Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Slapping Smugness, In Two Parts: Part B - Response To PC

In response to the quote at the end of the Steyn article referenced in the post below, Part A of the Slapping Smugness Special, PC invites comment on the 'local implication of Steyn's point: how Apirana Ngata, for example, might have regarded the 'warrior culture' so prized by the Maoridom of today.'

PC is asking us to consider a number of things:
  • What is Steyn's point?
  • What is the 'warrior culture' prized by Maori to which PC refers?
  • What would Sir Apirana Ngata actually have thought?

To address these in turn - Steyn's point was exhaustively covered in the post below. As I see it, Steyn seeks to conceptualise 'black culture' as destructive and centred around the negative influence of gangster rap, to the exclusion of any number of positive things contained within it. It seems that his overarching goal is to make an argument for the assimilation of black culture into the dominant white paradigm in America. He makes an argument for the 'golden days of yore' which have now been sullied by modern black music.

The 'warrior culture' prized by Maori certainly is a central part of Maori culture. It is clear that PC wishes us to see 'warrior culture' as something negative, something like 'black culture' has become in Steyn's eyes. Perhaps he sees 'warrior culture' as 'behaviour like the characters in "Once Were Warriors"' or maybe 'behaviour like the Kahui family,' or even 'behaviour like South Auckland gangs'.

Is this a fair characterisation of the 'warrior culture' that is truly prized by Maori? I think not - I think that the 'warrior culture' prized by Maori has more to do with pride, honour, and courage. The traditions associated with the 'warrior culture' - haka, creation and use of taiaha and mere, down to marae protocol where manuhiri are challenged before being allowed on are all integral strands in a rich cultural tapestry. It is these positive, beneficial attributes that constitute the 'warrior culture' which Maori are rightly proud of.

The question has to be asked what PC originally meant by 'warrior culture'.

Finally, who knows what Sir Apirana Ngata would have thought upon seeing today's modern world, but no doubt he would be heartened to see Maori culture to have regained so many of the traditions which the colonial process tried so ruthlessly to drum out of existence. He would be thrilled to see the resurgence of carving, weaving, of the Maori language, the gathering of oral histories to ensure that what remains now is not lost to the future. He would be very happy, I imagine, to see the way that Maori culture has come back from the brink and asserted itself in the very opposite of what Steyn would clearly like to see happen to black culture in America.

Slapping Smugness, In Two Parts: Part A - Response To Mark Steyn

As picked up on PC's blog, via Samizdata, unrepentant ultra-conservative commentator Mark Steyn has recently squeezed out another diatribe against multiculturalism.

This time it is an assault on 'black culture' in America. With a fond, rosy-tinted view of the 'beauty and grace' inherent in 'black culture' of old, Steyn rails against the perceived degradation of black culture, with reference primarily to hip-hop culture in America. If one is to read between the lines, in concert with the rest of Steyn's bitter oeuvre, this article is simply an argument for the assimilation of 'black culture' into the mainstream white America.

But to look more closely into this article, one finds Steyn's approach trite, sickeningly smug, and ultimately flawed.

The article opens in fine rabble-rousing style, with a long tirade against Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee's ill-advised and bizarre moan that hurricanes in America had mainly white names given to them. Very few would argue for the legitimacy of this as an example of discrimination, and indeed in 2003, when the comment was made, very few did. By opening the article with this piece of largely irrelevant ancient history, Steyn sets the tone for the rest of his diatribe. An attempt to trivialise and marginalise what continues to be one of the most important issues in the US today.

At the end of the first paragraph, he smarms:
In fairness to black leaders, they did not reprise this line of attack when
Katrina swept in a year ago, preferring to argue instead that not merely the
name but the very hurricane was racist, deliberately deployed by Karl Rove's
offshore Republican wind machine to total only black neighbourhoods.

Nice cheap dig, but more sinister is the fact that the ill-considered argument of one person (in 2003, remember) is now attributed to 'black leaders'. Apparently the paucity of black names for hurricanes is a widely held gripe for more than just Jackson-Lee. Nice act of misdirection to begin his attack on 'black culture'. Steyn refuses to engage with the real tragedy of the hurricane, that aid was far too slow in reaching underprivileged citizens of New Orleans, ostensibly due to their position on the social scale and political spectrum.

Steyn goes on to pour some disdain on New Orleans, which according to him is:
[...] a great place to enjoy a margarita with a topless transsexual Mardi Gras queen,
but you wouldn't want to live there: a deeply dysfunctional city exclusively
controlled by Democrats for generations, it's a welfare swamp with a lucrative
tourist quarter.

So, what? The President was right not to accord it more notice? Steyn uses this as an argument as to why the Republicans will not reap any backlash for Bush's reprehensible slowness to action: ironically making the same argument that the citizens themselves made - as a whole, they are seen to be poor and marginalised, and thus fly under the Republican radar.

Steyn then brings in his centrepiece - a book he read decrying the perceived lack of responsibility in black society, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It, written by Juan Williams, a (gasp!) black man. Williams has apparently drawn the conclusion that:
[...] the post-civil rights black leadership and its policies are a total bust.

Steyn goes on to discuss the concept of 'authenticity' and how this has lead to a defence of gangster rap as an integral part of 'black culture'.
But the peculiar touchiness of the black community on this question recurs again
and again in Williams's book. "The defence of gangster rap, with its pride in
guns and murder, was that it was all about 'keepin' it real,' " he writes. "In
that stunning perversion of black culture, anyone who spoke against the
self-destructive core of gangster rap was put down as acting white."

[...] "Violence, murder, and self-hatred were marketed as true blackness -- authentic black identity," says Williams. "Keepin' it real" means the rapper Nelly making
a video in which he swipes a credit card through his ho's butt. "Keepin' it
real" means men are violent and nihilistic, women are "sluts, bobbing chicken
heads, and of course bitches." "Keepin' it real," noted the writer Nick Crowe,
equates, in effect, to "disempowerment." Because if being black means being a
self-destructive self-gratifying criminal rutting machine, and building a
career, settling down, getting a nice house in the suburbs, raising a family is
acting white, that would seem to hand whitey an awful lot of advantages.

First of all, the straw-man that Steyn creates - that 'black culture' might possibly be predicated on the influence of gangster rap, is inherently flawed. Secondly, while the importance of hip-hop to modern urban black populations can't be underestimated, the idea that gangster rap is the be-all and end-all of hip-hop is entirely wrong and belies a total lack of understanding, in all probability gleaned from sensationalist media, which of course loves juicy West-coast gangster rap stories, and all of their attendant salacious trappings.

Steyn goes on to slip in another confusing ploy - black Americans have not sufficiently contributed to the English language - certainly not to the extent that Indians have, with a number of practical and useful words, where it seems that all that Blacks have managed to chip in is a handful of slangy adjectives and pejoratives!
A few years back, arguing for the teaching of "Ebonics" as a distinct language,
professor Ron Emmons of Los Angeles City College produced a list of black
America's contributions to the English language: hip, cool, gig, jiving around,
get high, gimme five, hot, baby, mojo, fine, mess with, thang (as in "doin' my,"
he helpfully explained), take it easy, slick, rip-off, bad . . . Hmm. Does that
list really testify to the vitality of "Black English"? By comparison, India via
the Raj gave English (to pluck at random) pajamas, bungalow, jodhpurs, cheroot,
cummerbund, veranda, khakis, karma. Despite the best efforts of the late Tupac
and the Rodney King rioters to copyright them, even "thug" and "looter" come
from the subcontinent. Doesn't that list make "jiving around" and "get high"
look a bit weedy?

The air must be pretty thin where Steyn writes from, given the lofty heights his arrogance appears to reach.

Then, to wind up, comes the paragraph which so many right-wing pundits have clearly become enamoured with. The section of Steyn's article which ties up the previous straw-men, half-baked cultural understandings, and prejudice into a tight little ball of irritatingly smug, simplistic foolishness.
Duke Ellington has more in common with Ravel than with Snoop Dogg. Scott Joplin would have regarded today's "black culture" as an oxymoron. To
eliminate a century and a half's tradition of beauty and grace from your
identity isn't "keepin' it real"; it's keepin' millions of young black men and
women unreal in ways the most malevolent bull-necked racist could never have

Who is Steyn to surmise what Scott Joplin would have thought of today's black culture? Who is Steyn to suggest that a great amount of today's hip-hop culture tears down the black musical icons of yester-year, rather than building on their shoulders?