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The pimp daddies of politics


The Tyranny of Hip


by Rayfield A. Waller



Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, corporate bully-boy for the colonial, land, and cheap labor interests of Haliburton, Texaco, et. al., has a penchant for drama. Have we really been delighting in his impression of the emperor's armchair general for a year now? His squinched frown, his refusal to bow to fact or truth, and his tough talk in the face of public scrutiny imply not that he is a servant of democracy, but rather a henchman for the new form of government the U.S. is devolving into: corporate monarchy. He demonstrated this during his visit last Fall to Afghanistan, where he barked epithets at reporters, whom he obviously regards not as watchdogs of the same democracy that has employed him to be it's security guard, but as upstart fleas on his imperial butt.

Just a few days before this writing, he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to account for former chief arms inspector David Kay's testimony that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Rumsfeld was sharply questioned by senators, both Democrat and Republican about the now-discredited Bush proposition he and fellow bully boy Colin Powell defended before the war—that Iraq indeed did have fully functional WMD's which could directly threaten the continental United States. Rather than display the proper shame, which even Nixon evinced when caught red handed, Rumsfeld refused to acknowledge that the Bush administration's bold-faced lie is over. Instead, he screwed his audacity to the sticking point: he obnoxiously snapped at the committee that "the hole Saddam was discovered to be hiding in" was big enough that it could have contained enough biological weapons to kill thousands of people, or words to that effect. He would have us believe that every hole, every rucksack, every seed basket in Iraq could contain a WMD, and therefore our president, our congress and our foreign policy ought to conduct themselves as if they do.

Wow. How does a small group of oil rich thugs take over a country that possesses a democratic electoral system, a free press, and tripartite separation of powers (you know, the legislative, judicial, and executive branches our high school government teachers blah-blahed at us about all those years ago) and then manage to transform that country into a nation of stupefied, detached, credulous consumers of corporate ideology such that said consumers' understanding and awareness of "freedom," "public accountability," and "democracy" should wither, allowing government officials put into place by said thugs, to thumb their noses at our watchdogs and at us?

Entertainment, my friend, that's how.

It was either Daryl Zanuck or Joe McCarthy who said that you can do anything at all to Americans just so long as you keep them entertained while you're doing it. It might have been Zanuck explaining why he intended to burn down Atlanta on screen no matter how many millions it cost in over runs in the making of Gone With The Wind. Or maybe it was Joe McCarthy explaining why he'd pumped such high production values into his manic performances before the figurative flames of human immolations during the public burnings of HUAC. Whichever of them said it, it's clearly true that, whether you're explaining why poor old, left leaning writer Dalton Trumbo must be horse whipped and humiliated publicly and then deprived of the right to make a decent living by being blacklisted, or you're selling a totally unnecessary and immoral war against Iraq that will destroy ten thousand year-old art, architecture, and cultural artifacts, kill and maim countless people on both sides, then distribute Iraq's natural resources amongst the board of directors of Haliburton, it's not what you say that matters, but how you say it. Despotism, monarchy, theft, and corporate mendacity with style is the rule now if you want to skirt media attention and critique.

In other words, you need to be hip.

A certain lowbrow cable news network dubbed Rumsfeld "sexy" back when he premiered that snappish, preemptive war scowl of his on the night the Iraq war started. The idea that Rummy was soon being called a "hunk" because of his TV press conferences—the macho strut, the bristling challenge to reporters daring to question the wisdom of total war—was an unnerving phenomenon. Yet, there was neo-conservative "babe" Ann Coulter, queen of the new conservative hipsters, panting, barking and yammering about Rumsfeld being "sexy" and, yes, "hip" on the Fox News Channel (you guessed it, Fox is the "certain lowbrow cable news network" I meant).

The penchant of mainstream, "square" culture to steal the style, jargon, and wardrobe of American subculture and counter culture is known as "crossover." The phenomenon, it seems, is alive and well: Coulter herself seems to be doing a startling, maybe even homophobic take on lesbian couture: her fashion conception trades heavily on a shrill minstrelsy "lipstick lesbian" image, and clearly Rumsfeld is her favorite butch boy. Media consensus since the Iraq war and the "embedding" of the press is that Rumsfeld, like his fellow "chickenhawks" (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, et. al.) is the sovereign of this new neo-conservative, corporate version of hip. Rumsfeld, who literally pimp walks to the podium like Superfly, sometimes looks ready to pimp slap any reporter or general who defies him. Yeeeah, Baby. The message is clear: the Pentagon is Rummy's Cadillac, the military establishment is now his strong pimp hand, and the news media are his hos ("don't make me have to go upside y'head hoe-get back out there and make me some good PR").

Coulter has a lot of homeys among triumphant conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh who are mouthing Black slang, and are using James Brown, Trick Daddy, even Snoop Dogg samples for their theme and bumper musics. Even decrepit granddad radio jock Don Imus is frequently photographed toddling around Texas (the neo-conservative capitol) in the leather jacket and shades now vogue to neo-conservative macho.

Likewise, it was more than a toothy Austrian grin that allowed Arnold Schwarzenegger to annex California for his homeys. His Republican handlers, the old coot conservative and former California Governor Pete Wilson among them, relied heavily on the PR force of Arnold's celebrity. They shrewdly appealed to hordes of white, yuppie college students, many of whom were first-time voters, who rallied to the campaign in droves, and who told the LA Times they felt it was, like, "really cool" to vote for "The Terminator."

If Ann Coulter is a "babe" (as Rush Limbaugh used to say of her before he took off for a quick stint in neo-con junkie rehab, and as neo-con moralist Bill Bennett used to say before ducking into Gambler's Anonymous), then we are expected to believe that Rumsfeld can stake out "hip" as his own personal property. Those psycho, surrealist press briefings of his with the generals huddled up behind him are as close as he's ever been to any real combat (as a Navy pilot "on indefinite administrative duty" he avoided the dangers of combat in both Korea and Vietnam, spending his career either on reserve, or as a flight instructor). But hey, hip is as hip doesn't where the corporate version of hip is concerned.

With Rumsfeld running around jive talking then, my trying to say something coherent about a concept as commercialized and debased as "hip" is like trying to catch a fish with my bare hands. Trying to say something nobody else has said already is like trying to make the fish sing.

Which leads us to Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra at the height of his career quipped that anybody can do minstrelsy, but a serious singer, to get "hip," should closely study people like Billy Holiday, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington; but, he added, that was only the beginning; the point is to find and develop one's own voice. Sinatra had a point: the enduring fame of Elvis is directly related to the heat and passion he generated early in his career by using Black musical and cultural motifs as a means to tap into white soul (known as rockabilly). Sure, Elvis was a comet that reached an apex just before he joined the army and became a corporate icon, fizzling out, becoming a cold, dead zombie in a white jumpsuit wiggling his fat hips in that sarcophagus known as Las Vegas. But his initial heat, his creativity and sincerity during the "Kid Creole" period, is the source of the spiritual energy that still draws people. That energy inexplicably moves people to do endless impressions of the zombie. My point? Rumsfeld and his ilk are the zombie triumphant without ever having been Kid Creole.

Which brings us to Detroit.

Or rather, the Black middle class suburb of Detroit known as Southfield, which sits right beside a Jewish suburb known as Oak Park. I recently sat at the edge of Southfield, huddled in a bus stop booth next to a grouchy old man from Oak Park. He was glaring at a multiracial tribe of Southfield teens slangin' Trick Daddy on their boom box across from us. When the Southfield bus had scooped them up and Trick and them boomed away, the old man snapped his newspaper and demanded of me, "So what is this hippity-hoppity music, anyway? Sounds like noise to me."

I dropped the bad news to him. Hiphop is dead. It started as a form of music made by the impoverished and the dispossessed in America's urban centers in the 1980s. A people's music of both Black (Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy), white (House of Pain) Latin (Ese Tribe) and even Asian and Native American hip-hoppers. The takeover of hiphop by cutthroat music executives and by Wall Street, however, has led to exile for the music's ingenious originators, people like like Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, Monie Love, Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five, Roxanne Shanté, and Kool Moe Dee.

"Musicians always go out of style," said the old man. No, I told him, it's not that. These artists never got a chance to go out of style—they've been relegated to the junk heap of hip history and the cut-out bins of music stores). Much like the denial of historical credit to the originators of Bebop, like Dizzy Gillespie, the progenitors of hiphop now labor in obscurity while multinational corporations (who also stole rock music away from Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, by the way) took control of new talent, recording, manufacture, and distribution. P. Diddy is not the counter argument to this: he represents the triumph of what used to be "New Jack" and is now the Black Bourgeois cynicism of zombies such as "Shaggy" and Beyonce Knowles. It was the corporate recording industry that seduced Barry Gordy into moving Motown from its chittlin' roots in Detroit to steak heaven in LA.

"It's just music," the old man shrugged. "Music isn't that serious." On the contrary, I said; hiphop began as a sort of retaliation against the un-hip deep freeze the Reagan era took us into just after the assassination of John Lennon (if you think I say "assassination" figuratively, take a trip to New Orleans and sit and talk awhile with ex-Detroiter and former friend to John Lennon, John Sinclair. Sinclair'll hip you to why Lennon had to die exactly when he did—as the Reagan revolution was just getting off the ground, and why H. Rap Brown had to become a felon when he did-as the new corporate millennium was really beginning to pull in profits). Hiphop was the most recent in a long history of American, working class "hip," like the union songs of Joe Hill, like the the civil rights gospel and folk songs, like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield and—

"Wait—did you say Dizzy Gillespie before?" the old man demanded. Yes, I said. hiphop was originally an extension of the spirit of Bebop. His face lit up. "I loved Bebop when I was young!" he exclaimed. Then he clouded again. "I don't see the connection."

Maybe it will all become clear to everyone when we look up one day to see Colin Powell and Dick Cheney mugging for their first phat rap video. Many of my former students, who no longer lounge on campus but are now languishing instead in army attack vehicles alongside the Tigris River under the hot Iraqi sun, will no doubt be getting free copies of the def CD release by "Unc-Tom Colin" and "Big-Dickie Chain" discreetly tucked into their c-ration packs, compliments of the Pentagon.


Ray Waller, a former truck driver, taught English for seven years at University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Florida International University, in West Miami, and Barry University in Miami Shores. He has been a King/Parks/Chavez Visiting Scholar to Wayne State University in Detroit and has taught at The College for Creative Studies, also in Detroit. He recently moved back to Detroit and is a contributing writer to the newspaper, The Michigan Citizen. He is a member of the Zoetrope Virtual Studio Project headed by Francis Ford Coppola, and is writing a screenplay about the politics of the Florida Sugar Industry. He's a regular commentator on the WAXY AM-Miami radio show, "Shock The System," hosted by Jim Nadel.

Posted February 8, 2004 5:12 PM






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