December 21st, 2017

I suppose I’m one of those white guy liberals progressives smitten with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ve followed his career as a writer since his blog days. I subscribed to The Atlantic—where what I see as his most powerful piece today: The Case For Reparations—because I wanted to support a magazine that supported him. I don’t know enough to call him out or suggest he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That is for others to do.

After reading Between The World And Me and We Were Eight Years In Power, however, I feel safe in saying that Coates is a voice in our times.

Naomi Klein and Opal Tometi agree.

Writing in Forget Coates vs. West—We All Have a Duty to Confront the Full Reach of U.S. Empire for The Intercept, they begin their case this way:

So, which side are you on? #TeamWest or #TeamCoates?

Choose fast, preferably within seconds, and don’t come to this gunfight with a knife. No, like some nerdy Rambo, we want you greased up and loaded with ammo: your most painful character smears, your most “gotcha” evidence of past political infractions, a blitzkrieg of hyperlinks and, of course, an aircraft carrier of reaction GIFs.

That’s pretty much how the online debate has played out ever since Cornel West published his piece in The Guardian challenging Ta-Nehisi Coates, an article you either regard as an outrageous injustice or an earth-shattering truth bomb, depending on which team you have chosen.

We see it differently. We see this debate as a political opportunity, one that has far less to do with either of these brilliant men and everything to do with how, at a time of unfathomably high stakes, we are going to build a multiracial human rights movement capable of beating back surging white supremacy and rapidly concentrating corporate power. As women, both Black and white, both American and Canadian, we see the question like this:

What are the duties of radicals and progressives inside relatively wealthy countries to the world beyond our national borders? A warming world wracked by expanding and unending wars that our governments wage, finance, and arm—a world scarred by unbearable poverty and forced migration?

[This and all subsequent emphasis mine, JH]

Duty isn’t a word that gets used a great deal. Duty implies obligations and obligations imply that time must be committed. That’s tough for a lot of people. We use the phrase “the least I could do” often when we are thanked for taking some action, for devoting our time to some cause. If we spend our lives doing the least, however, we never learn what our most might be. Doing our most requires sacrifice, another trait that most of us, myself included, in the 21st century aren’t much practiced in.

What can we give up for the World?

Tometi and Klein have some suggestions.

We are not saying that this internationalist tradition is entirely absent in contemporary North American movements—there have been Black activist delegations to Colombia, Brazil, and Palestine in recent years. The climate justice movement is linked to frontline fights against fossil fuel extraction in every corner of the globe. And the immigrant rights movement is internationalist by definition. So are parts of the movement confronting sexual violence. We could go on.

But it is also true that the atmosphere of intense political crisis in the United States is breeding a near myopic insularity among progressives and even some self-described radicals, one that is not just morally dangerous but strategically shortsighted.

By defining our work exclusively as what goes on inside our borders, and losing touch with the rich anti-imperialist tradition, we risk depriving our movements of the revolutionary power that flows from cross-border exchanges of both wisdom and tactics.

We all have borders, personal boundaries, that artificially define our responsibilities. The only boundary that really makes sense is that nebulous region where our atmosphere meets and mingles with the vacuum of space. When our president pretends that we can build walls, turn all of our country into one vast gated community he engages in a fantasy born of living high above the streets of New York and flying in private jets from property to property. Can there be any wonder why foreign lands and cuisines terrify him so much?

Klein and Tometi continue.

In short, there is no radicalism—Black or otherwise—that ends at the national boundaries of our countries, especially the wealthiest and most heavily armed nation on earth.

This vital point underscores the progressive trope to think globally and act locally. We are a people without borders. What I do in North Royalton, Ohio, does affect a refugee fleeing Libya or a Carteret Islander family watching their home disappear beneath the wave of a rising ocean.

The question posed to me by Klein and Tometi—yes, and by West and Coates—is: what the fuck do I do?

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