This was originally posted at the USSC/American Review
Earlier this month, I put up a post explaining how hip-hop can function as an important and insightful voice for marginalised communities, using the DC rap scene as an example. A few days after posting, I came across a section in Jay-Z’s book Decoded in which the rapper argues the same thing:
But even when we could shake off the full weight of those imposing buildings and try to just live, the truth of our lives and struggle was still invisible to the larger country. The rest of the country was freed of any obligation to claim us … Hip-hop, of course, was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens — not through the lens of outsiders.
Decoded is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it, but it needs to be understood in context. Jay-Z is an entertainer, not a politician, and the book functions, in part, as his attempt to make a case for his own legacy. Even so, when read in that light, he has much to say worth heeding. I found the following passage says a lot about America as well about hip-hop:
Poor people in general have a twisted relationship with the government. We’re aware of the government from the time we’re born. We live in government-funded housing and work government jobs. We have family and friends spending time in the ultimate public housing, prison. We grow up knowing people who pay for everything with little plastic cards — Medicare cards for checkups, EBT cards for food. We know what AFDC and WIC stand for and we stand for hours waiting for bricks of government cheese. The first and fifteenth of each month are times of peak economic activity. We get to know all kinds of government agencies not because of civics class, but because they actually visit our houses and sit up on our couches asking questions. From the time we’re small children we got to crumbling public schools that tell us all we need to know about what the government thinks of us.
Then there are the cops.
In places like Marcy there are people who know the ins and outs of government bureaucracies, police procedures, and sentencing guidelines, who spend half of their lives in dirty waiting rooms on plastic chairs waiting for someone to call their name. But for all of this involvement, the government might as well be the weather because a lot of us don’t think we have anything to do with it — we don’t believe we have any control over this thing that controls us. A lot of our heroes, almost by default, were people who tried to dismantle or overthrow the government — Malcolm X or the Black Panthers — or people who tried to make it completely irrelevant, like Marcus Garvey, who wanted black people to sail back to Africa. The government was everywhere we looked, and we hated it.
You don’t need to agree with Jay-Z’s framing of the relationship between government and poor urban America to recognize that parts of the American population subscribe to it. This is a description of people with a decidedly anti-government viewpoint, but one that manifests itself in a different way to the anti-government viewpoint of conservatives, Tea Partiers, and libertarians.
A brand of lazy cultural analysis claims political salience by conflating conservative “small government” rhetoric with a long American history of individualism and suspicion toward concentrated power. By claiming a certain set of pro-business economic and political policies as being congruent with minimal government, American conservatives have reduced a shared and varied cultural history to a partisan agenda. Such has been their success in this regard that some liberals believe, as Matt Yglesias puts it, that “for progressive politics to succeed [they] need to raise the social status of ‘big government.’”
The kind of anti-government views expressed by the predominantly white, middle to upper class Tea Party is as selective and nuanced as the anti-government views explicated by Jay-Z in his assumed role of avatar for predominantly black, lower class America. The people Jay-Z describes value the welfare they receive and the medical services the government provides them, though they do not appreciate the overbearing bureaucracy that comes with it. Much of their irritation with government springs from its failed presence: poorly-performing schools, for instance. The poor relationship they have with government power exercised by means of the police force derives from its intrusiveness, but also, as Public Enemy alluded to in “911 is a Joke,” its inattentiveness. This is a view of government that demands its involvement but is hostile to its encroachments.
The “small government” stance is concerned with different functions of government, but it is not that different — and certainly does not result in a reduced government presence. “Small government” conservatives tend to value government involvement in broad-based universal programs like Medicare or Social Security, infrastructure projects and regulation that facilitate suburban lifestyles, regulations that shift externalities deriving from polluting industries on to the population at large rather than the polluters, rigorous defence of borders, a strong capacity to extend military power, and strong enforcement of property rights. (Not every conservative endorses all these types of government power, but they tend to support most.) By contrast, conservatives tend to bristle at what they notice as failures of government bureaucracy, such as business regulation, income tax, or services provided to people they consider not worthy of receiving them.
Certainly it’s correct to acknowledge certain widespread cultural beliefs common amongst Americans pertaining to government and individual liberty. It is a mistake, however, to suppose these accord with a specific political ideology — that Americans are therefore conservative. (Although some are!)
And as far as specific demands from Americans for their government to do more or less: they fluctuate. At the moment, however, it seems Americans would prefer their government did more. That’s what this chart suggests, anyway: