Put a gun to my gut, ask me how many times I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates and said to myself “Damn he’s good,” and I’d probably have a substantial hole in my stomach. The man is just…that good. In particular these two ‘graphs, on poverty, power, and privilege:
We talk about a culture of poverty as a way of damnation, but not as a way of comprehension. America loves winners, and tells us that we can all be winners, and it says this at such a volume that when you do not win, you might believe that something deep in your bones condemns you to losing–and believing that you might take whatever is given to you. You might be thankful for your squalor. You might come to believe that it is a divine plan for you to be under and down. I don’t want to overstate this. I simply want to say that if I punch you in the face enough times, and you lack the power to stop me, you might come to believe that it is what you deserve. Rousseau says that strength must be transformed into right; likewise, weakness becomes destiny.
But the game is rigged. I know this because I loved my craft for many years and it meant nothing to anyone save my mother, my father, my siblings, my wife and a few close friends. At 25 my only noteworthy success was playing some part in the creation of my son. I stayed loyal to his mother. I think I stayed loyal because I could park myself there–perhaps I failed at all other things. But I was a good father and I was a loyal spouse. And then one day a man of some privilege (bearing his own struggles) spoke to another man of some privilege and I became a man of some privilege with a megaphone, which I now employ, across an ocean, to bring these thoughts to you. And I love both of these men of privilege–power is a fact, it is not morality. Losing is tragic, but it is not noble. How many freedom fighters turned despots in the possession of superior guns?
I’ve appropriated the following phrase from one my professors many times, but on this I’ll quote him verbatim; “The single most powerful argument for the legitimacy of the current social system is the mere fact of its existence.” Power, privilege, poverty; these are, as Coates writes, conditions of comprehension and fact. The transformation of action into righteousness, the ascription of morality and destiny are all ex-post exercises in confusing the effect for the cause. Looking for meaning in the aftermath of what arbitrary luck and actualization has produced is, inevitably, a process of legitimization.