A friend of mine mentioned the other day that he couldn’t disapprove of hip hop because he couldn’t make out the words. I can’t remember any of the conversation that led up to that line, but I suggested, in return, that perhaps he just didn’t enjoy it enough to disapprove of it. Secret, shameful pleasure often seems a key component of disapproval; on the other side of the cultural divide, perhaps the more liberal minded are (in ways that make them nice people to be around) less in touch with what Stephen King called “the dark fuckery of the human heart”, and so are less aware of how thin is the film between civilisation and its alternatives. This is captured to hilarious effect by the absurd, medievalist character of Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, who takes great pleasure in regular trips to the cinema to simultaneously denounce and get off on what he sees:
“Filth!” Ignatius shouted, spewing wet popcorn over several rows. “How dare she pretend to be virgin. Look at her degenerate face. Rape her!”
(The same phenomenon was also recently captured in a dubious story in the Daily Mail about the effects of porn, illustrated by a photo of a man looking at actual porn.)
I’ve only been to one rap gig (are they even called gigs? probably not) but it was one of the best I’ve been to; the energy, lyrical dexterity and interactivity of Skinnyman and Killa Kela were such a refreshing change from the mumbling, shoegazing, tedious indie bands I usually went to see in those days. Skinnyman’s theme tune was about his shooting a crackhead paedophile, so his music at least had a sort of spaghetti western morality to it, rather than the usual gangsta rap bravado.
It seems odd that a song about shooting a crackhead paedophile could be made to seem quaint and innocent, but this guy manages it. The Guardian won’t stop writing about him, so I feel compelled to do the same. His shtick seems to be rapping about rape and calling everyone a faggot. Naturally the Guardian divides into two camps: the nihilists, who think words don’t mean anything so we shouldn’t take them seriously and should just relax and enjoy the music; and the moralists — in this case gay and women’s rights lobbyists, as those who are primarily troubled by the glamorisation of young black men shooting other young black men have long since been sidelined — who disagree. As Ken Clarke’s rapegate showed, feminists and gay people are now the foremost moralists in our society. My sympathies are with them, but maybe I’m just jealous because the band I was in at his age had equally depraved lyrics, but it never made us rich.
I don’t want to get too far into assomeonewhoery, but as someone who makes a living out of correcting other people’s grammar, I of course think language is important and has social and political consequences. Context is of paramount importance. You and I can see that the cheeky chap in question isn’t really a rapist, and very probably isn’t really even a homophobe, and that he’s merely trying to shock a largely unshockable postmodern culture by challenging some of its last taboos; I suspect there would be much more of an outcry if someone clearly devoid of irony — 50 Cent, say — were to mine this seam instead. No doubt going to a concert of his full of other irony-drenched Guardianistas in their late 20s would be very entertaining. But I would be troubled to find myself at such a show surrounded by impressionable 13-year-olds, who may not yet have developed an advanced capacity for irony and so may take the words at face value. Does this make me sound hypocritical? Perhaps, but hypocrisy gets a worse press than it deserves. Were you, cynical and worldly wise reader, honestly not more impressionable, more open to peer pressure, when you were 13 than you are now? I think you were. Hypocrisy (in the sense of one rule for me, another for others) is often a sensible alternative to irresponsibility. I don’t imagine that most or even many people of that age will immediately hear gangsta rap, or rape rap, and go out and start shooting or raping people, but very few of us are quite as insusceptible to cultural influences — to the vast sums spent very effectively but more prosaically on advertising, marketing and branding, for instance — as we suppose, and some of us have minds so open our brains have fallen out completely. To quote my favourite socially conservative anarchist: all art is propaganda.
So, the extent to which artists (or, more realistically, those who sell their work) are obliged to exercise moral responsibility really depends on their hinterland. In the case of Lars von Trier, for example, his audience entirely consists of sophisticated intellectuals dripping with irony and thus with emotional immunity to anything they might rationally be able to see as morally dubious. He is therefore freed of the same responsibilities that should lie with those shaping young and impressionable minds, which is why I can’t believe anyone could really be shocked by anything he does, whether making an outrageously misogynistic (but brilliantly done and impossible to take seriously) film like Antichrist, or this week pretending to be a Nazi. He is a professional provocateur and should be enjoyed as such, whereas because of the different context I can’t quite share the nihilists’ sanguinity about the rapey rapper. Honestly, though, I defy you to read the transcript of Lars von Trier’s gaffe and not lol.
Anyway, here’s a slice of hip hop we can all enjoy —
Their first effort wasn’t bad either, though it should be pointed out that the people behind the videos are big Hayekians, which explains his underdog treatment —
Who’s right? No idea. I have a lot of time for the idea that the Second World War and its highly ordered, heavily mobilised aftermath was the closest Britain ever came to being an equal and unified society. Keynes’ theories have clearly not withered with the winding down of wartime production, but in times of peace, freedom and openness Hayek’s epistemological scepticism seems more appealing and more relevant. My sense is that both are somewhat misrepresented in today’s debates (and in these videos, however entertaining) and that there is perhaps more common ground than meets the eye. I read The Road to Serfdom recently, and didn’t recognise the libertarian bible it’s held up to be at all. He argues that, while the government should practise economic liberalism (in the old sense of the word), it should also use taxes to fund a social safety net for those left behind, and should intervene in the market to prevent the growth of monopolies. This seems much more like a small-c centre-right agenda than a minimalist one. Ayn Rand, the Mrs Rochester of the American right, recognised this and thought him a despicable traitor (another big point in his favour for me). As for Keynes, his contemporary supporters seem too happy to overlook the bit about reducing deficits during booms — but should we expect governments to do this, any more than we should expect them to follow Hayek’s advice and put interest rates up?
The question I would ask any Keynesians who might be reading is this: if everyone as a whole, i.e. the market left to its own devices, is incapable of organising the economy efficiently, why should it be the case that a far smaller group of people, i.e. the government, should be able to do any better? The dispersal of information seems to warrant the dispersal of power, which is why I support more direct democracy. The paradox of this, of course, is that a completely democratic society would never vote for a completely unfettered market.