- Intellectuals and a century of political hero worship William Anthony Hay, Modern Age
- John Stuart Mill: a not so secular saint James Smith, Los Angeles Review of Books
- Irving Babbitt’s history of ideas Simon Brown, JHIBlog
- Classical knowledge, lost & found: a history in seven cities David Abulafia, Literary Review
- Khalistan’s Deadly Shadow Terry Milewski, Quillette
- Yes to Europe: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain Daniel Hannan, Spectator
- Will there always be an England? Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer
- Translating the classics is harder than it sounds Colin Burrow, London Review of Books
- Between property and liability Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- National Health Service S.O.S. James Meek, London Review of Books
- Life lessons from reading Thucydides and hiking at night Miguel Monjardino, City Journal
- Blowing stuff up John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
Post Malone has been at the heart of some manufactured controversy recently. Complex and other hipster millennial outlets (x, y) have criticized his appropriation of braids, grills and slang (AAVE), as a white man who has recently made a name in hip hop.
I’m a college student in the Californian city with the highest rate of binge drinking (and a lot of partying). Just like rock n roll replaced jazz, hip hop has replaced rock as the club genre. And Post Malone is popular. I have never once heard someone complain about Post Malone in real life. The first time I heard his genre-fusing cooing was in a Mustang with my Mexican roommate and his girlfriend. I thought it was shit. He found “White Iverson” good enough to turn up the volume whenever it came on, and radio stations are notoriously abusive with new rap singles.
Last year you would see Latina and black classmates dancing to Post Malone at any of Chico’s backyard parties. No one thought he was culturally appropriating, or if they did, they didn’t care. His music sounds good to them. That’s what matters.
Post Malone has said some things in interviews and online that pissed off journalists and maybe a handful of other people with the time to be bothered. One of those things was the n-word, used once on Snapchat long ago. More recently, he stated that the modern hip hop landscape is sort of deficient in conscious rappers, rappers who will talk about “real shit,” and that “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop.” Some easily offended artists, particularly those who are listened to almost exclusively by white people — Lil B, Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples — responded angrily.
In Complex‘s piece, the author was upset with Post Malone for dumbing down the music scene. Funny. XXL, one of the largest hip hop news outlets, which runs (and endorses) a group of up-n-comers every year, had the most lyrically-inept roster in recent history for their 2017 edition: Ugly God, Madeintyo, A Boogie With A Hoodie, Playboi Carti, Kap G, then a few alrights, and a single prodigy who’s now off to prison. (Playboi Carti can’t even rap. He really can’t.) I’m sorry to inform Complex, but the focus of hip hop is about hedonism right now. That’s how it is. No one gives a damn about J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and Kendrick Lamar sold out on his last album.
Since gaining fame, Post Malone has worked with Quavo (of Migos) and 21 Savage. Why didn’t these artists call him out for stealing black culture? And if Post Malone is destroying the often-intelligent culture of hip hop by exclusively sampling stereotypes and gangster imagery… why does no one care that Migos and 21 Savage are doing the exact same thing? Post Malone has also worked with Kanye West, who, again, didn’t care that he is white and immersing himself in the culture. Kanye has a lot of rap clout. So if Post Malone gets Kanye’s approval, what sort of validity do the rest of us have?
Granted: racial slurs are a reasonable line to draw for white artists. But Post Malone apologized and he’s clearly not a racist. What more is there to say?
There is no standpoint epistemology that can be non-arbitrarily applied here. Many people would like to say that white fans are ruining hip hop or that hip hop has always been about criticizing white power structures or some other ahistorical, revisionist narrative. No.
Hip hop is not just a personal liberator. Hip hop is for everyone. Hip hip is a product of black culture but black culture is no monolith. The standards for hip hop change. The style changes. The message is not singular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Why? Kendrick’s own personal viewpoints on the struggle for black liberation align much closer with Tupac Shakur’s — the perspective that real change must start in black communities, and any problems with the police and white authorities are secondary or tertiary. Have the organizers at BLM listened to Kendrick’s work before good kid, m.A.A.d city? Did they loop “Alright” so much from To Pimp a Butterfly that they skipped “The Blacker the Berry”?
Do these people want to pretend that all old school hip hop flowed from the mouth of Gil Scott-Heron? Have they listened to “Rapper’s Delight”? What about 2 Live Crew? “If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip hop”: Post Malone was being provocative, clearly. But hip hop is no special fountain of consciousness and enlightenment. It’s got even more sex and drugs than does rock n roll. Travi$ Scott came on the scene just to rap about partying — and he’s still a fantastic, infinitely creative artist. We will see more and more of this, just like we always have.
To all of this, it might be replied that white people are stealing hip hop like they stole rock n roll before. But music is not zero-sum. One artist’s creation does not prevent another artist’s creation, and especially now, there is always billboard room for more. Action Bronson is, stylistically, a carbon copy of Ghostface Killah (I mean, the off-brand version). But Wu Tang’s spotlight is long gone. A new artist for a new generation is no loss for the old artist, no disrespect to Ghostface. And now, if we look to anticipate the emerging future for hip hop (à la Soundcloud etc.), the new (black-led) wave is directly sampling from historically white inputs: radio rock, nu metal, grunge. Or even East Asian anime influences.
The attacks on Post Malone and the like are part of a larger guerilla ideology. They are one aspect of the cleansing of hip hop (an outrageously politically incorrect discipline) in general. I was in a recent dispute with a female friend over the outro from a song I like, as it came on shuffle:
Well with a pimp we gotta keep pimpin to have a b–h and that’s what she yearns for. She yearns for the pimpin. And once you keep f–king with pimpin, that square is a trick. It turns it from a square to a trick. Why she gone lay with a trick? It’s the nastiest lowest form of a motherf–ker. Pimps do what they wanna do. Hoes do what they’re told. And squares does what they can. They just do what they can. You see what I’m sayin?
She thought it was misogynistic. Sure, yeah, it is. But it’s a sample from a movie and that movie is about life on the streets. And that’s what’s going on. Hip hop tells stories.
I haven’t seen “American Pimp,” from which the sample is cut. But most of us would recognize that the quote is referencing, knowingly or not, the Melian dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War from twenty four hundred years ago. It is 5th century B.C.E. and the Athenians are preparing for war against the Spartans. The Athenian army, under the direction of Cleomedes and Tisias, sends an expedition to the island Melos for conscription. The Melians, a small Spartan colony, would prefer to stay out of the conflict. In a classic statement of realist political philosophy, the Athenian representatives disregard abstract moral claims and tell the Melians, straight up: join the empire and fight for us, or be enslaved and massacred. There is only a question of morality between equals, and all that truly matters in politics is power:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The Melians decide not to give up their freedom, and bet on the odds that they will be aided by the Lacedaemonians, asking only to be left alone. The Athenians withdraw from the conference. The next winter, they siege the Melians into surrender then slaughter all the men and sell the women and children into slavery.
The point is: hip hop can rhyme about snorting cocaine off of a stripper and then reference classical Greek literature in the same song. We don’t really get that sort of postmodern syncretism in other genres. Hip hop is a bastion of creativity and subtlety as well as vulgarity and cruelty. Let’s hope it continues to surprise and offend us.
So let Amber Rose organize Slut Walks promoting sex positivity and feminism while her boyfriend 21 Savage raps about gang bangs and punching women in the face. Rap is for everyone and thus also the scumbags. Hip hop is a free speech fest, an untouched final frontier not yet contorted into submission by the thought police. What the people want is a good 808 and an album every couple months, not another stern voice to lecture them into moral and cultural conformity.
Hip hop has always exhibited the brute political realism of Thucydides’ History. More can be learned about the realities of American government from listening to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony than sitting in a political science class. Its willingness to stay down and dirty is its signature trademark. So cultural appeasement and cleanliness can have everything else: it can have our vocabulary, it can have our media, it can even be enforced by government for all I care. Just keep its indelicate hands off hip hop.
A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).
(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)
‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.
The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.
The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.
What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.
The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.
The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.
While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.
Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.
Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.
Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.
Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.
Next post, Milton on political institutions