Monday, January 29, 2007

ego trip’s “The (white) Rapper Show”

VH1 site

So, there are a few people out there talking about this thing (Pop Culture Junkies on Ep 1, 20/20 Proof on Ep 3 ), so I made a point of catching episode three on Saturday. As a reality show, I don’t see it really taking off – there just aren’t the sort of compelling, outsize personalities that are necessary for the genre. There’s definitely some promise in the premise, and even more in the fact that it’s produced at least partly by ego trip, who put out a rap mag in the nineties, and then eventually went on to produce books, including the absolutely incredible Book of Rap Lists. A good bit of the ego trip design sensibility shows up in the show’s set and a few props, like the “You’ve Got Mayo” screen – a giant jar of mayonnaise that beeps when the host (MC Serch) wants to communicate with the contestants.

What doesn’t show up so much, at least so far, is the more biting side of ego trip’s sensibility. The social critique of the show stays somewhat out of sight – the white rappers are not, on the whole, there to be mocked, which at least some of them richly deserve to be. For example, there’s G-Child, who got kicked off the show in last week’s episode. She openly claims Vanilla Ice as her main inspiration, and rocks the sort of visor-raver pants-asexual braids look that’s common to Insane Clown Posse, Twiztid, and other acts at the absolute bottom of the white-rap totem pole. The show gives her a pass, though, and misses the opportunity to point out just how out of touch this sort of rapper/fan is with the reality of the music.

G-Child is a really shitty rapper, to boot, and so are several of the other contestants, which is a real letdown. I know for a fact that if they’d really wanted to, the producers could easily have found ten genuinely hot white MCs. Instead, they went the much more conventional route of giving us a laundry list of white rap stereotypes – the round the way girl, the rap-rocker dude, the trailer park hoodrat, the Atlanta bro, the suburban ‘thug,’ etc. This sort of casting is usually intended to cause some conflict, and in some sense it’s working – the “conscious,” anti-racist white rapper, Jus Rhymes, is pushing his agenda hard, and about to start pissing off the meatheads around him, which I think I might tune in for more of. But if they’d gotten a higher percentage of good rappers on the show, ego trip would have actually been doing better by the genuine rap fans who are their core audience.

The one guy who does seem really talented is Shamrock, from Atlanta. In the Episode 3 elimination challenge (basically a really lame battle-of-the-writtens), he delivered a sincere meditation on whiteness that was way more effective than Jus Rhyme's polemics. Shamrock seems like a really decent and sincere guy, too, which makes him a little bit of an oddity amid the cast, who mostly seem like posers to various degrees. This includes Jus Rhymes, the guy with the political agenda. I of course really identify with the guy on one level – I’ve got a similar agenda, and I think it’s great that he’s on the show. But on another level, the guy is a bit of a joke – he dresses like a black militant and slips in and out of street slang, both of which kind of undermine his agenda. His group's name is AR-15, fer chrissakes - that really goes a long way to dispelling images of rap and black people as inherently violent, bro. He also can’t rap all that well.

Final Verdict: ego trip disappoints so far. I’ll give it another episode to see what’s really up, but The (white) Rapper Show seems pretty cookie-cutter out the gate.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Book Review: Daniel Pipes, "Conspiracy"

I just happened to see this on the library shelf the other day, and I thought I'd give it the rundown. For people with an interest in conspiracy (and/or the related social phenomena of New Age thinking, self-help, and racism), this book provides a solid and critical intellectual history, giving you the names you need to know if you're trying to understand where all these crazy ideas come from. Pipes also makes some contributions to the social analysis of the conspiracy phenomena, though he falls quite short as a philosopher. Specifically, his epistemology is hazy at best, so he has some difficulty drawing meaningful lines between "conspiracy theory" and real, if complex and sometimes overzealous, attempts by intellectuals and laymen to understand the broader forces that impact society. The most egregious of these slips is his characterization of perceptions of anti-black racism and misogyny in the West as paranoia, characterizations that are both deeply offensive and demonstrably wrong – institutional racism and sexism are about as real and widespread as it gets. Similarly, Pipes harries a false distinction by claiming that the proven, documented involvement of CIA operatives in the crack trade in Los Angeles in the 1980's is not the same as a conspiracy, and that therefore Black anti-government sentiments are unfounded. Such statements are simply ludicrous.

More generally, Pipes often blurs the distinctions between conspiracy theories that place immense power in the hands of a few individuals, and known "conspiracies" that take place across the globe because of how the economy, government, or culture are structured. So, for example, he will describe people's fears of the Rosicrucians and the Jewish conspiracy in the same terms, and apply the same explanations to them, as he does people's fear of Western imperialism. This looks particularly bad reading it ten years after the fact, as documents are increasingly readily available showing that many of the economic attacks that Pipes characterizes as conspiracy theories have actually taken place – for example, the fully intentional roles of the WTO and World Bank in destabilizing developing countries.

But despite the seeming tenuousness of Pipes characterization of, for example, Noam Chomsky as the equal of Lyndon LaRouche, he did succeed in getting me to ask some hard questions about the intellectual style of the left. It is undoubtedly true that, as Pipes points out, leftist Afrocentrism is far more institutionally accepted than right-wing Farrakhanism, even though each are based on tenuous concepts. Ultimately, how much responsibility do theorists such as Chomsky have to be rigorous in their diagnoses of wider political or social situations? Pipes provocatively quotes Susan Faludi's statement that misogyny is an ideology that has moved through "the culture's secret chambers" – and while clearly Faludi is speaking metaphorically, I think Pipes is fair in pointing out the parallels in style. Left-wing intellectuals do have a tendency to cast a very wide net in searching for causes of the problems they seek to diagnose, as well as attributing observable effects to causes both subtle and widespread – invisible, mysterious and often malevolent forces such as racism or exploitation. Sometimes this style of thinking can verge dangerously close to conspiracism; it is not enough that a system or statement be true in essence, it must be true in fact.

While he may be a lummox on more recent events, the benefit of hindsight makes Pipes a very good resource, as he recounts the history of conspiracism in high style. This is a shockingly long history, but measurable, with anti-Semitism and anti-Masonism having their starting points roughly in the 11th and then 14th centuries. The passage of these originary ideas forward in time is easily where the book is most useful and least controversial, as Pipes explains quite clearly and convincingly how the anti-Semitism of the Crusaders traveled through time to fuel the Nazis and, ultimately, over the sea to Japan (the popularity of anti-Semitism in Japan makes perfect sense if you've had much exposure to that culture).

Pipes also does a very creditable job of presenting some ideas as to why people chose Jews and Masons as the overwhelming targets of their suspicions, saying that these two groups represent the Modern – they are generally sophisticated and often powerful, thus fomenting resentment among people less likely to be dedicated to intellectual rigor. The only real problem with this thesis is that it is inconsistent with Pipes' millennia-long history of anti-Semitism – Jews were not always the successful, "model minority" they are now. They could hardly have been hated for their modernism, social advancement, or financial prowess in the 12th century, when most were living in segregated ghettos and were penniless.

The most important unanswered question, though, remains that of epistemology. How do we determine where "conspiracy" theories sit on the spectrum from concrete knowledge to broader, "spiritual" truth - is there a spot available somewhere between religion and science? Ultimately, how do we determine what is a 'conspiracy theory' and what is potentially valid speculation? It is because he fails to address such questions beforehand that Pipes occasionally stumbles in his classification of specific cases. But it is also what leads him to the very interesting choice to include left-wing theorists in the 'conspiracy' category, a move which I think is manifestly incorrect, but nonetheless sends a powerful message of warning to the most extreme indulgers in left-wing rhetoric that, if you're not careful, you might be mistaken for an Antimason.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

DJ Drama - Arrested for distributing mixtapes

NY Times Article by Sanneh

The music industry has officially begun eating its own extremities. I outlined the situation in a paper I presented at the National Communication Association in the Fall, and now it's getting worse.

Yes, there is no doubt that mixtapes are illegal. But does that mean that a) the RIAA serves anyone's interest by pursuing these cases and b) they in fact should be illegal?

This isn't like the RIAA's suits against individual downloaders - it doesn't hurt the music industry in an abstract, public relations sort of way. It harms the industry directly by threatening to shut down or freeze out a MAJOR source of promotion for hip hop. People who bought Wayne's Dedication also went out and bought The Carter - along with a bunch of people who never bought the tapes. Mixtapes generate excitement, "buzz," hype, whatever, better than any radio station ever could. They have effectively replaced radio in the hip hop community, because all of the radio stations are terrible.

While the RIAA is undeniably in the legal right in pursuing this case, it serves literally noone's interest to do so - except perhaps its own, since the organization has spent the past decade proving that it is essentially self-aggrandizing in nature. This prosecution will harm DJs, fans, artists, and the industry itself. It will not provide the boost to sales that the flailing, clearly hapless music industry needs - it will only make the situation worse, pushing the industry further down the spiral towards its seemingly inevitable collapse.

Edit: Jeff Chang does a better job than me.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Resurrection of Amos n' Andy

I just heard a tiny little aside on Prairie Home Companion that caught my ear. As you might know, the show's creator and host, Garisson Keillor, is a great fan of golden age radio programs from the 30s and 40s. In a skit, he was running down a list of his favorite shows, hitting all the classics – The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly – and then he dropped in Amos n' Andy, along with one of his sound-men doing a short take on one of the characters, in what you might call audio blackface. This was clearly not intended to stand out or be remarkable in any way: Amos n' Andy was just another radio show of the era, its depictions of African-Americans little more than a matter of style.

This is significant because, of course, Amos n' Andy was, both in its own time and for a long period afterward, a hugely controversial show, opposed in particular by the NAACP for its alleged slights to the character of Blacks and Black culture. Whether this assessment was accurate, and whether it is responsible to consider Amos n' Andy primarily on its artistic merits rather than as something of social significance, is largely a question of contents. In the TV version especially, the show can almost seem anti-racist insofar as the main characters, though obvious scoundrels, move in a world where there are many black professionals, and what whites do show up treat the black characters as presumed equals. But the argument is that the TV incarnation in particular, since it was the only major television program featuring black characters and actors, was irresponsible and hurtful insofar as it implicitly constructed its good-for-nothing protagonists as representative of blackness.

But, increasingly, Keillor's perspective – that it should be appreciated as a work of art, its racial overtones only secondarily – is growing. The TV series is widely available on DVD, and it's hardly in the interest of DVD producers to label their product as "Possibly Racist!", so I imagine the show's artistic quality is a much better talking point. There are also good reasons for the re-evaluation, many of them stemming from the genuine achievements of the Black actors, set designers, writers (though most of the writers were white, there was one Black writer) and other creators who made the series one of the best ever. I doubt many people would say those creators' reputations should be tarnished in perpetuity because of their involvement in a controversial show.

But of course, the risk is that the very real, justified concerns over the show's impact on perceptions of African Americans will go by the wayside as everyone jumps on the bandwagon of celebrating it. That's a really unacceptable possibility. Ultimately, while I don't feel history should forget Amos n' Andy, I do feel that when it is remembered, its strengths and its flaws must be taken together.

Communicating about the Surge

No big news on it today, but the whole "surge" thing continues to be mind-boggling. Some options for those of us who don't want our frustration to fester into bitterness:

1. Attend a rally (more emotionally than politically effective).

2. Write an email/letter or make a phone call to your congressman.

3. Make and wear an anti-escalation t-shirt - clever, obscene, or if possible, both. (The one I'm considering is "Surge? You've got to be fucking shitting me." Or "Surge: An outdated product that I'm not buying." Still working on that one.) Better yet, design a shirt on a site like and post it up here so others can buy it if they like it.

4. Write a letter to the editor, or better yet, a 500-word guest editorial. Look for smaller newspapers, you've got a better chance of getting in. If you're a student or affiliated with a University, your student newspaper is probably an easy in. Keep your emotions in check and make a logical argument. The Tiabbi material would be useful here.

Any other ideas? Anger is an energy, don't let it go to waste.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Guns, Germs, and Steel: What it Means for Race

I'm sitting here watching the National Geographic documentary based on Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel," and it's fucking incredible – both on its own terms, and because of its implications for race studies. For those unfamiliar with the basics of Diamond's argument, it can be boiled down fairly clearly. The argument is that the historical dominance of European cultures over rest of the cultures on Earth boils down to the geographical accident that granted Europeans certain natural resources. Specifically, these are domesticated grains, such as wheat, and domesticated beasts of burden such as cows and horses. These, along with other geographic advantages, allowed for surpluses of labor that led, in time, to innovations in technology, such as steel swords and horsemanship. European domestication of animals also bred new human diseases, but prolonged contact increased immunity to them to levels not present in other populations. All of these, in turn, led to European military and, ultimately, cultural dominance.
Diamond's extremely compelling hypothesis is essentially the nuclear option of anti-racist argumentation – but without any of the negative implications of that phrase. Any historical thesis dependent on an essential difference between people, whether couched in terms of race or culture, is rendered absurd by Diamond's view of human history. All of the differences between human societies, and therefore all the differences between their accomplishments, arise not from any essential genetic or moral superiority, any surplus of bravery, intelligence, or creativity, but from natural advantages inherent in certain groups' homelands. In light of this, all previous explanations of certain groups' dominance are revealed as post-facto justifications of a geographical fait accompli that predates any race, much less individual.
A command of this material is an essential part of any rhetorical arsenal aimed at countering racialist or culturalist worldviews. Diamond explicitly describes the Europeans as "accidental conquerors," and this is the only self-understanding that can grant the dominant population groups a healthy distance from the mythology of their own superiority.
This is, incidentally, a perfect example of one of the unspoken driving principles of academic and intellectual life. Independent of its intellectual merit, Diamond's conceptual framework has gained a lot of traction because it can be reduced to a catchphrase. Although, ultimately, it's not a terribly accurate one – guns in particular are not nearly as valuable to European dominance as, say, grain, or horses. I guess grain isn't nearly as sexy as guns.