Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Ghettoization of America

When did this ridiculous notion that it was cool to grow up impoverished and fighting for your life everyday take hold of the American consciousness? Okay, it has always been cool in America to take fashion, style, speech and musical cues from the underclass because neccessity, or in this case poverty, has always been the mother of invention. The inability of poor teenagers in the ghetto to buy the latest designs from the runways in Paris has always led them to be amazingly creative with what they are able to afford, often leading to fashions that put those same Paris runways to shame. This was picked up on long ago and now Paris has been copying Harlem fashions for decades. The need for diversion, entertainment, and self-expression has also led to amazing innovations in music and dance from Blues to Jazz to Rock n' Roll to R&B and Hip-hop which has in turn influenced art, fashion, and language around the world. I get that. The inherent hipness of the underclass has never been in doubt. What I don't get is the desire to immitate the negative aspects of the ghetto. When did drugs and crime become hip?

If I was a conspiracy theorist it would be easy for me to look at the way the music and entertainment industry seized on the image of the "Black Gangsta" and so-called "Gangsta Rap" and promoted the hell out of it until twenty years later "Black" and "Gangsta" (or more troubling "Black" and "Nigga") have almost become synonymous in the minds of most Americans. I could look at how the rise of socially and politically conscious "Afro-centric" hip-hop was nullified by gangsta rap and who it was pushing this poison the hardest and how it mirrors J. Edgar Hoover's "Black Messiah Program" and see a concerted effort to divide the Black community. For those unfamiliar with the Black Messiah program it was J. Edgar Hoover's plan for "...preventing the rise of another Black Messiah to galvanize and unify the Black community like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King." In a nutshell his plan was to prevent a Black leader from unifying the African American community by creating their own Black Messiah with a counter message to divide Black people's opinions. So, for Chuck D. there was Eazy E. When KRS One called for education and an end to black on black crime, Niggaz With Attitude called for the youth to get high and sell drugs as a way to snatch a piece of the American Pie. When groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Klan, and even Arrested Development were calling for a return to Afro-centric pride, artists like Snoop Doggy Dog and Ghetto Boyz countered with "Get high, sell drugs, smack hoes, and kill any nigga that stands in your way." If Hoover was still alive I would have been certain that those early gangsta rappers were on the FBI's payroll. Was George Bush smart enough to mastermind a plot this insidious? I have no idea. I'll have to wait until all the files from the late eighties and early nineties are declassified to know for sure. All I know is that with the fall of communism America was in desperate need of a new paper tiger to justify all those huge government expenditures and the young Black male stepped up to the plate awfully quick. Now instead of nukes and multi-million dollar Apache helicopters we spent it on prisons, cops, and military hardware for the local police. But if this glamorization of drugs and violence isn't some government plot to keep the Black man in check than what is it?

I'm sure the increased emphasis on gun violence that has resulted from gangsta rap hasn't hurt the NRA much. If you're Black it's almost a prerequisite that you must own a gun now. How else are you supposed to keep it real? The image of gun-toting Black teens has scared all those white liberals who had previously been campaigning hard for Civil Rights into die-hard conservatives lobbying for increased police presence in the ghetto, loosening of the miranda laws, more prisons, and the impending death of Affirmative Action. No more "Whitey Guilt" now that niggas are killing each other. I'm sure the KKK couldn't be happier. The real curiosity is why Black people have fallen for it so easily and why the rest of America is so eager to emulate us.

Having been cut off from our roots in Africa for more than two centuries, Black people have long been in search of an identity. Calling us African Americans is a joke since most of us have less ties to Africa than White South Africans. In fact, if you wanted to get the African perspective on an issue you'd be better off going to a White person who's been raised in Africa than a Black person whose ancestors were brought to America on slave ships centuries ago. So, we have struggled to create new identities for ourselves. This struggle has resulted in Jazz, Blues, Rock n' Roll, and now Hip-hop. We are struggling to define ourselves by what we see around us everyday. Most Black Americans grow up surrounded by poverty and crime so inevitably we have come to identify ourselves by these things. America's fascination with sex and violence made it easy for the media to exploit this image and sell it to America in books, movies, and music videos, making millions off what should be considered an American trajedy. Instead of hiding our dark underbelly we flaunt it proudly for the world to see. Niggaz With Attitude!

I remember driving in a cab in Thailand on my way to a Thai boxing match at Lumpini Stadium. The cab driver was fascinated by the fact that me and my friend were both Thai boxers since we were both considerably larger than any Muay Thai fighters he'd probably ever seen. He began fiddling with the radio, finally settling on a station that played love songs, before asking us what we wanted to listen to.

My friend Kit replied, "This is fine for me. Wrath likes that Gangsta rap stuff."

"What's Gangsta rap?"

"You don't know what gangsta rap is?" I asked.

Kit piped in, "It's music about killing people."

The guy looked amazed.

"They make music about killing people?"

He looked over at me like I was some sort of savage.

"Yeah, I just use it to get me hyped up before a fight. It helps fire me up before I go in the ring."

"What kind of music did you listen to when you were fighting?" Kit asked.

The cab driver was a retired Thai boxer as well.

"I listened to this. All Thai boxers listen to love music."

As we drove along I started thinking about how ridiculous Black people must sound to the rest of the world, making music about killing ourselves, selling drugs to each other, pimping and exploiting our own women, and otherwise disrespecting ourselves, instead of making music about fighting the corporate power structure or the government, or empowering the Black community through education and economic enterprise. We must look like idiots. We are truly a lost people.

The funny thing to me is how other cultures have co-opted this gangsta image. I remember the first time I went to San Francisco and saw Fillipino gangs wearing Raiders jackets, "Loce" style sunglasses, cornrolls, Afros, and with their jeans sagging down around their ankles. I thought I was going to hurt something I laughed so hard. The first time I saw a white boy dressed like that and talking slang like he had been raised in East Oakland next door to Too-Short and Tupac instead of some suburb somewhere where he no doubt had been, I wanted to slap the shit out of him. When I heard about white gangs in Little Rock Arkansas imitating LA gang members, selling drugs and shooting each other, I laughed my ass off again. At first I thought that if the KKK had masterminded the whole gangsta thing then it had backfired. Then I realized that this would only strengthen their case that we had to separate the races or risk being "contaminated". It would strengthen the conservatives'case that America was going to hell in a handbag and we needed a return to "Traditional family values". It would strengthen the NRA's case that "If we outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns." It would strengthen the governments' case that they needed more money and a loosening of citizens rights that protected them from such things as illegal search and seizure because now your next door neighbor might be one of these gangstas. It would sell millions of records to a growing market of consumers who no longer cared whether or not you can play an instrument, meaning that record companies no longer need to incur the expense of an entire band, but could sign one solo artist and put him in the studio with a keyboard, a drum machine, and a sampler. Mo' money.

So who is responsible for the ghettoization of America? Is it a government plot? A political power play? A racist masterplan? A corporate marketing scheme? Or just the misguided attempt of a displaced, disenfranchised, miseducated, desperate people searching for some way to belong, some way to prosper, some way to accomplish what every light complexioned race that has come to America has accomplished in a few generations, acceptance and assimilation, some way to get what every other culture in the world has, a sense of who we are and what we are, a true identity? Which is it? It is probably a little of all of this. Strangely enough, the idea that the gangsta image might just be a last desperate grasp for a Black cultural identity disturbs me more than any conspiracy theory. That's truly sad if drug dealing and pimping is the best we could come up with. If the best word Black people can come up with to describe themselves is "Nigga" than these niggas are crazy. Martin Luther King would shoot himself if he were alive. But in America, even an identity as negative, as shameful and self-destructive as "gangsta" is quickly taken from us and co-opted by other races. Just as Blues and Jazz, which were once seen as the very essence of Blackness, are now played and enjoyed by primarily white artists and audiences, so too will artists like Eminem, Bubba Sparks, and Paul Wall eventually become the majority in Hip-Hop. And as much as I love this music of ours, I will not mourn the pasing of it and its entire image of violence and materialism. This is one piece of Black culture America is welcome to.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Parallel Evolution of Society and Morality

Ethical relativity versus Ethical absolutism. This is a long standing argument in philosophical circles. Is there an absolute moral code? The answer given even a casual look at history and nature would seem to be obviously in the negative yet there are still those who believe. My question to those who continue to believe in an absolute moral code would have to be what good is an absolute moral code that exerts little or no influence in the world, one that can be stretched, broken, or ignored at will, one that remains hidden from most? What does it mean to say there is an absolute moral code that each time, place and culture interprets and practices differently and often oppositely?

"There is an absolute moral code the slave traders along with the bible, the Catholic and Protestant church, the average Joe on the street, and most of the known world at that time were simply unaware of it and so they were breaking it without knowing it."

"So then where does this moral code exist? Where does it come from?"

"It comes from nature."

"But then why is it that though we have come to understand that slavery is wrong animals like ants and bees capture and enslave other ants and bees? If it was absolute wouldn't it apply to all animals most particularly animals that are completely instinctual?"

"Well...It comes from God."

"Didn't God create ants and bees?"

"Yeah, but this only applies to humans because they have freewill and are intelligent."

"Which God then because the bible actually condones and even encourages certain types of slavery and almost every culture in the world practiced slavery at one time or another and most of them justified it with religion."

"They were just reading it wrong. They were misinterpreting it."

"Then why does the bible describe the ways in which slaves can be acquired? They may be purchased (Leviticus 25:44-46), captured in war (Numbers 31:32-35; Deuteronomy 21:10-14), enslaved as punishment for theft (Exodus 22:1-3), or enslaved to pay off debts (Leviticus 25:39; Exodus 21:7). The bible says it's okay to beat slaves (Exodus 21:20-27). It does make it a sin to kill a slave. If he murdered his slave, he was executed (Exodus 21:20). On the other hand, if the slave survived a beating and died a day or two later, there was no punishment (Exodus 21:21. Where's the morality in that? So were slave traders amoral or just following the morality of the times?"

"Yes but it also says that you can't kidnap someone and make a slave out of them or you will be put to death."

"True, so the slaves that the bible says that it's okay to buy, where do they come from? The first African slaves brought to America were captured in inter-tribal wars and then sold to the Europeans who later encouraged these wars in order to keep the slave trade going, which according to the bible made it all nice and legal. Some of the tribal wars fanned during the slave trade in order to keep Europe with a fresh supply of slaves continue to this day. But according to the bible that's okay."

"Well, that's the King James Version. My God is the God of love."

"Okay, then where is this morality to be found? In what version?"


What sense does this make? Is it just me or does that just completely fly in the face of reason? Let me give you a more reasonable explanation of morality.

I used the slave trade because that was the example my philosophy professor (who was an ethical absolutist)used in our discussion to try to elicit an emotional response in hopes of swaying my opinion. In fact, it's the example that always gets thrown at me when this discussion comes up. I wonder if it has anything to do with me being Black? Nah. Okay, so let me answer the question of whether the slave traders were amoral or whether they were perfectly moral at that time when morals were different.

"The slave traders were amoral."

Moral opinion was different morality was the same. What does that mean? It means that just because a majority of people believed it was okay to enslave Africans does not mean it was actually ethical to do so anymore than the fact that a majority of people believed that the earth was flat and the planets revolved around it made it so. Logic was the same then as it is now and the fact that some people behaved illogically does not mean it was logical to own slaves. The damage the slave trade caused in society far outweighed any benefits making it illogical for anyone to have ever practiced slavery.

Promoting a society in which one person is free to capture, enslave, abuse, sell-off the loved ones and family members of another human being is illogical because it creates an environment in which the same thing might someday be done to you. Further more, societies benefit from mutual cooperation towards mutual goals with mutual benefits. Societies in which one race or class of people enjoy a parasitic relationship benefiting from the labor of another race or class of people without reciprocating are always in a state of unrest with the threat of revolution and rebellion ever present. That threat still existed in this country almost two hundred years after the slaves were freed.

To make it even clearer, let's look at how the slave trade devastated not only Africa, which is obvious, but America as well. Free labor meant no jobs for poor whites creating increased poverty here in America. It meant unrest in the families of slaveholders whose wives and children often played with and were served by light-skinned slaves who were they're half-sisters and half-brothers or stepchildren but whom were still slaves, constant reminders of the slaveholder's infidelities. The wives of slaveholders were notoriously cruel to the house slaves for this reason and I can't imagine they were much kinder to their adulterous husbands. The threat of slave revolts was a constant fear and many revolts did occur resulting in countless deaths including the slaveholders and their families.

Slavery was wrong because there was a better way that would not have lead to so much pain and suffering, bloodshed, and fear, which would not have set two races against one another for centuries. Mutual cooperation has always been the foundation of a successful society. Minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure is the goal of every sentient creature. Slavery created such pains as to ultimately negate any pleasure derived from it both for society and the individual. The child who had to learn to shut off their natural empathy towards a fellow human being when dealing with slaves went through tremendous turmoil, what type of parent would want to create such a monster? How do you think such a child behaved towards the rest of society once it learned how to suppress their sympathy, once they learned that it was okay to prey on other human beings?

Slavery ultimately resulted in war in which "brother fought brother" and hundreds of thousands died and the legacy of slavery can be seen in ghettos all across this country. So was it logical? I don't think anyone would argue that it was. But society had to evolve to recognize it. The plight of homosexuals in modern society is a perfect example of this evolution. The bible says homosexuality is a sin. Society has condemned it for at least a couple centuries in this country. But as society evolves men of reason have come to understand that limiting the rights of homosexuals threatens the rights of us all. Allowing any human beings to be oppressed for any reason makes the rights of all human beings less certain and secure. Our morality is evolving beyond the bible and beyond human prejudice. Just as our morality evolved to include women as our equals rather than our property so now it is evolving again.

As I said on a thread on another board,"The universal standard [The ethical absolutist] seeks is simply the greatest good for the greatest number and that standard does change as the means to that end evolve through technology and greater knowledge and understanding. [Whether man is an accident] or designed by an egomaniac for his own aggrandizement, this standard remains the same. It is merely the means to that end that has undergone some trial and error adjustments." And we are still in the process of trial and error. This process has been fettered however by our need to hold onto traditional values and prejudices even when our increased knowledge and understanding should have allowed us to outgrow them. It has also been impeded by the immediate gratification mentality of those in need which has been encouraged and exploited by the corporate kingpins. This "I gotta get mine" mentality that capitalism promotes has created a type of selfish individualism that has stunted society's growth. Still, societal ethics continue to evolve and with it the moral conscious of the world. I too have a dream, that my children will live in a world where everyone understands that their success and happiness is directly dependent on the success and happiness of every other member of society and that their children will understand that their success and happiness can only be secured once the success and happiness of all the citizens of the world has been secured. In a predatorial society we all live under the threat of one day being swallowed by a larger predator.