“All go unto one place; all are of the dust,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes, “and all turn to dust again.”
I was reminded of this by two seemingly unrelated stories that I came across the other day. First: According to the L.A. Times, Paul McCartney and Beck were turned away from a Grammy party hosted by rapper Tyga.
The story notes that Paul McCartney — one of The Beatles — has 18 Grammys. Beck has five. Yet they were apparently perceived as too old and uncool to be admitted to Tyga’s party.
Tyga — whose most recent album featured the single “Hollywood Niggaz” — has zero Grammys.
The second story was one out of Missouri, where a police officer got in trouble for appearing in a “racially charged” rap video. The video in question was “racially charged” in the sense that it seemed to be promoting “white pride.”
Both of these stories touch on something that I think is insufficiently appreciated by our current political leaders, both left and right — things change, and the change does not always happen in ways that you expect. Young revolutionaries eventually become old men, and ideas that seem intuitively obvious to one generation — so obvious that they don’t even need to be explained and defended — may not seem all that intuitive to a generation who has no experience of the context in which those ideas arose.
The first story, involving Paul McCartney, should serve as a warning to those who imagine themselves to be forever on the cutting edge of society. In many ways, Baby Boomers have been one of the most extraordinary generations in history. They have retained their cultural dominance over society far longer than most previous generations — a spectacular run that has given many Boomers the sense that their generation has been granted a special exemption from the laws of history.
As McCartney’s experience shows, and as the author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly points out, though, no person will ever outrun time. Now if there’s any living person who should be eligible for some sort of Permanent, Irrevocable Coolness Badge, it’s Paul McCartney. He was arguably the beating heart of The Beatles — who were the biggest of the pillars upholding the overwhelming pop culture edifice constructed by the Boomer generation. John Lennon once got in trouble for saying The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but really, in the church of pop culture, he wasn’t wrong. When it comes to the Boomers, The Beatles are IT. They’re the top. Instead of a Holy Trinity, the church of Boomer pop culture has a Holy Quartet. (With Elvis playing the role of John the Baptist.)
But authority forgets a dying king, to quote Tennyson. So now, in 2016, here’s Paul McCartney getting turned away from a party thrown by some no-talent little runt whose biggest claim to fame is that he hooked up with a member of the Kardashian/Jenner clan — which, let’s be honest, does not exactly put him in a very exclusive club. Seriously, I bet if Beck and McCartney had their guitars handy, they could have whipped out a better song with the title “Hollywood Niggaz” in the ten minutes it took for their limo to drive them to another party after they got turned away from Tyga’s. Hell, I bet if you called up Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne back in the day, and told them to write a song with the title “Hollywood Niggaz,” spelled exactly like that, they could have come up with something better than whatever Tyga crapped out.
Which brings me to the second story, about the cop in the “white pride” rap video.
There are a couple of amazing things going on here. First, the song is by some white dude who goes by the stage name “J.Smitty,” and the song and video express a lot of sentiments that the clueless folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center would describe as “racist hate speech” or “white nationalism.”
For someone of my generation, here’s the first thing that sticks out: He’s expressing these ideas in a rap song.
Like Paul McCartney being considered too lame to be admitted to a Grammy party, this is a development that, for most of my life, would have been considered unthinkable: It appears we have now reached the stage in hip-hop’s lifespan where it has completely ceased to be identified in many people’s minds with black culture.
Now, to be fair, even most blacks would grudgingly admit that white people have played an important role in hip-hop almost from the very beginning — even more so behind the scenes, as opposed to behind the mic. And a list of the ten greatest rappers of all time would be incomplete without the guy in the picture at left.
Yet for my entire life, it was generally understood that hip-hop was, first and foremost, a “black thing.” White people were never excluded from the genre, but there was an understanding that a white guy taking up rap was, at best, an honored guest in a house that belonged to the black community. The hip-hop world was somewhat deliberately constructed to resemble a photo negative of American pop culture.
The reason blacks took such personal ownership over hip-hop was a lingering resentment at what they perceived as having their previous musical innovations “stolen” by whites. (Rock music is a particular sore spot.) And they have a fair point. I mentioned in an earlier post about how I’ve been listening to a lot of roots music recently, and how it’s obvious that pretty much the entire American musical tradition — including country! — was either invented or heavily influenced by blacks. If you’re a white person who can’t stand to have any trace of black influence in your music, then you can pretty much forget about listening to anything newer than John Philip Sousa. As black scholar John McWhorter has observed, white Americans did not “jam” or “rock” until black musicians made them do so. White people did not groove, vibe, boogie, bop, jive, swing, break it down, tear it up, get jazzed, get jiggy wit it, get down, get on up, hit it and quit it or sing the blues until taught to do so by black performers. Parliament/Funkadelic’s P-funk mythology might be good for a laugh, but it’s actually a pretty good metaphor for the musical history of blacks in America.
Hip-hop came along in the late 1970s, at the tail end of an era of rising black political consciousness. So when it became obvious that “rap” was going to be a big deal, black performers and audiences took a much more active curatorial role than they had with previous black music trends, to prevent it from being poached by what they perceived as carpetbagging white musicians. Black artists and fans fiercely resisted efforts to try and make rap more “mainstream” — which was code for “white-friendly.” As I noted, white hip-hop artists were never rejected outright — but they were expected to show proper respect for tradition and deference to the black community. One reason uber-white Eminem (the guy in that picture up there) was able to amass sufficient street cred in the rap world was his legendary, almost masochistic ability to withstand hazing by black audiences and performers.
All of this background is to explain why, for most of my life, the idea that a white guy would take up the mic to rap in a serious way about typical white people problems was just beyond absurd. Rap was a protected province for black artists. Whites who wanted to scream with inchoate rage about white people stuff were herded into punk rock and heavy metal — unsurprisingly, nearly all explicitly “white power” musicians are punks or metalheads. No white musician with self-consciously racist views would have had the slightest interest in rap, and any white musician with an interest in rap would by necessity have required a very high comfort level with black people and black culture.
But every new generation looks at the world with a fresh set of eyes, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before a generation of kids would come along who would not immediately associate hip-hop with black people. For them, rap and rap-inspired music have been the normal background music for their entire lives. They lack any sense of the racial politics of hip-hop; to them it’s just music, and when such a kid decides he want to be a musician, being a hip-hop artist seems perfectly natural. (I guess the Juggalos were probably a foretaste of this, as was the pop culture scene in Europe, where the smaller population of native blacks has long made it much easier for white guys to make a name for themselves in stereotypically “black” domains like rap — or blues. Or jazz. Or basketball.)
Ergo, now we’ve got a white American guy rapping in all earnestness about white pride.
Here’s the second amazing thing — and this is very, very important: Our earnest white pride rapper does not seem to have developed these ideas because he was exposed to the toxic swamp of online race hatred that the aforementioned Southern Poverty Law Center imagines is always on the verge of corrupting our children’s precious bodily fluids. A cursory study of J.Smitty’s Facebook page doesn’t show any signs that he’s into the whole racist “white power” scene, or even any awareness about it. There are no Confederate battle flags or signs of Nazi memorabilia. No, it seems he’s a somewhat naïve youngster who has worked out his ideas spontaneously, without any outside prompting, and is under the impression his insights — such as “racism cuts both ways” — are entirely novel.
This is what I mean about how stuff that one generation understands more or less intuitively is not necessarily obvious to another — and leaders who operate on this assumption are being tragically short-sighted.
For example: I grew up one generation removed from segregation. When I was a kid asking those naïve white person questions that social justice scolds like to mock — “How come there’s a Black History Month but no White History Month?” — I was surrounded by grownups who had seen actual, hard-edged legally-enforced racism firsthand, and could draw on their personal experiences to explain the rules to me, and explain why those rules were there. They had actually seen those separate water fountains for blacks and whites. They’d actually been in those restaurants which refused service to black customers. They had actually lived in a world where black people had to bow and scrape before whites, and blacks who didn’t could face literal — not metaphorical — peril.
When I got a little older, I was able to listen nonchalantly to performers like Ice Cube rap about killing whites, and it didn’t cross my mind that there was anything weird about it. I had seen the Rodney King tape, so I could put Ice Cube’s rapping into context. I grew up in the South, so I knew that even though segregation was officially ended, blacks still faced an uphill struggle. I saw it with my own eyes. I was able to instinctively understand why black leaders and politicians were held to a different standard. I got why the media was more forgiving of black rabble-rousers like Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton, even though a white leader who used equivalent rhetoric would have been driven out of the public square with pitchforks.
I knew that older white people who played dumb and asked why we couldn’t have a National Association for the Advancement of White People were just trolling. It was just understood by everyone that because of their history — history that actual living people had seen and could attest to, and whose effects were still visible — blacks were allowed to be a little bit nuttier and angrier than whites. Dude, I got it.
But my Dad, who saw the world of segregation with his own eyes, is nearly 70 years old. I am 40, and Ice Cube, the badass young dude who rapped about killing whites back when I was a teenager, is now old enough to be a grandfather.
When my children ask me those naïve questions about stuff like Black History Month, I will have to draw upon memories of old black and white newsreels and stories handed down from my parents. My kids will have to tell their kids stories they heard from me, that were told to me by people who, at that point, will all be dead.
And my grandkids will know nothing of a world where the idea of a black man being elected president was a staple gag of stand-up comedians.
Someday there will be a generation of kids who have never met a living person who was forced to give up their seat to a white person, or who was turned away at the polls when they went to try and cast a vote. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” will seem as ancient and irrelevant to some future generation of young people as William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech seems to us today.
In this environment, how are Ice Cube’s rap songs about killing white people going to sound to young white kids? If he’s still alive at that point, Ice Cube won’t be a cool, dangerous-looking young guy from L.A.’s mean streets. He’ll be a seriously uncool old man like Bill Cosby — or like Paul McCartney in the incident above, getting turned away from a party by some little brat who looks at him and sees only an old geezer who wandered out of the retirement home. How is it going to sound to a young, lower-class white kid to have this geriatric old fart — a man who’s been a rich celebrity for the entire time this kid has been alive, and who got to be a rich celebrity not by bowing and scraping before whites, but by shouting at whites that he wanted to kill them — tell him he just has to accept it when black people do or say crazy shit because this old fart got hassled by the cops as a punk-ass kid waaaaaaaaay back in the 1980s? How’s it going to sound to a white kid who grew up in a trailer park when you explain to her that this rich old fart’s grandkids need to get preferential treatment in college admissions or hiring because old-timey people she knows only from history books once had separate water fountains for blacks and whites?
Do you seriously think you can keep a white guilt mindset going indefinitely by selling this crap about “microaggressions,” or invisible “structural racism?” Do you really believe stupid crap like this will keep the flame of white guilt alive?
Remember, we’re talking about white people as a whole, not just a bunch of brainy academics who read Ta-Nehisi Coates. Do you think a white guy with only a high school diploma, who changes tires for a living, is going to be able to intellectually absorb an abstract concept like “structural racism” when he’s lived his entire life in a world where Dr. Dre and Jay-Z are billionaires? Sure, a grad student with an IQ over 120 can manage to keep all those different sociopolitical plates spinning in his head. A guy who unloads boxes at a warehouse, runs a small business or shuffles papers in a cubicle — not so much. And there are a lot more of those guys than there are guys with 120+ IQs.
This is why I found it so important that our “white pride” rapper there seemingly developed his ideas on his own. There seems to be this unspoken idea that white nationalism or “white pride” is akin to an intellectual virus which cannot arise independently — it needs to grow out of some pre-existing strain, like Naziism. If only we can eradicate existing strains, the thinking goes, the problem will cease to exist. (Hey, it worked with smallpox, right?) Or perhaps our leaders believe that, like Minitrue in Orwell’s 1984, they can somehow prune our permissible vocabulary to the point where white nationalism cannot form in people’s minds, because the words or phrases necessary to express the concept will not exist.
I hate to burst your bubble here, but I’m having a hard time seeing how this is all supposed to work over the long term. Once again, I think we’ve been a bit deceived by the way in which Boomers have cast such a massive shadow over our culture; their attitudes and assumptions have been so deeply ingrained for so long that we have forgotten that other generations will eventually come along with different attitudes and assumptions. Blogger Steve Sailer often cracks jokes about the way many Boomers, particularly those who lean to the left, seem to be stuck in a time-loop in which they constantly talk as if the hopelessly square, uptight Eisenhower era ended just a few years ago. It’s funny because it’s sort of true — but that cultural mindset will quickly vanish in a world where no living person was alive to see new cars that sported tailfins.
It’s true that lengthening lifespans coupled with better health care might be contributing to this — when I turned 40, I heard a lot of people tell me that “40 is the new 30,” or even “40 is the new 20.” But once again, I point to Ecclesiastes: Even if generations going forward DO turn out to have longer shelf lives, they’ll still have an expiration date. We will all eventually be Paul McCartney being turned away from the cool party for being too old.
And that means that eventually, we’re going to have white kids who will reason themselves into some form of racial nationalism entirely on their own, without any awareness of Adolf Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan. They’ll do so through simple analogy: We have Black Pride. We have Hispanic Pride. We have Asian Pride. We have Gay Pride. Why is there no White Pride? And unlike my generation, who had actual witnesses to White Pride America to explain things, these kids will just have second- or third- or fourth-hand accounts which, from their perspective, might as well be selections from Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales.
Which leads to something that keeps me up at night: Can you name a single major political or cultural leader who shows any sign of having thought about this? Do you think it’s occurred to Bernie Sanders? Hillary Clinton? Joe Biden?
What about Republicans? Does John Kasich sound like he’s bothered to ponder this? Heck, even Marco Rubio — who’s roughly my age, and who grew up listening to those same rappers I did — doesn’t sound like he has any awareness of this. Instead, our leaders talk as if they expect white Americans will just naturally, instinctually carry a sense of racial guilt around forever, and it will all magically turn out OK. In some sectors of our culture, particularly higher education, this sense that whites will develop a permanent feeling of guilt is so strong that we’re starting to tread on dangerous ground. This article in The Atlantic points out that by asking white students to focus so obsessively on their whiteness, even if it’s in a negative way, clueless academics might be laying the groundwork for an eventual revival of white racism.
“The academic left casts all proponents of color-blindness as naïve,” the author notes. “But isn’t it more naive to imagine that masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe?”
In other words, if you browbeat whites into negatively obsessing over their history and heritage, isn’t it likely that at least some portion of those whites are going to decide to wear that history and heritage as a badge of honor? Even if you prime these whites to view their history as a shame and disgrace, human beings are thoughtful and unpredictable, and at least a few of these kids will independently construct an alternative narrative in which white people are the heroes — or indeed, the master race. They’ll do this even in the absence of a historical inspiration — even if you blot out all memory of Adolf Hitler or the Confederacy or Jim Crow. They’ll do it for the same reason every other race or ethnic group does it. They’ll do it because that’s just what human beings do.
Everybody naturally sees themselves as the hero of their personal story. Nobody naturally sees themselves as the villain. You’d think postmodern academics who are comfortable talking about how texts can be reconfigured and reappropriated independent of authorial intent would grasp this. Our rapper J.Smitty may very well turn out to be a harbinger. I doubt he will be the last of his kind.
My fear is that our leaders may be unwittingly marching us along the express road straight into a future that will end up looking a lot like Rwanda in 1994, or Yugoslavia after Tito. By failing to think realistically about ethnic and racial tensions, they are ignoring a potential atom bomb sitting right at the heart of American society.
I wish, at this point, I could offer some kind of solution, or propose a course of action — a roadmap that everybody, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, could agree on to hopefully navigate away from this potential disaster. But I honestly haven’t got a clue what to do. It’s only been in the past couple of years that these fault lines in American society have really become apparent to me, so I really haven’t put a lot of thought into how we might go about repairing them. Perhaps the center really cannot hold, and this fracturing of American society is an unavoidable consequence of American decline.
Perhaps it is so. But a little cold-eyed realism from our leaders about this stuff certainly wouldn’t hurt. At the very least, being brutally honest about our future prospects would give people time to prepare, and make whatever arrangements they feel are necessary for the undiscovered country that awaits us, and our posterity.