Between the World and U.S.
The essential foreign policy book of 2015 isn’t about foreign policy.
In Between the World and Me, his 152-page letter to his adolescent son, African-American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls watching a former slave market, namely the southern tip of Manhattan, burn on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001:
“I stood on the roof of an apartment building with your mother, your aunt Chana, and her boyfriend, Jamal. … Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was missing. But looking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold. … Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city. I never forgot that. Neither should you.”
It’s a shocking admission from any American, but one that Coates, to whom the MacArthur Foundation recently awarded a Genius grant, embeds within a revelatory account of how it feels to be marginalized and victimized in today’s United States. His willingness to draw even a tangential connection between his own uniquely American anger — anger born of racial inequality and the legacy of slavery — and the anti-Americanism that undergirded the 9/11 attacks is both courageous and indispensable.
For many, Coates’s heart-wrenching story of black friends murdered by police officers and growing up feeling physically threatened by his own government will do little to justify his indifference to the violent deaths of 3,000 innocent civilians that day. But for those in the business of designing and executing U.S. foreign policy, and thus tasked by the American people with understanding the motivations of that country’s enemies, writing Coates off or ignoring his views is a dangerous contention. Whether one agrees with him or is offended by the very notion that an American could in any way echo those that seek to destroy his country, Coates’s book is essential reading for anyone attempting to comprehend the roots and intricacies of anti-Americanism and the complexities of oppression and power.
In his stark description of living as a black man in America, Coates projects thinly veiled rage towards a state he feels treats him and his community with indifference and injustice, despite its stated commitment to those values. He writes, again to his teenaged son:
“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names. But you and I have never truly had that luxury. I think you know.”
These are not new ideas, of course. Coates is a clear and self-described descendant of a lineage of civil rights activists, post-colonial theorists, and powerful African-Americans. This lineage includes President Barack Obama, the leader of the very country against whom Coates rails, who wrote in his own autobiography of a sense of disenfranchisement as a black man in a country that viewed him first and foremost as a threat, a creature prone to violence, something to be contained. But by unapologetically connecting this disillusionment with the American dream to the perpetration of violence, and to some degree legitimizing a violent response to oppression, Coates takes his argument to a logical conclusion that few in the mainstream are willing to draw, and in the process offers a gift to practitioners of U.S. foreign policy.
Unfortunately, most Americans have grown comfortable with the idea that there are citizens who don’t have access to the riches of the United States as a whole. Many wring their hands while young people riot in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, or commit crimes in poor inner cities where law enforcement is more about suppression of violence than community protection, but they have ultimately done little to push concrete change. What Americans feel less comfortable with is the notion that this violence, clearly an outgrowth of the history of persecution and violence that Coates describes (among other socio-political and economic factors) might be derived from a similar pool of anger and resentment as those who attack the United States from abroad, or even those who attack it from within based on foreign ideologies or alleged U.S. misconduct abroad.
There are inevitably places where those pools of anger diverge, of course, some of which are quite dramatic. “Global anti-Americanism” is an artificial construction around a diverse and in many cases poorly articulated collection of views, ranging from those of Islamic fundamentalists to liberal Europeans, environmentalists to Marxists, and just about any other “ist” one cares to consider. Such diversity exists on the domestic side as well, and I suspect Coates would shrink from claiming to speak for all African-Americans, not to mention all who feel unrepresented or marginalized within the American state.
Nevertheless, there are common themes that are unmistakable, and on which Coates sheds valuable light. He references the first in the quote above, which centers on what he considers American hypocrisy; the notion that by laying claim to the ideals of equality, democracy, and human rights, the United States holds itself to a higher standard in word, while trouncing those values in deed. One need only look at the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, Osama bin Laden, or thousands of lesser and less-violent critics of U.S. foreign policy to pick up this particular thread. But when spoken by an American citizen and an acclaimed columnist for the Atlantic, one of the country’s oldest and most esteemed journals, Coates forces his readers to confront the argument, or at least to consider it. One certainly need not agree with him but, while Awlaki and bin Laden have little credibility in the halls of Washington (and rightly so), Coates has the ear of many, including the president himself.
Coates also offers up the idea that oppression begets violence, and that physical rage is, for better or worse, the inevitable outcome of disenfranchisement, the result of taking away a human being’s power over his own body. He describes this in the context of his youth on the streets of Baltimore, where young men (women are notably absent here; a discussion for another time) lashed out in violent reaction to the ways in which the arm of the state with whom they were engaged (namely the police) inflicted random and seemingly unjustified violence on them and their families. He writes:
“The crews walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.”
The redemptive potential of violence is, again, far from a novel concept, and one that is often discussed in the dusty halls of universities. Frantz Fanon, the Afro-Caribbean political theorist at the forefront of the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s, penned the still-studied The Wretched of the Earth, a furious tome to the cleansing power of bloodshed in overcoming histories of brutal oppression and exploitation. Like the connection between domestic angst and anti-Americanism abroad, policymakers in Washington tend to treat Fanonian ideas — which Coates clearly echoes — as anathema, because any suggestion that this type of violence can be justified is beyond the pale of political palatability.
Accepting the possibility that domestic challenges may parallel those facing the United States abroad (including, perhaps, the notion of “American hypocrisy”), or that retributive violence may have some restorative power for those living under oppressive regimes, is far from a clear endorsement that democracy and human rights are the cure to all the world’s ills — or that it is America’s role or responsibility to enforce them. These are not the only factors that drive conflict, of course (cue religion, scarce resources, geo-political brinksmanship, etc.), and the world has seen in bloody detail the potential costs of attempting to impose these values on other nations, as despicable as their leaders may be.
But to deny the existence of these drivers is to take another sort of risk, namely of blinding oneself to a socio-political reality that is not only present in the realm of international relations, but that can be witnessed on the streets of American cities and in the pages of their newspapers. Simply being aware of and prepared for the explosions of violence that often emerge from those living under repressive conditions could greatly enhance America’s ability to deal with conflict abroad, as could an acceptance that while the United States may strive to live up to its high-minded rhetoric, others don’t always perceive it that way. These admissions need not be driven by extensive analyses of foreign lands (although that certainly wouldn’t hurt); much of the core material lies within U.S. borders.
There are surely countless other threads to be pulled from Coates’s memoir, as well as his columns and other writings, that can shed new light on the dynamics in which U.S. foreign policy operates. Whether one agrees with him is beside the point; in fact, I suspect many will not on most fronts. But to understand is to progress, and in this Coates offers a golden chance by articulating universal aspects of oppression and violence in terms that Americans will innately understand.
The Buddha told his followers to look within themselves to understand the world and others. American decision makers should heed this advice and seek honest words from observers like Coates who force them to acknowledge the connection between what happens within U.S. borders and events around the world.