Countercultural hegemony: bad or good?

This post has a facetious title, but when two Times op-ed writers use the same idea to support opposing arguments in the span of two weeks, we need guidance and we need it fast. OTD has been mulling this one over for a while, and the trigger went unfingered because it seemed like a moot point, and because we didn't really have a point to make, just a question to ask. At least until the following news item came over the wires as we were shuffling off for the long Thanksgiving weekend, and then it seemed like a question worth asking.
"[R]appers and rap groups in France are facing legal action after being accused by lawmakers of inciting the country’s riots through their raps. 200 lawmakers signed a petition on Wednesday (Nov. 23) that was co-signed by 152 Deputies and 49 Senators and presented to Justice Minister Pascal Clement, singling out seven rappers/groups. The rap groups could face legal action and are specifically accused of inciting racism and hatred. The petitions sponsor, Francois Grosdidier, claims rap music conditions listeners who could become violent in the future."

--, November 23

Let OTD preface the following excerpts with the admission that we know very little about French hip-hop. Seriously, like what we know about contemporary French rap is limited to that silly Dipset album and the buzz about and mixtape from the (mostly) white, (mostly) goofy, Dipset-loving French rappers TTC, who reached the shores of alt-newspaperland in September. The ones the Voice's young bloggist sniffed and destroyed: "They might be huge pop stars in France, but I doubt it; they seem more likely to be the sort of group that's a hipster curio all over the world, a gift from God to cultural studies undergrads writing thesis papers about the globalization of pop culture." [read the full review]

Then on November 10, the New York Times's conservative columnist David Brooks set off a mini-meme when he blamed French rioting on American hip-hop, thereby infuriating rap fans with blogs everywhere. Just one problem: Brooks may be ignorant, but he's not stupid, so a bit of caution is required in responding to his rhetoric. A couple of his paragraphs sounded like they could almost (ALMOST, he said) have come out of, well, a Fader piece on TTC, or a pandering Rolling Stone piece on Rage Against the Machine going to Cuba, or (redundant, sure) a cultural studies undergrad writing a thesis paper about the globalization of pop culture:
"American ghetto life, at least as portrayed in rap videos, now defines for the young, poor and disaffected what it means to be oppressed. Gangsta resistance is the most compelling model for how to rebel against that oppression. If you want to stand up and fight The Man, the Notorious B.I.G. shows the way.This is a reminder that for all the talk about American cultural hegemony, American countercultural hegemony has always been more powerful. America's rebellious countercultural heroes exert more influence around the world than the clean establishment images from Disney and McDonald's. This is our final insult to the anti-Americans; we define how to be anti-American, and the foreigners who attack us are reduced to borrowing our own clichés." [read the full Brooks piece]

Countercultural hegemony may already be a well-worn cliche, but the point is that it's usually a cliche used for -- well, for lack of a better phrase, for good. Brooks is using what sounds like a familiar boast about hip-hop being a worldwide music (see -- oh, Lord, I'm gonna say it, please stop me -- M.I.A.), and attempting to flip it into yet another political liability for rap music.

November 10, 6:45 pm: Slate's Jody Rosen delivers what everyone takes to be the final word in blowing Brooks' argument to smithereens, including the revelation that Brooks appeared to lift examples for his argument from a Weekly Standard piece dating from September, just after the London subway bombings -- an article which, much like Brooks's Times column, tries to brand minority French rappers as "racists" and link them to a worldwide plague of radical Islamists (read: suicidal terrorists). But when Rosen dismisses Brooks's critique of rap's "global hegemony" as simply a remix of the late-'80s Ice-T/Time Warner/William Bennett culture wars -- "Picture Brooks, in the heady weeks after the Los Angeles riots, frustrated that he couldn't shoehorn his gangsta-rap riff into a piece on Andrew Morton's Princess Diana biography. It's been sitting in a desk drawer ever since, just waiting for some inner-city unrest to come along. Et voilà" -- I started getting itchy. Because there is some geniune ambivalence here. We want to refute the idea that hip-hop is responsible for French riots. What we don't need to argue is that hip-hop IS NOT the music of global resistance, at least sometimes . . . uh, right? (The problem being that, well, of course some French rap groups are influenced by American hip-hop's gangster style -- maybe even, as Slate pointed out, 13-year-old gangster style. But do we have to refute hip-hop's global reach in order to argue, "Hey, by the way, So Fucking What?" Which brings us to Times op-ed employee number two, and a piece that was widely overlooked in this context:
The food court at Jaam-e Jam, an upscale shopping mall in north Tehran, looks like a shopping-mall food court anywhere, with its colorful plastic chairs attached to glass-topped tables. An array of counters sell fast food that is billed as Mexican or Italian but invariably tastes more or less Persian. Nevertheless, it is one of the more expensive places to eat in Tehran, and it is a gathering spot for fashionable Iranian girls, who come in their skimpiest hijabs. I saw young women wearing three-quarter-length sleeves, cropped pants, and high-heeled sandals. One young woman had a sequinned purse and a tight denim manteau that had jeans-style pockets on the backside.

A man who asked to be identified as Arash, a twenty-five-year-old from an upper-middle-class family, was trying to help me identify “Javads”—a common male name that has become derisive slang among Iranian youth for people who, as Arash put it, “think they’re very modern and very cool and great but are not.”

“Five years ago, the sure sign of a Javad was driving a Nissan Maxima,” he explained. “In non-Javad communities, that was a sign that your dad was a motherfucker who had become very rich after the revolution, but who was from a
poor-culture family.” Today, with the relaxing of the dress codes, Iran’s nouveaux riches are harder to spot, but Arash offered some additional examples: “A girl who has some enormous makeup that’s unnecessary for the situation, high heels, but she’s a virgin and has no boyfriend and wants an arranged marriage. Or a person who looks very modern but can’t speak English, and who likes Farsi music from Los Angeles.”

For Arash, who has never been to the United States, being truly modern was all about being American. Born the year after the revolution, he speaks profane but excellent English, littered with slang he has gleaned from contraband hip-hop. The rappers 50 Cent and The Game surely never imagined that the line “the underdog’s on top,” from “Hate It or Love It,” a gleeful rap about their own success, would capture the frustration of the onetime Iranian élite under the rule of backward mullahs. But, to Arash, American hip-hop is rich with Iranian social criticism.

-- From "Fugitives: Young Iranians confront the collapse of the reform movement," written by Times op-ed page editor Laura Secor in the New Yorker, November 21, 2005.
It's worth noting that Secor's article is linked as -- presumably -- recommended reading on the web site of the Committee on the Present Danger (a recently-resurrected neo-con non-profit that used to do commie-busting and is now doing freelance anti-terrorism propoganda, with the assistance of a guy who did some legal work for a Nazi sympathizer/friend of Saddam.) Point being: the conservatives can't decide if hip-hop's cultural hegemony is a good thing for America (as it is clearly portrayed in Secor's piece: in another excerpt, Arash tells Secor, "I’d give my life for America, but not for Iran") or good for the terrorists (as is strongly suggested in Brooks's piece). So the question isn't so much which is right or wrong, as it is a question to hip-hop fans and scholars and all-around smart people (you know who you are): can someone on our side draw up a talking-points memo? It's becoming increasingly clear they've got one across the aisle, even if it doesn't exactly make a whole lot of sense.
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