[One small housekeeping item:I’ll be blogging as Andy Seal here in order to avoid confusion with Andrew Hartman. I truly value informality and collegiality, so I hope that this means we all can just continue using first names, with no last initials needed!]
Over the past few weeks, I have been following quite avidly the recent Ta-Nehisi Coates-Jonathan Chait debate over the “culture of poverty” thesis. It’s a fascinating and exceptionally useful exchange—one can easily imagine it being read some time down the road as a sort of parallel to the Irving Howe-Ralph Ellison exchange of the early 1960s.
What was most remarkable to me about the debate was not so much that it got personal, since that is not such a rare thing, but the interesting way that it got personal. The turning point of the Coates-Chait argument really came about not on a point of fact or even interpretation about the “culture of poverty” thesis, but rather when Chait worried aloud that Coates was “turning” to a “grim fatalism.”
Some commenters on the debate, like Tressie McMillan Cottom, argue (very convincingly, in my opinion) that Chait’s expression of concern participates in a very long tradition of white liberals worrying that African-American intellectuals have lost their fighting spirit. Cottom says, “I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope,” and she argues that we should be wary of the paternalism of such a position, a paternalism perhaps even better illustrated by Andrew Sullivan in his reactions (1 and 2) to Coates’s “gloom.”
I think Cottom is exactly right here: “fatalism” is a sort of taboo for much of the left—and even more for the center—and once invoked, it offers an escape hatch from further debate. One can say, “It’s just your gloom talking, not reason.”
My interest, however, is less in arguing out the merits or pitfalls of fatalism, or even analyzing whether or not that is an appropriate characterization of Coates’s rejection of a progress narrative for US history, which is what Chait and Sullivan took to be his turn toward fatalism.
Rather, I am intrigued by two claims that might be extracted from Cottom’s observation: first, that the use of “fatalism” to undercut someone’s position has a history, and second, that, as an epithet, “fatalism” has operated over time with a certain amount of ideological cohesion—that it is generally called into service on behalf of a fairly consistent political vision.
The latter claim would take some time to substantiate: we may feel intuitively that it is true, and possibly most true when it comes to conflicts between white and black intellectuals, but to demonstrate it empirically would require a lot of close reading over a long period of time.
However, I think we can ask some interesting questions about the ideological uses of fatalism as an epithet by trying to ask some more precise questions about the epithet’s discursive history. I am assuming here that “fatalism” and its inflections have some specific power, that calling someone a fatalist is different than, more powerful than, simply saying that they’ve lost hope or abandoned optimism.
So what I’ve done, perhaps out of disciplinary narcissism, is look at the instances of “fatalism,” “fatalist,” “fatalists,” “fatalistic,” and “fatalistically” in the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and JAH’s predecessor, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. AHR has been around since 1895, and MVHR and JAH since 1914. So there is plenty of data for us to work with.
Here is a Google Docs spreadsheet with the whole dataset: I’ve done some very rudimentary tagging of each article or review in which a form of “fatalism” appears, classifying them with a few “topic” classifications. I could not do this entirely rigorously, and there may even be some inconsistencies in the way I applied these tags, but I think for a start, it is helpful enough. There are, after all, nearly 300 separate articles or reviews, so that should be large enough to cancel out a few mistakes.
The second caveat is that not every instance of “fatalism” will be one where the author of the review or article is condemning someone for their fatalism. Some may in fact be attempts to rescue a historical figure or an author from a charge of fatalism, but this is more or less the point: the onus is not to show that everyone uses “fatalism” for the same ends, but that the word creates a sort of field of meaning in which certain issues—progress, hope, liberalism, meliorism, and the like—are inevitably entailed. When “fatalism” appears, I’m wagering, we’re in an interesting neighborhood.
The first notable pattern is temporal: incidences of “fatalism” appear much more commonly after 1970: a full 76% of all the times “fatalism” is used occur from 1970 on. I assume that the AHR and JAH expanded in terms of the number of articles and reviews they ran yearly over time, but I don’t think this kind of concentration can be fully accounted for by an expanded page counts.
What’s even more interesting about this massive concentration of “fatalism” after 1970 is that it actually builds more each decade after, although it appears this decade will break the pattern:
If, as I’m sure you’re thinking, the impetus behind the new prevalence of the word “fatalism” after 1970 is due to a backlash against the emergence of the new labor and women’s histories, the expansion of African-American studies programs, and other variants of identity politics and history from below, well, you’re probably not wrong, but you now have to explain why this backlash increases from 1970 to 2010. Nor can we match this smooth buildup to our notions about the reinvigoration of ideological conflict around the culture and canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
That’s probably more than enough for now: I’ll let you take a look at the data, form your own conclusions, and in a second post, if I get a sense that people find all of this of some interest, I’ll try to explore the data further.
 The two principal essays involved in that exchange were, Irving Howe, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Dissent 9 (1963): 353-368, and Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug,” New Leader 46 (1963): 22-26, later republished in Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964).
 Coates does accept the term, more or less: “Chait thinks this view is “fatalistic.” I think God is fatalistic. In the end, we all die. As do most societies. As do most states. As do most planets. If America is fatally flawed, if white supremacy does truly dog us until we are no more, all that means is that we were unexceptional, that we were not favored by God, that we were flawed—as are all things conceived by mortal man. I find great peace in that. And I find great meaning in this struggle that was gifted to me by my people, that was gifted to me by culture.”