Why do white people like what I write?


A bound prisoner is scared using a dog by a US military officer PHOTO/Wikipedia

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hamish Hamilton, 367 pp, £16.99

During the big antiwar protests in early 2003, Ta-Nehisi Coates was a deliveryman for a deli in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He, too, was ‘sceptical’, he wrote a decade later in a blog post for the Atlantic, ‘but if the US was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object?’ After all, as Coates remembered, ‘every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew – left or right – was for the war.’ ‘I am not a radical,’ Coates said. Even so he found it ‘searing’ to watch ‘reasonable people assemble sober arguments for a disaster’.

In retrospect, the most remarkable of these reasonable people were not the neoconservatives but the liberals – some of them now Coates’s colleagues and supporters – who recommended war and condoned torture while advancing America’s mission to bring democracy to the world’s benighted. In The Fight Is for Democracy (2003), George Packer argued that a ‘vibrant, hardheaded liberalism’ could use the American military to promote its values. The subtitle of The Good Fight (2006) by Peter Beinart, the then editor of the New Republic, insisted ‘Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again’. ‘It’s time to think of torture,’ Newsweek declared a few weeks after 9/11. ‘Focused brutality’, Time recommended. Vanity Fair praised Rumsfeld for his ‘oddly reassuring ruthlessness’. As the invasion of Iraq got underway, the Atlantic, described as ‘prestigious’ by Coates in his new book, walked its readers through the advantages of ‘torture-lite’ in a cover story. In the New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff, biographer of Isaiah Berlin and professor of human rights, exhorted Americans to embrace their imperial destiny and offered his own suggestions for ‘permissible duress’. Even the New Yorker, fastidiously aloof from Beltway schemers during the Cold War, published a report by Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic’s current editor, detailing links between al-Qaida and Iraq – links later revealed to be non-existent.

Goldberg’s article was seized on by Bush and Cheney: the New Yorker had become, as an unusually bold writer in the Nation pointed out, ‘one more courtier straining to get the king’s ear’. But the Bush administration didn’t need eggheads to euphemise pre-emptive war, torture, rendition and indefinite offshore detention. Bush’s own demotic – ‘We’ll smoke them out,’ ‘wanted dead or alive’, ‘Pretty soon, we’ll have to start displaying scalps’ – repeatedly invoked wars of extirpation against what the Declaration of Independence had called ‘merciless Indian Savages’. ‘When this is all over,’ Cofer Black, Bush’s chief counterterrorist adviser, assured his boss, ‘the bad guys are going to have flies walking across their eyeballs.’ The mood was infectious among the personnel in charge of exterminating the brutes. The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan cheerfully reported that ‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain among American soldiers worldwide. The primal blood-lusts of the war on terror survived Obama’s renaming of it. The Seal Team that in 2011 eventually scalped Osama bin Laden (code-named Geronimo) carried 14-inch hatchets made by a North Carolina knife-maker known for his blades in the 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans. Obama administration officials volunteered details of the wildly popular slaying to the makers of the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which depicted (falsely) swarthy villains revealing bin Laden’s hideout under torture.

‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe.

‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves.

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