Within the Context of Obama
By Benj DeMott
On Inauguration Day and on the day before the State of the Union address, I went to Serious Times dialogues – academic seminars (at New York’s School of Visual Arts) where American radicals ponder “Why doesn’t the United States make social progress?” What follows here takes in the distance between discourse there and spectacles of…social progress enacted by Obama et al. as he launched his second term. But it’s not locked on that opposition. I try to say true things about where we’re at now by treating old and new acts of mimesis, including classic Russian novels by Vasily Grossman and a soon-to-be classic hip hop CD by Kendric Lamar. My approach to politics and high/low culture is intuitive. This is not a scholarly essay. Call it an experiment in synchronic method.
I’m wary of having too much fun when I’m on the side that’s won so I cut out from tv festivities on Inauguration Day to attend a Serious Times seminar on Occupy Wall Street. While the timing of that OWS meet seemed to underscore a snarky point made by Thomas Frank in a review of books about Occupiers – “Measured in terms of words published per political results…OWS may be the most over-described historical event of all time” – one grad student’s talkback at the conclave lifted me as much as Obama’s oration earlier in the day. It was bracing when this young woman – a former participant in Oakland’s OWS who’s currently committed to Occupy Sandy’s exercises in mutual aid – expressed astonished contempt for the gross cynicism of a political theorist named Jodi Dean.
Professor Dean had used her time at Serious Times to go live with a Call for a new Communist Party. (Got dead if you want it at Amazon which is selling Ms. Dean’s new book, The Communist Horizon.) Dean’s hymn to Leninism (and Ooh-Mao-Mao) wasn't a hit with that OWS vet who had the temerity to suggest lying might not be a good way to build a political movement. The prof got icy when her respondent recalled how opportunists with only a virtual connection to the local movement in Oakland rankled actual Occupiers there by promoting unsanctioned actions. What really bugged Oakland OWSers were attendant false reports in social media that wildly inflated numbers of souls at side-shows. Professor Dean claimed not to grasp why any OWSer would have issues with shadowy outliers hyping sect (or solo) actions. She accused the OWS vet of pity partying and talked up a politics of “rising expectations.”
Given that Dean is a wannabe Communist Party cadre, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when she copped to her ease with the prospect of outside factions conflating their agendas with that of a consensual local movement. Still, for an American, it’s sort of a stunner to run into an unapologetically undemocratic politico. And I’m glad that OWS innocent’s voice (and face) registered her shock at the Prof’s s'all good trashing of truth.
Dean’s attitude once ruled half the world. Here’s how it twisted dailiness in Eastern Bloc countries according to one Polish witness:
The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people. Mass exterminations are not exceptions in history; cruelty is part of human nature, part of society. But a new third dimension had been added that was more deeply and subtly oppressive: a vast enterprise to deform language…Lying is part of human nature and all governments are hypocritical, but here all the means of disclosure had been permanently confiscated by the police…the viler the deed, the more grandiloquent the name.
Blood-Red rumor-mongers like Dean may be clueless, but anyone sentient during the last century knows what’s beyond the “Communist Horizon”: Big Lies and screams. Per this famous passage in Whittaker Chambers’ Witness where he hears out “the daughter of a German diplomat in Moscow who explains…why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist”:
It was hard for her because as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. “He was immensely pro-Soviet,” she said, “and then – you will laugh at me – but you must not laugh at my father – and then one night – in Moscow – he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”
Confronted with Communist vision in 2013, Serious Times seminarians probably felt closer to Chambers’ “enlightened modern girl” than to her implacable pop, but, thankfully, nobody seemed juiced by Professor Dean's willful beamishness. That Occupier from Oakland preferred Thomas Franks’ doomy riffs on OWS. I pushed back a bit there, suggesting OWS’s 99% rhetoric had more staying power in mainline politics than Frank allows, especially after it was amped up by Mitt’s diss of the 47%.
Though I may have lost Oaktown – and militant haters of Dems – in the Q&A by invoking advice of C.L.R. James who once said American leftists must learn to live with the fact American “workers” had made a home in the Democratic Party. His stance reminds me now of Whittaker Chambers’ flip response to ‘50s Movement Conservatives who dreamt of a purer vehicle for their ideology than Ike’s Republican Party. Chambers told them he’d be voting the straight Republican ticket for the foreseeable. I’d’ve been with James, not Chambers. But even in our Tea Party time, I’d go for the G.O.P. in a heartbeat over an American C.P. made up of Deaniacs.
My subway reading to and from Dean’s horizon happened to be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate – the great Russian World War II novel (based on the structure of War and Peace) that’s probably the definitive protest against 20th Century Fascism and Communism. My life rarely arranges itself into such sequences of point-counterpoint. Though I’m reminded the day I found a torn-up copy of Chambers’ Witness in Riverside Park I saw Victor Navasky coming out of Columbia U.’s gates. Navasky being the last fervent apologist for Chambers’ antithesis Alger Hiss, I figured then I was fated to read Witness. I was already into Grossman's Life and Fate but Professor Dean's mug and mouth steered me to Grossman's last word on Communism, Everything Flows.
Young Grossman had been a True Believer. He was a comer in Soviet letters in the ‘30s. Maxim Gorky praised the first draft of Grossman’s first novel, but, as Robert Chandler notes in his intro to the NYRB classics reprint of Life and Fate, Gorky sensed the new star might prove prickly for commissars.
Gorky suggested that the author should ask himself: “Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?” Even then such a cynical attitude would almost certainly have been anathema to Grossman. It is hard, however, not to be impressed by Gorky’s intuition. It is as if he sensed where Grossman’s love of truth might lead him. In a story written a few years later, Grossman quoted the maxim “Absolute truth is the most beautiful thing of all.” And in 1961 after the manuscript of Life and Fate had been confiscated, Grossman would write to Khrushchev: “I have written in my book what I believed and continue to believe to be the truth. I have written only what I have thought through, felt through and suffered through.”
The author of Life and Fate “did not come back from hell empty-handed” (to lift Andre Malraux’s line on Chambers’ Witness). Grossman’s novel was founded on his experience as an ace war reporter who covered the bulk of major battles on the Eastern front up to the fall of Berlin. He published “The Hell of Treblinka” – one of the first eyewitness accounts in any language about a Nazi death camp – in 1944 and after the war helped compile The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland during the War 1941–1945, which was suppressed by the Soviets. Life and Fate reflects Grossman’s clarity about the rise of anti-Semitism in Stalinist Russia. If Stalin hadn’t died in 1952, Grossman himself would probably have been a victim of anti-Jewish purges. He worked throughout the 50s on Life and Fate, a novel of terrible and lyrical realism that speaks “for those who lie in the earth.” It nails Stalinism by portraying “the important and evil” along with dozens of morally complex yet representative Russian characters (as well as a few “good Germans”). Around the time the KGB arrested the text, the politburo’s chief ideologist implicitly confirmed the book was for the Ages when he told Grossman it couldn’t be published for 200 or 300 years. (Life and Fate didn’t come out in Russia until the late 80s.) Grossman was almost broken by the State, but he kept working until his death in 1964 on his other masterpiece, Everything Flows – a hybrid novel/testament that builds toward a passionate polemic against Leninism.
I might not have rushed to read Everything Flows if Dean hadn’t clowned herself at the Serious Times colloquium. Her Millennial Leninism sent me directly to Grossman’s critique of her idol. Though Everything Flows contains much more than that polemic. Grossman’s version of the anti-Kulak campaign and the resulting famine in the Ukraine felt even more urgent than Life and Fate’s scenes inside the Lubyanka and the death camps. You can read that section as a standalone set-piece. (And you should do so ASAP.) But on to Grossman’s Lenin. First there’s the Word:
The twenty-eight volumes of Lenin’s Collected Works – speeches, reports, programmes, economic and philosophical studies – did not help Russia to know herself and her fate. The result of confusing Western revolution and Russian ways of life was a chaos greater than that of the Tower of Babel.
Grossman doesn’t pretend the echt Bolshevik was one-dimensional. He knows young Lenin wasn’t a thug like young Stalin. Grossman cites passages in memoirs attesting to Lenin’s softer side: “In his personal relationships…Lenin was always polite, sensitive, and kind. Yet…
Lenin was always rude, harsh, and implacable toward his political opponents. He never admitted the least possibility that they might even be partially right, that he might be partially wrong…Lenin’s concern in an argument was not with truth but with victory…– and to this end he was happy to employ any rhetorical means. He was equally ready to trip his opponent from behind, to give him a metaphorical slap in the face, or to daze him with a metaphorical blow on the head…And when the dispute moved from the pages of a newspaper and magazines to the streets, when it moved to military battlefield or to fields of rye – then too there was nothing that Lenin shrank from, no tactics too vicious for him to employ…Lenin’s intolerance, his unshakeable drive to achieve his purpose, his contempt for freedom, his brutality toward those who did not share his views, his unwavering readiness to wipe off the face of the earth not only fortresses but also whole districts, regions, and provinces that challenged his view of the truth – all this was a part of Lenin long before October.
Grossman keeps trying to get a fix on the mystery of Lenin’s personality: “The ability to trample one’s opponent into the mud without a second thought, to deafen and stun him during an argument, combined with a sweet smile, with a shy sensitivity.” But, in the end, he’s not stuck on Lenin’s character. What matters is how it fit with the “national character of the Russian people and then with the overall thrust of Russian history.” In Grossman’s mind, that history has been marked by an “abyss” separating Russian life from Western life: “The evolution of the West was fertilized by the growth of freedom; Russia’s evolution was fertilized by the growth of slavery.” Grossman looks back to Tsars who laid the foundations for Russian scientific and industrial progress and notes their work “involved an equally remarkable progress in the severity of serfdom.” Then he flashes forward to the 19th Century:
The emancipation of the serfs [in 1861] – as we can see from the history of the following century was more truly revolutionary than the October Revolution. The emancipation of the serfs shook Russia’s thousand year-old foundation, a foundation that neither Peter the Great nor Lenin had so much as touched…In February 1917, the path of freedom lay open for Russia. Russia chose Lenin.
And Grossman tells exactly how that choice shook the world: “What the Russian Revolution would liberate was Russian slavery itself.” 20th Century Russia no longer looked to the Enlightened West, but offered rulers (and toadies) a new path: “of modernization through non-freedom.”
Post-moderns like Dean and other new Leninists mean to go back to that dead end. Who knows if Everything Flows could turn them around? But Grossman’s rap against non-freedom fighters should have resonance for any American. Especially after our last presidential election in a year that marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Grossman’s analysis of Lenin’s Russian way of being should help us all – liberal-minded conservatives in particular! – dig the persona of the beautifully American democrat in the oval office.
Grossman’s lucid formulations translate pretty easily from the Russian context to our own. Try this one: “The only true revolutionaries are those who seek to destroy the very foundation of the Old Russia: her slave soul.” The novelist’s sense of how Great Emancipations play out over generations (and how it feels when the whip comes back down after freer times) makes him a brother under the skin of everyone in African American freedom struggles. Please don’t understand me too quickly (as they say in Russian novels). No American should jump to equate our national experience of slavery with Russia’s. Or blame social deficits of America’s black nation on “post traumatic slave syndrome” rather than a range of government policies implemented since the New Deal that have amounted to affirmative action for white people. Whatever the most proximate causes, though, slavish sides of underclass life still instantiate institutional racism. And, on that score, Obama’s cool persona is countercultural. As a white Southern liberal has noted, “those are not softballs he’s throwing at card-carrying white supremacists.” Obama is an American equivalent of those “true revolutionaries” Grossman envisioned (and Russia’s still waiting on).
The radicalism of our current American revolution tends to go right by American radicals. Obama may have linked his Inauguration with progress of liberation movements – “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…” – but that got him bupkis from Serious Timers. Professor Dean’s first respondent at her S.T. lecture – a poet and essayist named Jasper Bernes – dismissed Obama’s push on gay rights. Bernes had the President pegged as a poll-driven pol who was following trends, not acting on principles. But he forgot Obama hasn’t always played it safe on gays. Back in the 2008 campaign, Obama delivered a sermon from Daddy King’s pulpit in Atlanta where he chastised black church folk for scorning “our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.” Obama was out in front of much of his base again when he came out for marriage equality and his “evolution” changed public opinion in black communities where gay rights are now favored by a majority due to his intervention.
That’s not to say Obama has always been the boldest leader. But he seems more straightforward now about his own political agenda and easier with his own (and others’) emotions. There was that sequence after the inaugural when he paused and turned to the massive crowd on the National Mall saying (loud enough for the media to pick up): “I want to take a look one more time. I’m not going to see this again.” And there was his choice at the peak of his State of the Union address to go silent; to ride the flow of echoes in the chamber before amping up the crowd’s message: “They deserve a vote.”
Obama’s call and responsiveness then testifies to his experience of African American cultural forms. His rootsy interlude at the SOTU brings to mind Amiri Baraka’s line from Blues People: “Negro music is always radical in the context of formal American culture.”
A line that seems both right on and way out time given Beyonce’s lip-synching at the Inaugural. While Beyonce gives glory to bod, there’s nothing rad behind her music except her behind. When Beyonce covered the late Etta James’ “At Last” at the 2009 Inaugural Ball, it was a devolution from wild and blue Ms. James. And why wasn’t Al Green singing “Let’s Stay Together” at this year’s Ball instead of Jennifer Hudson who’s a much thinner talent?
Those may be relatively trivial questions but thinking about them helped me zero in on a pop song that sound-tracked Inaugural sensations in my house. Florida rapper Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” – a hit track from his CD Wild Ones – is fluff but it’s all up in this moment: “I could be president one day.” The hook is an Etta James sample: “Sometimes I get a good feeling…A feeling that I never never never never had before.” Flo sings along with her (as he often does with samples in his songs) sounding like he's intent on getting his kicks too. His amateurish voice implicitly welcomes listeners into the mix. Everyone is invited to join the party and sing along too. (They deserve a vote!) In (and out of) tune with authentic traditions of black music – and Obama’s reboot – Flo refuses to let perfect be the enemy of good feeling.
“The Art of Peer Pressure”
Good feeling in Rapper of the Year Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, mA.A.d city is always dicey:
Bitch don't kill my vibe
I can feel your energy from two planets away
I got my drink I got my music I will share it but today I'm yelling
Bitch don't kill my vibe
Why are Lamar and the folks he speaks to/for hunkered down in the Obama era? His concept CD suggests pervasive gun violence lies close to the root of their anxiety. Fear (and rage) shapes everything about everyday life in Lamar's mad scary city.
Ezra Pound once said: “It is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself.” good kid, mA.A.d city’s stress may be a far cry from The Cantos. (OTOH, it’s not a stretch to homologize Lamar's rapping for “the ones in front of the gun” with Vasily Grossman’s speaking for "those who lie in the ground.”) But per Pound: “here the thing is done.”
…Look at me
I got the blunt in my mouth
Usually I’m drug free
But, shit, I’m wit the homies
Lamar’s steer through “me” to his peers has much in common with the Reflector-in-Chief’s act of self-awareness after his Inaugural speech, which turned the focus back on the massive audience incarnating the party of hope mobilized by his campaigns. Plenty of Kendrick Lamar’s soul brothers were in that crowd, but good kid, mA.A.d city brings home the truth America – and that dreamy bunch on the Mall – is not “just like Compton” where Lamar comes from.
Though there are good and bad points of intersection. Obama noted one when he linked dangers facing city kids with what happened on “quiet lanes in Newtown.” Our exemplary rapper has Obama's back. First time through mA.A.d city I thought Lamar might be alluding to West Coast police departments' use of helicopters to cover far-flung neighborhoods when he cites "choppers" (repeatedly). My bad: “chopper” is Lamar’s street term for an assault rifle – “one chopper – one hundred shots bang…two chopper – two hundred shots bang…”
Shots from choppers in Lamar’s synesthesiatic “Swimming Pool (Drank)” meld with (anesthetic) shots of hard liquor.
Pour up, drank, head shot, drank
Sit down, drank, stand up, drank
Pass out, drank, wake up, drank
Faded, drank, faded, drank
“Swimming Pool (Drank)’s” drunk ends in an episode of “black-on-black” violence that sparks a post-cathartic move to mindfulness. Having witnessed a killing of his homie “Dave,” Lamar realizes his vocation as a truly conscious rapper on “Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst.” He will tell his story (per his mom’s urging) “to these black and brown kids…let em know you was just like them but you rose from a dark place of violence.” And that story won’t be a single one (even if Lamar is a singular talent). It will embrace those who made it out of the ghetto, those stuck on the streets, and “casualties of war” like Dave or Lamar’s own Uncle Tony (who was shot when the rapper was 11 years old and whose picture is on the cover of mA.A.d city).
In “Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst,” Lamar stretches himself, imagining lives on the margin beyond his own fam and crew. He assumes voices of a drylonso Brother and Sister. First he does “Dave’s” living brother and then (daringly) raps as a young street-walker – “you can’t fit the pumps I walk in” – sister of a lost girl whose story he’d told on a previous CD. The thirsty Brother is a gang-banger who celebrates Lamar’s gift and wishes for a similar “passion” that would let him recover “the life I knew as a young’n/in pajamas and Dun-ta-duns.” (A term for kids’ underwear with superhero pics, “dud ta dun dun” being the soundtrack that accompanies a hero's entrance.) The thirsty Sister is not a muse. She objects to Lamar’s past rap about her own late sister – “how could you put her on blast…judging her past” – even as that tale seems to foretell her own sordid future. She’s a fighter – “I’ll never fade away” – but she fades out of the mix, going down slow, like Dave’s brother.
Lamar is careful not to look down on his archetypal Brother and Sister, nor on anybody in the struggle, even as he’s looking past them (pace Jay-Z). Lamar wishes to be with these ghetto vets in spirit: the Black Church offers him an alternative to payback codes and money-mindedness that’s killing his anti-heroes by degree. Humble Bible values inform his hood rap – “I’m a sinner/ I’m probably gonna sin again” – and a Church lady is one of only two adult voices that’s never mocked. But I hear an expansive humanism – not high piety – behind his riff on “Amazing Grace”: “my city found me.”
Lamar has a Race Man’s sense of community and the inwardness of a natural-born outsider. (He calls himself a “black hippie.”) He circles around his own sensitivity (and word-drunk aestheticism). As in the colloquy in this witty skit where a soulful bud encourages him (“K-Dot”) to drink his way back from a beating:
Nigga pass K-Dot the bottle, you ain’t the one that got fucked up, what you holding it for… Niggas always acting un-sensitive and shit.
(Nigga that ain’t no word.)
Nigga shut up. Dot – you good my nigga? Don’t even trip. Just sit back and drink that.
Lamar’s kind friend is anything-but-insensitive though of course he’s cultivating oblivion. Lamar’s mA.A.d city is up to such moral complexities. So maybe he deserves a pass for hanging tight with devilish Dr. Dre. Lamar’s gangsta rap minder snakes in to take credit on the CD’s closer “Compton” (which re-ups on the melody of Dre’s biggest hit, “California Love”). Dre’s characteristically petty boasts mash up eternity with product placement as he looks forward to driving a Lamborghini in heaven with dead rappers and R&B singers. Lamar egos off with Dre – “I’m King Kendrick” – and bows down to him as West Coast hip hop’s chief impresario. He even pulls a Lennon in “Compton,” boasting with Dre their records are “bigger than your religion.” But he also cites a bible passage that speaks to mutual aid and a (extended familial) sense of solidarity. Lamar’s mA.A.d city is grounded in mimesis that beats Dre.’s nihil-triumphalism. Consider Lamar’s mission statement: “Brace yourself/I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane/This is not rap on how I sling crack or move cocaine/This is a cul de sac and plenty cognac and major pain.” The track (and CD) ends not with “King” Kendrick rolling and snorting with pop royalty on cloud nine, but flashed-back to where he began, a poor and horny teen borrowing his mom’s van. It’s a self-check. A reminder Lamar’s hip hop isn’t about bling. He means to stay true to his gift (and his city) by keeping it real.
The Saving Right to Reprove
That last flashback hints Lamar’s narrative sense is movie-made. good kid, mA.A.d city is subtitled “A Short Film” and it’s rife with nods to Hollywood's "black" movies from the 90s like Poetic Justice and Boyz in the Hood. Lamar’s impulse to break time down and flip it suggests Tarrantino is in the picture. When it comes to cinematic influences, though, Lamar could do much better than Q.T. Director Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding – 70s independent films set in the black working class environs of Watts – seem made for Lamar. Burnett is a son of Watts and an empathetic Race Man like Lamar. His art (as one critic wrote of Killer of Sheep) “releases audiences from the abstraction that curses the standard language of compassion (‘black despair,’ ‘absence of values’ and the like); it offers direct access to experience in its wholeness and complication.” Lamar’s mA.A.d city offers similar access to close imaginers and no doubt that’s why sounds of shots in “Swimming Pool (Drank)’s” chorus snapped me back to the maternal slap that punctuates Killer of Sheep’s opening scene…
From darkness a face appears – a scared looking, black male adolescent. A grown-up man is talking threateningly offscreen.
“You let anyone jump on your brother again and you just stand there and watch, boy, I’ll beat you to death.”
The last words come in a stammering jumbled rush; the stammerer has to start over:
“I don’t care who started what, if he was winning or losing, you get a stick or-or-or-or a goddamn brick, and you knock the kid down whoever is fighting and if the son of a bitch is too big for you, you come get me. This off-the-wall bullshit about Harry started it –“
The speaker breaks off again, this time in a coughing fit, and as the shot widens we see a heavy-set man – the father – doubled over with coughing…a pregnant woman, the boy’s mother…The boy’s younger brother presses his face into the mother’s apron and skirt.
The father resumes in a stagey voice – a voice of paternal reasonableness and persuasion.
“If anything was to happen to me or your mother, you ain’t got nobody but your brother, and that goes for your brother and he knows it. You are not a child, son. You’ll be a goddamn man soon. Start learning what life is about.”
Abruptly he pauses the boy’s mother flings forth an arm – strikes her son across the face.
Thus begins Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep…It’s a movie about teaching right conduct to the young – or, rather about trying and failing at that effort, trying again, ultimately giving up. The theme is the loss of that which practically defines the human essence, namely the saving right to reprove.
It’s a theme that would surely resonate with Lamar. good kid, mA.A.d city upholds that saving right right from the start. (Check the title.) Though there are ears who ain’t trying to hear. An educated fool in the LA Times recently traduced Lamar’s message to the grassroots by equating him with Eldridge Cleaver and Tupac: “Kendrick Lamar might intend to keep the music alive but what Lamar shares most of all with Tupac is the understanding that there is no making sense of this nonsense.” But what’s most striking about Lamar’s hip hop is his will to comprehend its moral/social context. (In Re: Lamar v. Tupac, a passage of Grossman’s seems apt: “Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed – while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.” Lamar is a good kid. Tupac was a bad…((shut your mouth)).)
Lamar is all clear how high times “wit’ the homies” lead to petty crime and heavy violence. In “Swimming Pool (Drank)” – one of his many raps on "the art of peer pressure" – he busts himself for swimming with another shark who urges him to try a deep dive: “Why you baby-sittin’ only two or three shots?/I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch/First you get a swimming pool of liquor then you dive in it.” Lamar’s conscience talks back, recalling “parental advice.” Actions, though, speak louder. Lamar has come up around “people living their life in bottles.” He remembers his Granddaddy’s “golden flask” and Lamar’s dad sings his own nasty drank song in skits near the top of mA.A.d city. Both of Lamar’s parents become more winning figures as the CD proceeds. But their moral authority – and that of other grown-ups (cops for instance)– is compromised.
It’s never been easy for black folks mired in bottom-caste life to uphold their right to judge. (Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep dramatized the difficulties back in the day. Recall that father in Burnett’s opening scene who:
means to call up a world wherein choices count and elders give helpful guidance. Stand by each other. Respect experience. Life is hard. But there’s static in the message. Mature reasonableness a la Judge Hardy – “You are not a child, son” – clashes in the scene with bravado – “You come get me.” – overdone profanity and threats. The man chokes, seemingly, on the claim that he knows something worth knowing; his stammer and cough and fulminating – like the blow the mother strikes – suggest bodily revulsion at the claim.)
But violence in black neighborhoods that metastasized in the 80s has made it even harder for parents to parent. Safety must come first and absent security, moral lessons of adults often seem off point or quaint. Noise from those choppers echoes. It’s rough on parents trying to cut through. Young men like those in Lamar’s mA.A.d city grow up looking to their peers for the down low-down.
Ta-Nehishi Coates has suggested wonks crafting gun legislation should pick up on facts of feeling in mA.A.d city. I hope someone in the White House is listening. Obama’s presidency will matter less and less to African American city kids if they don’t believe the father of their nation is out to protect them. And on that front, the First Lady belonged at the funeral for Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teen who was shot after marching in the Inaugural day parade. But. Flush the Oscars. (Unless they give Charles Burnett a Lifetime Achievement award.)
Coda: Meeting a Stranger
The day before the State of the Union address, I listened in on a Serious Times dialogue between a neo-Populist American nationalist, Barry Lynn, and a subtle Marxologist, Moishe Postone. They came at the state of the American (and global) economy from different angles.
Lynn focused on the deep decline in American entrepreneurship. Despite myths about the relative vigor of the country's “free enterprise” system, he pointed out Americans are now creating something like half as many new businesses as they were in 1977. Regulations are often cited as a heavy burden for small businesses but (according to Lynn’s piece last summer in The Washington Monthly):
The single biggest factor driving down entrepreneurship is precisely the radical concentration of power we have seen not only in the banking industry but throughout the U.S. economy over the last thirty years. This revolutionary remaking of almost every economic activity in the nation was set in motion in 1981, when officials in the Reagan administration all but suspended traditional enforcement of America’s antimonopoly laws, a change in policy then adopted by every subsequent administration. Since then, regulators have done almost nothing to stop the great waves of mergers and acquisitions, with the result that control over most major economic activities is now more consolidated than at any time since the Gilded Age.
Serious Times' American populist was more concerned than S.T.'s Marxist internationalist with risks to national sovereignty posed by race-to-the-bottom monopolists. (Butterfly Effects loomed large in Lynn's projections about coming American economic crises.) But both understood globalization as an assault on human autonomy.
Postone’s despair went soul-deep (as well as around the world); he mused about a global continuum where desire and the Self itself are inexorably squeezed into the commodity form.
Lynn was more positive than Postone – and other Marxists in the room – about prospects for remediation. He argued for reviving serious anti-trust actions. The Marxists were skeptical of any "progressive" effort to resist economic concentration. No revo, no hope...
Listening to them (and Lynn) in the back of the seminar room, I felt a defensive urge to sing-song: "B---- don't kill my vibe." I couldn't deny it seemed willful - not to say dim - to see freedom on the march in the Obama era. "It's the economy, stupid," I reproved myself.
But it didn't take for long. I guess I can't keep down with Western Marxists. Not after Obama proposed in the SOTU to bump up the minimum wage to $9.
I wonder what Lynn would make of that. (I assume Serious Times' Marxists would be dismissive.) Perhaps he thinks it's the sort of regulation that would actually hurt small businesses. After all we’re told such employers “cringe at the thought of paying higher salaries.”
The day after the SOTU, though, a Christian Science Monitor story spoke to the uses of the bully pulpit:
“Obama says to raise minimum wage to $9.00/hr. So I did!!!" posted Kelly Wilson, a small business owner in Virginia on her Facebook wall. "If my little company 3D Sports can do it, maybe some of the big rich companies can do it too!!!"
This morning, Wilson texted her employees that their hourly wage would jump to Obama's recommended $9 per hour: "Congratulations on your raise!"
Not everyone believed her at first, she says. When she reiterated her promise, one texted back, "Wait, you were serious about that?"
Wilson says she doesn't expect a host of other employers to follow her lead. But that's not the point, she says. "I'm not trying to set a trend. I'm trying to do what is right."
Perhaps because I’d just been among Marxists, this little story synched up in my head with a famous proclamation of the elder Marx (that may help explain why he once said he was not a Marxist): “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs.”
A few years ago, I found myself arguing at a right-wing website with conspiracy-mongers freaked about "who sent Barack Obama.” There were birthers who thought Obama's father was Malcolm X or Farrakhan. More sophisticated rubes locked on Frank Marshall Davis – an African American ex-CP Party member who settled in Hawaii in the 70s. They all needed their clocks cleaned of course. But when I think of Obama’s proposal for (what Fox News terms) "a massive increase” in the minimum wage – it occurs to me maybe they weren’t all gone. It’s not in Obama's genes, but my anti-Leninist black President has a bit of Old Moor in him. (I’m reminded of his forthright response to the Republic Windows factory occupation in 2008.) I’m praying the whole body of the American people – workers in particular – make him show more of his inner Marx this term.
1 One Serious Timer followed up with me by emailing a pointed question: “what is the best account you've read of why so many Americans don't vote?” I was temptd to respond to him with another question: “Are you aware black turnout in 2012 was higher than 2008 and that it may it may have exceeded white turnout for the first time in history?”
2 Per “Rap Genius.”
3 Available on one disc from Criterion.
4 “The Saving Right to Reprove” by Benjamin DeMott in First of the Year: 2008. Transaction Publishers.
5 DeMott, 2008. Op. cit.
From February, 2013
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