And we're all entitled to have our personal favorites, not that I can think of mine, and if I could, I wouldn't use the expression "America's foremost public intellectual." I'd say "my favorite public intellectual." And doesn't that really show Coates's sleight of hand? Both "America's" and "foremost" imply that this isn't a matter of his personal preference or even his opinion of who is the best, but an observation of prominence in America. "Foremost" doesn't mean best. It means first in rank, and to speak in terms of what is "foremost" is to claim that there is a rank. Why do that?
Coates has a special problem with Dylan Byers at Politico: "What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking." Ah! That made me see that the reason to visualize a ranking and to put your favorite intellectual at the top of the claimed ranking is that you feel that you've been put down and you need to fight back. Coates didn't just "consider Harris-Perry an intellectual." He proclaimed her "America's foremost public intellectual." If we're talking about inference from the evidence, let's be accurate about what the evidence is.
Coates offers this explanation, revealing more of his mindset:
I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated [by] lists like "Geniuses of Western Music" written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.Coates describes his own experience feeling subordinated by proclamations of greatness. Unnamed "white intellectuals" constantly effused about great geniuses and left black people off the list. That's how he feels. I feel that I've seen white people breathlessly idolize Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin — and many other black musicians (e.g., Duke Ellington) — since at least 1975, the year Coates was born. But he's speaking subjectively about how he feels, and he, not Byers, is the one who used the phrase "inferior thinking."
When I wrote "Ah!" above, it was because the phrase "inferior thinking" made me think about having troubling feelings that one has been treated as inferior, and that seemed like an explanation for why Coates may have wanted to declare Melissa Harris-Perry "America's foremost public intellectual."
But what Byers actually wrote was: "Ta-Nehisi Coates's claim that 'Melissa Harris-Perry is America's foremost public intellectual' sort of undermines his intellectual cred, no?" That is, Byers didn't imply that Coates seems to have an inferiority complex. Byers meant Coates's declaration makes him seem inferior. Obviously, that's got to be really aggravating for Coates, and I can see why he chose to process that slam into a more general observation that white people are continually disrespecting black people. You can hear the aggravation in Coates's grandiose, abstract, free-swinging conclusion:
Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere...Coates, by contrast, must fight, he must grapple with the everywhere — the racism that is everywhere and invisible to white men like Byers.
... the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist...the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance.That is to say: I'm not unintelligent. You are unintelligent. I see so many things that are invisible to you, and that's my superiority, to counter and to trump your superiority.
The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still.That is: Byers is intellectually lazy, accepting the world as he, a white man, sees it. He's inferior.
We suffer for this. So many people charged with informing us, with informing themselves, are just sitting still.Suddenly, at the end of TNC's essay, we are in the presence of everybody, everywhere, all the suffering, all the racism and the ignorance of racism, all the complacency. Left far behind is the silly assertion that "Melissa Harris-Perry is America's foremost public intellectual."
Anybody else want to say that's dumb after this very grand and righteous and intellectual assault on that tiny little man Dylan Byers?