A Cultural Stalemate

Published February 4, 2001

Los Angeles Times

The nomination of rap star Eminem for four Grammy awards is by now a totally unshocking event. The music industry has chosen to consider for its most prestigious award a young man who sings about killing his wife and raping his mother; someone who is pending trial on assault charges; someone whose real-life wife recently slit her wrists because of marital problems and whose mother sued him for slander. This is all, by now, quite normal in America.

Eminem, of course, is just the latest Public Enemy No. 1 in the culture wars, the latest act in the continuing drama of an envelope-pushing popular culture and its coalition of critics. Just last week, a 13-year-old boy was convicted of first-degree murder for killing a 6-year-old girl while replicating an attack move he learned watching professional wrestlers on television, whose pulp-fiction violence all but acts out Eminem’s lyrics. Another 13-year-old severely burned himself when, in imitating a stunt he saw on MTV’s “Jackass,” he splattered his legs and feet with gasoline and had a friend light his pants on fire–just for fun.

Sexual exhibitionism has become so normal that President George W. Bush, a religious conservative whose inaugural address stressed moral renewal and responsibility, can smile at and dance with singer Ricky Martin, an invited guest, at a pre-inaugural party. Compared with Eminem, Martin is a choirboy, though one of his latest videos, “She Bangs,” is as close to pornography as the non-premium cable networks have yet come. Still, Martin is certainly not the kind of association one would expect from a born-again Christian like Bush.

But in the annals of recent low popular culture, Eminem may be the worst yet–a potentially award-winning personification of deliberate, irreverent, fantasy violence turned art. There are many reasons why Eminem and his pop-culture equivalents matter–because a culture that honors him has more of a market for rage than it should want; because the children who listen to him learn that incivility is normal; because the unapologetic marketing of his music reveals a deep-seated corruption within U.S. capitalism.

But perhaps most of all, Eminem matters because of the contradictions the issue reveals within both liberalism and conservatism. While it is certainly true that America is divided between a “Democratic Nation” and a “Republican Nation,” the most interesting battles in the next few years may be within the parties themselves.

Simply put, liberalism today has two rival souls: one is built around the ideals of free expression, autonomy, choice and questioning authority–call it “expressivist liberalism”; the other is built around humanitarianism, social justice and collective responsibility for those in need–call it “anti-defamation liberalism.” In the liberal mind, there is no contradiction between these rival spirits: We must rebel against authorities that perpetuate injustice, goes the reasoning. In some cases, this has been true. For example, in the civil rights movement, where many authority-questioning liberals of the day put many authority-preserving (or “silent majority”) conservatives to shame.

But the contradictions within contemporary liberalism are too profound to ignore. Democrats are the party of campus-speech codes to protect women, minorities and homosexuals and the party of the Hollywood producers of Eminem’s lyrics attacking women, minorities and homosexuals; they are the party of sexual freedom in the spirit of HBO’s “Sex and the City” and sexual-harassment codes to protect women from improper sexual advances; they are the party of the V-Chip to protect children from graphic violent and sexual material on television and the party of Bill Clinton, whose personal behavior guaranteed months of graphic sexual material on television.

And so, Eminem’s style–question authority–appeals to many liberals, but his message–attack women, attack gays and lesbians–is repugnant to many others. In the end, Democrats are caught in a bind. Which is why, for example, during the presidential campaign, Al Gore could threaten to regulate Hollywood’s marketing practices, then a few days later attend parties in Hollywood asking for money. One day he’s protecting children’s rights and attacking “powerful” media companies in the name of the innocent “people” they corrupt; the next day he’s defending free speech against the Robert Borks, Bob Doles and John McCains of the world who would restrict artistic freedom.

Conservatives have two souls, too. One is built around anti-government zeal, absolute personal freedom, unregulated markets and a desire to be just as “cool” and “hip” as Democrats. The other is built on the ideals of self-restraint, community, orthodox religion and public morality. The former has spent the past six years promising to dismantle the federal government; the latter wants to use the government to restore public morality. Like liberalism, sometimes these two conservative souls work together, such as when government programs–welfare without work or federal subsidies for abortions–actively undermine conservative values; then anti-government enthusiasm and traditional morality are allies.

But more obvious today is the paralysis and inaction of the Republican Party in the face of a culture that moral conservatives despise. So, while Eminem’s lyrics are repugnant to many conservatives, one of the central paths toward reforming the culture in a conservative direction–publicly punishing, through our shared political system, the media companies that produce and promote Eminem’s work–is so frightening to Republicans that they claim such censorship is impractical, impossible or unjust. Because many Republicans see all law as “regulation” and fear that punishing media companies would be an attack on their sacred idol of capitalism, they are reluctant to erect codes of public morality through politics. Similarly, Republicans are so obsessed with seeming “hip” and “in touch” that they do things like blast Martin’s music just seconds after Bush’s speech at the Republican National Convention and invite the World Wrestling Federation’s “The Rock” as a convention speaker.

In the end, these contradictions present Republicans and Democrats with both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that by trying to hold together completely rival spirits, they seem and act like hypocrites, and so end up undermining their most cherished values and adding to the general cynicism about politics and politicians. The opportunity is that either party, if it had the courage and the wisdom, could forge a new, centrist, morally consistent and morally compelling politics of responsibility.

Democrats could do this by putting self-restraint ahead of self-realization in their cultural agenda; by being more open to the role of religion in public life; by treating the abortion issue as it treats the environmental issue–with a sense of tragedy and reverence; and by recognizing the limitations and potential unintended consequences of government action, as well as the potential virtues.

For Republicans, such a reformation would require a willingness to punish capitalists who act like mercenaries; a willingness to treat the preservation of the environment as it treats the defense of the unborn–with moral seriousness and reverence; a willingness to take the lead on campaign finance reform, which would set public standards for elections, for the same reason it wants to set public standards for entertainment; and a willingness to use politics for good rather than assuming all politics is evil.

Both these programs, for either party, are counterintuitive: They run against the grain of the culture, which resides sometimes anxiously, sometimes cheerfully, in a fog of nonjudgmentalism, and against the grain of each party’s most powerful constituencies, big business on the right, pro-choice activists on the left. But it is precisely this counterintuitiveness that would make a new politics of responsibility so compelling. For one, it would break through the cynical assumption of the public that politicians simply say what the polls tell them the people want to hear. And so it could potentially remake the political landscape in America with its combination of moral consistency and political courage.

If there is any hope of moving beyond the culture-war stalemate, it will require a willingness of one of the parties to challenge its favorite constituencies in favor of some shared vision of the public good. Whether either party–and whether the public–is up to the challenge is an open question.

Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times

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