Watching Ta-Nehisi Coates on Charlie Rose. Coates is a writer for The Atlantic and has also written books, including the book Between the World and Me, a book that is written from a father to a son about the struggle of being black in America. Overall I like Coates. I have read a lot of his stuff. I am always happy to see people that are wielding new ideas. There is a lot that I agree with him about. However, I felt really frustrated with some of the things that he said on Charlie Rose.
I am going to paraphrase a little. But Coates said he did not believe in the quote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” On one hand I do agree with him that justice is not destined. It takes a lot of people working really hard for the world to get better. However, Coates was against the idea because he viewed that each individual life is an arc in and of itself and when someone dies that arc is over. When Martin Luther King was shot, his arc was over. When Malcolm X was shot, his arc was over. Coates is using this kind of argument to make people realize the pain and cruelty that people face. Even if they are trying to make the world a better place, if other people rob them of their life their arc is over. They don’t get to see the promised land of a better world. So he is trying to say we need to make the world better now.
In a certain way this is true, but I think it is short sighted. As a argumentative tactic, I think it has its merits. But I think it denies the nature of the world. Now I’m not talking about magical thinking, of casting sight into the unknown. I’m not talking about looking down from heaven and seeing your work coming to fruition over time. But all human lives end. I think a great deal of good comes out of casting an eye towards, if not eternity, than at least a short term future, some of which you will not see. I’m almost uncomfortable in saying that we are part of a bigger chain, of attaching a bunch of feel good language to an idea, though one can make that argument. I’m talking about in the face of the inevitable, as we are fragile beings that even under the best of circumstances will not be around very long, of trying to reach for something bigger.
Whether someone gets cancer or gets shot, they die. Now if someone gets shot before their time, there is obviously something extremely wrong with that. But judging someone’s life by by the fact that they die, a death that was inevitable at some point, is like judging a day by the sun coming up. (Though judging how someone faces death, or what they die for is not. And you can certainly judge others that cause death.) I think it is what people do that matters, not only in the space of their own life, but in the benefit it has on the future. Did they raise their kids well, did they create something that other people will benefit from, did they stand up for others in a way that might have even put them in great harm?
There is a George Orwell Essay called A Good Word For the Vicar of Bray. (You can read it if you scroll down here.) In it Orwell talks about the King of Burma, who killed many during his lifetime, but who also planted trees which would be enjoyed for generations to come. Often the road to hell can be paved with good intentions, and sometimes someone that is a barbarian in their own life can actually unknowingly benefit others through the passing of time. The world is strange and we will never figure it out in the short time we are here. The idea wasn’t that we should do whatever we want and hope for the best. Orwell was trying to get the reader to plant trees, something that would be of good to those down the road.
And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.
Are we reaching, trying, scraping towards something better while we are here? Are we trying the best we can given our limited knowledge, our own chemical imbalances, our own place in a strange system that we were born into? Can we shake off the fear of death and inevitable defeat and try to make the world better, if not for a friend or a loved one here and now, than for someone down the road, who we may never know?
I understand what Coates is trying to say. I think he is someone trying to get at the truth and he is able to uncover part of it. The problems he talks of are real and need addressed. However, I can’t help but feel he is missing something too.