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Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Pinkeresque career of Thomas Chatterton Williams

I once admired Thomas Chatterton Williams. I liked his literary style and anti-essentialist point of view when he critiqued Ta-Nehisi Coats.

The author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who is partly black, wrote a piece last October about the fetishization of race that happens among anti-racists as well as racists. Williams wrote:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish. 
This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.

But then he decided to become an activist when he "spearheaded" the transparently Koch-connected Harpers Letter and then went on the Koch payroll.

What we see Williams doing in the tweet above is called "having it both ways" and it reminds me of Steven Pinker, who has been accused by his critics throughout his career of wanting to have things both ways.

Which claim does Pinker want to make: that pluralism reigns in evolutionary psychology (and I characterized the field unfairly), or that adaptationism reigns as a synonym for “evolutionary reasoning” (and my warnings are sterile)? He can’t have them both.

Louis Menand's review of The Blank Slate:

Having it both ways is an irritating feature of "The Blank Slate." Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, "The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue," and then, a few pages later, "It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers." Well, that should give us one clue. 

 Most scientists are content with this trade-off. But every so often a scientist like Pinker tries to have it both ways, and to suggest that science can provide empirical evidence to show that some ends are preferable to others.

And here's an example I observed: Pinker claiming he doesn't agree with The Bell Curve on race while simultaneously sharing a link to a Quillette article that says The Bell Curve was correct about race. He's thanked by Ben Winegard, co-author of the article. 

Another thing that Pinker and Williams have in common is "weak and strong Pinkerism" which I adapted from Ezra Klein's term "weak Murrayism." When sharing the stage with someone Pinker respects, like Paul Krugman, Pinker avoids mentioning that he already offered a solution on a topic Krugman says there is no answer for: the changing violence levels in New York City. Pinker's solution, offered in "The Better Angels of Our Nature," was marriage

But he did not mention it during their talk, perhaps because he suspected Krugman would scoff at it. And he would probably be right. In 2012 Krugman criticized the "marriage is magic" belief promoted by Pinker in Better Angels and by Charles Murray.

...the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labor force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good.

But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front?

Mr. Murray and other conservatives often seem to assume that the decline of the traditional family has terrible implications for society as a whole. This is, of course, a longstanding position. Reading Mr. Murray, I found myself thinking about an earlier diatribe, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 book, “The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,” which covered much of the same ground, claimed that our society was unraveling and predicted further unraveling as the Victorian virtues continued to erode.

Yet the truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?

As I mentioned recently, it was easy enough to debunk the argument that marriage prevented violence by looking at the marriage and violence statistics. Krugman makes the same point in the last paragraph quoted above. 

In his video with Adam Rutherford, Williams, who feels very strongly about Robin DiAngelo-style essentialism, barely mentions the issue, then drops it. 

Another item I noticed - at about minute 34:35 in the video, Williams starts babbling something semi-coherent about Obama and Kamala Harris:

- yeah I think that is a good thing and I think that you know she [Kamala Harris] provides in some ways a more interesting conversation around this than Barack Obama did for a variety of reasons, one of which is that um you know she married a white man and I think that uh you know in a way Barack Obama marrying Michelle Obama and and the children and being in that family I think it brought him into a into a, I think that we all have a kind of we all have a way of kind of eyeballing it and seeing if it looks like what we think it is, and I think Barack Obama satisfied many people but Harris raised the question for others in a in a way that maybe is going to be really interesting um but getting y'all go ahead -

It sounded like he was deliberately obfuscating, so I looked up what Williams said on Twitter. Ah hah - much clearer.

So by marrying Michelle, Obama was, according to Thomas Chatterton Williams, "marrying into blackness." He didn't state that clearly in the interview, probably believing that Rutherford might push back on that. And who wouldn't? Williams appears to have never heard of the "one drop" rule. But of course he is aware of it. Why would he then claim that Obama, who was already plenty Black per the one drop rule, "married into blackness?" And he seems to be defending the concept of "biological race" saying: "if biological race isn't real then how is the daughter of a man from Jamaica and a mother from India "black" in the sense that the 8th generation descendant of Georgia slaves is?"

If he asked Rutherford, I assume Rutherford would have pointed out that the answer is that biological race isn't real, but the one drop rule is a real social race convention, which is why those two vastly different ethnic combinations are both considered Black.

So which does Williams believe - that race is not biological, in agreement with Rutherford? Or that it is biological? Perhaps Williams doesn't know, himself, because he hasn't thought it through in any real depth. This would be no surprise, because his interview with Ian Chotiner in the New Yorker in July 2020 made it clear that Thomas Chatterton Williams is an intellectual lightweight.


What about people having the right to say certain things based on their identity? I was wondering if you thought that people could be privileged to say certain things or speak on certain topics, or that the most important thing was to judge the words themselves.

I studied philosophy. I genuinely believe that the most important thing is to judge the quality of the insights, the idea, the language, the argument. I don’t think that there is a Black point of view, because Black people don’t all agree on anything. When you say that somebody has more authority to speak as a Black person, what does that mean? 

In “Losing My Cool,” you wrote, “Where I lived, books were like kryptonite to” the N-word [the text uses “niggas”]—“they were terrified, allergic, broke out in rashes and hives.”


I stand by everything in that book.


That’s not something a white person can really say in most polite societies. It’s also an idea that I think a lot of people would find very problematic—that books were like kryptonite to Black people.


That’s why the context is important. The whole book was about how books were my father’s life and that the Black culture that he comes from was one that prioritized education as the most important thing that a human being could participate in, the act of cultivating yourself. That comes in the context of me saying that the kind of street culture that I was in was making a false claim that books were kryptonite, that they were not for us. We were fooling ourselves in that we were participating in a culture that was monetizing the glorification of our anti-intellectualism, which is my argument against hip-hop culture. When it’s sliced into this little bit on Twitter, it’s to make me look like some type of racist who hates his Blackness. When, in fact, the book is a love letter to the kind of Black culture and tradition that my father comes from.


Just to give the context, you finish off that paragraph by saying, “Charles Dickens was something that swung between your legs, not the author of Martin Chuzzlewit. You could get your ass kicked for name-dropping and using big words. Brothers weren’t out to be poets or theoreticians; most of the time, they weren’t even trying to be articulate—they talked with their hands (fists, daps, slaps, pounds, peace signs, jump shots, tabletop percussion) and yearned to be athletes and rappers, not scholars or gentlemen.” The point I was trying to make was that this is something that you can say and get published in a book because of your identity and other people can’t.


Other people can’t, but is that the best way that we can have conversations around knowledge and human experience, that other people can’t? That I’m not sure about. Because I can imagine a situation where you could understand my experience enough where you could actually suggest some insight into the dynamics that play around toxic masculinity or street authenticity that gets conflated with racial authenticity.

The fact that you’re not allowed to publish that is not my choosing. I think that there’s a way that you could engage in that that would be good-faith and would be equally insightful even if you’re coming from outside the identity. It’s not the blood or the skin that gives you the ability to understand the spirit.


I know that the kryptonite and book line is from a Chris Rock bit from a long time ago.




But it also seems to me an idea that has a racially charged history to it, and that we should want to be careful when people say things like that. Maybe that’s where we disagree.


Here’s where I draw a line, and this is why it takes people to actually listen to arguments and not scan quotes for gotcha clickbait. I’m not saying you. I’m saying that people love the gotcha as a very good way to get likes and a good way to get the dopamine hits. I engage in it just like a lot of us, because we’re all incentivized to behave this way, and it’s worth something to resist. But, if you engage in a good-faith way, then I think you can actually have conversations about difficult subjects. What I’m saying is that we’re not reading each other in the way that’s conducive to everybody having the ability to encounter the other’s experience. We’re engaging each other in ways that contribute to the fortification of identity epistemology, and I think the thing that’s so sad about that is it limits the amount of conversation we could have. That is impoverishing if what you actually care about is knowledge and ideas and making a kind of multi-ethnic society work.

I guess my point would be that if a white person said that line, I’m not sure the appropriate response would be to sit and thoughtfully listen to them.


It really depends on what made a white person say that.


I can think of one thing that might.


What’s that?


I was kidding...

So Chotiner's point is that, in spite of Williams' philosophical training, Williams takes advantage of "identity politics" to write about Black people in a way that would be perceived much differently had his identity been white.

I want to point out something else. Williams wrote in his book:

You could get your ass kicked for name-dropping and using big words. Brothers weren’t out to be poets or theoreticians; most of the time, they weren’t even trying to be articulate—they talked with their hands (fists, daps, slaps, pounds, peace signs, jump shots, tabletop percussion) and yearned to be athletes and rappers, not scholars or gentlemen.”

It's striking that Williams would portray this as an ethnic issue. Williams is 40 so he would have been in high school in the 1990s. In the 20th century there was a word for boys in American high school culture who were anti-intellectual, who preferred athletics to academics: jocks. Plenty of white boys are also jocks. I went to school with them. 

That Williams chose to portray jock attitudes as a form of "black culture" probably goes a long way towards explaining how he ended up on the Koch payroll.

I thought this was the most astute response to the Chotiner interview.

My theory is that Pinker and Williams have incoherent theories about the world and display a lack of intellectual integrity in discussions with smart "celebrity intellectuals" because ideas are not really what drives them. I think what drives them are their careers: making money and getting respect. And so, when they receive recognition by being linked with someone who is well-known and well-respected, Pinker and Williams feel there is no point in engaging in a serious clash of ideas. Once Pinker was on stage with Krugman, and once Williams was on Zoom with Rutherford, game over: they had achieved their objective. 

As intellectually slothful as Pinker and Williams are, they must be aware that their own careers are not based on brilliance or originality or insightfulness, but rather on their ability to please right-wing plutocrats who have in turn advanced their careers. A practice known as wingnut welfare.

If Williams really believes that he can be purely a writer while on the Koch payroll, he's kidding himself. He's going to have to perform activist functions. Koch isn't interested in ideas either - Koch is interested in having his tame intellectuals promote policies that benefit the financial interests of Charles Koch.

Another issue that I think Williams avoided during his interview with Rutherford - Rutherford's contempt for Quillette. More in the next post.

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