NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC (2014) Is Bad For Hip-Hop

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Nas and others in photo from Time Is Illmatic.Nas? Twenty years later? It is, perhaps, an odd way for me to begin an essay these days. Later than what, you might ask? Yet there isn’t much- alack!- one could really add here, although I can certainly try. To be sure: those that know, know, and those that don’t will have a hard time understanding any of this. Does this conveniently seal my argument from critique? Maybe, but with the added stipulation that this argument is NOT what you think it is, and less (or more, depending on your perspective) than what so many in the rap world wish it might be. It is strange, then, to watch a film that deals with the artifacts of my childhood, in part because it reminds me that while I have grown, and thus re-created myself, the culture to which they still belong has not. If anything, hip-hop has become, if not more self-obsessed, then at least more arrogant and complacent about its place the musical hierarchy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice to say that it is the culture’s deep-seated territoriality which has made it so unwilling to address its own structural failures. This is a shame, really, since rap has always emphasized the need to push boundaries, even though it has also shut its most cherished precepts into a kind of echo chamber where so much that ought to be debated and up for grabs is treated as a foregone conclusion. One can find evidence of this pretty much anywhere, from lectures, to online message boards, to failed rappers opining on one another, but perhaps the most symbolic instance of this stagnation is One9’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which tackles hip-hop’s most revered album in a way that neither explains the music it ostensibly admires, nor presents any thoughts on moving forward, save for the same platitudes fans have been swallowing for over two decades, now.

Before I can properly analyze the film, however, I need to do something that- ironically- is almost heretical in the rap world, and pick apart the album, itself. And before I can do that, I must explain my premises in depth, lest I am accused of bad faith and questionable motives. But while I understand hip-hop’s resistance to perceived ‘outsiders’, it is also true that listening to Nas’s Illmatic, as a child, was one of the four or five most important turning points in my life, ranking among Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, and, later, the discovery of Dan Schneider’s essays on Cosmoetica, as these pivots laid the intellectual groundwork for so much of what I do today. Yet even as I have rejected some of my earlier influences, I can’t deny that their core fundamentals have stuck, and that rap music especially, and Illmatic, specifically, … Continue reading →

WAR ON WORDS: Why Race Is NOT A Social Construct

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A group of race-diverse people from Asia

Image via Wikipedia

Over the last few decades, a strange idea has taken root that I am in fact quite sympathetic to, at least in spirit. Now, the view of race as a social construct is not necessarily wrong, depending on what one means by ‘race’, and especially by ‘social construct’. Yet as I’ve proposed elsewhere, scientists are often poor communicators, and the reality of what they’re arguing can be muddied by everything from word choice to an inability to meaningfully parse definitions. Usually, the science, itself, is not at fault. It is really the packaging of science to an even less sophisticated audience that’s at issue, particularly when it deals with a highly politicized topic whose buzzwords are valued over nuance and hard data. No, race is not a social construct, but what does this mean, exactly? Moreover, what does it mean politically? Finally, what should it mean for liberals who are uncomfortable with what is, at bottom, a simple misunderstanding of their own principles?

Prior to deconstructing all this, let us look at the key claims, and – perhaps even more importantly – how these claims get articulated. The position of the American Anthropological Association is clear- race’s primary importance is social rather than biological. The issue, however, is that one can construe any number of sentences, within, as either attesting to or rejecting the existence of race as a taxonomic category. This is unfortunate, and many political activists have latched on to the statement as ‘proof’ that race is biologically meaningless. Others, like this study from 2012, note that the sentence “No races exist now or ever did” found only 17% agreement among scientists 40 years ago, with 53% agreeing today. Yet even 53% is still a far cry from ideological certainty on the Left about what is, in essence, a semantic question whose answer might very well change based on the conceptual categories the word calls to mind.

In ‘pop’ science, writers often lay out some of the most common objections to race, which, while on one level quite valid, are also quite incomplete. There is much to comb through (most of it not worth the time), but I’ve distilled them into six basic arguments laid out in ascending order of correctness. If anyone gets tripped up by my handling of earlier points, read all of my responses to them, first, to get a better sense of the science:

1. There is no race gene, which means the genetic underpinnings of race are quite tenuous

The first part of this statement is obvious, and undeniable. There is no ‘race’ gene because race is not any one thing. Rather, it is a genetic complex which encompasses everything from skin color, to disease propensity/resistance, to facial proportions, to the distribution of sweat glands, hair color, and more. No, you cannot simply use one marker for determining race and ancestry, but the more genetic markers are used, the greater the likelihood (in fact, it is … Continue reading →

Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” (2017) Is NOT Exploitation

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Hannah tries out for Casting JonBenetWatching Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is a frustrating experience, but not for the reasons a film might typically elicit such a response. Yes, it has its merits and demerits, but so do many other works of art. No, one doesn’t glean many new facts about an already supersaturated bit of Americana, but that is a poor standard by which to judge a film, particularly an idea-driven documentary such as this. Rather, it is that Green’s strategy is so often brilliant that any future creative work on the JonBenet murder will in some way need to reference and transcend her own. Unfortunately, this also means that the film’s primary conceit can never be used again, even though it might be the most logical approach to what has now become a collective superstition: that there is an answer for everything, and that every question is valid, every concern justifiable. If anything, Casting JonBenet suggests that this is not so, even as it fails to obey its own rules and follow its best avenues to something greater.

Prior to analyzing the film, however, let us briefly discuss the event on which it’s based. On December 26th, 1996, child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and sexually abused in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. A few hours earlier, a mysterious ransom note alerted the Ramseys to JonBenet’s disappearance, as they contacted friends, relatives, and the police despite the alleged kidnappers’ warnings. Although parents John and Patsy Ramsey were first suspected in the murder, a rather sloppy investigation turned up no evidence of their involvement, with DNA testing ultimately exonerating both. This didn’t stop speculation, however, fueled not only by their supposedly ‘odd’ behavior, but confounding variables like the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006, as well as revelations of a troubled home life and Burke’s – JonBenet’s brother – ‘smiling’ interview late last year. Today, theories range from the police’s intruder explanation, to Patsy’s alleged envy and murder of her daughter, and even suggestions that Burke struck and killed his sister with the ransom note forged by the parents as a cover.

A shot of chairs in Casting JonBenet.

The true story, of course, is irrelevant to the myth: the very thing Casting JonBenet tackles by way of its conceits. Thus, I will not give my own views on the case, but simply allow the work speak for itself, and let others’ biases reveal themselves. The film opens with a wonderful shot of some empty chairs soon filled by dolled-up girls. All are auditioning for the role of the murdered girl, as one of them (in a rather nice touch) awkwardly asks whether the viewer knows who killed JonBenet. In fact, the very lack of gravitas helps zero-in on something that’s already been long pontificated over, with a half-dozen or so kids implying they could have been victims, too, without Green quite fleshing out the ‘what’ nor exploiting the viewer’s empathy. It is all a touch too abaxial for such … Continue reading →

Why Ben Shapiro Is A Total Fraud

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Image via Gage Skidmore.

[Update 5/8/2017: Given that there have been rumblings of a ‘debate’, Ben Shapiro is invited, below, to a Skype/phone debate with Dan Schneider as moderator. Alternatively, he is free to respond to this piece in writing as he sees fit, which would allow us to formulate our thoughts and cross-check each other’s references — Shapiro’s biggest foible and point of dishonesty. Note that I do not know whether Shapiro even knows of this article, nor will I reach out to him. I am leaving this message up due to the number of e-mails requesting some sort of ‘action’.]

A couple of weeks ago, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro delivered a Reddit AMA (‘Ask Me Anything’) on r/politics, a left-leaning subreddit which – to Shapiro’s credit – has never been a fan of his work. Yet as a liberal, myself, I’ve nonetheless found common ground with a number of Shapiro’s views, ranging from his critique of the Left’s attacks on free speech, to their over-use of emotion in what ought to be cold and detached argument, to the futility of identity politics, liberal intolerance, and – of course – a decades-old embrace of Third Wave feminism as a rational response to gender issues. No, r/politics isn’t THAT far left, but when I saw the AMA announcement, I nonetheless respected Ben Shapiro’s willingness to engage in what can be a notoriously unforgiving format with a group of people unsympathetic to his views. I expected, therefore, to see a little give-and-take, some dumb, bait-y questions, but also a few good ones, too, that he was perhaps not used to. Naturally, these would be questions that Shapiro – given his ‘attack-dog’ reputation – would of course answer. More, he would answer them in depth, after having time to think and formulate his responses, if only to prove once and for all that he is not the monster that so many claim he is, but might very well be the Right’s biggest intellectual star.

Well, I was wrong, to put it mildly. I was unfamiliar with much of Ben Shapiro’s work prior to his AMA, but, frankly, I am confused why he even agreed to the format in the first place, given how lazy and self-serving his answers are. He intentionally avoids the more difficult questions, goofs off on what he DOES choose to tackle, and refuses to meaningfully engage in any follow-ups despite others’ prodding. Not exactly the hallmark of a probing and far-ranging mind. Either Shapiro just doesn’t give a damn, and tried to use Reddit for publicity rather than genuine engagement, or he is as intellectually vapid as his worst critics suggest. More, despite a well-executed AMA serving as a kind of précis for one’s worldview, I cannot even use the bulk of Shapiro’s comments to string together anything coherent on that front, and must dig into his articles and videos in order to elaborate on the scant piffle he does provide. … Continue reading →

The Russian Hacks Are Distracting You From The Real Problem

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Russian soldiers in Soviet uniform
One of the most disturbing outcomes of this election has nothing to do with who was elected. It has nothing to do with who could have been elected, and nothing to do with the policies — rarely discussed now — that the electorate presumably fears. No, what’s alarming today is how quickly both sides of the Trump/Clinton divide seem to have coalesced around a losing strategy, assuring themselves of things that simply are not so at the expense of their own futures. It’s a gamble that is often made for a quick but quickly-dissolving advantage, and one that empowers anyone cynical enough to game it. And it just so happens that, this year, the cynic won, as both his critics and supporters wallow in distractions to take attention away from their own nullification.

There’s a lot to be said about this, but a few examples should suffice. On Donald Trump’s side, for instance, voters have already signaled that they’re willing to give him a free pass as Trump backs down from key campaign promises, laughably insisting on a ‘mandate’ to govern all the while denying even the possibility of Russian cyberattacks meant to throw the election in Trump’s favor. Meanwhile, Trump himself has been gas-lighting his own base for several weeks now, slowly inoculating them with positions — gay marriage, the Iran deal — they have in fact voted against. And on Hillary’s side, you have an outright denial of her worst flaws as Democrats go on to blame everything from sexism to James Comey for last month’s defeat, with the Russian hacks serving as the latest diversion from what, in hindsight, ought to have been a rote and predictable outcome.

In other words, neither side — as usual — really cares to see what’s going on. Conservatives deride liberals for their political correctness and identity politics, yet engage in much the same. Today, they’re arguing from personal insecurity, and assume that granting the obvious — such as Russia’s hacks — will erode support for their own side. Of course, they are right to worry, given Trump’s ever-widening gap in the popular vote and the sense that he’ll always be just one lawsuit away from impeachment: facts which cannot be undone no matter what Trump does, even if — and this is a big if — he ends up doing some good. But while the Republican Party slowly implodes, Democrats are trying to reassert themselves in the wrong way, courting the same donor money that failed them in 2016 while insisting on the same leadership. And although Democrats feign outrage at Russia’s behavior, they are in fact using these events to justify their own refusal to adopt the progressive agenda both sides thought they voted for. Ironically, Russia has become the party’s savior, even as the Democrats guarantee more losses in the future by not honestly dealing with their own flaws.

As a result, both parties have whipped up hysteria to unprecedented levels both before and after … Continue reading →