America's Foremost Public Intellectual and the Race Card

A few days ago the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece proclaiming MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry “America’s foremost public intellectual.” Coates didn’t really make much of a case. In fact, most of the piece was about Mitt Romney. Here’s the bulk of his argument for Harris-Perry:

There may well be intellectuals with more insight. And there are surely
public figures with a greater audience. But there is no one who
communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and
effect than Harris-Perry. Her show brings a broad audience into a
classroom without using dead academic language and tortured
abstractions. And she does this while awarding humanity on a national
stage to a group unaccustomed to such luxury–black women.

She’s not the most insightful, nor does she have the biggest audience but in Coates’ view she’s the sweet spot between the two. Having a low-rated show on MSNBC is not what I’d call a stirring argument for Harris-Perry’s unrivaled genius, but everyone has an opinion, especially people paid to offer them. A day later, Coates’ claim garnered a response from Politico’s Dylan Byers who did not sound impressed:

Byers later offered his own more plausible list which included Bernard Lewis, Noam Chomsky, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman and E.O. Wilson. But here’s where things turn ugly. It turns out you can’t disagree with Ta-Nehisi Coates without becoming part of the problem. In his reaction to Byers today, Coates decides this is really all about race.

Byers’s contenders were all white men and a white woman disqualified on account of death. This was caricature–a pose not wholly unfamiliar to Byers–and
it was greeted with all the mockery which #blacktwitter so often
musters. But black people–and #blacktwitter–mostly laugh to keep from

This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual.”

Notice that Coates doesn’t offer any comment about Byers’ list of public intellectuals save one: They are all white. Apparently that’s all that needs to be said to disqualify them. No need to discuss their relative qualifications versus Harris-Perry, just lump them together and dismiss them as a group.

A few paragraphs later, Coates argument hits bottom when he gets around to the other part of Byers criticism, the personal part. Coates writes “What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

Did you catch the moving of the goalposts (I added emphasis to make it clear)? Byers tweet was predicated on the claim that Harris-Perry is “America’s foremost public intellectual.” Coates reworks this to the far less noteworthy claim that Harris-Perry is “an intellectual.”

Obviously that’s not what Byers said, not what he meant and likely not something he would have objected to in the first place. There’s a huge difference between saying someone is “an intellectual” and saying they are the foremost intellectual in a nation of 300 million people.

In fact, one could make a better argument for Rachel Maddow as America’s foremost public intellectual using Coates’ criteria (save for the one about race). I’m no fan of Maddow but she has a bigger audience than Harris-Perry and graduated from Stanford and Oxford. The point is, one could arguably do better even without leaving MSNBC.

Coates made a grand claim based on one less-than-convincing paragraph. Rather than admit it was poorly argued, he insinuates racism motivated his critic (twisting his words to make it plausible). It’s the sort of thing that has become sadly all too common on the left.

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