But what if his reading hadn’t “worked”? What if Brooks stood by or deepened his respectful criticisms of Coates? What if he continued to argue, as he did in that five-year-old column, that “this country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame” and that although “violence is embedded in America … it is not close to the totality of America”? What if instead of joining Coates in calling for reparations, he argued, as I have, that it’s a proposal doomed to failure? Would he be allowed to make those arguments in The New York Times today? Or would he be risking his job in doing so — not because he would be severely criticized, which is assumed and expected, but because he would provoke a rebellion on staff and calls for his dismissal for refusing to adequately listen, learn, and adjust his views?
I want a public world in which Ta-Nehisi Coates is free to make his arguments with as much potency as he possibly can. But I also want a public world in which his critics can do the same without fear of crossing lines newly drawn. One argument. Then the next. And so on, down through the years. That’s how we truly learn and grow as a culture — not by taking control of the boundaries of debate, narrowing them to verify our tidy certainties, protecting our sacred texts, and punishing those who dare to profane them.