Wednesday 15 February 2017
Modern politics as entertainment: just for the lolz
WARNING: SOME OF THE LINKS BELOW GO TO MATERIAL WHICH IS OFFENSIVE. I'VE TRIED TO MARK THOSE WHICH ARE PARTICULARLY STRONG WITH AN ASTERISK IF YOU WANT TO AVOID THEM. BUT THE ARTICLE AS A WHOLE IS PROBABLY BEST AVOIDED IF THIS SORT OF THING BOTHERS YOU.
(GUESS THAT'S A TRIGGER WARNING...)
Although the general claim that modern politics is becoming part of the entertainment continuum has often been made, I don't think I've come across the specific claim that I'm going to make here: that much of the alt-right phenomenon is at least analogous to (and perhaps even caused by) that broad laddish stream of comic flyting and insult found in comedy rap artists such as Eminem and (the Welsh) Goldie Lookin Chain. (I appreciate there's a difference between the two in that comedy is merely part of Eminem's modus operandi while it pretty much exhausts GLC's. It's a difference I'm not going to address.)
I confess that, although I find much of the performance of the alt-right etc at best trivial and at worst downright dangerous, I don't generally find it shocking. (Well, sometimes. The anti-Semitism often strikes home as unusually crude.) Part of the reason for this, I'm beginning to suspect, is the fact that I rather enjoy -and I'm slightly ashamed to say this- artists such as Eminem and GLC.
For example, if you examine Eminem's lyrics for * My Name is... (1998) or * Just Lose it (2004) you'll find a sort of comic, overdeveloped male bravado that would leave most progressives gasping. GLC's * Your Mother's Got a P***s (2004) is again simply a mickey taking of transexuality that probably doesn't go down well these days outside Newport. Now certainly, you can argue about the details of this (not all features of the alt-right exist in these artists, and there are other 'laddish' peformances (like the now defunct Loaded) that would also have to be mentioned in a comprehensive argument. But whatever the differences, there is a certain tone of bravado and mickey taking that links these performances with alt-right politics as performed by Milo Yianopoulos and even Donald Trump. (I'm not going to overpush the argument by suggesting that the relatively high UKIP and Brexit vote in Wales is linked to GLC however tempting that might be.)
Why's this important? Well, I'm not completely sure -which is why I'm putting the idea out there for further exploration. But here's a first stab. The self image of the age is that progressive values have triumphed and that only tweed clad homophobes of a certain age entertain nostalgia for the past glories of Alf Garnett etc. In particular, the world of the arts and culture in general is supposedly dominated by progessive values and sensibilities. One explanation of the above might be that that was (roughly) the early 2000s and things have moved on. Possibly. But that note of male mockery (and even female: the gross out comedy of Drifters is an example) still goes on, hidden in plain sight. It's not exactly conservative: there's an enjoyment of crudity and subversion that is profoundly unconservative. (But then, is Trump a conservative?) But what there is is a chaotic subversion of everything, of every pomposity, standard and even (especially) of taking oneself too seriously that doesn't sit well with the bien pensants of (say) Radio 4 comedy.
There was much talk a while back of South Park Republicans: I have seen at least one article since then which identifies them as a precursor of the alt-right.The usual description of them is as libertarians, but this mistakes what I take to be a consequence of their views as a foundation for them. If the correct analysis is of a movement based on a tone or attitude (basically being wind up merchants of conventional pieties) then that attitude is certainly going to push you towards demanding liberty of speech (and to a lesser extent action), but the tone comes first. If South Park Republicans are a precursor of the alt-right, then they are that less because they are Republicans and more because they are part of a grand tradition of wind up and sneering that goes through Beavis and Butt-Head and exploitation movies and ultimately to the old desire of épater la bourgeoisie.
If you think the culture war is between Shakespeare and Elvis, then Elvis has won. If, on the other hand, you think the culture war is between the modern pieties of progressivism and lewd anarchism, then I'm not so sure there has yet been a victory. But if Trump etc truly has emerged from that background, then it is a background that has not so much been hiding among the critter eatin' backwoodsmen of Swamp Town America, but in the light of day of the catalogues of multi-national entertainment giants.
And given that this attitude has been hiding in plain sight, why are we so surprised when it has obvious political effects?
[NB: Update: I've had this as a draft post for quite a while. If I were to rewrite it, I'd probably make it less based on rap and more on wider cultural performances including Grindhouse movies. But the central point remains: that there has been hiding in plain sight for a number of years a cultural movement whose rebellious, anarchic tone is not progressive and which may well be a key factor in current politics.]
For the strong (see above warnings about language etc):