Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Knockout Game Filtered Through Saint Augustine's Confession

In book 2 of Confessions St. Augustine tells the story of stealing pears with his friends as a 16 year old. His purpose for telling this story was to show in his words how unmotivated evil is more evil than evil with a motive. He writes:

Those pears that we stole were fair to the sight, because they were Your creation, You fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God...Those pears truly were pleasant to the sight; but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had abundance of better, but those I plucked simply that I might steal. For, having plucked them, I threw them away, my sole gratification in them being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if any of these pears entered my mouth, the sweetener of it was my sin in eating it. And now, O Lord my God, I ask what it was in that theft of mine that caused me such delight; 

The knockout game is unmotivated evil at it's purest. Writing his confessions later in life Augustine still struggled to find a motive for his actions. I know comparing his theft of fruit to the knockout game is a stretch for some, but in his own words he compared the lack of motive behind his crime to the crimes committed by the Roman empire. In his mind they were of the same kind of evil.

We're shaken by the lack of meaning in atrocities. The fact that we have no answers or explanations make the horror associated with senseless crimes more frightening. Most people are killed by someone they know. We compartmentalize this type of crime because it allows us to feel safe knowing that maybe there was something under the surface that can give the act a deeper meaning. The randomness of the knockout game puts all of us at risk. 

The rise of social media and the allure of instant fame factor heavily in the spike in the knockout game. Years ago drug dealers would knockout junkies just for laughs. They would lure some unsuspecting addict or homeless person into an alley and see if they could drop them with one punch. 

Now, kids have video cameras on their phones. They can upload a video to a social media site in less than a minute. As a culture we've traded our 15 minutes of fame for 15 seconds. The technological age we live in allows me to publish from my home with a modest amount of equipment, but it also allows people to upload videos of innocent people being assaulted on our streets. 

There's a racial element to this new version of the knockout game. It appears to be rooted in some misguided attempt for fame or maybe it's a rebellion against the socioeconomic realities. The symbolic gesture of knocking out a person whose white skin "associates" them with power is a systematic rejection of the path paved by the civil rights leaders of the 60's. This temporary power is the illusion of power Augustine says prisoners experience when they do something wrong without fear of punishment. The weak are made to feel powerful, but after the laughs are over and the moment fades their circumstances are still the same. 

Cruelty is the weapon of the powerful, used to make others fear them... Augustine

In the context of random violence, cruelty is the tool of the weak. These kids are weak because they choose not to address the root of their problems. The lack of judgment at the center of theses attacks are indicative of a culture obsessed with instant gratification and a lack of understanding. Immaturity and socioeconomic factors can't explain away all of the social ills facing our youth. Sometimes we have to accept that evil doesn't always have a motive.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Epistemology Of Egoist In Rap Music Part 2: Commodity Fetishism And Poverty

The nations which are still dazzled by the sensuous glitter of precious metals, and are, therefore, still fetish-worshippers of metal money, are not yet fully developed money-nations. Karl Marx Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

In part one I wanted to give an example of how socioeconomic conditions affect and sometimes limit the choices available to many in urban communities. The rational egoist in 50 cent acted out of an urban survivalist instinct. This type of morality is based on doing what's deemed necessary for the sake of survival, whereas the psychological egoism in rap music is based on bling, money, and social status as its endgame. 

Many problems in the inner city have their roots in poverty. There are a multitude of those problems that having resources could solve. The physical and economic consequences that come with having very little money can be measured, but the deep rooted psychological and existential problems that can't be quantitatively measured are often the ones that cause the biggest problems for greater society. 

If a kid is hungry and we feed him, the hunger subsides for a while. The question is: how do we help that kid if he feels his self worth is tied to his hunger? Most teenagers don't wake up one morning and decide they don't care if they live or die. This pathology takes hold before they are old enough to understand it. We look at the families and communities and ascribe blame, but all that does is name the problem. Going to a mechanic and finding out you have a bad transmission doesn't fix it. Yes, we need diagnosis, but we also need treatment.

Take a kid from a broken home, add violence, lose the self esteem, and throw in a market culture that equates non market values like love, honesty, and loyalty less valuable than physical commodities and you get a recipe that isn't necessary for failure but sufficient. 

Some hustle to survive while others hustle to validate their lives. If you couldn't do anything but sell drugs, you would pour your heart into being the best dope dealer around. The lack of skills, trades, or commodifiable talents lead many to hustle, but the quest for status is the darker side of the hustle game.  

The choice to be a "gangster" takes less talent than courage. It's the hardest and easiest choice for some. If you have a world view that equates poverty to being a nobody, and money to success, then the choice is easier. The disproportionate value we (as a society) place on commodities bites us when crime can lead to there acquisition quicker than work. There's a breed of kids who value iphones, Jordan's, and Bentleys more than they value their lives. The symbolic value of these objects add real value to young lives full of poverty and despair. 

Karl Marx hit it on the head when he gave his treatment on nations that fetish the glitter of precious metals. If you substitute nations with people you see that his words still hold truth in them. Rap music as a vehicle for expressing the plight of the inner city has shown itself to be fully entranced by all things shiny. The horror stories of poverty in the hood were replaced by the horror stories of violence in the hood. Too many are ready to get rich or die tryin than get humble and die livin.

Money isn't the cause of this. I lean on biblical text 1 Timothy 6:10 reads as follows: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

It's easy to look at the guy on the block in a wave cap, tank top, and baggy jeans and get scared; it's harder to understand how he got there. These are realities many who read this won't have to contend with, until they have to contend with them in the form of a senseless crime committed upon them or a loved one. We can hide away in our safe neck of the woods and pretend this doesn't exist until we are forced to face it.   

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Get Rich Or Die Tryin : The Epistemology Of Egoists in Rap Music Part 1

It's been 10 years since Get Rich Or Die Tryin propelled Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson from mixtape obscurity to multimillionaire cultural icon. The autobiographical nature of his writing delivered an authenticity die hard rap fans and casual listeners gravitated to. "Fifty's" story was so full of doubt, sorrow, and hopelessness that risking your life to escape it seemed like a reasonable choice.

"Get rich or die tryin" wasn't a new proposition. It was the articulation of the desperation necessary to subscribe to this mantra. 50 wasn't a pioneer; he just made his declaration outloud for the world to hear. I've compiled lyrics from the song "Many Men" to show how this mindset is cultivated and ultimately accepted as a creed. Society's mistake in trying to understand this type of music is best summed up by a Wesley Snipes line from the movie White Men Can't Jump: They listened to the music but didn't hear it.

Here's a quote from "Many Men":

 Many men, many, many, many, many men
Wish death 'pon me
Lord I don't cry no more
Don't look to the sky no more
Have mercy on me
Have mercy on my soul
Somewhere my heart turned cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me

The catharsis in these lyrics are drowned out by the violence that surrounds them. The message loses its meaning when violence sticks out so much further than pain. Again, a quote from the same song: 

50's cries for help are pushed aside for the kind of proactive justice that can be found on the streets. 50 isn't a deist in the traditional sense; he believes in a God who watches from above, but never blows his whistle on the foulness of life. He isn't waiting for miracles; he doesn't believe in them. The idea that he could be a pacifists and a killer is hypocritical or paradoxical depending on how you read this song. Growing up without a father and having his mother killed when he was a child hardened his heart. 

There's a verse in this song that does a better job of appropriating his existential angst than I can:

For the niggas on lock, doing life behind bars

Most people cringe at the thought of dying young, yet Fifty embraced the proposition as a way out of a hard life. He understands that pain is a component of life, but feels as if he has had more than his share of rainy days. This is the confession of a tired soul. 50 doesn't want to be a gangster, but doesn't see another way to survive. This is rational egoism at its best. He acts in a way that allows him to survive. "Get Rich" wasn't successful because of  beats or a marketing strategy. People identified with the message. For a segment of society this was the truth of their life; for others, it was a glimpse into a world they could only visit through song.  

Most who come from a different time, socioeconomic background, or culture completely misread the problem of inner city crime. One of the conventional wisdoms is that these kids don't value life. The scarier reality is that these kids do value life, but at a lower price than most of us would be comfortable with. Over the next few weeks I'll be breaking down rational egoism in rap music and its much more dangerous brother psychological egoism.