Friday, February 16, 2007

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | This isn't about guns

The Glamour of Barbarism

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | This isn't about guns

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 "'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.


Andrew said...

Oh, I' sure censorship would help. It wouldn't abolish it, of course, but it would diminish the power of the stereotype. Why not? If we believe that propaganda works, which it often does, why should we not believe that the absence of propaganda has an effect, even if this absence is enforced by law?

H. E. said...

It's an empirical question like "does pornography cause men to mistreat women (or women to put up with mistreatment)? I'd guess not but would stand corrected if there were empirical evidence. Might help a little if the stuff weren't readily available but, considering the history of Prohibition in the US, the ongoing "War Against Drugs" and the whole raft of Puritan zero-tolerance, abstinence only and censorship programs it seems more likely it would drive the Hip-Hop business underground and make it all the more glamorous.

One thing that promoted this barbarian hero myth was the collaboration and support of white liberal adults for the past 40 years, starting with the radical chic reconstruction of the Black Panthers, a Chicago street gang, as a revolutionary political movement. We ate up identity politics, including the the Black Power movement, are still supporting cultural self-affirmation projects with money and publicity--and now agonizing because it turns out that the "cultures" we think of as defining minority group "authenticity" are violent, misogynistic, anti-semitic, homophobic, etc. Rap just pushes the envelope a little further--a reducio of the program.

One reason we fund edgy-but-harmless ethnic self-affirmation projects is because we want to buy off the barbarians. Another is the entrenched (and empirically falsified) dogma that barbarians behave badly because they have low self-esteem. So we push the idea that barbarity is beautiful to pump up self-esteem. Another is the role-model doctrine so we have kids read _The Autobiography of Malcolm X_ in school because he was a bad, angry kid who got religion when he was in jail and went straight--at least transformed himself from a petty criminal into a principled political militant. The thinking is that potential trouble-makers wouldn't identify with, e.g. Martin Luther King because he was too mainstream or with any white guy because "identity" is racially bound.

Thinking about what would work, maybe a propaganda campaign to de-glamorize the Bad Black Dude. Just a year or two of propaganda turned smoking from a symbol of adulthood and sophistication into a dirty habit. Might work.

thesheep said...

"Back in the Bronze Age everyone was a barbarian". Really? That would include Aristotle, Socrates and related Greek barbarians then? Or perhaps Hatchepsut, Ramses and team? Not mentioning the people who carved mysterious circles in the stones of north England... Of course, if you'd said Stone Age...

Sergio said...

To be sure, Aristotle et al could not be barbarians, by definition. Seeing as they were, you know, Greek.

But they weren't bronze agers, either. Think Gilgamesh.

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