When I wrote about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book Between the World and Me, I noted that Coates was this year’s officially certified angry black. He is officially certified by the New York Times through Jennifer Schuessler, the Times culture reporter and gatekeeper. Schuessler’s July 17 profile of Coates attests that Coates’s book “has had an almost frictionless glide straight to the heart of the national conversation.” (The official publication date of the book was July 14; Schuessler was on top of the story.) I wrote about Coates’s book in the City Journal essay “An updated racial hustle.”
Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow, a book decrying the “mass incarceration” of blacks in the United States. Alexander was 2012’s officially certified angry black. She was certified by Schuessler in an adoring profile when her book took off in paperback that year. I wrote about Alexander’s book in the Power Line post “Deep secrets of racial profiling (4).”
When the Times got around to assigning Coates’s dreadful book for review, whom did they turn to? Michelle Alexander, of course. It’s almost funny.
Alexander’s review is posted online here. Alexander finds it a great virtue of Coates’s book that it is “not addressed to white people.” I respectfully disagree; I think that Coates’s book was written for upscale white liberals such as readers of the Times. Alexander is ambivalent about the book; she thinks it’s good, but that it leaves important questions hanging. She concludes that “one of the great joys of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is being challenged in ways you didn’t expect or imagine.” I respectfully disagree. I think it is a bad book unredeemed by any saving grace.
The Times’s treatment of Coates’s new book represents a variation on an old story. Earlier this year Bryan Burrough’s book Days of Rage on the terrorist left of the 1970’s prompted me to reflect on the role played by the New York Times as an instrument of celebrity propping up the revolutionary left. As a corollary, the Times is invested in protecting the reputation of the left. It is, shall we say, not given much to introspection regarding the impact of its judgments.
George Jackson, for example, was an incarcerated convict of a thuggish bent and a long rap sheet. At his parole hearing in 1965, Burrough recalls, Jackson’s own father testified that he would be better off remaining in prison. In 1970 Jackson participated in the brutal murder of a prison guard in revenge for the killing of three black inmates. Radical attorney Fay Stender formulated the brilliant idea of turning Jackson into a celebrity by cobbling together his letters to family and friends for publication and by portraying him “as an innocent victim being persecuted for his revolutionary beliefs” (as Burrough puts it). With the help of a friendly editor at Bantam Books, Stender omitted the letter in which Jackson fantasized about poisoning the Chicago water supply — “in an effort to portray him as the American Dreyfus” (Burrough again).
Published in October 1970, Jackson’s Soledead Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson became an immediate best-seller. The Times called on Julius Lester to review it. Lester had achieved notoriety as the author of Look Out, Whitey! Black Power Gon’ Get Your Mama. In the New York Times Book Review, Lester declared Jackson’s book “one of the most significant and important documents since the first black was pushed off the ship at Jamestown colony.”
In 1971 Jackson attempted to break out of prison in an operation that involved the murder of five guards later found in Jackson’s cell with their throats slit. Jackson’s posthumous literary offering was Blood In My Eye, published in February 1972. Burrough finds it “a straightforward call for a bloody black-led revolution in the streets of America[.]” The Times expressed disappointment in Jackson’s second book, asserting that it “lack[ed] the visceral brilliance, the epistolary panache” of Soledad Brother. In death Jackson served as the inspiration for Donald DeFreeze, later to assume the name Cinque as the founder and leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
PAUL ADDS: George Jackson also inspired Bob Dylan to write and sing what is probably his worst song ever: “George Jackson.”
The song begins:
I woke up this mornin’
There were tears in my bed
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head
They cut George Jackson down
They laid him in the ground.
Believe it or not, after that it goes downhill.