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essay

Lemuel Pepys Esq., time traveler

This satirical piece is based on the leaked transcript of an editorial staff meeting at The Atlantic magazine in April 2018. The two principals are black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and the editor, Jeffrey Goldberg.

In which a Gentleman of the Eighteenth Century is Miraculously transported to a Twenty-First Century Editorial Meeting

Through a worm hole, unknown in the 18th century, but now routinely available on Twitter, Mr. Pepys, a distant cousin of the well-known diarist Mr. Samuel Pepys, has been time-traveled, in the guise of young staffer, to a meeting at a major publication of the US East Coast intellectual elite. Much is unfamiliar. He perceives that he has been taken to the remote future. He recognizes the jobs of the scribblers he is witnessing. He is puzzled at the presence of ‘negroes’ and young women. He is baffled by their discussion.  The following are extracts from his diary.

Friday April 6, 2018

Two men, one black, one white address the meeting. The white one seems troubled. The tall black one appears to be the master. They all labour for a periodical called The Atlantic (we seem to be in the colonies).

“Of no party or clique” is their motto. (Is it true that this publication supports no particular faction? Rare!)

The black man complains about his previous employment at an organ called the New Republic: “No black people worked there. I’ve actually verified this. No black people worked there at all. And to my mind — other people will probably feel quite differently about this — but as far as I was concerned, it was basically a racist publication.” We learn later that The Atlantic suffers from the same distemper: “basically white dudes”.  (And what is this “dude”?)

What is racism?

None dissented from the black man’s claim: absence of black people is racism, which is a sin, it seems. But what meaneth ‘racist’? No Negroes are at my own employment, in the Royal Navy Sick and Hurt Board. Are the Navy yards therefore ‘racist’? But of course, few blacks are available – more in the colonies, I believe, though most in bondage.

Apparently, there are many free black people in this new time. Are they excluded from all literary employment? Can they not write? Unlikely, since my black man writes much. Perhaps he is possessed of a Royal Prerogative? Are other black men in some way not fit for employment by The New Republic?

The black man is aggrieved. He missed black people at the NR because, he said “there was no me to learn from.”  I am puzzled. As a child, my teachers were actually women. Though myself a boy, I yet learned quite well from them. I learned a little music from Signor Ottocelli, an Italian gentleman, a very foreign person. Are black people somehow different?  Can they learn only from their ilk?

The black man is sad: “I don’t know how to put this without sounding like an a–hole.” But after debating the matter within himself, he decided that it was after all good to learn, even from people he believed to be “f—-ing racist” – that word racist again.

The black man has difficulty learning from others if they differ from him either by color or opinion.  He is concerned that his teachers did not see him “completely as a human being.” What does this mean? It is natural to see negroes as different, of course; they look different from Englishmen. Those who have arrived in our island since 1600 were savages, mostly, naked and illiterate. But many free black people are now in the colonies and, as I later learn, look and behave more or less as others do. I cannot comprehend his difficulty.

The black man apparently has one white colleague with whom he differs, but to whom he can speak: “You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand?” But Mr. Sullivan is evidently an exception: The black man can talk to Mr. Sullivan, but not to any others of his party (except Kevin, apparently). And what is “genetically”?

Are black people (in general, I suppose, there must be exceptions) in fact stupider than white people?  Apparently the proposition is too silly to debate, according to the black man (but he would say that, wouldn’t he?).

The trouble with Kevin

There is a discussion about a former colleague. A man called Kevin was recently ejected from the group after a very short stay.  Evidently, Kevin is one of those white folk who fails to see the black man and others like “as fully realized human beings.”  What does this mean? That Kevin doesn’t like them? That they don’t like Kevin? That he thinks black people are but hairless apes (tho’ he doth deny it!)? Apparently Kevin has views that are “batsh-t crazy” — not explained. But it is clear that “batsh-t crazy” opinions are anathema, like Popery or disbelief in the Trinity.

The willful disposing of unborn infants is a contentious issue.  The practice is a crime in my time. Kevin apparently is of the same view. But — O, tempora, O, mores! — Apparently, abortion is permitted now in some parts of the colonies and embraced by the present company.

The black man refers to the execution of criminals (I discovered later that criminals are now executed in a barbarous and ignoble fashion, by a medical procedure. Surely, hanging, which would at least preserve the honor and dignity of the condemned man, is to be preferred?)  The black man seems to believe it is wrong to execute anyone, no matter how heinous his crime.

After a brief jocosity with the white man, the black man speaks again: “you know, I was an admirer of Kevin’s work, and I think I can say this, you know, Jeff [the white man] talked to me about this. And I was not like, don’t hire that dude. To the contrary, I thought, OK, well he can come in and represent the position, and then we can fight it out…I feel like I failed the writers of color here in that advice.” Why “failed”? Are black people approving of abortion, as Kevin apparently is not? Can they not bear a contrary view? Do they not enjoy vigorous debate, as we do? Later discussion suggests that white people at the publication also fear debate. And what is a “dude”?

The black man at last explains the difficulty: “This publication is diversifying…What is debatable comes up for question because you bring different people in, and those people are not just brown-skinned or dark-skinned or women who would normally — you know, who are just the same as any other. Their identity — and I know this is bad in certain quarters, but I don’t think it is — that identity cannot be neatly separated from the job.”  By “diverse” he seems to mean adding women and colored people to the group.

Diversity impedes debate?

It is clear at last:  This “diversity” is the problem. So long as the scribblers were all white men, they could converse and debate freely. But now colored people and women are in the room (yes, young women are present! Although they wear trousers and shirts, like men – only exposing more chest). Since the paper has become ‘diverse’, free debate is no longer possible: “So maybe the job changes a little bit” says the black man.

Now I think I begin to understand the dilemma at the New Republic: to have a vigorous and open group of writers, they needed to be all men, or at least not diverse. (Would all women, or even all black people, work as well? Or are such groups considered to be ‘diverse’, hence incapable of robust debate?)  “Like, those two things [diversity and a ‘broad range of debate’] actually, as you said, they’re part of each other. And I guess what I’m suggesting is they actually might also be in conflict with each other”, as the black man points out later. Though awkwardly expressed, the black man sees the problem: with women and blacks in the room, debate is stifled. Best go back to the old way, men only, as in my time? I well understand that many things may not be discussed in the presence of women.

The white man speaks. He has failed to grasp the black man’s point: “trying so hard to diversify gender, race ethnicity, orientation, whatever, part of it is to make sure that we’re of no party or clique.” So, he wishes to be ‘diverse’ but cannot understand that it conflicts with their motto.  The black man perceives that free debate is not possible in a ‘diverse’ group. The white man admits that certain issues cannot be discussed. He wishes debate “without touching the third rails of gender and abortion and race.” So, gender, abortion and race cannot be discussed? Which is a puzzlement, since they seem to be at the top of everyone’s minds. (And what is a “third rail”?)

The black man speaks again: perhaps I have mistook him: “I think the deal is that in the ’90s, when this room would not have looked like this room does [i.e., no women or blacks?], there were things that were considered out of bounds. I don’t think we would have published ‘The Case for Reparations’ then.”

Much is made of this important “Reparations” production, which appeared in The Atlantic some years earlier. The black man refers to it frequently, making no mention of criticism that has appeared elsewhere.  “And I think the problem is, some of those things — this is the huge, huge problem — some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe.”  He doth not say what those things are — perhaps a suggestions that there may be differences between black and white people? (But if blacks and whites truly are the same, why keep treating them separately? Why complain, as the black man frequently does, that “I was the only writer of color”?) Or is it just anathema to discuss things believed by the common people?

We cannot know whether “The case for reparations” would have been published in The Atlantic in years past. But if not, the reason might have been that its thesis seems unjust. Should living white people pay living blacks for injuries inflicted by dead whites on dead blacks?  Especially as some blacks believe themselves better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.  Or, as some have suggested, because the argument made is feeble.  Or that the style of writing is too enthusiastic for a scholarly publication.  We cannot know.

The white man speaks: “Do you think The Atlantic would be diminished if we narrowed the bounds of acceptability in ideological discourse, even as we grow in diversity?” He begins to see the black man’s argument. He begins to discern, as through a glass, darkly, the conflict between diversity of race and diversity of thought. A young woman later asks a similar question. She had heard “a certain amount of nostalgia for that time, which was the ability to just get out there and punch each other and people debating and actually having genuinely different ideas and having that spirit of really wanting to engage. And we just don’t have that anywhere on our website.” (What is this “website”?)

In the end, ‘diversity’ seems to win over open debate at The Atlantic.

Towards the end of the meeting, it becomes clear that the white man is supposed to be in charge. He is the Editor of The Atlantic, ‘tho he always defers to the black man. Indeed, he says at one point: “I mean he’s one of the dearest people in my life. I’d die for him.”

The black man seems to object, and the white man responds ruefully: “Can’t I just express my love for you? What’s so bad? What’s so wrong?”  To which the black man responds: “Can I just say — and I would only say this sitting in this room — but that was a very white response.” This seems to be a condemnation. Is love a bad thing? Is love from a white man bad. Do white men always express love for black men?

Or is the black man’s response in fact (that word again) racist?

by ‘POSSUM’