Friday, August 10, 2012

Against the Man: Lady Power and Contemporary Hip Hop

"Yankin" by Lady has all the traits of a Top 40 hip hop song: a thundering beat, a repetitive and slightly grating chorus, and lyrics celebrating sexual prowess. The song was even featured in the final episode of the TV show Girls. But why has it been noticeably absent from the commercial music scene?

"Yankin" is, for some, a jarring portrayal of a world of female sexual dominance. It is an articulation of of female power that challenges the commercial music establishment, which for the most part is oriented towards the masculine gaze. And because commercial music is mediated largely by men, it is necessarily cleansed of all elements, even implicit subversion and social critique, deemed offensive by the sinister controllers of cultural hegemony. "Yankin" has been banished to the far reaches of internet obscurity not because of the graphic nature of its content, but because of its subversive nature. 

Next to "Up!" by LoveRance feat. 50 Cent, which has garnered major mainstream radio play for several months, "Yankin" seems tempered and nearly nuanced. LoveRance and 50 Cent's song, which even when censored reads like the script of an NC-17 rated movie, recounts episodes of cunnilingus and intercourse and features a chorus only of the words: "I beat the pussy up up up up up up." The two male rappers detail their sexual conquests, with LoveRance rapping "watch that back, make that ass clap/make the pussy squirt, yeah I gotta stroke" and ending the first verse with the couplet, "put it on my tongue, fill me on up/put it in the gut, tear the pussy up." The two male rappers are allowed to freely describe their sexual encounters, objectifying and subjugating women in the process. Indeed, the commercial music industry has deemed it appropriate for men to air their affinity for tearing and beating women's genitals. 
"Yankin" is an articulation of female power that
challenges the ideology of the commercial music establishment.

In "Yankin," Lady turns the tables. Men rather than women - the traditional sex-objects in hip hop and commercial music - are objectified, sexualized, and subjugated. Lady defies the demand that female rappers acquiesce to male subjugation. Her fluency in the language of sexual domination makes her uniquely "unfeminine," particularly when compared to other female artists like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. 

Lady's male counterpart is not demanding or controlling; she is. You might say she wears the pants in the paradigmatic relationship. From the first hearing of the song's refrain, Lady makes it clear that she is the dominant sexual power. Her male partner is forced to submit to her, as she declares "my pussy be yankin, got this nigga feelin' hypnotized." In an emulation of typically male sexual bravado, Lady boasts about her sexual stamina, "look like you tired, I suggest you pop a pill or two/you gotta keep up, when I make this thing do what it do." Indeed her power over her partner is so great that she suggests he may be utterly unprepared, "you think you want it but you don't really want none." Like male rappers, Lady is concerned with being pleasured as much as she is concerned with being an adequate pleasure-er. She makes clear her sexual demands, "I see that magnum rapper, nigga that's the perfect size," while at the same time she brags about her ability to deliver maximum pleasure: "I hope you strapped for this incredible ride/look at my hips they got a hell of a grind/I started slow so you can relax your mind/Cause once I finish, you gonna be out of yo mind." Unlike her female counterparts, specifically Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, she does not require male validation, "you ain't gotta tell me, I know this pussy be yankin'." She is acutely aware of her own sexual power. 

Neither Nicki Minaj nor Beyonce, two of hip hop's leading women, challenges commercial music's gendered status quo the way Lady does. Nicki Minaj asserts her dominance not over men but over other women; she is concerned with being the best woman in the service of men and not with being serviced by men. In her song, "Shitted on 'Em," Nicki Minaj proudly announces "All these bitches is my sons." Bitches, being a gendered term, refers to Minaj's female rivals. Like a mother over her children, Minaj claims superiority over other women. Later in the first verse of the song, she raps, "if I had a dick I would pull it out and piss on 'em." She not only claims to be better than other women but also concedes that only if she were a man could she truly claim power over women. This lyrical thread can be seen in Minaj's other works. In her verse on Big Sean's Dance (Ass) Remix, Minaj is again interested solely dominating other women. "Wobbledy, wobble, wo-wo-wobble, wobbin," she begins, "Ass so fat, all these bitches' pussies is throbbin'/bad bitches I'm your leader." There's no ambiguity there; Minaj stakes her claim as leader of women. And yet, conspicuously absent is any attempt to assert some kind of power over men. 

Beyonce, who as the respectable female ambassador of hip hop to the rest of the world is tame compared to Minaj and Lady, articulates an idea of female empowerment albeit within the framework of a male-dominated society. Indeed, Beyonce's Run the World (Girls) transmutes the genuinely subversive kernel of female power into a sanitized and benign kind of platitude. Of course, we know girls don't run the world. Women represent only 19.3% of national
legislative seats across the entire world. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which maintains a
Beyonce's song is purged of gender politics. The chained men in Lady's
video are replaced by seemingly random animals in Beyonce's.
database of worldwide female representation, ranks the United States 69th worldwide.

By claiming, erroneously, that girls run the world, Beyonce supports and legitimates the unjust and unequal status quo. Despite all her posturing and declarations of female strength, Beyonce is an apologist for male-dominated society. In Girls (Who Run the World), she sings "to other men that respect what I do/please accept my shine." Still desiring male validation and acceptance, Beyonce doesn't truly want a society run by women, nor does she want real gender parity. Instead, Beyonce is satisfied with sexism with a human face, so to speak. Girls (Run the World), like most of Beyonce's ouvre, promotes the nominally empowering, apolitical message. But implicit in the lyrics is an acceptance, and even reinforcement, of the sexist status quo.

Lady is the most daring female rapper in the world because she appropriates the male language of sexual domination and promotes a vision of a female dominated society. But by using the same images and words as male rappers do, she is pushed to the margins of contemporary popular culture. It's time for the mediators of culture - radio hosts, MCs, and even artists themselves - to promote a genuinely powerful female rapper who is willing to confront our misogynistic society on it's own terms. Influential DJs, like Funkmaster Flex, Cipha Sounds, and Peter Rosenberg should take the lead and give Lady the respect and air-time she deserves. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

On the Importance of Jill Stein

This past week, I watched my Facebook newsfeed fill up with links, an app that provides a presidential election quiz. After completing the quiz, Facebook users can post links announcing the candidate they side with. Surprisingly neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney were the most common results posted. Instead, it was Jill Stein, candidate of the Green Party, whose face was all over my newsfeed. It seemed everyone, from committed communists to disillusioned liberals, had found Jill Stein's platform at least nominally compatible with their views. While normally I would be suspicious of a candidate attracting such a breadth of sympathizers, the trend of the election quiz's results has given me hope that there may finally be a genuine Left alternative to Barack Obama. Assuming the app continues to gain popularity, and assuming more and more disillusioned liberals find they have more in common with Jill Stein than with Barack Obama, Jill Stein could stand a significant chance of making a noticeable political impact.

Moreover, as national media attention has focused away from Occupy, Jill Stein's open endorsement and participation in Occupy's struggles could bring attention back to the movement. Occupy was criticized constantly in the mainstream press for lacking a leader and, later, for failing to transition from direct action to legislative action. Though many involved with Occupy reject legislative avenues and view the idea of an "Occupy candidate" as antithetical to the movement's commitment to horizontalism, Jill Stein could be the voice of the movement's reformist tendencies and the link between the movement's activists and the rest of the public. Her platform - A Green New Deal - translates many of the grievances voiced by the Occupy movement into concrete policy proposals. Stein calls for "an immediate halt to all foreclosures and evictions"and has vowed to create "a federal bank with local branches to take over homes with distressed mortgage and either restructure the mortgages to federal homes to the occupants." Her Full Employment Program is designed to "create 16 million jobs through a community-based direct employment initiative that will be nationally funded, locally controlled, and democratically protected against conflicts of interest and pay-to-play influence peddling." The aforementioned proposals address the concerns of Occupy. Both activists and the media should look to Stein's candidacy as a crystallization of an Occupy electoral platform.

The very idea of an electoral platform for the Occupy movement undoubtedly upsets a lot of people involved with the movement. And that is fine. Occupy participants who are committed to effectuating social justice outside of the legislative or mainstream political framework will be able to continue their radical activism regardless of whether Stein is on the ballot. But for Occupy participants who have grown weary of having no concrete platform, Jill Stein's candidacy is a chance to finally engage in the electoral process under an unabashedly left-wing banner.

Occupy's skeptics of organization and hierarchy, despite their disagreements with Stein's proposals, should nonetheless pay attention to Stein's rhetoric and the values espoused by the Green Party. Decentralization and local control have long been Green Party pillars, in contrast with the platforms of other left-wing parties. While not horizontalist, Stein and the Green Party share many of the more radical Occupiers' values. And that is a good thing. Stein's presidential campaign puts a pragmatic spin and concrete platform behind a set of criticisms and ideas that have been derided in the press as vague or idealistic and ignored by many. It would be a mistake for the Left to disregard her candidacy, especially when faced with the false choice between to servants of corporate interests and the wealthy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Lifeguards and the Logic of the Shared Responsibility Payment

In a widely reported incident last week, a Florida lifeguard was fired for rescuing a man who had been swimming in an "unprotected" part of a beach. The Right has been quick to portray the incident as an example of the nefariousness of regulation and intrusive laws. Corey Robin notes, "Jonah Goldberg uses it as an opportunity to rail against liability law and union regulations. Even though no unions were involved and the major culprit here, it seems, is the privatization of public services." One could even argue Mr. Lopez's firing has to do with the nature of contracts and restrictions on conduct in the workplace (for more on this issue check out this post at Crooked Timber). 

Contrary to Goldberg's laments about the "the legal regime in this country that's creating a headwind against basic human decency," the sorry case of a lifeguard fired for saving someone's life illustrates the logic of the shared responsibility payment.

A person who chooses to go without insurance is like a person who chooses to swim in the "unprotected" part of the beach. In theory, both do so at their own risk. The swimmer makes a choice to disregard the signs alerting beachgoers to swim at their own risk just as someone makes a choice to disregard the risk of getting sick while uninsured. And yet, if something happens to either person, someone must perform a rescue. For some, like members of the crowd at a GOP debate who yelled "let him die" in response to a question about healthcare for the uninsured, letting someone needlessly die isn't a problem. But for those who care about others, and even, I suspect, for Mr. Goldberg, there is a moral obligation to save the drowning swimmer and the sick uninsured. 

Saving the drowning swimmer in the "unprotected" area requires that the lifeguard leave his post and at the same time put the beachgoers in the formerly protected area at risk, unattended. Likewise, providing care to the sick uninsured requires that resources and personnel be allocated from somewhere else to care for the uninsured patient. In both instances, the people who ignore the risks associated with their behaviors expect and require society to foot the bill for their rescue. The shared responsibility payment acknowledges the societal cost incurred by the uninsured's risky behavior, and requires that the uninsured pay for the care he will receive, should he fall ill. Extending this logic to the case of the lifeguard, a shared responsibility payment made by the risky swimmer to the lifeguarding company would have provide the necessary resources (e.g. another lifeguard, an extra buoy) to eliminate an instance when a lifeguard would have to leave his post to rescue a risk-taking swimmer. 

The shared responsibility payment is a natural outgrowth of a market-oriented society. Places that were once public, like beaches, are privatized and under corporate control. Goods and services that would otherwise be guaranteed to any member of a polity, like healthcare, are now sold with little regard for basic human need. In a capitalist economy, the value of which the Right and people like Mr. Goldberg incessantly praise, everything can be commoditized. The shared responsibility payment represents a full embrace of the idea that healthcare is a commodity; to a receive a service, even one that is lifesaving, absolutely necessary and entirely non-volitional, costs money. The Right's discomfort with this idea suggests either that they are less comfortable with the increasing commodification of all aspects of daily life than they pretend to be, or that they really would prefer to let the sick uninsured die and the risk-taking swimmer drown.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Quotes of the Day - July 2, 2012

I've graduated from high school. The summer has started. This can only mean one thing: more time to read. My first book of the summer is The Vital Center, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. I'm a bit more than halfway through, and I'm enjoying it. Schlesinger has an immense command of history, and incorporates useful tidbits of his knowledge into his analysis of the political problems of the 1950s. The book, though, is very much a product of its time. Many of the anxieties - related to mass media, the rise of consumerism, the first taste of a post-industrial age, etc. - that surfaced in the 1950s (the book was first published in 1949) have either been addressed or have disappeared. Still, more than fifty years after its publication, The Vital Center has a number of valuable insights for the political observer today.

The first chapter, entitled "Politics in an Age of Anxiety," begins with a description of man's current situation. 
Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach them, like shadows in the falling dusk. Most of the world has reconciled itself to this half-light, to the reign of insecurity. Even those peoples who hastily traded their insecurities for a mirage of security are finding themselves no better than the rest. Only the United States still has buffers between itself and the anxieties of our age: buffers of time, of distance, of natural wealth, of national ingenuity, of a stubborn tradition of hope.
Fifty years later, globalization has erased the buffers. The United States entered the age of anxiety years ago. Times has caught up with the country. Its industrial production has waned. Its distance from the rest of the world has been minimized by technology. Even the United States's vast natural wealth has begun to seem limited. Ingenuity is left to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who are idolized and hailed as job-creators despite their lack of civic contribution. Hope faded after 9/11 and the War on Terror. It grew fainter still after the financial crisis.

Despite these changes, Schlesinger's analysis of modern life can be adapted for post-industrial life.
The velocity of life has entered into a new phase. With it has come the imperative need for a social structure to contain that velocity - a social structure within which the individual can still achieve some measure of self-fulfillment.
Now, with our increasingly atomized existences despite our instantaneous interconnectivity, we express a similar need. What do we do with our time? How do we related to technology and the internet? Isolated and stuck behind screens, what can we do create some kind of meaning? (Of course, the question of whether being stuck behind screens actually isolates us is still up for debate:

The industrial corporation - the hallmark of Fordist production - is now an artifact.
It gave the new impersonality an institutional embodiment; a corporation as the saying went, had neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned. "Corporations will do what individuals would not dare to do," the richest man in Boston wrote with candor a century ago.
But now, even though corporations are people, impersonality remains.
The impersonality of the new economic system meant, in brief, that no one had to feel a direct responsibility for the obvious and terrible costs in human suffering.
The economic system isn't new anymore. And in 2008, we may have had a taste of its demise. However, before systemic change occurs, things can only get worse.
As organization became more elaborate and comprehensive, it became increasingly the instrumentality through which moral man could indulge his natural weakness for immoral deeds. 
Schlesinger writes at the beginning of the time during which the American capitalist began to adopt the humanitarian guise. Describes the birth of neoliberalism:
The modern American capitalist as a result has come to share many values with the American liberal: beliefs in personal integrity, political freedom and equality of opportunity. This process is reflected in the general support for the Marshall Plan, in the establishment of liberal business organizations like the Committee on Economic Development, in the proposals of some of the more forward looking Republican politicians.
The modern capitalist shares the values of the American liberal because conventional liberal values have turned out to be effective weapons in the arsenal of capitalist exploitation. Today, arguments for market liberalization and decreased regulation are often colored by liberal language and talk of freedom. Cuts to social services are reframed by capitalists as issues of liberty, not in the interests of those who stand to suffer from the cuts but of those who stand to profit from the suffering of others.

Schlesinger was a Democrat, but much of his book is devoted to challenging the Left. His insight and criticism of progressives has hints of radicalism.
Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the most subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where he can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
This critique isn't new, but it did surface again recently when it appeared SYRIZA in Greece was could win a general election. For many Leftists, and even liberals and progressives, there is no plan for what happens once the election is won or the party is in power. At protests there is always a slew of statements announcing opposition to this policy and or that idea. Rarely is there a constructive platform put forward for what a progressive future might look like.

But that maybe progressives don't actually want the future for which they claim to fight. Schlesinger argues that progressives treat politics as just an intellectual game.
Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words.
Perhaps, this is beginning to change. Intellectuals, like Corey Robin and even the editors of N+1, have challenged the Left to surrender their privilege and take radical action:
It remains to be seen if Leftist heed the call to action.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Quotes of the Day - June 5, 2012: Notes on Gershom Gorenberg's The Unmaking of Israel

I've been reading The Unmaking of Israel off and on for a few weeks now, but I've decided to sit down and give it a close reading. Since I will spending a gap year in Israel, I have a bit more motivation fully immerse myself in texts about Israel and Zionism. This is also the first book that I'm reading on Kindle and trying to take notes on, so this might be a bit more fragmented than other posts.

Gorenberg notes the chasm between the internal and external perceptions of Zionism. From outside, and increasingly from inside:
The most concise criticism is that Israel is an "ethnocracy," as Israeli political geographer Oren Yiftachel argues in his book 2006 book of that name. (5)
Zionism, understood from within, is the national liberation movement of the Jews. (6)
And yet, does Zionism as a national liberation movement make it any less of an exclusionary and ethnocentric ideology? If Zionism is simply another kind of nationalism, then does it encompass, as many argue it does, all of the unsavory and illiberal facets of nationalism: ideas of ethnic supremacy, nativism, and racism?

But there is another problem with the idea that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jews: the majority of the world's Jews do not recognize themselves as members of a distinct nation. While many like to look to Israel as evidence of Zionism's success, the presence of a mere six million Jews living in the state of Israel suggests otherwise. More than half of the world's Jewish population lives outside of the Jewish state. They have no desire to be part of the national liberation movement. Israel, then, is worse than just an ethnocracy; it is an ideological failure. The modern state of Israel is not the fulfillment of the Zionist dream but it's failure.

Though the parliamentary anti-capitalist left in Israel is long dead, it's nice to see things kernels of resistance like this:
By then, both of the Communist newspapers had published editorials denouncing Ben-Gurion and Eban of "trafficking in the blood" of young Israelis to satisfy their American masters. (32).
I would love to see an argument like the one above made again. After all, American Jews bear none of the sacrifices Israeli Jews bear in protecting the Zionist dream. American Jews give a few dollars, Israeli Jews give their lives. AIPAC, ZOA, and other American Zionist organizations, by setting policy agendas and taking hawkish positions, are responsible for the deaths of Israeli soldiers in unjust and unnecessary wars. For all their rhetoric about their love for Israel, American Jews seem to equate the lives of Israelis with dollars and cents.

No matter how many books are written and films are made, American Jews have trouble understanding the trauma of the Nakbka for Palestinians. Jews have trouble facing the realities of the war for independence:
In some places, Jewish commanders expelled Arabs from conquered villages. In many ore, panic led to mass flight, especially after Irgun and Lehi fighters perpetrated a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin outside Jerusalem. (48)
Afterward as the fighting continued, cases of the IDF expelling Arabs grew more and more common. The decision to prevent return was the turning point transforming what began in the chaos of war into a choice. (29). 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Capitalist Education, or It's June and I'm Still in School

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, likes to think of himself as "an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity, and innovation." Like others who fancy themselves thought leaders on the issue of education, Robinson argues that the way education systems in post-industrial countries extract information from students is flawed. "Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip mine the earth: for a particular commodity," he said in a recent TED Talk. For Robinson, the method is the problem: tinker with the "extraction" process to accomodate different people with different kinds of skills - like the student he mentions in his talk, who can't sit still in class but turns out to be a world class dancer - and the education system will be better. To much applause Robinson declares, "creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status." And yet, while Robinson calls for a radical re-imagining of the education model, his analogy - of the mind as a mine - preserves essential function of education in a capitalist economy: commoditization.

Students are not laborers. Nothing is produced at school; if anything, students are consumers. However, public education is responsible for transforming students into laborers. The commoditizing function of public education turns students into vessels of labor-power. This necessitates the authoritarian nature of the education system. If the process of commoditization is stopped, then the gears of capitalism grind to a halt. Disobedience, non-conformity, and disruptive behavior, therefore, all threaten the successful functioning of productive processes.

The problem with the education system is not the specificity of the "mining" process.  Anyone who has been in a school recently knows that the problem with the education system is not the specificity of the "extraction" process. The problem is the notion of "extraction" itself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fukuyama in the Factory: The End of Work and the End of History

Over at Jacobin, Peter Frase and Seth Ackerman have been debating anti-work politics and post-productivism. In "Stop Digging: The Case Against Jobs", Frase argues that the left ought to challenge the "historically perpetuated" view that treats "wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth." "As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems," he writes, "we'll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will 'kill jobs.'" For Frase, "socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil." To do this, he calls on the left to agitate for more radical measures and "move away from tightly linking jobs and income." He proposes, as a kind of solution to massive unemployment, a guaranteed minimum income.

However, fellow Jacobin writer Seth Ackerman finds fault in Frase's reasoning. In "The Work of Anti-Work"Ackerman writes, "I'm left cold by the suggestion...that it would be better to transform the 12.5 million Americans forced out of work by the recession into a quasi-permanent class of idle citizens." The problem, according to Ackerman, is that this would create "classes of arbitrarily idled citizens, supported by their fellow strikes me as presumptuous to assume that most unemployed would want this." "The more general - in fact, almost universal feeling," Ackerman states, "is that it's problematic when some are poor and others rich, or when some spend their lives working while others are at leisure." A guaranteed minimum income would, therefore, neither lead to full employment nor eliminate class resentment.

The End of Embodied Labor?
All this hypothesizing about the economic landscape of the future reminded me of Francis Fukuyama and "The End of History." In a NY Times article entitled "After Neoconservativsm," Fukuyama writes, "The End of History" "presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism." "The Neoconservative position," he lamented, "was... Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will." Fukuyama's lament, I think, can also be applied the the views of Frase and Ackerman (minus the value judgement Fukuyama implies with "Leninist"). A legislative agenda aimed towards transcending productivism or a plan to create a guaranteed minimum income are attempts to deal with an unclear economic eventuality - a "post-productivst" future - that could very well be a historical inevitability. The left, then, should focus not on forestalling history, but on preparing for its end.

Both Frase and Ackerman ignore the fact that a "post-productivist" future looks increasingly possible, especially in light of austerity measures. However, this "post-productivist" future will not be the result of a more generous welfare state. Trends in financialization, workplace automation, population aging, and precariousness all pressage the end of embodied labor. Even now, in the short term, efficiency gains and technological improvements have rendered human labor increasingly superfluous. This means that for all the agitation about separating jobs from income, post-industrial societies may be left without the option to do so. Jobs may become scarce enough that income must be stripped from its association with employment.

It is an interesting thought experiment to view the current struggles against austerity measures as the first stages in "of a long-term process of social evolution" that terminates in a society without, or with significantly limited, human labor. Part of the pain of austerity measures, aside from the proletarianization of the salaried middle class, is the recognition that, to a greater extent than many would like to admit, humans are not needed for many productive tasks in the post-industrial economy. During the recession, when many firms fired workers to improve their bottom lines and combat the drop-off in consumer consumption, it became clear (in certain industries) that a reduction in the size of the workforce did not lead to a decrease in productivity. In the era of austerity, governments have come to the same realization.

The seeds of an economy run by robots and made by robots have already been planted. In the finance sector, algorithmic trading is in the process of eliminating the need for people on the stock market floor. In the manufacturing sector, human workers have long since been replaced by automated machines. Slowly but surely, man is creating technology that makes himself superfluous to the processes of production. And naturally, this dramatically changes the relations of production. If capital no longer needs labor, then what is labor to do?