There’s safety in delusion. People sometimes say it takes special courage to face the world as it is, even more to face ourselves, and we know the truth doesn’t always feel good. It can be painful. Perhaps, then, a moderate amount of delusion can be, well, healthy. Ta-Nehisi Coates has something else in mind. “To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts,” is the greatest hope he can conjure, given what’s happening in the United States, given the political situation we’ve inherited. The quote is from his latest and highly praised book Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates passes down the lessons he’s learned along the way, preparing the young man for the cold, racist existence that is American life. The book comes in the context of renewed media attention to the historic and current problem of race in America. Front and center is police violence for which no one is held responsible—all the while, the Dreamers slumber. The Dreamers are made up mostly (but not exclusively) of white Americans, who blind themselves to the hard truths of past and present America, a blindness that allows what Coates calls an American tradition, the continued rape and plunder of “black bodies.”
Critics have said Between the World and Me is too pessimistic, too cynical. Others laud the book. Toni Morrison calls it “required reading,” and it’s garnered Coates the National Book Award. Perhaps it deserves both praise and criticism. In any case, it’s a multilayered book that warrants special attention. Part of the challenge in responding to the book is due to its epistolary form, as Matthew Shenoda puts it. One worries about interrupting a father’s lesson to his son, for one thing, but also in taking the book’s message out of context, as Shenoda would warn us. The book is introspective, confessional, tender, and in this is an absolute joy to read. Some of the ostensibly literal position statements might be seen in that context—as part of the journey for the reader to travel through, with Coates as spirit guide. Coates even guides the reader through more crude views he’s adopted and discarded along the way.
Ultimately, though, the book makes a political statement; it’s not, say, a fictionalized memoir that merely helps us gain previously ignored psychological insights. The book actually expresses a political position, with positions laid down along the way to build the foundation. Coates hasn’t discarded these views. And the expressions are mostly crystal clear: America, as Coates describes it, is driven by “majoritarian pigs.” Out-of-control police murder black people, to be sure, but those who implement and sustain systemic racism are to blame, often through mundane and seemingly everyday means. Police, even when violently abusive toward black people, are doing more or less what white America wants; racism is not isolated to the brutal fringes.
Coates’s work is widely lauded among white liberals and leftists. If you think about it, though predictable, this is a bit of a paradox, because the larger the group becomes the more pressing the question: Are Coates’s admirers exempt from condemnation? I’m not the first to notice this; Freddie deBoer puts a fine point on it. In other words, do Coates’s readers understand that he’s not particularly radical in his critique of individual police officers or even of police in general, and is instead placing the blame at the feet of “Dreamers,” who enable and sustain what’s really happening in America (and what’s always happened in America to one extent or another)? Who could grant themselves special exemption from this judgement, and misapprehend where the judgment should land?
The correct explanation would likely be a sort of gumbo. deBoer writes down one ingredient—people who love to feel politically enlightened and to demonstrate it, and who gain their absolution through the trivial means of re-tweets and shares (Wes Alwan touches on a similar phenomenon). Another ingredient is probably a plain misreading of the book, one that is the fault of the reader. Coates goes to great lengths to stress that police are merely carrying out what mainstream America wants. It’s not that most Americans are living their lives in a roughly neutral socio-racial sense and that (some or too many) police are unjustly violent, rather, America is run by majoritarian pigs and fueled by the Dream, which is to blame for the state of affairs Coates exposes. To miss this repeated line of thought would be to breeze through the book without noticing what it’s about (indeed, it’s not even that blame can be avoided by focusing on some of the manifestations of the problem—police and their militarized equipment, the war on drugs, the cycle of debt from petty fines, the lack of access to quality education, etc., etc., etc. The Dream creates and sustains all these).
But a final ingredient is that the book displays a lack of clarity in the core concept it names and deploys—the Dream. Or, to put it another way, the book gives us a few distinct versions to consider, but doesn’t explicitly signal the diversity. This lack of fixity allows an unsuspecting reader to attach whichever of her views fit one of the plausible interpretations of the concept, but all plausible interpretations do not pick out the same stance. One of the facts that Coates would rouse Americans to? America is an empire like any other, and has committed all the atrocities great empires do, at home and abroad. Apparently, Americans are not only ignorant of this depressing fact, but they also adhere to American exceptionalism, which is the view (according to Coates) that America alone is the barrier between civilization and barbarism, and is specially called to tame the world. Coates demonstrates that he’s aware of all the complexities of history, whether blame could sensibly apply to the United States in particular among historic powers, but apparently the claim to exceptionalism is what allows the indictment to go through, via hypocrisy. In short, history is complex, but the views of Americans are not.
Americans would even “rather countenance” a man choked to death on film by police than to “tumble out of the Dream.” And yet, despite repeatedly emphasizing what the state of affairs reveals about Americans’ inner thoughts and feelings, Coates then assures his son that what people really intend or mean isn’t important, that the Dream prevails all the same, as does its delusions. So the damage done by American policy is intentional, but maybe it’s not, but that’s no better. That Coates was left vulnerable in his youth in Baltimore to the harshest elements of the world was “not an error,” but on the other hand, Coates allows that a society that cannot provide equal protection has either failed at delivering its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker. “However you call it,” the tragic results are what’s important. From one angle, this makes sense. There are certain things we’re obliged to notice, and cannot plead ignorance to. But from another angle, the trouble is that the views that emerge from whether or not American policy is intentionally racist might be significantly different, (we’d have to consider the possibilities first, which isn’t done in the book) and the intellectually responsible person would then have to choose between them, rather than uncritically lump them together. This is just a sampling of a critical reader’s search for clarity on the concept.
One explanation for this appearance of rhetorical misdirection might be that Coates is simply making mistakes; that seems unlikely, as stark as these examples are, so a more interesting explanation is that the concept of the Dream has built into it a sort of rhetorical resiliency, rooted in its ambiguity. “Ambiguity” is loose talk, as it’s actually tough to decide whether this is a case of ambiguity, because of the varying meanings the term can refer to, or vagueness, because of the importance of the concept’s boundaries. If I had to choose, I’d propose the somewhere in between concept of polysemy. A word is polysemous when it has several related senses, as opposed to when a word is homonymous, so has distinct meanings. “Mouth” is polysemous (from which we speak, the entrance of a cave) while “bat” is homonymous (the flying mammal, the stick we swing in baseball). This particular use of “Dream” is polysemous, in my view (Ronald Reagan, Richard Rorty—they both have a version. If you’re uncomfortable with these two being tightly grouped, I’m agreeing with you). We don’t have to go any further as much as notice that the key concept in Between the World and Me is unclear; we don’t have sufficient information to pick out which group it applies to, and the possible diversity prevents a unified analysis.
Lest I’m accused of logic chopping an emotionally profound lesson, the Dream is actually the key concept in the book’s argument, and there is some (intellectually) productive potential of viewing the issue from this angle. For example, Coates could respond to the accusation of polysemy in the concept of Dreamer by simply postulating that a Dreamer could come in a variety of gradations. On one end of the spectrum, the highly deluded Dreamer would be a person who believes in an all-powerful God who favors America, and that America’s history of slavery, segregation, and continued racial violence are deviations from America’s true righteous essence—deviations away from the founders’ vision and easily blamed on the South. This person would also believe that America’s place of preeminent power in the world is the result of its noble moral characteristics, and that racial categorization reflects a natural state of affairs without morally problematic effects. On the other end of the spectrum would be a Dreamer who recognizes the messy history of America but believes something sappy, by comparison, like Bill Clinton’s, “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” The challenge is, some gradations of the Dream seem to be different Dreams altogether.
Those who perceive themselves to be awake get to pick which Dream from which they have awakened; the choice can be conscious, but probably isn’t. Whether they can now face the fact that American policy intends on the violent treatment of African Americans, whether they now realize the extent to which insidious racism pervades our economic arrangements in spite of a lack of explicit discriminatory motives, whether they believe we’re all caught up, in complicated ways, in the system we’ve inherited but are nevertheless obliged to correct it, whether they now believe that it’s only all the “non-me” bad people causing racist outcomes, etc. The problem is, not only are these not the same spots on the spectrum, they can be exclusive. Those who believe that American policy is intentionally racist probably believe that racism is implicit and insidious as well, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. In other words, one can be passionately committed to confronting deeply rooted racism, but also believe that attempts to paint current American policy as intentionally racist are caricatures (never mind that it’s not clear what follows from rejecting any version of the Dream, in case there are other motives and reasons that can explain racial discrimination).
In the face of continued racial inequality in general, and racial violence at the hands of the state’s authorities in particular, these argumentative worries are of small concern. But in case we are to have a conversation, sincere critique cannot be out of bounds. It may be that subsequent writings clear all this up, but I doubt it, because what’s become obvious post–Between the World and Me is that we’re likely not going to have a sensible conversation over the book, at least not one involving disagreement. The reason is that the book is a political tract. The primary function of the book (intended or not) is to place pressure, to move certain critical stances into the Overton Window, and others out (Paul Pardi similarly diagnosed New Atheism as essentially political here). Practically and politically speaking, the book’s level of un-clarity is a feature, not a bug. Criticism in this context is likely to engender suspicion and dismissal rather than an edifying exchange of perspectives, and “Dreamer” is a perfect tag to apply to those who just don’t get it. As for me, I doubt raising these questions means that I’m suffering from a Pollyannaish and socially harmful delusion, but a sufficient rhetorical groundwork has been laid to create the suspicion.
Jay Jeffers studied philosophy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He lives and works in northern Virginia.