This is not the time for writing, but I am seven thousand miles from home. There are no sounds of “civil disturbance” here, no gun shots, or sirens,  and there are no marches for me to join. I am watching from a distance—my morning is America’s night and last night/this morning, Ferguson was again ripped apart by violence. I spent much of the summer thinking about Ferguson, Michael Brown, and hip hop. I could never quite put those thoughts into writing, and I still can’t now. But generally what I thought about was this: I thought about our shortcomings as listeners. Our role as consumers of culture and experience and its connection to our lives as citizens and as people. I thought a lot about the way that ghettoization has become the primary idiom of racial life in America; I mean that, though we’ve shrugged off Jim Crow Laws, the history of segregation continues in every aspect of American life. Our housing, education, employment, our policing, but also our culture as well. Yet segregation does not necessarily imply distance, and all sorts of intimacies of exploitation, cultural appropriation, and violence continue to exist. White people have constantly expropriated black labor—including cultural labor. That is a story that is as old as America itself—it runs from slavery, through the appropriation of jazz, blues, and rock (and, now hip hop) and to the current process of gentrification in American cities (I am saying that these processes are similar, not directly equivalent). I don’t think any aspect of American culture or economy can be understood without examining this odd combination of proximity and distance.

I think it is important to think about hip hop now (and always) because it formed a unique bridge across these divides. It was one of the few ways in which White America allowed the other to approach it. Hip Hop offered us a chance to listen to and reflect upon racial inequality and the forms of violence it produced. Regrettably, I think, we have chosen not to listen very closely, but rather to appropriate elements of hip hop’s form while emptying it of its content. Thus, hip hop has become another example of how black Americans have been forced into an exploitative, dangerous proximity to White America, while simultaneously being kept out of the mainstream of social and economic life. In other words, though it abolished slavery, White America never completely recalculated its political, cultural, and social life in a way that might grant African Americans real, full citizenship. The treatment of hip hop by white listeners is a symptom of this, as is too the pervasive law enforcement violence against African Americans (again, these are not equivalent).

I am writing this because I think that thinking through one problem can help us think through the other. (Or perhaps it is that we cannot untangle one problem unless we reckon with the other?) My point, broadly, is that the way we have treated hip-hop—commodify and appropriate—bears a definite relation to how we treat people like Michael Brown—marginalize, exploit, destroy—and will relate too to how we will treat the outburst of anger that has surrounded the killing of Mike Brown—we will listen briefly to the protests and then carry on with business as usual.

These questions may seem academic and abstract. They are. I write this knowing that critique is not activism. But I know equally that our silence equals complicity in the murder of Michael Brown and others, and that it is a necessary precondition to the perpetuation of white supremacy. I write out of a feeling of desperation. Not the desperation of victimhood—white privilege means that I do not have experience that. I write from the desperation of my own position, my own lack of any viable politics. I am not satisfied to disperse my anger by writing hash-tags, nor am I quite willing to undertake the only action that seems of any immediate significance—which is violent civil disobedience. I think we need a politics that falls between these extremes. Can hip hop teach us something about that politics? Can we form a politics of listening? And if so, then what? Where do we proceed? I am writing this because I have nothing else to do, no other way to cope.

It is now my night, and America’s morning, and I can only hope that someone will figure out where we can go from here.

Seeger

It’s 2014, Pete Seeger is dead and Macklemore got the Grammy for best rap album of the year.

Seeger was an ex-communist with a banjo and a weird voice.  He brought numerous American folk songs into the mainstream. He adapted songs like “We Shall Overcome” from black folk and gospel tradition and let them be folded seamlessly back into unrelentingly black activist anthems.  As the obituaries are pointing out, Seeger ducked away from his fame and pop success, or else he used them to bring attention to the environmental and social issues that he advocated.

Macklemore is a complicated white rapper with a hot song about marriage equality. A few days ago he won the Grammy for best rap album over Kendrick Lamar, a black rapper whose Good Kid/mAAd city was, I think, the greatest hip hop album ever made. It’s the Grammies, and nobody should be surprised, but that hasn’t kept all this shit from stinging a whole bunch of people: LGBTQ people, hip hop purists, black artists and LGBTQ artists. I understand why. That said, I don’t think Macklemore deserves it, any of it. Doesn’t deserve to be mentioned as the “best” of anything or in the same breath as Kendrick. But he also doesn’t deserve to pilloried for his not-so-radical stance on LGBTQ issues or on the basis of race, even if he’s made money off of these things a little cynically.

What I keep thinking about is the weird confluence of these events. The death of a great American musician; the continuing agony of a great American musical form. I don’t know much about Seeger, but it seems to me that his talent lay in his ability to revitalize music, to borrow music in the most sensitive ways possible and to deploy it towards activism and life. It seems hard to accuse Seeger of “appropriating” a song like “We Shall Overcome,” perhaps because his purpose was so generous; because he wanted to re-present that music in continuity with its original intent.

All day I’ve been wondering what Macklemore could learn from Pete Seeger. A lot, I think, about fame and humility and appropriation and activism. But there’s more at stake than how Macklemore handles himself as a white rapper. Hip hop generally has a lot it could learn from Folk. They’re close cousins; they share a surprising amount in common, but also seem to diverge almost irrevocably. In its purest form, as with Seeger, Folk refuses to let our society off the hook. But hip hop artists—including amazing artists like Kendrick—reside perilously close to the capitalist and patriarchal structures of oppression that they ought to critique. And the form has failed to address this. Hip hop has been the biggest imaginable musical threat to those systems, but it has also been the most profound failure.

What’s important here is how we remember Seeger, and what that can make us think about other artists. When we think about Seeger we shouldn’t think about only the soft hippy side of his music, the “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the “Turn, Turn, Turn.” We should also remember him as a blacklisted leftist, an anti-war protestor, an environmental activist, an artist who brought old slave songs into the lives of white audiences without sugar coating them. Hip hop has the same potential, I think. Artists like Kendrick have that potential, even Macklemore does. They just have to live up to it.

Chance

 

Recently I went to see the Chance the Rapper concert at University of Chicago. I went not only because I’m a big fan of Chance’s Acid Rap mix-tape, but also because I wanted to see how he would handle the University of Chicago crowd; how a young, up-and-coming rapper from Chicago’s South side would play to an audience that represented the South side’s most privileged and protected and otherwise non-South side population. A hometown show in front of an outside audience.

I wondered if this concert might be a moment of transition for Chance, a kind of microcosm of the process though which rappers move from local to national stardom, creating a “national” buzz by performing for an entirely new (and whiter and more affluent) audience. Throughout the night Chance tried to stoke up the crowd by asking: “What the fuck is up Chicago?” But the response never seemed quite whole-hearted enough for him, and it was hard not to see that U of C isn’t Chicago. We could welcome him into the world of cross-over appeal, but I wondered if we could really welcome him home.

Most of all I went because I was curious if and how Chance would perform the verses from the second half of his song Pusha Man, verses that seem to speak specifically about gentrification, privilege, and fear. This is the most powerful part of the album, and when I went to the concert on Saturday night, I wondered if Chance would do what so many rappers have ultimately failed to do: tell his truth to the face of white fans, once they had become his primary audience.

He didn’t disappoint. When the time came Chance faced an audience that was largely too drunk and happy to care, and delivered the most devastating words of his show: “They murkin’ kids. They murder kids here. Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here.”

As he rapped, he pointed down to the stage, as if to reaffirm that he meant “here” in the most direct sense possible. He was talking about Chicago. He was talking about Hyde Park.

What impress me most about these lines is the precision and the brutality of the words chance uses. The heaviness of “murder”. The specificity, emphasized by that gesture, of “here”. The precision in that word, “deserted,” which implies dereliction of duty, some neglected responsibility to others. And Chance is right. To live in South Chicago is to live amid a history of neglect. To live and study at the University of Chicago is, by and large, to perpetuate that history. This was something we usually failed to recognize, and Chance is remarkable for pointing it out to us.

At the end of the song he sings a haunting chorus: “I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too.” This is the crux of what Chance has to teach us. 

When violent crime happens in Hyde Park–and it happens regularly–we talk about it, but only in limited ways. Our conversations rarely center on the victims, or on the community as a whole; on anything other than ourselves and our concerns about our safety. On our fear, in other words. This dialogue is muted, but persistent; a low intensity paranoia. It is manifested in little ways. It is in how we conceptualize the geography of the city. In where we walk and when we cross to the other side of the street. Who we view with suspicion and who with trust. It is manifested when we use words like “ghetto” and “gangster” to mean black and dangerous and “South side” to mean a place of essential otherness. It is manifested more concretely in the enormous police presence, the ubiquitous security guards, the University’s blue emergency-lights, which remind us us that we’re safe, but safe from something. This whole dialogue is a way of isolating ourselves from the brutality of the fact. That they murder kids here.

I am not saying that we should not fee safe. But living in America ought to entail making sense of the intense concentrations of violence and poverty, privilege and safety that surround us. Our fixation on security and safety works to obscure these things. Recently, one of my classmates pointed out that, statistically speaking, Hyde Park is one of the safest places to be a white person in Chicago. The multi-layered facts of history, privilege, demographics, even appearance work to make us safer, even in the midst of certain kinds of violence.

This is the hard ethical work: to make sense of these proximate forms of security and vulnerability. To look at equation and deduce some real form of justice. To actually wish to live with that justice, even at the cost of sacrificing our own sense of boundless security and comfort; to acknowledge that being scared does not excuse us or justify our continuing participation in systems of injustice.

To live in community means acknowledging the bound-togetherness of us and our neighbors; our obligations. But as it usually plays out, to live in Hyde Park or on Vassar College’s campus or in gentrifying urban-America is to live the opposite of this. That life is constituted by denying obligation, by distancing ourselves from the place, by creating unsafe “theres”, populated by “them;” by saying only and often, though frequently in the most politically correct ways, that we are scared, and never, ever asking if they are scared too. That is the initial violence, bloodless, yet always preceding the later, realer violence. It is, as Chance says, an act of desertion. Our fear has doubled us up behind our walls, our police forces, prisons, borders, wars on drugs and terror. As we live willingly with these institutions we constantly reaffirm the injustice of their order. We link our feelings of safety to a series of systems that can only really grant us protection, and in doing so we rob ourselves of justice.

I love words of Chance’s chorus, but also his tone. How he acknowledges our fear, but demands that we ask if others are also afraid. I hear in his voice no condemnation or irony, only the sincerity of the question. That is what makes these verses remarkable: how seldom anyone asks a sincere question across these kinds of boundaries. For someone like Chance to talk to someones like us, in words that are loaded with curiosity and generosity and fear and frustration, and even paranoia and anger, but not with hatred. That is remarkable. To say to us what we so rarely say to others: “I know you’re scared. Me too.”

Yeezus

This shit is the Wasteland. This shit is your brain on drugs. A nightmare panorama in 360 degrees, complete with monsters and bombed out landscapes. What struck me first about Yeezus was that so little stood out. The tracks ran together without any real demarcation, and when it was over there was nothing. I came away without a favorite verse or a favorite line, much less a favorite song. The only things that stuck in my head were the absurdities (“hurry up with my damn croissants”) and a few particularly jarring obscenities.

The emotion I felt mostly was horror and sometimes dark humor and never once anything tender. Kanye’s lyrics are undoubtedly sloppy, but more than anything they’re just almost always entirely pointless. His voice becomes only part of the instrumentals, maybe the critical part, but there is little of anything lyrical about it, it’s another tone in the bleak landscape that Kanye is painting. 

The shock and awe factor wears off. The rawness and horror of the sound–the jarring synth, the rapid cuts, the monster noises–dissipate with a few listens. I’ve never encountered an album I so throughly wished I’d only heard once. And after the terror died I was left only with the emptiness of the album’s concepts. The most notable fact about Yeezus is that nothing seems to mean anything.

Let me say that again: on Yeezus, nothing seems to mean anything. I’m aware of how that sounds. It’s a claim that some critic or other has leveled against almost every rap album ever made and it’s a claim that has always been wrong. Not really a tradition of criticism that I want to take up, but I’ll say it anyway, because I think that this matters. Yeezus might be one of the most important records of this year, and I don’t doubt that it will change the sound and style of hip hop and popular music (let’s get that out of the way right now, the music on Yeezus, taken in total isolation, is often pretty brilliant, and Kanye’s ability as a producer to elicit pleasure and pain from the listener is still undoubtedly genius.) My concern is that Yeezus may be influential for all the wrong reasons; that it is a radical departure from the trajectory of Kanye’s career and the “tradition” of hip hop. A departure that doesn’t feel like much of an improvement.

Hip hop has always had a unique and complex relationship with meaning. This derived first and foremost from it’s role as black music; it’s connections to old African folklore and black biblical hermeneutics, the symbolic traditions of the slave song and the folk song and the blues. This history is still in the deep structure of hip hop; in its culture of word play and double-entendre and its tendencies to preach and subvert and confound. Meanwhile, the surface of hip hop has been much more self-consciously layered with it’s own invented stylings: posturing, slang, fucked-up-on-purpose-pronunciations and words-that-mean-their-opposite, street semiotics, and most importantly, the sample.

Hip hop samples in two ways. First, and obviously, by taking bits of existing music and audio clips and assembling it into rap beats. The meaning of any given rap song always rests–sometimes firmly, sometimes precariously–on the meaning of the sample. Artists can play with this relationship, by sampling shorter or longer fragments of songs–whole lines for hooks, or tiny pieces, or single words or single sounds–they can sample in ways which retain the original expressiveness of the sample, or subvert it, or reproduce it ironically.

And just as hip hop producers sample sound to create a beat, rappers also “sample” concepts from culture at large to produce that thing that is known as “hip hop culture”. They have always borrowed from a huge range of sources: from film to the Civil Rights Movement and black history to pop music to advertising and TV and politics and on and on.

I’m calling this sampling because of the way that hip hop lifted symbols, idioms, and ideas from other places, used them, shifted them, spliced them and stuck them together. The sampled symbol relates to the original just as sampled sounds relate to the original sounds. Never quite faithfully, but more fun and heavier with meaning, because it invokes the old usage, even as it means something different.

Sampling allows hip hop artists to create rich new things out of what has been. Often it creates vitality from musical and cultural forms that are stale and played out. And at it’s very best, hip hop samples the culture and music that White America “owns” to create a music and culture that is far more liberating than the original could ever have been.

More than anybody, Kanye has exemplified both kinds of sampling. His gift throughout his pre-Yeezus albums was to sample sounds and symbols and to deploy them to greater and more generous effect. His music always sounded different and somehow fresh, I think, because he drew on such a unique set of samples: different musics, the idioms of hip hop, of course, but also popular culture, Christianity and black churches, high fashion and mass consumption, stand-up comedy and spoken word.

Think about a song like Jesus Walks from his first album. The richness here comes from the sounds that Kanye uses, the gospel beat and hook, which made the song unique. But what makes the song complete is Kanye’s riff on preaching style, his hip hop fusion of the idioms of church, club and street into one smooth idea and style.

Or, on Graduation, Kanye raps: “I’m like the fly Malcolm X, by any jeans necessary.” That was a perfect Kanye lyric, a clever line, backed by somebody else’s vocals; a light-weight pop line that somehow managed to subvert and embrace the image of Malcolm, who had already been subverted and embraced as equal parts pop-icon and real radical. Lines like this–and Kanye songs were full of them–rearranged meaning in a ways that were sometimes problematic but also powerful, and always richer because they were new meanings that had an implicit relation to old ones.

But Yeezus is something completely different. Here Kanye uses samples in a way that reduces rather than expands their meaning. He specifically empties the symbolism of the sonic and conceptual samples that Yeeuzs is built from, so that the album actually seems to disparage meaning all together. Gone are the soul samples, the long hooks made from other people’s music, the big sounds and big features. Gone too are the conceptual samples: the civil rights riffs, the pop culture references, the black church remixed, even the trademark Kanye-style conspicuous consumption which could always double as something more loving.

When Kanye does invoke symbols on Yeezus he works to empty them, leaving them devoid of any meaning. There’s a kind of clever but insidious movement through the album to divorce symbol from meaning. Jesus becomes Yeezus, women become objects, Martin Luther King and civil rights are referenced repeatedly in ways that have to do with anything but black liberation. And on and on.

The culmination of the semiotic catastrophe is Blood on the Leaves, in which Kanye heavily samples Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit–a song about lynching–and builds it into a terrible/brilliant/terrible tableaux of failed relationships and divorce, while dropping some almost inexplicably dumb lyrics in hip hop history.

Blood on the Leaves is a microcosm of Yeezus in general. In some ways it succeeds, and in others fails and in yet others, fails again. The Strange Fruit sample, layered with the crazy brass, plus Kanye’s voice, plus auto-tune manages to create maybe the most perfect sonic depiction of the pain of a failed relationship imaginable. The problem is that, though he can evoke that pain through sound, he can’t even come close to telling us about it lyrically. And really, it’s all sort of cheating. Yes, the Strange Fruit sample is brilliant, but it’s also kind of deranged. Brilliant because it evokes an enormous amount of emotion; deranged because it co-ops that emotion to form a totally false equivalency: Kanye’s emotional problems + divorce = lynching. In Kanye’s version, Nina Simone’s voice is stripped of it’s meaning and is re-presented only as discord.

The problem, in other words, is that Kanye has exerted his not insignificant talents to the end of destroying meaning, rather than creating it. He has used his alchemical talents to turn gold into ash, misdirecting the power of Nina Simone’s voice and words off into the void.

It isn’t hard for me to believe that Kanye might make a song like Blood on the Leaves just for effect, that he knowingly abuses the sample, in the way that his lyrics abuse women and the way that his jarring sounds abuse the listener. Blood on the Leaves and Yeezus in general, is spectacular for its ability to abuse, to create chaos and nihilism and selfishness out of even the most generous of ideas, in it’s taking a range of samples–from Nina Simone’s voice to the “I Have a Dream Speech” to Jesus Christ–and to empty them of everything; to set them on the table as horror porn props.

And all this would be bad enough, except that this is Kanye we’re talking about here. I can understand why Kanye would want to push his sounds into unknown territory. But I can’t imagine what drives the grimly destructive lyrics of the album. I can’t figure out how the artist who launched his career with songs like Jesus Walks could (or would want to) write an album called Yeezus. On his first album, Kanye rapped:

I get down for my grandfather who took my momma
Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t wanna us to eat
At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit-ins
With that in my blood I was born to be different

and even after releasing Yeezus he’s said: “I am my father’s son. I’m my mother’s child. That’s how I was raised. I am in the lineage of Gil Scott-Heron, great activist-type artists. But I’m also in the lineage of a Miles Davis — you know, that liked nice things also.”

So what is it that makes him abandon Gil Scott-Heron and Miles Davis; abandon activist art and nice things? What makes that artist actively denigrate the traditions he claims, so that he writes lines like:

Neck, ears, hands, legs, eatin’ ass
Your pussy’s too good, I need to crash
Your titties, let ’em out, free at last
Thank God almighty, they free at last

or

Black girl sippin’ white wine
Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign

Maybe the answer is that the way in which Yeezus subverts symbols and samples creates a mirror to the chaos of Kanye’s emotional world. And if so, then it’s amazing. It’s genius. It’s awful in the old fashioned, double-meaning sense of the word. Awe inducing. Jaw dropping. It’s the perfect sonic embodiment of a world upside down; of all the consequences of late-whateverism; of a perpetual dysfunctional politics of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It’s the world we live in. But it’s not enough because Kanye offers not one word of introspection or analysis or irony. It isn’t enough to show us this world. We also need some guidance.

Kanye may not seem like the ideal guide, and maybe he isn’t. But he does have something to say. As he said in his post-Yeezus interview with the New York Times (a piece of art that far surpasses Yeezus in almost every conceivable way): “Why do you want to control me? Like, I want the world to be better! All I want is positive! All I want is dopeness! Why would you want to control that?”

Or (more complicatedly) telling us, re. the Taylor Swift debacle that he just wanted “[to fight] for what’s right. I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things. So when the next little girl that wants to be, you know, a musician and give up her anonymity and her voice to express her talent and bring something special to the world, and it’s time for us to roll out and say, ‘Did this person have the biggest thing of the year?’ — that thing is more fair because I was there.”

This may seem like sheer egotism and critics keyed in on his “so credible, so influential and so relevant,” but I think that this is actually something much more wonderful and complicated: a vision of himself fighting for the right of an imaginary little girl to be able to live her dreams in a world that judges creativity fairly. It’s one of Kanye’s weird and moving lyrics; a sample that spins his VMA flip-out into a remastered version of MLK’s “by the content of their character” dream. Proof that Kanye is still capable of being the best that hip hop has to offer.

Kanye’s world view isn’t necessarily the most nuanced, but there’s a certain beautiful symmetry to it. He’s telling us that, really, you either want little girls to be able to live their dreams and be judged fairly, or you don’t. You are either in favor of more dopeness, or you’re opposed to it. 

Maybe this shouldn’t be, like, a prevailing ethical system, but taking part in it was the fun of Kanye’s music. Listening to him was sort of like sitting in top-down ride with Kanye, flipping off the haters as you drove slowly past, on your way to shop, dance, drink, fuck, love and liberate your way to a new world order of sheer dopeness; a world of “complete awesomeness at all times.”

It was easy to tell which side you wanted to be on. But now, with Yeezus, it seems to me that Kanye has betrayed his own side and gone off into the darkness. Nothing on Yeezus seems interested in more dopeness. That’s clear from the first track, when the nightmarish background cuts to an incredibly beautiful 13 seconds of music and then right back to the awful. Nothing on Yeezus has anything to do with that dreaming little girl, because on Yeezus women don’t dream of anything except fucking Kanye and stealing his money.

My argument, at the end of all this is that, though it’s brilliant and everything, Yeezus is pretty much a waste of Kanye’s potential and I wish somebody to talk to him and say: “Kanye, you are so credible and so influential and so relevant. All we want is the world to be better. All we want is positive. All we want is dopeness. Why would you want to oppose that? Why would you want to make this album?”

Power

There was a night when I could not sleep. It was in the early days of the “Arab Spring” and the first violent day in Egypt. A few protestors had been killed. Not many. Maybe six. The news of these killings upset me. Six people was a number I could understand, even if I hadn’t known them and could scarcely understand anything about their lives.

What struck me most forcibly was the selfishness of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President. It was clear that the people wanted him out of power. It was also clear that they were going to remove him. It was only his own stubborn and selfish determination that kept him in place and that was now causing the violence. One man had thought that his authority was worth six lives. And then many more.

A few nights ago I read a story about the Egyptain military’s crack down on Islamist protestors. The New York Times called it “a ferocious attack” in which “security services felt no need to show any restraint.”

That is power. It is always a failure of the imagination. The failure to prioritize the need of others to live over our own need to be right. It is an immense selfishness, this saying that one must be safe and rich and strong at any cost. Looking at Egypt it was easy to mourn the collapse of democratic process and the lapse into violence. But the problem wasn’t Egyptians. It was power. It was a human problem.

Guns

At first I wanted to write about the gun control debate in America. I wanted to write about what that debate looks like from here, how grotesquely distorted the whole thing seems. My starting point had been the same one that I’ve been flogging away at in my writing and my thinking and my conversations for several years now: that the “social issues” which get the most discussion are actually relatively minor compared to some of our bigger problems. That’s not to say that these social issues—gun control currently foremost among them—don’t matter, I know that they do matter very deeply to many people. What scares me is the way that they work to distract us, first in the sense that they are wedge issues which make Americans prone to scream at each other, but also because they allow even the best intentioned people to ignore the dangerous problems which face us. After the collapse of the gun control legislation the other day, for example, the New York Times ran an editorial that must have reflected the thinking of many liberals titled “The Senate has Failed Americans.” It mystifies me why the Times should declare that now, as if the Senate isn’t already failing Americans by regularly ignoring serious issues of foreign and domestic policy. The messed up thing, in my opinion, isn’t that so many Americans mourned and fumed when gun control legislation failed. It’s that those same Americans would have celebrated if the legislation had passed, and then gone about their day as if the country’s problems were solved.

That’s what I wanted to write about, but in the end, that argument is only a little bit more complicated than the arguments that it’s staged against. One of the big problems of American political life is that nobody seems to take anything seriously. Political writing and political talk shows almost always ends up sounding like political talk-shows, a little smug and sarcastic. On an issue like guns, both sides yell and pout and finally smirk and mock the other side for being so hopeless out of touch, so full of shit. This is not a constructive pattern, but it’s a hard one to break, and I realized that the post I initially started to write continued in this pattern.

So instead I’m writing about what I think about gun control—I don’t mean my opinion, but rather what the issue makes me think about. The discourse has narrowed the range of perspectives. The NRA, of course has never been particularly open to diverse viewpoints, but liberals are increasingly responding with a “you’re either with us or your with the NRA” kind of vibe that kills any real thinking on the issue. I want to argue that, even after the most atrocious shootings, the issue of guns in America remains complex. Because when we talk about guns and gun control we’re also talking about the political tradition of our country, the functioning of our democratic systems, and our relationship to violence. 

The first important point is the curious connection between guns, the far right, and the American Revolution. It’s pretty clear that the far right is the biggest opponent of gun control. And this opposition does not seem to come so much from the “business right” or even the hawkish right, but from the anti-government movements that are loosely termed the Tea Party. This is the same segment of the right that is so found of adopting (or, depending on your reading of history, co-opting) the idioms of the American Revolution (the very name of the Tea Party, for example, and it’s use of idioms like “No Taxation Without Representation,” etc. I particularly remember images of Tea Partiers standing ominously outside the Obama White House with signs bearing the Jefferson “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”) Perhaps not coincidentally, the pro-gun argument has generally been framed with reference to the American revolutionary context of the second amendment and the image of guns as somehow intrinsically linked to American freedom (wanting to confirm that this was an accurate claim I checked the NRA’s website and within literally five second found the following text: “We’re proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment.” So yes, I think it is an accurate claim.) So in a general sense the pro-gun argument harkens back to perceptions of the American revolution, and in doing so intersects in all kinds of ways with a general arch-conservative movement which has chosen the Revolution as one its central reference points in its opposition to the government.

It would be easy to see this American Revolution connection as evidence that the gun debate is between archaic, backwards looking conservatives and heroic, forward looking Democrats, but I actually I think that the NRA and the Tea Party are right, at least historically speaking. The framers of the Constitution did enshrine in the constitution a clear and unassailable right to own weapons. Even more so, the Tea Party is right in connecting the Second Amendment with all the revolutionary bluster about liberty or death and the blood of tyrants, because, though we’ve largely forgotten (or remembered it in other ways), the American Revolution actually was a revolution. It was a very violent one in which our beloved Founding Fathers targeted and murdered British officials and soldiers until the British finally got tired and went home. Unlike the Tea Party, the founding fathers were full of revolutionary bluster because they were revolutionaries, and they wrote the constitution and the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment in a revolutionary state of mind. The American revolution, like pretty much every revolution, extended far beyond the formal cessation of the conflict. In the minds of the revolutionaries, the revolution is never really complete and must always be defended. This was especially pertinent in the case of the American Revolution for two reasons: first, because the British continued to occupy Canada, and parts of western North America and the Caribbean, and they maintained an overwhelmingly powerful military and navy. The constitution was written more than 20 years before the War of 1812, when the British again re-invaded the US and burned Washington. The founders knew well that the revolutionary war was not necessarily over. Secondly, the American revolutionaries were in a very precarious position. The revolution was essentially a bourgeoisie-led revolution, aided by the under-classes, in a society in which state and regional loyalties were greater than national ones and in which an enormous portion of the population was enslaved or otherwise marginalized. The founders, in other words, were trying to stage a revolution in which they could shake off their colonial overlords, without shaking up a social order in which the poor, slaves, women, native Americans, the mentally-ill, and the criminally disposed were all deemed to be irretrievably outside of and threatening to the social order. The founders were obsessed with the fear that their revolution would spin out of control and that they would lose what they’d won: a single nation ruled by affluent white men. In a sense then, the revolution had to be continued through the maintenance of the social order. The Second Amendment never really meant that everybody could keep and bear arms; it meant that white men could keep and bear arms and in doing so help protect a fragile social order. 

In other words, the Founders were revolutionaries who understood that both their freedom and their power came from the barrel of a gun. They also saw that, in the right hands (ie. theirs) guns could be useful in policing the state and insuring against potential abuses of power. The framers of the Constitution did not seek to limit the arming of the (white, male) populace, in fact they wanted a (white, male) populace that was as well armed as the military. In a weird way gun ownership, rebellion, and social control have gone together ever since, so long as it’s white men who are doing the rebelling (it may seem mystifying, for instance, to hear people even today insist that confederate flags are about “rebellion” rather than racism. And they are about rebellion, the kind of rebellion that privileges white men as actors and in which anything that threatens individual white power—the civil rights movement, the Federal Government, etc. becomes the much hated tyrant. So they’re also about racism). The point that I’m trying to make is that the pro-gun side is right when it makes its constitutional argument. Guns are included in the very DNA of the American nation because the Founder’s contextual understanding of violence and politics.

However, the intentions of the framers have had little to do with actual policy. Basically every modern interpretation of the Second Amendment has gutted it of its real meaning. This is because of fundamental shifts in American society and culture over the years. I’ve argued above that after independence the Revolution was integral to the imagination of the American nation. By the civil war, however, things changed and the nation itself was threatened by a rebellion. It’s useful here to think of the image of the “rebel” through American history: first the strapping patriot who mustered out to fight the Red Coats; then “Johnny Reb,” the Confederate who fought against the Union; by the turn of the 20th century the revolutionary was perceived as a suspicious outsider, probably a communist, an anarchist, an agitator, perhaps a Jew or a foreigner, or all of the above; later still the rebel was a dirty hippy, a black extremist, or an Islamic terrorist. While the concept of “revolution” once protected the social order—in that revolution could only be conceptualized as the province of white men—it eventually came to pass that the state protected and maintained the social order and revolution that became the threat. In such a situation any militia—well regulated or otherwise—is no longer necessary to the security of the state and the right of the people to keep and bear military class arms must be infringed. The government already practices stringent gun control on almost every piece of weaponry worth having, from a revolutionary perspective, and this is quite at odds with the intention of the Constitutional framers.  

My larger point here is that we are in a pretty weird spot in our public discourse on guns. We have a Constitution that has, in its DNA, the right to bare arms, and implicitly, a kind of violent opposition to the state. We have a state that is determined to deny its citizens any power of violence against it. Meanwhile the pro-gun lobby has become a powerful king maker and Congress is overly eager to bow towards its wishes, even while public opinion is strongly in favor of gun control. It’s a bit of a mess.

The fact that our fundamental legal reference point in all of this debate is 200+ year old document is an absurdity in itself. The far right is correct that the Constitution does grant an absolute right to bare arms, and this should leave us with only one conclusion: that the Constitution is outdated (based on the fact that arms have changed dramatically, while the constitution hasn’t). It is obviously an epic mistake to assume that any such document could be timeless or universal or infallible. We must change it. Guns are only one minor example. The constitution is unable to speak decisively (as it is being asked to do) on other issues, like campaign finance reform and the patenting of genetic code; the health of our democracy and society requires us to revise our Constitution so that it can deal with these issues. If this seems like a radical conclusion, it is, because it was the radicals who authored the Constitution (and who were at least a little bit anarchist and obsessed with checks and balances) knew that their document would not last forever and included a mechanism for its amendment.

The issue is that we’ve all started to believe that the Constitution really is infallible and we’ve lost sight of the ways in which it emerged from out of a particular political and historical context. The framers took specific risks in framing the Constitution. Some of them, like the First Amendment, have paid off spectacularly. Others, like the 3/5 compromise, were utter disasters. When those experiments fail (as the Second Amendment may now be failing) then we are better off removing them from our foundational text rather than pretending that they don’t exist. But the fact is that such an amendment (or any amendments that might help to protect our democracy or insure economic justice) is essentially unimaginable and this is a symptom of our broken democracy. In other words, though politicians want to frame the gun issue as a simple legislative problem, the reality is that it shows a far deeper problem, the fact that our constitutional framework, our public values, and our government’s policy are all hopelessly out of line with each other. This is a precarious position for a democracy.  

But this political problem is only one element of what the debate over guns should tell us. The other part of the problem is how we see violence. The tendency in American politics to speak always in terms of symbols has hopelessly confused the issue. We’ve started to really believe that guns are somehow violence incarnate and that violence is more or less wholly equitable to tragedy like the Newton school shooting.

Both sides of the gun debate talk about the “culture of violence,” but neither side understands it. It is usually imagined in in terms of the tragic loss of innocent American lives or as obsession with violent films and games, etc. The fact is that American society is alarmingly violent. But not because of guns, nor because of the mass killers who occasionally pop up. America is violent because we are a hyper-policed, hyper-militarized society; because the American state wields more power than any state has ever wielded, more power than even well a intentioned government can control . We have police forces which can effortlessly smash any riot, drones which can kill seamlessly in any country. We incarcerate mind-numbing numbers of our own citizens. We have an enormous conventional military and we can (and do) unleash devastating economic sanctions at will. We are disproportionately rapacious consumers and carbon emitters and we stash enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet many times over.

The idea that our tortured national conscious will be soothed by a restrictive gun laws is absurd—even if those laws are completely effective—because our problem with violence is much deeper than guns. There is no quick fix, legislative or otherwise, and the more I think about it, the more I think that the only solution is prolonged and full fledged attempt to reconsider our moral values. I believe that this would be as unpleasant to liberals as it would be to the far right, indeed it may be far more painful for liberals, because we tend to delude ourselves much more profoundly about our relationship with American violence.

2Pac, Austerity, and Not Getting Into Grad School

“Nothing but my dreams matter.”  -2Pac, Unconditional Love              

“Although our Admissions Committee was very impressed with your academic qualifications and we hope to be able, eventually, to make you an offer of admission, we do not at present have an opening for you.”  -Admissions response from a PhD program in History

In February I was rejected from all four of the PhD programs that I applied to. Each of the schools used pretty much the same tone in their rejection letter, commenting that my application was excellent but that there was no “room” available for me in their program. In other words, though my application might have been sufficient for acceptance, there wasn’t any money to provide me with the scholarship and a stipend that are necessary to fund five or more years of non-stop higher education. This wasn’t exactly unanticipated. I knew from the start that getting funding was going to be substantially harder than producing a good resume and application. Still, receiving rejection letters from one school after another was disappointing, especially when those rejections essentially admitted that the issue was not with my application or potential, but with institutional issues far beyond my control. Over the years I’ve become accustomed to more or less getting what I want out of such institutions, in a large variety of forms, especially in education—I received a decent primary education, free of cost, my college tuition was largely covered by financial aid and subsidized loans, and I even got funding for a year of post-grad study. Now, for perhaps the first time in my life, lack of access to an institution is shaping my life in a negative way.

I do not think that my problem is isolated. The hyper-competitive nature of graduate school admissions is a symptom of the decline of funding for higher education. This stems from the fiscal crisis in American state and federal governments, recession, and global economic restructuring, which combine to cause of all the forms of austerity that we are just starting to experience. In other words, in today’s economic order, our government is deciding to spend substantially less of our money on social programs—from welfare to education to health care—and we’re all going to suffer from it. Incidentally, this also shows once and for all the way in which American wealth and well-being have been connected to institutions, and how American poverty and misery have stemmed from institutional exclusion.

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I’ve been listening to 2Pac for about a decade now. Over that time my reading of his music has changed quite substantially in ways that are not really important here.[1] But recently, listening to 2Pac  and thinking about the phenomena of austerity that I’ve outline above, I’ve started to listen to many of his songs in a new light.

In my mind, the defining ethos of Pac has always been his contradictions. He was a sensitive man and a complicated thinker, but he was also capable of reckless violence. There was a clear tension in his spirit, between creativity and self-destruction, visionary optimism and despair. He was a writer who could be brilliant and beautiful and awful. Sometimes in the same song. Sometimes in the same verse.

Pac authored his share of counterproductive lyrics, but ultimately he really seemed to want something better. Desperately. There’s a clarity and beauty to his writing, for instance when he raps: “this fast life soon shatters, ’cause after all the lights and screams, nothing but my dreams matter” (and I think you have to hear his voice to really get what I mean). He could be just as thought provoking in his darkness. There was a manic edge in his voice when he said something like “I live a thug life, baby, I’m hopeless.” That hopelessness was not performance. Many of Pac’s best songs—like “Changes” “Better Dayz” and “Keep Ya Head Up”—are upbeat and address social issues, but never simplistically. Pac always avoided the overly didactic and the unbearably saccharine. These songs are tempered by a very complicated reality.

At the heart of that reality is the way that Pac talks about institutions. Hip hop in general, but 2Pac’s music in particular, are filled institutions: schools, prisons, welfare, the criminal justice system, wars, police tactics. Pac’s description of underworlds such as the street, the crack trade, and the rap industry are all institutional—complete with their own hierarchies, elites, victims, and capital accumulation.

Pac’s pessimism is almost invariably related to the workings of these institutions. Even his more optimistic songs are run through with the institutions that he can’t have access to—schools, media, politics, and high paying jobs in the formal economy—and those he does—underpaying jobs, prison, drug economies, the streets, and a rap industry that was both exploitive and violent.

Most importantly Pac is keenly aware of the connections between these institutions, the invisible gravities that pull people between schools, streets, and prisons, that connect wars in Iraq to the War on Drugs, to seemingly random street slayings. Pac often chronicled the loss of opportunity for African Americans, the way that the promise of education and traditional jobs had gradually been strangled and opportunity pushed further and further into the dangerous margins of society. He understands the power of institutions to create or constrain opportunity. More importantly, he articulates the ways in which certain institutions can be dismantled to the benefit of others, for instance how the war on drugs came at the expense of the war on poverty.

None of these understandings are unique to Pac. In fact, I would argue that these understandings are part of the fabric of hip hop music. But Pac is especially compelling because of how he articulates these concerns. Rappers love to write characters. Most of these come out sounding larger than life and Pac (like Biggie and Nas) wrote his share of blaxplotation-esque super-heroes (and super-villains). But Pac’s most compelling characters are those who end up in the middle: those who’d lived on the edge and come back in—but not all the way in. Pac loved characters like this; people who struggled but who couldn’t get ahead even when they were getting ahead. People who tried to go from crooked to straight, felons who tried to get educated, girls who tried to make decent lives for their premature babies, women and men who tried to have healthy relationships, ex-gang members who tried to work their way through night school, the good mother who watched her kids sell crack. Pac saw that, more often than not, the American institutions that ought to have helped these people hampered them, while the institutions that only sought to exploit and criminalize black people flourished.

White people more or less ignored this critique. Even those of us who did listen thoughtfully tended to assume that rap was “about poverty.” Of course 2Pac is talking about poverty. But more specifically, he is talking about the way that blacks are poor because the state institutions that were supposed to help them turned out to be empty promises. When white people said, “this is about poverty” we tended to ignore the fact that that poverty was an outcome of the same institutional histories that had made us not poor.[2] We also assumed that this would always be true.

Now, however, those institutions are being gutted.[3] Corporations have seized disproportionate influence over the political process and have allied with political elites to transfer wealth away from the people into their own pockets. This takes place in the form of bailouts for banks and corporations, subsidies to agribusiness, tax cuts for the rich, and spending on prisons and wars. To pay for these expensive gifts to the rich, we are all asked to accept a new austerity that will cut away social welfare programs, education, and health care. In return the corporations use their new ill-gotten-gains to create jobless growth.

Many of us are already struggling to stay in the same class that we grew up in. The idea that college was an automatic ticket to a secure future has proved hollow. The idea that education at a prestigious university meant a dream job, equally so. Personally I’m failing to gain access to the kind of work I want (a PhD), but I’m by no means the worst off. Many recent graduates are burdened by debt and can’t find work that they’re qualified for, much less the kind of dream jobs that they were promised while receiving their educations. Many more have to content themselves to bad jobs because “in this economy” (as we hear so commonly now) some job is better than no job.

I’m not trying to draw false equations here. I am not the same as a recent college graduate who is burdened by $100,000 in loans and chronically unemployed, nor are either of us in the same situation as a poor child born into a failing system of education and health care. What I am trying to point out is that each of these lives—all of our lives, in fact—are, at one level or another, shaped by institutions. Traditionally, people like me have looked forward to positive benefits from some key institutions, especially cheap and high quality education, while people like 2Pac looked forward to insignificant or negative outcomes. Pac and his characters constantly struggled to get their lives on track without access to the institutions that people like me take for granted. In the new economy, however, it looks as though we are all headed in that direction.[4]

The economic transformation that we are undergoing is, at its most basic, the transformation of nearly every citizen into one of the dispossessed. In the end we will come to understand a great deal about 2Pac’s lyrics, not because of any increased, post-racial consciousness on our part, but because, in the coming years we are all going to learn a lot of lessons about the deprivation that he described so well twenty years ago. In other words, as the middle class confronts exclusion from the institutional benefits that it takes for granted, it will find all sorts of new commonalities with the many Americans who have always been excluded.

The outcomes of this austerity are not going to be equal and there are going to be disagreements. The middle class will say that it is losing the most; the lower classes will say that they were more vulnerable to start with. Some white people will lament the loss of their privilege and some people of color will have good reason to critique the fact that many white people talk about inequality in society only when it begins to effect them. The system will, in fact, encourage these divisions, will try its best to insure that we continue to fight out counter productive battles while it continues to gut the public wealth, ruin the environment, and destroy social justice.

Fighting these kinds of petty squabbles is not going to help us. What will help us, and indeed the only choice that we are going to have left, is to persevere and resist. Ahead of us is a struggle—and I do not mean only a political struggle against the forces of this austerity. I mean also the struggle that 2Pac rapped about far more persuasively, the daily struggle for life, of keeping one’s head up, of making the best of bad situations, doing what work is at hand; the struggle of raising children without the proper resources and laying awake with the stress of an uncertain future. It is the struggle of maintaining a political consciousness and a sense of self in the face of petty, grinding economic hardship. It is the struggle with disappointment when I am not accepted to a graduate program that I desperately want; the struggle to continue thinking, to continue writing, to refuse to let a system of austerity define who I am.

For those of us raised to see opportunity as a birthright, the sudden withdrawal of that promise will be stunning. I listen to 2Pac now with an ear for his answers, because we have few resources to draw on in perpetration for the coming struggle. Middle class culture and the “high culture” funded by elites and corporations will not be useful then. Our culture currently has no vocabulary to discuss desire or deprivation or perseverance. Hip hop does. 2Pac does. The truth is that Pac probably did not intended his messages of hope for me. But I believe that I can still accept them with humility, that I can take sustenance from those words. Pac shows us that sometimes things are hopeless, that change comes hard. But he tells us too to keep our heads up, and how to fight and that even in the hardest of times only our dreams matter.


[1] These misreading are quite common and bear more explanation. Initially I saw Pac as a kind of universal poet who spoke compelling messages of hope and despair that transcended boundaries of time, class, and race. His words, I figured, could be read as metaphors detached from their initial contexts—so that his hope and ambition could reflect my adolescent ambitions, his anger and existential angst could mirror my own, etc. When I reached college I couldn’t help but see that this was a misreading. (Though it wasn’t just my misreading; I think this is one of the major ways that the liberal consciousness has handled Hip Hop. The fact is that certain elements of hip hop can’t be written off as “just noise” or “low culture.” The cannon of contemporary music and poetry looks somewhat absurd without hip hop in it, yet how do you canonize an art form that is, almost by nature, oppositional to the people and institutions who assemble such cannons? The answer is to simply read the work in a false universalizing light and be done with it. The results are kind of hilarious—think of Hillary Swank trying to teach her class about internal rhyme by using a 2Pac song in “Freedom Writers.”) Within a semester of getting to Vassar I couldn’t help but see the outlines of the enormous privilege that had gotten me there. It became painfully obvious that Pac was not talking about me. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t talking to me, or hoping that I would listen. But in the end, I concluded that when Pac was talking about violence and desperation and moral bankruptcy he was actually talking about those thingsand not producing metaphors for the next generation of emotionally confused white children.
 
 

Thus I began to misread his words by trying to examine them too objectively as some kind of cultural/anthropological document that could “tell” us about the particulars of Pac’s life and society. (This is, I think, the other dominant reading of rap within academic circles). Thus one could see Pac’s optimism/pessimism as a sort of schizophrenic response of a creative genius trapped amid poverty and desperation. This reading fails because it assumes that everything is a detail for the scholar/listener/Stan/fanboy to pick over and analyze. It empties the text of its urgency and actual communicative potential.

[2]This is one of the facts of American history which is, conveniently, unknown to too many Americans. The myth of “self made men” has obscured the fact that much of the wealth accumulation which made the American middle class possible was a result of institutions and that these largely excluded non-whites. Take for instance the institutions which helped my parents and grandparents become and stay middle class: affordable suburban housing, subsidized by the federal government; high quality public, private, and parochial schools; the SUNY system; Vassar College (whose financial aid system has done an enormous amount in keeping my family in the middle class by funding my mother and I to attend it); and unionized State civil service job. Each has, to some degree, been segregated and the beneficiaries of each tend to be disproportionately white.
 
 

[3]Consider again the list in note 2. The fate of the housing market is well known. Public education is under siege, as are public university systems like SUNY. Private institutions like Vassar are feeling the pinch (though they’re insulated slightly by their endowments). Union and civil service jobs are under a full frontal assault nearly everywhere. These institutions are suffering to the extent that it is impossible for a person of my generation to chart a path to middle class life in the way my parents did (a path, I will point out again, which was never open to many Americans in the first place).
 
 

[4]I’m leaving out, for now, the effect of the new austerity on people of different classes and races, which would complicate my argument to death. On the one hand it seems that the most marginal members of society will be most drastically effected. A poor child losing what access he has to education or health care is far worse than my losing access to a funded PhD program. On the other hand the middle classes have a lot more to lose. If one looks beyond a one dimensional racial/class outlook (in which the “bad guys” are racists and classists who fuck with the poor and people of color just because) and see the problem as one of the ruling classes, corporations, and political elites collaborating to rob as much money out of society at large, then it stands to reason that the process will be multi-pronged, stripping some of the wealth and privilege away from the middle class while insuring that lower classes remain as exploitable as they have always been.