Thursday, August 7, 2014

Piketty, Perlstein, and Coates, Oh My!

This year has been fortunate enough to see three epic pieces of criticism from the Left enter into popular political discourse.  All three of these works deeply challenge conservative assumptions so ingrained in our politics that they have practically become part of the price of admission: that racism's effects are negligible in the present, that capitalism's prosperity is a rising tide that lifts all boats, and that Ronald Reagan was a great president who saved America from ruin.  Anyone with any sort of critical mind already knew these things were bullshit, but now those critiques have gone viral, and the purveyors of such cant are finally on the discursive defense.

I am speaking here of Ta-Nehisi Coates' tour de force piece on reparations in the Atlantic, economist Thomas Piketty's impressive tome Capital in the 21st Century, and historians Rick Perlstein's newest work, The Invisible Bridge.  All three have engendered fierce, almost apoplectic opposition from the political Right in ways I have never witnessed before, since all three are so well-written and researched, and threaten assumptions conservatives have managed to make conventional wisdom.  My personal favorite response has been the one of a conservative biographer of Reagan, he is suing for $25 million and wants all the copies of Invisible Bridge to be pulped.

That very response should hearten the forces of the Left, who have always had theorists and thinkers on their side, but haven't necessarily translated those ideas into coherent, digestible narratives.  For example, I have heard some people complain that Piketty's arguments about how capitalism inevitably leads to inequality are hardly new, but what is new is that he is leveling this accusation from within the economics profession, and has amassed a great amount of data and evidence to support his case.  He also writes extremely well, and deftly uses literature to illustrate his salient points about how wealth works in a rentier society, one his data and analysis shows we are about to return to.  With the concerns about wealth inequality growing among the masses in the wake of the Occupy movement, Piketty has given crucial ammunition to those

Similarly, Coates has a tremendous knowledge of history and has brought that into the journalistic world.  In doing so, he has taken the many great works of historians about the history of race (and especially housing) and molded them into a potent argument.  He later wrote a narrative bibliography giving credit to those works that had informed his article, bringing those scholars a much broader audience than they have ever had before.  I think academic historians everywhere should take notice of what Coates has done, and strive to make their ideas more accessible to the masses.  In their translator, Coates has utterly transformed the discourse on reparations and foregrounded (for those who couldn't see it) the ridiculousness of the claims that America is "post-racial society."

Rick Perstein is one historian in the academy who understands how to reach a broad audience with challenging interpretations while still basing his work in meticulous research.  (So much popular history is dross from a research perspective.)  I am still waiting to dig into Invisible Bridge, but having read his other books (especially Nixonland) and the reviews, I know that it is riling up conservatives because of its killer combination of depth and accessibility.  The cult of Reagan is perhaps the most hallowed of all modern conservative articles of faith, and any book with a popular audience that could call it into question represents a major threat.

I know I am sounding a lot more gushy and effusive than usual, but it's because I am feeling genuine happiness that works of scholarship are capable of altering our political discourse in the right direction. At least many of those people espousing the "post-racial society," Saint Reagan, and capitalism's benevolence won't just be given the benefit of the doubt anymore.

1 comment:

LeAnne LB said...

Thank you for this post. I also have yet to read The Invisible Bridge, but I got excited about it after reading this interview with Salon: