Saturday, November 12, 2005

David Brooks and the Gangsta Jihad

There's nothing like riots by malcontent Muslim youth in France to motivate a conservative American cultural critic to attack the source for all the World's fall from grace, the music. New York Times staff grump David Brooks was alert enough to realize that the old mainstay, rock and roll, has become a firm and honored part of the entertainment mainstreams, a series of bad boy poses made by professional entertainers. There's nothing menacing about that, and hardly anything in the lyrics to scare anyone, let alone push millions to the ramparts for a day of State Smashing. Brooks finds a new wrinkle and places the blame for the violence in France on hip-hop, where Muslim youth have become enamored of the music and have commenced to make their own kind of gangsta rhyme-busting. Brooks cites his evidence, lyrics from tunes made a near decade ago, and assumes the worse of it all. He has a sure fire image that's bound to be discussed in the circular dread clubs that comprise the Moral Majority; this is a generation of young Arab men who model themselves equally after the likes of bin Ladin and Tupac Shakur.Brooks' principal problem, though, is that scant little of his rhetoric contains a fresh or original bit of perspective or hard thinking. His column, in fact, is something of a used car that keeps getting reconditioned and resold. It runs, yes, but it leaks something awful.

I would be impressed if David Brooks understood and spoke French well enough to comprehend the accelerated rhyme schemes and themes of Gallic gangatisms, but what he cites and objects to sounds like it were handed to him by a young, research assistant.

I can imagine getting a handful of representative CDs , each with notes and hastily translated lyrics. Brooks' shtick is to be the light weight curmudgeon, the junior league Mencken, the mildly offended cultural conservative, and here serves up boiler plate outrage. It comes down to the curse of the columnist who is all writerly finess wrapped around a small store of ideas; the same complaints keep getting used over again, except aimed on another target. Brooks wanted his own foreign menace to hector the readership with, a pop-cultural variant on the Avian Flu. A musical hybrid is going to fuel the destruction of the West.

I've no doubt that Brooks actually believes this and will be able to convince others who are likewise perennially nervous that the threat is real, not metaphorical. Bad sociology or no, we have to remember that the FBI maintained a file on John Lennon. Brooks may be a fool, but it would be a mistake to laugh at him and leave it at that. His kind of aww-shucks conservatism is the kind of low-radar propaganda that helps gets the incompetent and the morally stupid elected.

A lot of middle aged white guys have good ideas and insights about cultural trends and phenomenons originating from places other than Leave-It-To-Beaverland.
I don't buy into the notion that a writer has to be a member of the tribe, so to speak , in order to speak with intelligence about another social group's aesthetic creations; in fact, depending on the wit and resources of the writer, being on the "outside" can be an advantage, since the hypothetical writer in question wouldn't be burdened with investments of identity with the form he (or she) might be trying to write about. A white guy's observations on hip-hop culture, sympathetic but honest to a fault, has potential for being a fun, intriguing, and contentious read.

David Brooks, though, is not one of those white guys, and reminds me that there some benefits to being alive a certain number of years. In this case it's the developing a long memory for what has been presented as sweeping and definitive critiques of popular culture over the decades and recognizing a rewording , a reworking, a laborious rephrasing of standard issue scare-mongering.

Jazz had been demonized, excoriated, condemned, denounced as that element that was the proof of Society collapsing into an amoral morass, rock and roll has been routinely and continuously pilloried as the grossest affront and threat to Morals and Values. And now Brooks dusts off these rickety tropes from the storehouse of Alarmist Invective and frets about how the dark hoards are going to rap and rhyme their way through the Continent intent on nothing less that the destruction of the West. Really, really, this has been said before, it's a routine conservative talking point, and for all the warnings against the influence of nonwhite music on middle class kids that have been issued through the decades, we've muddled on, progressed, survived our own stupidity and to make lives for ourselves.

Brooks is a mouthpiece of a bankrupt set of assumptions, and I can't help notice the timing of his objections to French-Muslim rap; the surfeit of bad news for the White House and the incredibly low poll ratings among Americans, we have the Culture Wars being revved up one more time to send everyone into a panic and tizzy. This time, though, it's not likely to work, as Americans are asking each other why it is things have gotten worse for us with Bush in office. Somehow hip hop, no matter who performs it, doesn't strike one as a compelling reason for why things aren't going right.

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