The Lexicon Of Hip-Hop

by Brendan James

Artist Tahir Hemphill plugged American hip hop records into a database that tracks the words spawned by rap and how they evolve:

“Murk,” which means “to murder,” or “to defeat,” didn’t start out meaning that. It first appears in 1994, ambiguously, in “Real Circus,” by Saafir, in Oakland: “I submerged like a / Murk on the Mental.” It then appears in New York, conventionally, in 1998, in “Treat$,” by the Beatnuts, from Queens: “They try to prosecute me but I murk they only witness.” It also appears in 2005, in “Gangsta Shit,” by Lil Eazy-E, who is from Compton, in Los Angeles: “Fiends need another fix so they chirped again / Keep a murk in him.”

Hemphill sees the Hip Hop Word Count as a resource for settling arguments. “There’s a lot of disputes in rap—who influenced whom—who came first,” he said. “Everybody is always asking, ‘Who is the GOAT rapper, the greatest of all time?’ Mostly, it’s settled by who has the loudest voice in the room, but now people will be able to put some metrics to it.

Small Government Theocons?

by Brendan James

Ed Kilgore doesn’t buy the idea that the Christian right is turning libertarian at the expense of its puritan strain:

[O]ne of the most distinctive features of the Tea Party faith has been the divinization of such [libertarian] views, often via idolatry aimed at the Declaration of Independence, thought to reflect a theocratic charter for America making pervasive property rights, strictly limited government and the “rights of the unborn” and “traditional marriage” the only legitimate governing tenets for the country. Libertarians, of course, share some if not all of this agenda. So a growing warmth for libertarianism within the Christian Right is not a problem for its leaders, and does not necessarily mean a growing warmth for any kind of cultural liberalism.

If that last line is true, then what should we make of the data from PRRI/Brookings last week, showing a slim majority (51%) of young white evangelicals now in favor of legalizing gay marriage? (Not to mention the 75% of young Catholics.) Doesn’t that libertarian bent pose a challenge to Christianists’ agenda? And what about the recent signs that these young religious types are less interested in waging the culture wars and more interested in the environment? What’s more, if this growing contradiction is some liberal-media myth, religious conservatives have been fooled: lately they can’t stop talking about it.

While it might be possible to argue for theocon policy on libertarian grounds, as Kilgore suggests, that’s not the route young believers appear to be taking.

The Sound Of Unoriginality

by Brendan James

Ian Crouch complains that so many contemporary trailers make use of the loud, droning sound popularized by Inception:

Today’s action movies—with pretensions to deep-thinking, and filled with rueful and angry superheroes or geopolitical conflicts that attempt to mirror the fragmented realities of the War on Terror world—demand a more serious treatment, and those thunderous musical cues seem handed down to remind us that even frivolous popcorn movies aren’t supposed to merely be fun anymore. The trailer has been elevated to a minor art form unto itself, and the auteurs behind them seem to have little patience for the gimmicks of the past. Yet one day, hopefully soon, the “duhhhhn” will be gone, abandoned for the next trailer innovation, and will be remembered as a kind of dated sonic cheese.

Containing The Congo

by Brendan James

The UN is putting some teeth on its peacekeeping mission in the DRC, authorizing a 3,000-strong “intervention brigade” to put down militia violence in the eastern part of the country. David Bosco reminds us that the last attempt to do so turned ugly, fast:

In 2006, a group of Guatemalan special forces soldiers assigned to the peacekeeping mission attempted to hunt down units of the Lord’s Resistance Army operating in Congo’s Garamba National Park. The operation turned into a disaster. Several U.N. soldiers were killed (likely by friendly fire), and the LRA forces escaped. In early 2009, U.N. forces began actively supporting the offensive operations of the Congolese armed forces. But that collaboration was dialed back as criticism of Congolese army tactics mounted.

He argues these missions are almost always hobbled by inadequate forces sent with ambitious goals:

Part of the problem with offensive U.N. operations is that the training and resources of the forces doing the fighting often doesn’t match the mandate. It’s one thing for the Security Council to authorize offensive operations from New York; it’s quite another thing for peacekeeping commanders to manage them successfully on the ground. During the U.N.’s Bosnia operation in the 1990s, that gap between the Council’s proclamations and the actual work of peacekeepers grew to tragic proportions.

Art For Tyrants

by Brendan James

Iraqi army MIA1 Abrams tanks march under

Kanan Makiya reviews Igor Golomstock’s Totalitarian Art, now updated with a new section on Makiya’s homeland of Iraq:

One cannot think of a more perfect example of the totalitarian artistic impulse than Saddam’s insistence that a cast of his own forearms be used as the mold from which the Victory Arch was to be made. But in general, depictions of the leader, perhaps the most common subject of total realism, had to be mythologized. It would not do, for example, for a Soviet artist to depict Stalin as the short, pockmarked, bandy-legged man that he really was. His physical attributes, as in F. S. Shurpin’s portrait The Morning of Our Fatherland, had to undergo the same transformation as Stalin’s version of history, to be turned into what the writer Milan Kundera so eloquently referred to as “the beautifying lie.”

He takes issue with Golomstock’s dismissal of art under Saddam:

Totalitarian art is only interesting when the best artistic talent engages in it, and this is what happened in Iraq.

Under Hitler, many of the best artists went into exile, continuing modernism on the more welcoming shores of the Unite[d] States. (The consequences of choosing not to flee can be severe: the poet Mayakovsky stayed on in Stalin’s Russia, which may have had something to do with why he shot himself in 1930.) In Iraq, by contrast, most of the talented artists of the 1950s and 1960s collaborated with the new regime. Ghani Hikmat and Khalid al-Rahal, two of the most promising young Iraqi talents in the 1960s, went on to carry out such total realist monstrosities as the Victory Arch and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in the 1980s. They did so because their project of the reappropriation of Iraqi turath, or “heritage,” was hijacked by the Baath Party, which found it politically parallel to its own idea of a Baathist-led “renaissance” of Arabness.

It’s also likely that the lack of a coherent, monolithic ideology in Baathist Iraq allowed for more varied and interesting art. Iraq was always a totalitarian state in practice, but never really in theory: unlike its Stalinist and fascist forebears, it never sported a pure, overarching mythology on par with Marxism-Leninism or Hitler’s Nietzschean race theory—just a vision of brutal Arab nationalism with Saddam as messiah.

As a result, the state had no real literary or artistic doctrine to enforce and no need to purge the artistic class for ideological credentials. You either had the talent to glorify Saddam, or you didn’t. It seems much closer to the status of art under Mussolini, as described by Makiya:

Whereas Hitler and Stalin used both threats and rewards to co-opt artists, Mussolini used only the latter, and so pre-Fascist Italian culture was never laid to waste the way German and Russian culture were.

Of course, as Makiya also notes, the boundaries of Saddam’s hodgepodge ideology left no room for a true Arab renaissance. Under the interrogation lights, all art will eventually wither away, and before long, proper tributes to the president have to be designed by the president himself. Whether in Stalin’s imperium or a tiny Arab prison-state, the words of Czeslaw Milosz apply:

This way of treating literature (and every art) leads to absolute conformism. Is such conformism favorable to serious artistic work? That is doubtful. The sculptures of Michelangelo are completed acts that endure. There was a time when they did not exist. Between their non-existence and existence lies the creative act, which cannot be understood as a submission to the “wave of the future.” The creative act is associated with a feeling of freedom that is, in its turn, born in the struggle against an apparently invincible resistance. Whoever truly creates is alone.

And you’re never alone with Big Brother around.

(Photo: Iraqi army MIA1 Abrams tanks march under the victory Arch landmark during a parade to mark the 91st Army Day in Baghdad on January 6, 2012, weeks after US troops completed their pullout. By Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)

The Harlem Shake-Down?

by Brendan James

Kevin Ashton claims the meme had “nothing to do with community and everything to do with commerce”, noting that one of the first imitations of the original “Harlem Shake” videos was from a company called Maker Studios trying to promote itself, and that soon after the song’s record label, Mad Decent, got in the game as well. Then came the advertisers and media companies:

[T]hese companies started posting and promoting their own “Harlem Shake” videos. They included College Humor, a website owned by IAC, a publicly traded company that also owns Newsweek; Vimeo, a YouTube rival also owned by IAC; and BuzzFeed, a viral content website that promoted its video with a story subtitled “If you haven’t done one yet, you better get on it right away!” (The Huffington Post also ran a story, “The Harlem Shake: A ’00s Classic, Having Another Moment“). Thousands of “Harlem Shake” videos were uploaded during the week of Feb. 11, many of them from businesses with something to sell.

This is abnormal. “Single Ladies,” “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe,” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” were made by professionals and first imitated by professionals–Saturday Night Live in the case of “Single Ladies,” indie Canadian band Walk Off The Earth in the case of “Somebody That I Used To Know,” and Justin Bieber in the case of “Call Me Maybe”–then later by fans and amateurs. “Harlem Shake,” was a meme made by an amateur, George Miller, but its rapid replication was driven by media and marketing professionals, led and orchestrated by three companies: Maker Studios, Mad Decent, and IAC.

Leor Galil yawns:

It’s an interesting theory, and Ashton has a great handle on the evolution of the “Harlem Shake” meme from its beginning … through its viral comedown, but the underlying statement is loaded in a way that skirts certain details—like the fact that fan-made “Harlem Shake” videos amassed several hundred thousand views, a number strong enough to be considered “viral,” prior to any “corporate” involvement in the meme. Ashton also goes to great pains to point out the corporate ties for some of the outlets responsible for contributing to the “Harlem Shake” meme that directly benefited from its popularity while glossing over the fact that the meme, like many before it, got its footing through corporate-funded channels: Maker Studios got wind of the meme after employee Vernon Shaw discovered it on uber-popular social site Reddit, which is owned by monolithic media empire Advance Publications, and all the fan-made videos were largely uploaded to a hugely popular corporate entity, YouTube. While Reddit and YouTube foster unique digital communities and everyday contributors have the ability to affect every denizen that doesn’t negate the fact that they are corporations.

Is Adderall The New Caffeine?

by Brendan James

Will Oremus takes a sober look at the unprescribed use of Adderall and questions whether it might become recognized as a casual performance enhancer like coffee:

In fact, there is scant evidence that Adderall is physically addictive or dangerous if used responsibly by adults. Its side effects—which can include dizziness, weight loss, and increased heart rate—are real and worth watching out for. People with cardiovascular conditions in particular could have an adverse response, which is one good reason why people should think twice before taking the drug without consulting their doctor. And as with pretty much any medication, crushing and snorting Adderall to get high, or taking more than the recommended dose, is patently foolish. But the drug appears to be far safer on the whole than legal substances like alcohol and nicotine. Even that terrifying Times article [about the Adderall-linked suicide of Richard Fee], if you read it to the bitter end, acknowledges that “almost every one of more than 40 ADHD experts interviewed for this article said that worst-case scenarios like [Fee’s] can occur with any medication.”

Portman, Cheney and Hillary

Molly Redden surveys other politicians who have been pressured on marriage equality by their children:

The three eldest Huntsman sisters—Mary Anne, Liddy, and Abby—all publicly supported same-sex marriage before their father, Jon Huntsman. But they seized on the fact that he endorsed civil unions for gay couples in 2009, Abby told me, and pushed him to go further. “We had conversations about it with my dad all the time,” she said. “He was more than ready to go there.” When he finally wrote an op-ed for the American Conservative in mid-February saying that he supported gay marriage, Abby helped him write it.

Barbara Pierce Bush, one of George W. Bush’s twin daughters, filmed a short spot in favor of a 2011 marriage equality bill in New York State. Her mother, faced with the opportunity to do the same, chickened out, asking that supportive statements she’d made about same-sex marriage be pulled from a pro-marriage-equality ad. (Meanwhile, George W. Bush has given no signals that he’s moving on the issue.) And while being a Republican and marriage equality advocate can be a real bitch—her words—Meghan McCain has pushed the issue tirelessly as a writer and speaker. She apparently won over her mother, who appeared in a pro-same sex marriage photo shoot in 2010; John McCain, however, remains opposed.

For the record, I don’t think this means that these people are somehow only moved by an issue when their own family is affected. Any generational change like this requires parents to be persuaded by children. Portman is not to be criticized for this. He’s a human being. And the most powerful advocate of any idea is another human being you know and love.

The Climate Game-Changer

This graph seems to me to reconcile aspects of legitimate skepticism with a devastating reality. Here’s the earth’s temperatures going back 11,000 years – far further than the 2,000 years previously viewed in popular culture as the “hockey stick”. You can see that stick at the far right of the following graph:


So, yes, the earth has been warmer than it now is while humans inhabited it. Yes, climate has shifted over the millennia, depending on a variety of non-human factors which could also be affecting us now. Yes, in the last half a millennium, we hit what was described as a mini-ice-age, bringing temperatures down to record lows for ten millennia. In 1683, for example, the river Thames was frozen completely for two months. Here’s a painting of the river in 1677, as the Little Ice Age, as we now call it, set in:


I can remember a cover-story in the New Republic predicting a new ice age in the 1980s – based on the long-term chilling of the planet. So you can see why those urging against hysteria have some historical climate variety to argue that change has always been here and that humans have lived on the planet for 2000 years and adapted to similar temperature variations before. So chill out, and keep drilling.

The problem with that reassuring scenario, as Tim McDonnell points out, is that we have never before experienced this sudden rate of heating before ever – certainly not since humans developed agriculture. It’s getting close to a vertical line now, which suggests to me that the likelihood of feedback loops actually intensifying the heat has also gone up.To put it mildly, I can see no external reason why the earth’s temperature would have suddenly gone haywire in the last 500 years, without factoring in carbon, capitalism and the industrial revolution. For a while, that carbon actually warmed us up out of a millennial-long cooling. But now, it’s out of control. And if you begin to imagine the impact of every Chinese or Indian reaching the same level of prosperity as Western Europe, using the same carbon sources of energy, we are clearly putting the planet through a stress test never before imposed by its inhabitants.

To be perfectly frank, this graph shows our civilization to be unsustainable unless we dramatically alter its source of energy. Maybe we can adapt – in ways our ancestors did. But they were able to do so over much, much longer periods of time, and were not actually creating the situation.

We have become gods. And we are destroying what we inherited as a species. I do not have an answer, and suspect only a technological breakthrough in energy resources will make a difference real enough to stop this looming catastrophe. But that this isn’t the priority of every government on Earth right now (apart from Russia and Canada) is beyond me. And a carbon tax – the simplest clearest inhibitor of turning our planet into an oven – would be a start.