Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Eminem, Trump, and the Coarsening of American Society

I use the AM radio news station as a morning alarm. I was jolted awake this morning by the newly-minted rap by Eminem, about Trump. It was ugly, inane, self-important, and hypocritical. But, mostly ugly. What a way to wake up!

There is so much to object to, in both form and content, in Marshall Mathers' anti-Trump tirade, it is difficult to know where to begin.  I suppose we can begin at the unseemliness of a white guy thinking he has to come to the rescue of black people.  How patronizing of him.  I mean, not to mention that his entire career as a rap "artist" has been built on a solid foundation of Cultural Appropriation.

There is the fact that much of his content is just factually false.  Donald Trump did not support the Klan -- he explicitly called them out as evil -- and they vilified him for it.  His other "facts" are wrong as well.

Then, too, there is the brutal ugliness of his "art".  He is angry.  He is angry that Donald Trump is President. Angry, one supposes, that rape-enabler Hillary Clinton is not.  And his anger pours out in guttural tones.  I suppose that if his goal is to incite a mob, his rap/rant may strike the correct tone.  But if he ever hopes to appeal to calm, rational, intelligent, people of peace, then it is absolutely wrong.

Compare Eminem's style with that of James Baldwin ("The Fire Next Time"), writing about the racial divide in America, clear back in 1963:
"But I cannot leave it at that; there is more to it than that. In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare. Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love. I remember, anyway, church suppers and outings, and, later, after I left the church, rent and waistline parties where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about “the man.” We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them—sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line,” as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing “I Feel So Good,” a really joyful song about a man who is on his way to the railroad station to meet his girl. She’s coming home. It is the singer’s incredibly moving exuberance that makes one realize how leaden the time must have been while she was gone. There is no guarantee that she will stay this time, either, as the singer clearly knows, and, in fact, she has not yet actually arrived. Tonight, or tomorrow, or within the next five minutes, he may very well be singing “Lonesome in My Bedroom,” or insisting, “Ain’t we, ain’t we, going to make it all right? Well, if we don’t today, we will tomorrow night.” White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves."

That is the way you communicate to rational people, not with the feral grunts of an Eminem.  James Baldwin is worth ten-thousand of Marshall Mathers, if not ten-million.  May God, in his infinite mercy, raise up a hundred or a thousand new James Baldwins for America to (Yes!  I dare say it!) intelligently rebuke White America, where necessary.

But I was going to write about the "coarsening of American society", wasn't I?  And I must make it clear at the outset that I understand President Trump to be as problematically coarse as Mr. Mathers.  The polite, civil American citizen has nothing to choose between these two.  I do not expect Donald Trump's inevitable tweet in response to Eminem's free-style hit job (which certainly must have already been tweeted?) to be any less coarse or self-serving than the rap which was its occasion.

What I do ask us to consider is this:  Why do we care so much about the opinions of wealthy, successful entertainers?  We have had multiple cases of motion picture actors testifying before Congress, because they played parts in movies related to the subject at hand.  We do this sort of thing all the time.  We elevate our entertainments to God status.  Would anyone even care what happens before the start of an NFL game had we not already deified sports in America?  To those who would qualify Eminem as some qualified cultural prophet, at the same time attacking Trump, I would say:

"Do you want an entertainer as President?  Because, that's how you get an entertainer as President!"

This is not a left-right thing, nor a black-white thing, nor a young-old thing.  It's all of us.  We have all, to one degree or another, idolized entertainment and entertainers.

Let us heed the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

"Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play."

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