In Great Britain during World War II, with cities pockmarked by bombings, good-thinking planners wanted to take the opportunity to bless the British population with the glories of suburban living.
Goodbye to crowded cities. Why not spread people outward where they could take deep breaths and stretch their legs? This sounded like wisdom incarnate.
But architectural critic Erno Goldfinger, with his outsider's perspective as a Hungarian, understood that this idealization of the suburb was just one way of thinking. He wrote:
"The tendency to industrial concentration is brushed aside as one of the evil consequences of modern ways and not as it should be treated, as one of the basic means of efficient production."
Today, Goldfinger reads as hip to the "urban density" gospel we now take as a hallmark of civilized thought, speaking up against what we now condemn as suburban sprawl. "All the authors seem to be smitten with a kind of agoraphobia," Goldfinger noted. What the suburbanist boosters thought of as truth merely was opinion.
This brings to mind, of all things, the "civilized" consensus on hiphop. Criticize the violence and sexism, and get ready for a tsunami of emails hotly objecting, "It's not all like that!"
More specifically, the idea is that beyond the theatrics of gangsta rappers like 50 Cent, "conscious" rap "has something to say." There are more than a few smart people under the impression that what rap has to say could even energize an activist groundswell among the poor.
But conscious rap fans are making the same mistake as the suburbanists in Britain. They think of it as unquestionable that for black people, politics must be about challenging authority, taking to the streets, the upturned middle finger. The problem is that the days when this orientation fed or taught anyone anything are long past. They miss other kinds of black politics that actually help people in the real world.
For example, Pete Rock grouses that "library broken down is lies buried," while Dead Prez tells us that high school is a "four year sentence" with teachers "tellin' me white man lies." Message: black people should be wary of education. Deep. "Politics." Sounds good set to a beat.
But how wary are we to be of the 57 KIPP charter schools, putting four out of five of their poor black and Latino students in college? I guess it's profound when Pete Rock yells, "I'm aware of segregation!"
But KIPP students are excelling despite segregation, just as they are at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, where almost all students are from the hood and almost all go to collegedespite less money than lesser schools nearby.
The proper politics here is to support charter schools and the vouchers that get children into them. The only sense in a "politics" treating education as the enemy or insisting that black students can't learn unless white ones are around is a basic commitment to being oppositional for its own sake, without constructive intent.
Friedrich von Hayek wrote, "It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative programon the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better offthan on any positive task." Predictably, then, rappers taking potshots at the government are praised as important regardless of whether anything they say could better a person.
Every year, two thirds of new AIDS cases are black women. Kanye West, in the opening to "Late Registration:" "And I know the government administered AIDS." This nonsense, a point often made by rappers, is all the sadder to hear given how perfect the album is as music. AIDS started with a monkey bite. Pretending to think that snickering white scientists spread it to blacks helps not a bit women living with nausea, diarrhea, and exhaustion. It serves only to allow someone to savor sticking up that middle finger. "Consciously"but still.
Six weeks ago, 36 people were shot over a weekend in Chicago. In Harlem, seven were shot over Memorial Day weekend, and the weekend after that, 14 in Washington, DC. For every high-profile case of a black man shot by white police, there are countless others of black men killed by other black men, making the back pages of the paper. Black people usually are killed by other black people.
Conscious rappers touch on this now and then, but are much more interested in telling us that black criminals are victims of the system. A recent example: "Black Thought" on The Roots' new album tells us, "It is what it is, because of what it was, I did what I did, 'cause it does what it does."
Passivity as politics? Again, this only makes sense as professional indignation. Anger cast in rhyme and set to a beat is not a useful spark for the kind of activism that improves lives in 2008.
So: indeed, it's "not all like that." But if the folks known as the hiphop generation are learning their politics from "conscious" rap, there is little hope for our future.
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