Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Romanticizing Culture

One of life's milder amusements is the irony that is the uniformity of non-conformity. Recently, in the wake of the French riots, David Brooks noted (NYT subscription, or check here) that this truth has been globalized with the export of America's not too distant fad of hip-hop thugism, as evidenced by the mimicry of the "disaffected" in Paris' suburbs.

The French gangsta pose is familiar. It is built around the image of the strong, violent hypermacho male, who loudly asserts his dominance and demands respect. The gangsta is a brave, countercultural criminal. He has nothing but rage for the institutions of society: the state and the schools. He shows his own cruel strength by dominating women. It is perhaps no accident that until the riots, the biggest story coming out of these neighborhoods was the rise of astonishing and horrific gang rapes.

In other words, what we are seeing in France will be familiar to anyone who watched gangsta culture rise in this country. You take a population of young men who are oppressed by racism and who face limited opportunities, and you present them with a culture that encourages them to become exactly the sort of people the bigots think they are -- and you call this proud self- assertion and empowerment. You take men who are already suspected by the police because of their color, and you romanticize and encourage criminality so they will be really despised and mistreated. You tell them to defy oppression by embracing self-destruction.
OK... I'm not sure I buy his earlier assertion that American countercultural hegemony has always been more powerful than the American cultural hegemony (McDisney) that causes such wailing and grinding of teeth on the continent, but he goes on to twist one too far:

In America, at least, gangsta rap is sort of a game. The gangsta fan ends up in college or law school. But in France, the barriers to ascent are higher. The prejudice is more impermeable, and the labor markets are more rigid. There really is no escape.
I don't know that there were, or are, very many gang-bangers getting out of high school, much less into college. To be sure there are members of America's "high culture" for whom embracing hip-hop is to enter chic-dom. Nevertheless, the conditions from which there is allegedly "no escape" for French gangsta fans applied to their American counterparts a decade ago. We haven't seen an American decline in the extolling of cop killing and gang rape because the lyricists went to law school, but because the culture that spawned them was unsustainable. Contrast this with another group once subjected to impermeable prejudice and fatally rigid labor markets that not only responded with an authentic countercultural movement (no imports, thank you), the Theater of the Word, but one that produced in my estimation the greatest man of the 20th century.

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