‘pose of powerlessness’

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic reflects on what he was thinking ten years ago:

Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that what I thought did not matter much. …

I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, ‘You fools believe that you matter? You think what you’re saying means anything?’

In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, ‘No. Not in my name.’ It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism. …

And finally it meant the election of the country’s first black president whose ascent began at an anti-war rally in Chicago.

I say all this to say that if I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness — my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn’t deserve my hard thinking or hard acting … I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every ‘sensible’ and ‘serious’ person you knew – left or right – was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.

9 responses to “‘pose of powerlessness’

  1. Well – what can one say – that it took Ta-Nehisi COATES 10 years to wake up? That those of us who understood then were radicals I reject. I was in Japan – the whole country – apart from the politicians held in thrall to the US by what nefarious ties one can only imagine – saw what a dreadful path was being taken. I had already the previous year in England visiting Ann – the widow Ian SERRAILLIER (The Silver Sword) – decided to read it with my senior high class in Japan. The dogs of war being sooled towards war in Iraq by George Dubya had been unleashed just a fortnight before the new school year began. And I had already done my public duty in standing up to speak against that war at a major public rally. Reading Paul HAM’s Hiroshima Nagasaki I note in the concluding chapter how little public sentiment protesting unjust acts of war seems to carry influence or weight – even by the politicians – who assume it is all about them when in fact the militarists and their industry have already taken hold of the strings of control. All we can do in the initial phase of protest is reveal that we are not fooled by their mirrors, right? And 10 years later Ta-Nehisi COATES may call us radicals!


  2. You are right – I have never heard of him – must do some study. Your description good enough for me to do so – and to retract my harshness!


  3. And – presumably – he is writing from/reflecting on that time from within the darkness of the US – very difficult always to see clearly from within – far easier from the without position!


    • True, Jim. What I liked about his piece, though, was his articulating what must surely be a widespread phenomenon, especially among people on the receiving end of racism and other forms of oppression, the belief that what he thought didn’t matter much. Calling this a ‘pose of powerlessness’ is brilliant. Imagine if everyone by a stroke of magic were to be freleased that belief and that pose.


  4. Jonathan, responding here to your latest review of your book-reading club choice on the Bible March 26 (couldn’t enter via that for some reason). I am ordering it right now. You are out of Marist studies – did you know Marist Bro. “Paddy” Andrew MORAGHAN by any chance (uncle to a god-daughter) or do you know Paul GLYNN SM (a man of heroic proportions and huge engagement with Japan – now retired in Hunters Hill – Villa Maria)? My background was US-style early-mid 19th century fundamentalist protestantism – till I was 19, anyway.

    I did some research on Ta Nehisi COATES – I understand now – thanks for the leads.

    And I have just recently completed reading Paul HAM’s Hiroshima Nagasaki – easily the best and most comprehensive analysis – from all perspectives – that I have yet read – of the era/focus. Again – thanks to you and the reading group for pushing me back to complete the book begun in April last year. I am currently writing up an analysis/response (for myself – lots of anecdotal stuff) – some (very) minor quibbles/typo matters – and just one more serious disagreement – re a couple of his negative/gratuitous references to Wilfred BURCHETT – another of my personal heroes as it turns out.


    • Hi Jim, how are you.? Where are you living.? Lost track of you hope you are well.
      Regards. David Boras


      • Hello David.

        It’s been a long time – hontō-ni! Yon-nen-mae-ni- kikoku-shimashita.

        Where are you living? Still in Port Stephens?

        Your family? Looking forward to hearing further from you!



  5. Hi Jim. I accidentally uploaded the Karen Armstrong post before it was finished. But your comment prompts me to add a sentence in the post recommending James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-semitism, which covers some of the same territory, and though difficult enough has a stronger narrative element.
    I do know Paddy but not Paul.
    I’m glad you enjoyed Paul Ham’s book. I know what you mean about his psychologising of Wilfred Burchett.


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