs, and of course the absurd level of wealth and income inequality, which seems to grow more every year.

To speak personally for a moment, I remember the moment when his message really hit me. First I have to tell you that, among my friends, it’s almost a cliché to talk about how much better life in Europe is than in America. In fact, one of my friends, after a long vacation in Europe, said to me: “It’s honest really depressing how much better life is over there.” And it’s not just us; a lot of people have these thoughts. You get used to thinking of the United States as poorer, less prosperous, more benighted than places like Germany and Denmark.

Anyhow, one day when I was listening to a Sanders speech, he said: “Some of you may not know this, it’s easy to forget it sometimes, but the United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world.” This really made something click within me. I’d gotten so used to thinking of the United States as poor and inferior—a place where you can’t afford to go to school or to get sick—that I was shocked to be reminded that we have more wealth in this country than anywhere else. This is, I think, what’s so effective and compelling about Sanders: you feel you’re being snapped back into reality.

So this is what I like about Sanders. What I dislike is his tendency to demonize the rich. He speaks of the super-wealthy as if they’re a bunch of nefarious, mustache-twirling, conscience-less devils trying to enslave the rest of the world. I just don’t see this rhetoric as necessary. First, everybody pursues their own interests—the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy—so I don’t see any reason to act morally superior. And second, I simply don’t think it’s true, strictly speaking, that the economy is hurting solely because of the greed of the wealthy. Yes, I am sure that a lot of stupid, selfish greed contributed to our economic situation today; but the economy is bloody complicated; it’s not a moral playground, but a vast system that even the best minds have failed to understand.

The cynical side of me sees this finger-wagging as just the sort of us-versus-them rhetoric that politicians use to gain power. But I do think, to be honest, that Sanders is not capable of something so underhanded. He’s been ragging on the rich for his whole career; it’s only recently that this strategy has started to pay off. And besides, I do think his larger point is not only valid, but vitally important—namely, that the influence of the wealthy class on politics, with campaign contributions and corporate lobbyists, has to be curtailed in order to preserve a working democracy.

As for Sanders’s political vision, I can’t deny that it appeals to me deeply. In a nutshell, Sanders’s vision is to make the United States more like Europe, with cheap college education, with free healthcare, with a strong social safety net, with higher taxes on the rich, with stronger infrastructure, and with a great deal more economic regulation. For the truth is, life in European countries often sounds too good to be true to young Americans.

Let me give you some concrete examples. Just the other day, I was in a car with a Spaniard. We got on the topic of vacation. She said she has a friend in the States who only gets 8 vacation days per year. “Is that typical?” she asks. Yes, we tell her. In my last job I got 15, but my girlfriend only had 5. Our driver is aghast. “I get thirty,” she says, “and I think that’s too few!”

Here’s another example, with regards to infrastructure. A monthly subway card in New York City costs $117; the equivalent here in Madrid costs 55€, and only 20€ if you’re 26 or under. What’s more, the subways in New York are overcrowded and dirty, with constant delays due to lines being shut down for repair; whereas the metro here is clean and always has good service. I’ve even seen a video—here’s the link—which shows some of the machines being used today in the NYC subway system. They were built in the 1930s, if you can believe that.

And this is not to mention the looks of shocked disbelief on the faces of Europeans when I tell them just how expensive college and healthcare are in the United States. So, really, when you’re reminded that your country—the place with the slow and expensive and obsolescent trains, where every young person is several thousand dollars in debt from college, and where we still have high levels of unemployment and child poverty—is the richest country in all of history, it hits a nerve.

And while I don’t like demonizing the rich, I do agree that the rich in the U.S. live in a world apart. This was illustrated for me last year when, by chance, I found myself looking through a yacht magazine. Have you ever seen one? It was unbelievable, and I mean I honestly couldn’t believe what I saw. These ships were just huge. Inside they had bowling alleys, movie theaters; they had personal gyms and helicopter landing pads; they had living rooms created by world-famous interior designers. The boats were, I admit, super cool. But what does it say about our society that there are people who can afford things like this, when on every corner is somebody on the street?

This review has already dragged on too long, and still there is so much to be said about Sanders and what his campaign means. The pundits dismissed him before he began, and even now, even in some liberal publications, he’s discussed—discussed all too rarely—with a kind of guarded skepticism. Some have said that the media is ignoring him because of their corporate overlords. But in general, I don’t think conspiracy theories are necessary. The news media in the U.S. is not evil, it’s just shamefully bad.

For example, on several occasions I’ve heard pundits criticize Sanders for focusing on income inequality in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. What a bizarre situation we’re in, when a politician is criticized for not trying to whip up fear. Other pundits have dismissed Sanders based on poll numbers; but even when Sanders was leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary was regarded as inevitable. Besides, my understanding is that these poll numbers, which change every week, are done on landlines—and thus probably exclude most young people, the bulk of Sanders’s supporters. Ironically enough, the only thing that seems to get the journalists’ attention is how much money Sanders is managing to make without accepting donations from corporations—which says quite a lot about the American media.

Almost every prediction I’ve heard about this election cycle has been shown to be foolish, so perhaps I should demure. But let me give it a go. Even if he doesn’t quite win, I think Sanders will surprise everyone on election day by how close he gets. And even if he loses, I predict that his presidential run will serve a similar function as Barry Goldwater’s did, back in the 60s, giving impetus and direction to a new political movement in the country. In other words, even if he loses the political battle, I think he’s already won the battle of ideas. And, who knows? Maybe he’ll win the political battle, too.

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