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Sunday, March 18, 2007

don't hate the genre

The New York Times reported this week on the Brazilian government's hip hop arts program led by Gilberto Gil. Yes, that Gilberto Gil, pillar of tropicalismo since the 1960's and minister of culture since 2003. In 2004 I was lucky enough to see both Gil and Caetano Veloso perform live though, alas, not together. That remains one of the things I still need to do before I die.

Brazil has a lot going on these days that merits the world's attention—sugar ethanol, gang culture, fighting Northern agricultural subsidies at the WTO—but in some things Brazilians are just like everyone else. Case in point—after noting that Brazilian funk is all about sex, bling, and violence, the article quotes Guiné Silva, rapper and community center director, on the attitudes of Brazil's hip hop community:
'When U.S. rap groups come here and try to be ostentatious or do the gangster thing, they get booed off the stage. We feel a kinship with Chuck D and Public Enemy but we don't have any respect for people like Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy.' (NYT, March 14, 2007)

(I should say, for the benefit of readers who are not rap afficionados, that Chuck D represents the politically-minded strain of rap whereas Snoop mostly raps about smoking and pimping.)

Now, before I am misunderstood, let me state for the record that I consider Chuck D and Rakim the two greatest MC's of all time and Diddy among the worst, although I do give him props for broadening the model of the hip hop entrepreneur. And yes, many of my favorite raps belong to the politically militant canon. Even so, I have to express my fundamental disagreement with the quotation, which typifies the problem with hip hop criticism today: it is little more than didacticism and prescriptivism masquerading as serious criticism. (For the problem with hip hop today, see my entry of December 1, 2006.)

Too much commentary about rap these days is nothing more than a wish list for what people want rap to be. They want it to be virtuous, morally righteous, and politically conscious. They want it to get up, stand up, and fight the powers that be. And when it doesn't live up to their moral and political program, all they can do is dis it or ignore it. In short, they want rap to teach us how to live and how to think.

But we must ask, is this a valid test for art? Or is this the most intellectually outdated and critically retrograde æsthetic agenda imaginable in the twenty-first century? Do we ask the same of painting or theatre? Have we forgotten the lessons of the æsthetic movement, to wit, that 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.' (Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray) Or are hip hop critics a special class of people who don't believe in æsthetics but only look to rap for political messages?

The most common complaint, typified by Silva's reference to Snoop and Puffy, is that rap has become too materialistic, but when was it ever not about the Benjamins and partying? Let's go back to day one, 1979, 'Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang:
'You see I'm six foot one and I'm tons of fun
And I dress to a T.
You see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali
And I dress so viciously.
I got bodyguards, I got two big cars,
I definitely ain't the wac.
I got a Lincoln Continental
And a sharp new Cadillac.
So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which really is on the wall.
I got a color TV, so I can see, the Knicks play basketball.
Hear me talkin' 'bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money
Than a sucker could ever spend.
But I wouldn't give a sucker or a bum from the Rucker not a dime till I made it again.'

And let's not forget that bit about the Holiday Inn.

Rap started out as music by have-nots who wanted to have, and what did they want to have most of all? Equal protection under the law? The right to a fair trial? No, Reader, what they said they wanted was color television and cash money. That's not a criticism but a clear-sighted observation. I'm not telling you what rap should be but, rather, what it is.

The obvious comeback is, well what about raps like 'The Message' and 'White Lines' by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five? I'm not denying that there was also political rap back in the day, but selective memory should not erase Flash's parade of party songs like 'Flash to the Beat' and 'Scorpio' from history. Most rap always was and possibly always will be about satisfying appetite and lust. And I'm here to tell you that if we are ever to have meaningful hip hop criticism, we need to engage rap on an æsthetic level and we must honestly take stock of all that it is and not just what some people wish it would be.

Let's not beat around the bush. Most objections to rap come from the misogyny, homophobia, materialism, and violence typically found in the lyrics. I deny none of these claims. Indeed, rap lyrics are a veritable cornucopia of ugly content. Consider one of the starkest examples possible, 'Gangsta Gangsta' (1988) by NWA:
'Do I look like a mother-fucking role model?
To a kid looking up to me,
Life ain't nothing but bitches and money.'
Ugly? Sure. But can we frame a more enlightening critical question than, Yes or no, is rap music sometimes ugly and unpleasant?

At this point, most defenders of rap will choose the classical defense, i.e. the argument that Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, etc. are full of uncomfortable content and violence. Although fairly obvious, that can still be a powerful defense of art in general, despite how overused it is. Yes, a lot of great art takes us out of our comfort zones and asks us to face difficult questions about who we, the human species, are and what we are capable of. There is drama in confronting the darkness. We ought not be too delicate to hear and see things about ourselves that we find unpleasant.

Sure, I buy all that, but that argument only works for rap's singularly great achievements as art. No, I want to defend rap more broadly, not just the handful of cases that any of us would readily accept as art. A better question to ask about rap, high or low, is this: what does it draw on and what does it do with that? What critical and æsthetic operations does it perform on the cultural traditions from which it proceeds? Or, more simply, a question we can ask about any art form: how does it transform the stuff it steals?

For me, the most important traditions underlying rap's lyrical content are bawdiness and the outlaw. Rap's discourse of pimping and ho's has a lot in common with the work of Rochester and Swift's dressing room poems. The first rappers to make a specialty of bawdy talk were 2 Live Crew, not the greatest MC's but clearly working in a similar vein as the aforementioned English poets, if not exactly in a direct line of descent. More directly, American traditions of the outlaw, common in popular song, came to the fore in rap in the late 1980's, not coincidentally in the west. One thinks readily of Jimi Hendrix's 'Hey Joe' or Johnny Cash's 'Cocaine Blues', two first-person narratives about men who shot their women dead.

Artists don't speak literally for themselves when they perform in character (and yes, some rappers remain in character far too much of the time). To portray violence in song is not to perform or advocate violence. Gangsta rap is by now an established genre drawing on a fairly stable body of source material: outlaws and bandits, bawdy talk, pimps and prostitutes, gang culture, Brian De Palma's Scarface, drug dealing, street life, and boasting. The originality of the art lies in the operations it performs on this genre material.

When gangsta rap started, people typically defended it on the grounds that it represented the authentic voice of witness: it was testimony from the streets by people otherwise silenced. I happen to think people were also listening because they were excited by the moral ambiguity of listening to shameless tales of crime and wrongdoing, but perhaps that was just me. Whether we want to imagine a lost, pure heyday of politically militant gangsta rap or whether we want to acknowledge that it was always already self-consciously constructing itself as a genre, æsthetic revolutions ultimately do tend to evolve into sets of genre conventions, and there's nothing wrong with that.

That rap's tales of hustling now seem more mannered than militant is a typical outcome in art. Is there still originality and creativity in American rap these days? Recent albums by Ghostface Killah and Clipse suggest there is, although first-rate new work is becoming rare. But that is a question worth asking about art: is it still original and creative—not, do I agree with what the artist says? Reader, if we only accepted art whose content we agreed with, we'd burn down much of the Met tomorrow.

I'm on the left and all, but there is no place for the dogmatism of easy liberalism when it comes to the arts, let alone rap, the most intellectually demanding form of music today. Appreciating Eminem's assonance and 'Stan', his great epistolary rap, or marvelling at the way the Wu-Tang Clan mixes martial arts, super-heroes, and post-Scarface cocaine entrepreneurs does not mean we are not committed to fighting misogyny, homophobia, war, and all the other evils in the real world. It means that we recognize that art is something else: strange, perplexing, and outside our normal morality. If we limit ourselves to only admitting artists whose literal content we agree with, we will be all the poorer for it.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

neologism contest no. 2


In the first comment of the entry below, Steve proposed the following problem:
'It seems to me that we need a word to show how these radical conservatives, as you rightly call them, are on the same side as others who have wished that law be coextensive with morality: the architects of the French terror, for example, or those Islamists who wish to enshrine Sharia law through force. They are all on the same side, and it's a bad side. Plainly, as you point out, "conservatives" is entirely the wrong description. What should we call them?'

Indeed, American conservatives and Islamists of all stripes want to use the state, or caliphate, to legislate a similar moral code and then punish those who violate it. On pre-marital sex, homosexuality, feminine chastity, sexually explicit culture, and on and on, there is not much difference between Bush-era conservatives and the Taliban. I always laugh when I hear conservatives suggest that liberals are somehow in league with al-Qa'ida. If, somehow, al-Qa'ida ever took over the US or the UK, the first people they'd kill would be the liberals and the so-called cultural elite.

American conservatives and Islamists have a lot in common, but we don't yet have a term that comprehends their similarities, hence the need for this neologism contest. The rules are simple: post your suggestions in the comments thread, and the author of the best submission, as judged by me, will receive a dollar in the mail.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

sex toys, part two: limited or unlimited government?

Part two of two on sex toys and the U.S. Constitution. Click here for part one.

There is nothing conservative about American conservatism. It is and always has been a program for the never-ending expansion of state power over the moral and sexual choices of private individuals. When it comes to private morality, conservatives believe in the unlimited power of the state to impose the majority's will on all.

Do I exaggerate? Let's consider the evidence.

The conservative model of the morality-policing state is nowhere clearer than in Justice Scalia's dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, where he noted that
'Countless judicial decisions and legislative enactments have relied on the ancient proposition that a governing majority’s belief that certain sexual behavior is "immoral and unacceptable" constitutes a rational basis for regulation.' (539 US 558, 589)

Factually, Scalia is undoubtedly correct: the state has traditionally tried to police the sexual conduct of its citizens by claiming a compelling state interest in morals. This has been the basis of criminal laws against pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, sex toys, cohabitation, and so on. But should sexual morality among consenting adults be a state interest at all? Are such state powers constitutional? And what rights and freedoms can an individual claim against the tyranny of the majority?

Until 1965 preventing people from having deliberately non-reproductive sex was still a state interest. Then came the Supreme Court decision of Griswold v. Connecticut (381 US 479), which overturned the state's law barring contraception. The people arrested were not even a couple; they were two directors of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. Writing for the Court, Justice Douglas asked,
'Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.' (381 US 479, 485)
The key word there is 'privacy', as in the right to privacy, a legal doctrine that, incredibly, began with this case.

I call it incredible because one would have thought that the Constitution had created a government of limited powers, but conservatives don't see it that way. According to them, when it comes to individual morality and freedom, there is no such thing as protection from majority rule. Apparently, for conservatives, morality takes a village.

The question for conservatives is not, What powers have we allowed the state to have over us in our Constitution? but rather, What powers does the Constitution still allow us that we have not surrendered to the state? Does the individual possess only the freedoms explicitly enumerated, like religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition, as provided by the First Amendment? Or do the people retain the powers not specifically given to the state, as described by the Ninth Amendment? (The Ninth Amendment: 'The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.')

All this came back to mind when I read the news that the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had ruled, in the fifth decision of this ping-ponging case, that Alabama's law against sex toys was constitutional. It was an earlier decision in the very same case that Scalia had referred to in his Lawrence dissent. (The latest round of the case is known as Williams v. King, King being the Alabama attorney general. Earlier rounds were known as Williams v. Pryor, but thanks to George W. Bush, William Pryor is no longer a state attorney general waging crusades against sex toys. He is now a federal judge on—yes—the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.)

The statute in question is Section 13A-12-200.2 of the Alabama state code, which reads, in part:
'It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly distribute, possess with intent to distribute, or offer or agree to distribute any obscene material or any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for any thing of pecuniary value.'
The maximum penalty for a first offense: $10,000 and a year in prison at hard labor. And the appellate court's decision:
'Accordingly, we find that public morality survives as a rational basis for legislation even after Lawrence, and we find that in this case the State’s interest in the preservation of public morality remains a rational basis for the challenged statute.'

The Ninth Amendment, Griswold, Lawrence—none of it means anything to these radical conservative judicial activists. If the state has the power to police morality, I want to know where in the Constitution one can find it.
But that's what conservatives do. They go on inventing new powers for the state: the president's power to ignore new laws by drafting presidential signing statements; the president's power to suspend habeas corpus for five years running; and—not a new power but an old one revived—the right of the state to police our sex lives.

What's ironic here is that conservatives typically assume the mantle of limited government. They talk about getting the government off our backs, but what they really want is to get the government in our bedrooms, in our e-mail, and on our genitals. Frankly, I'd rather have the government on my back.

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sex toys and the Constitution, part one

Four years ago, in Lawrence v. Texas (539 US 558), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the nation's few remaining state anti-sodomy laws, thereby decriminalizing a range of sex acts not just for same-sex partners but for everyone. The Texas statute, Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 21.06(a) (2003), that led to the decision prohibited members of the same sex from
'(A) any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person; or
(B) the penetration of the genitals or the anus of another person with an object.'
Although not as widely reported, the decision also overturned the laws of other states that prohibited such acts for opposite-sex folks as well.

Like a lot of people born in the States in the 1970's, I always envied the previous generation for being alive when the promises of the republic were made real by the great civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's. This envy was exacerbated by the PBS documentary series 'Eyes on the Prize', which was shown on channel 13 for what seemed like the entirety of my teenage years. That's not a complaint but, rather, an indication that I got the point: we would probably never see such a civil rights movement again and I had missed it by being born too late.

Then the 1990's arrived and soon a new civil rights movement—in short, for gay rights—demanded the nation's attention. The cause of civil rights is never sectarian or parochial. The movement to enfranchise African-Americans benefitted African-Americans most directly, but everyone has a stake in justice for all. If we let the majority abuse people with brown skin today, what's to stop them from abusing any other sort of group that they might choose to construct? Like the man said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' (MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Like every movement for justice, the cause of gay rights is everyone's cause, for at least two reasons. One, if the majority can force us not to get busy with one type of person, what other restrictions might they try to impose on our choice of adult partners? And two, if the majority can outlaw practice X today, what's to stop them from outlawing practice Y tomorrow? (Admit it, reader: you know you love practice Y.)

So when the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas back on June 26, 2003, I immediately downloaded the text and read it in its entirety. I had a liberal education, in every sense, and so I was taught at a young age that the Supreme Court was the great protector of our freedoms as Americans. When did I first learn about the Court in school? 1986. Why is that significant? 1986 was the end of all that: the year that Bowers v. Hardwicke ruled that anti-gay laws were constitutional, the year that that racist William Rehnquist was appointed chief justice, the year that that madman Antonin Scalia was appointed to the Court, the year that ushered in the wave of radical conservative judicial activism that reached its reached its logical climax in the coup d'état known as Bush v. Gore (2000). In Lawrence v. Texas, I finally had a major civil rights decision in my own lifetime that I could be proud of as an American.

There are a lot of reasons that I admire Justice Kennedy's decision for the court, but something in Scalia's dissent that struck me at the time is newly relevant. Scalia was upset that Lawrence v. Texas might lead to other criminal prohibitions being unenforceable, including those against sex toys, extramarital sex, adultery, and masturbation:
'Every single one of these laws is called into question by today’s decision; the Court makes no effort to cabin the scope of its decision to exclude them from its holding.' (539 US 558, 590)
That's right: Scalia approvingly quoted a 1999 Maryland decision that found
'a person has no constitutional right to engage in sexual intercourse, at least outside of marriage'.
Why do I bring all this up now? Last month, on Valentine's Day no less, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, with jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, ruled that an Alabama state law prohibiting the sale of sex toys is entirely constitutional. Why does that matter to you? For the answer, tune in tomorrow, reader, for part two on sex toys and the Constitution.

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

the real and the fake

In the fall of 2005, I had the opportunity to present Close-Up, the film by Abbas Kiarostami, to the freshman class at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. The spark of the film came from a real news story in Tehran: a man named Hossain Sabzian was arrested for conning a family into believing he was the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In the film, which is not at all a documentary, all of the actual participants re-enact their real-life roles.

For the Tisch screening, I decided to extend the film's conceit into the real world: I pretended to be Kiarostami himself introducing the film in person. More than just a case of life imitating art imitating life, the idea was to put the students in the same situation as the conned family and then lead a discussion of the issues raised by the film.

All I did to create the persona of a Great Iranian Director was don a pair of sunglasses and use the word 'the' where a native English speaker would not. That's it: no fake accent, nothing else. I assumed that the students would figure it out during the film, but in that I was wrong. When I returned to the stage for the Q&A, the students had still not realized that I was not the real Abbas Kiarostami, and when I insisted I was a member of the NYU faculty, some of them persisted for several minutes in believing I was Kiarostami pretending to be someone named Jeff Strabone. When my identity was all cleared up—if one can make such a claim about identity—about 75% of the auditorium admitted, by a show of hands, that they had believed I was Kiarostami.

Tonight I attended the start of the MoMA's three-week Kiarostami film series. For the first time ever, the real Kiarostami and the fake Kiarostami were together in the same room, though I was surely the only person there having a pseudo-uncanny experience. On a more serious note, everyone in the New York area should drop everything and see these films. His major works include:
Where Is the Friend's House?* (1987)
And Life Goes On…* (1991)
Through the Olive Trees* (1994)
Close-Up (1990)
A Taste of Cherry (1997)
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Ten (2002).
(The starred films form a trilogy.)

Describing his work can be a challenge, as anyone who read A.O. Scott's article in today's New York Times has witnessed. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to start from the outside and work our way in. The thing one is most likely to see in his films is people endlessly driving around in cars. One of his films, Ten, consists entirely of ten scenes of a driver and her passengers. That's all there is, yet it manages to be his most emotionally intense film. His most famous shot is probably the aerosol can rolling down the hill for thirty-five seconds in Close-Up. Again, that's all it is: a can rolling down a hill for what seems like forever. Two of his recent films—Ten and Five—try to remove the participation of the director entirely from the film, and in other films—And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees—the protagonists are the fictional directors of ealier Kiarostami films. The Wind Will Carry Us, a film that draws on Iranian poetry and investigates the ethics of an urban documentary filmmaker working in a remote town, offers a humorous take on communicating with an unseen higher power—via mobile from the only hill that gets reception.

What does it all add up to? Kiarostami's work is a restless and relentless investigation of the possibilities and limits of film form, filmic time, directing, and the categories of narrative and documentary. He has an uncanny ability to extend time in such a way that stills it to tantalizing extremes. His is a cinema of stillness and contemplation, not necessarily for transcendental purposes but for exploring the properties of narrative expectation and the experience of time. (Sometimes, his aim feels like nothing more than cheek as in the maddening re-takes in Through the Olive Trees.) He wants to know things like, What is it to direct a film? to construct a narrative? or to sit in a movie theatre and experience time?

The Tisch students said they expected the rolling aerosol can in Close-Up to explode. They expected event. Instead, it came to a quiet stop. It was more a case of the humor of time and the thwarting of expectation. I have seen ten of his feature films so far, and they are all like that can: an extreme prolongation of expectation with no necessary closure, its reward instead being the experience of expectation. If 'unbearable' could ever be meant as a compliment, that is what I would call Kiarostami's work: unbearable cinema. And it would be unforgiveable to miss it.

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