The Glamour of Barbarism
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Back in the Bronze Age everyone was a barbarian. The fundamental theorem of barbarism is: women breed—men fight. Some corollaries are: female achievement consists in having as many babies as possible, preferably male, and is rewarded by respect in the community, improved status in the home and security in old age. Male achievement consists in beating up other males and having sex with as many women as possible, preferably impregnating them. Its reward is prestige, power and wealth, including a stable of concubines.
Male barbarism is glamorous. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s been glamorized in literature from age of the epic to the age or rap, or because we have an innate tendency to find it attractive, and so glamorize it. For whatever reason, it’s wrapped up with romantic notions of honor and courage and confers prestige.
In affluent countries, barbarism only survives in a few isolated pockets—primarily among the underclass in urban slums. There we can see the world Homer described close up, without the literary varnish, and most of us don’t like it. But we still glamorize the young barbarians, the contemporary epic heroes.
Commentators on the linked article, describing the shooting of a 15 year old black kid, agonize over how to explain the fact that it’s disproportionately black males who are involved in this kind of violence. Is it poverty, the absence of male “role models” in single-parent families, discrimination, rap lyrics, the welfare state? No one can figure out why it’s disproportionately blacks who engage in violence—lots of Asians are poor but they aren’t as likely to shoot one another; middle class white kids listen to rap and fanticize but don’t do these things. N4White writes:
My nephew's a white, 13 year old kid, born in Tottenham, but raised in white, middle class, suburban Hertfordshire. He's a big Hip-Hop fan and he and his mates record their own tracks at a mate's house. He was playing me stuff the other day and every track made references to him and his mates "shanking" or shooting people for lack of respect. Loads of references to dealing, banging on about the number of women they had on the go etc. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
He's a lovely kid, does well at school, has a very close and loving family etc but he seems to aspire to living on some sort of grim estate and a life of murder. When I asked him why him and his mates were rapping about all this stuff, he told me "...it's life. That's how life is." Eh? He's a school kid in Welwyn Garden City! He's no more likely to shoot someone than I am, but it does worry me that he thinks there's something inherently cool about the gang life... black kids at school are thought of as being hard and therefore cool regardless of what they're like as individuals, and a lot of white kids aspire to being like the black kids they know or see about - cos then folk will think they're cool. Unfortunately, from my own observations it would seem that a lot of those black kids aspire to the gang life.
Dead on, but I think it needs to be spelled out. This is racism: young black males are typecast as barbarian heroes, a role that confers prestige. 13-year-old white kids from middle class suburbs may fanticize but can’t actually play that role convincingly any more than I could play Othello. They just don’t look right. Moreover, most don’t have the opportunity and by the time they’re old enough to be seriously bad they recognize the opportunity costs.
But black kids “regardless of what they’re like as individuals” are typecast and can step right into the prestigious Bad Black Dude role. They don’t even have to make much effort: lots of people just assume they’re barbarians unless they make an significant effort to show they aren’t. Most don’t become barbarians, but some do—and they do because, unlike most middle class white kids, they can.
Hip-hop didn’t create that role. It only gives literary form to a pervasive cultural myth that casts young black males in the role of barbarian heroes. Censoring it won’t help. I don’t know what would. Of course poverty, discrimination and the disorganization of lower class life contribute, but there’s also the pervasiveness of cultural racism, that persists in spite of all the good will in the world. It isn’t only, or maybe even primarily hard racism—discrimination in employment and other practices that lock in poverty—though there’s certainly enough of that. It’s soft racism, the assumption that young black males will be “hard and therefore cool,” not just by aspiring adolescents but by white liberal adults who are at once scared and titillated, and who imagine that it would be “racist” to condemn young black males for playing the barbarian hero role into which they’re typecast by racist mythology.