Ta-Nehisi Coates’s departure from ‘The Atlantic’ reflects a growing crisis: Our digital age inhibits reliable and enduring insight.
After ten years as a national correspondent, Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving The Atlantic. In a memo to his staff, Coates’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg explained that “the last few years for [Coates] have been years of significant changes. He’s told me that he would like to take some time to reflect on these changes, and to figure out the best path forward, both as a person and as a writer.”
Coates’s writing for The Atlantic in “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black”—along with his books—has shaped our national conversation on race. Although he’s been surprised to find himself famous, his departure from The Atlantic is about much more than unease with sudden fame. Instead, it reflects a growing crisis for public intellectuals in the digital age.
We’re forced to ask: Is our hyper-connected culture driving to extinction the most thoughtful among us? Put otherwise, are the conditions of our times intemperate to the work of public thinkers like Coates?
Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, traces the postwar history of public intellectuals in his essay “The Watchmen.” Citing the work of sociologist Karl Mannheim, Jacobs explains that a public intellectual is someone whose “special task is to provide an interpretation of the world” and to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.”
Coates fits the description, even if he rejects the moniker. In an interview with podcast host Krista Tippett at the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival, he explained his particular hesitations with being a public intellectual. First, he wants to demarcate …
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