Ich kann gar nicht so viel fressen, wie ich kotzen moechte: I can’t eat enough to puke as much as I want to. The words of the great German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann as he watched the Nazis march through the Brandenburg Gate came to mind as I saw Ron Howard’s Showtime documentary about Jay Z’s 2012 “Made in America” festival. We’ve seen this all before: the emotive orator with a twisted face evoking surge of rage from a mass audience that responds with rhythmic arm gestures. I’m late to this discussion, to be sure:
This is the face of American fascism. Compared to the confessed crack dealer and knifer Jay Z, to be sure, Adolf Hitler was a man of high intellect and deep culture. Jay Z, our most successful and wealthiest performing artist, honored White House guest and proprietor of a pop-culture empire, is no Hitler: he lacks the talent to field a political movement, and, fortunately, does not appear to hate Jews. Fascism, though, is not ipso facto directed against Jews. Mussolini began as an anti-clerical socialist with support from a great deal of Italy’s small Jewish community, and did not persecute Jews until Hitler told him to.
Who would have believed that a performing genre (it is a stretch to call it “music”) dominated by convicted and confessed criminals, brutally misogynistic, preaching and practicing violence, would come to dominate American popular culture? Jay Z, who brags of dealing drugs and shooting an older brother in his youth, and plead guilty to stabbing a record producer, could “help shape attitudes in a real (sic) positive way,” according to President Obama. Jay Z texts regularly with the president and is a regular White House visitor after opening Obama campaign rallies.
Jay Z’s message to the Philadelphia crowd that Ron Howard filmed last year is the same thing he puts on the airwaves, for example:
We formed a new religion
No sins as long as there’s permission
And deception is the only felony
So never fuck nobody without telling me
Sunglasses and Advil, last night was mad real.
Music, Jay Z told Howard’s cameramen, can unite people in a way that politics and religion cannot. Everyone is a genius, everyone is oppressed. He is the prophet of a new religion: African-American music has gone from Thelonius Monk to felonius priest. Violence is not only a legitimate form of expression: it is the only manly form of expression, as in his rap “D.O.A.”:
This might offend my political connects
My raps don’t have melodies
This should make niggas wan’ go and commit felonies
Get your chain tooken
I may do it myself, I’m so Brooklyn!
I know we facing a recession
But the music y’all making gon’ make it the Great Depression
All y’all lack aggression
Put your skirt back down, grow a set man
Nigga this shit violent
The explicit call to violence (including chain-snatching as a form of political expression) is a playful challenge to his “political connects,” namely the president. One should not conclude from this that Obama favors criminal violence, but rather that the popular response to Jay Z’s evocation of felonious rage is so great that Obama finds it convenient to exploit it. There is nothing at all new in any of this: we heard it before from Nietzsche in his evocation of the “Blonde Beast’s” life-affirming violence, from George Sorel, from Mussolini’s call for “creative violence.”
Jay Z appeals to the same kind of rage that Hitler and Mussolini exploited during the interwar years. Never in the postwar period has the United States had youth unemployment in the 25% range for over half a decade:
Never has the outlook for college graduates looked so grim. College is no longer a promise of middle-class status for most young Americans. The default rate on student loans two years after issuance has nearly doubled from 5.2% in 2006 to 9.1% in 2010. The average student graduates with $26,000 in debt, and two-thirds of all students leave college indebted. The available jobs no longer offer the income required to carry the debt burden. For a few bright students, online courses will provide a cheap education; for most, the opportunity has shriveled.
The 25% youth unemployment rate is effectively five percentage points higher, because the base on which the unemployment rate is calculated–the labor force–has shrunk drastically as a percentage of young Americans.
This is not a black phenomenon; Jay Z articulates a characteristically black rage that resonates with the first generation of white Americans since the Great Depression who have lost hope of achieving the same standard of living that their parents had.
Real median household income has fallen by nearly 10% since its peak in the late 1990s:
It would be dangerous to interpret the surge of Jay Z’s political influence as an economic phenomenon. He is making a spiritual appeal–albeit a wicked and perverse one–in a growing spiritual vacuum.
The answer is that we have failed–with some remarkable exceptions–to hold onto our young people. Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield likes to say that the big question in American politics is whether the red states can produce children faster than professors from the blue states can corrupt them. The roots of conservative strength are deteriorating. A sign of the times, as I wrote Aug. 28 at the Orthodox Jewish website Torah Musings, was a widely-circulated essay by the distinguished Catholic journalist Joseph Bottum arguing that there was no point in fighting over gay marriage.
The Catholic Church is besieged by secularism and suffering from the self-inflicted injury of the sex abuse scandals. The resignation of Benedict XVI, one of its great theologians and doctrinal leaders, left its leadership uncertain. Not only Catholicism but the American Evangelical movement—a mainstay of American support for the State of Israel—is caught by the receding tide. In an Aug. 16 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Russell Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, announced, “The Bible Belt is collapsing.” Moore added, “We are no longer the moral majority. We are a prophetic minority.” The Evangelicals have not retained their young people. The Pew survey reported in 2007 that 32% of Americans aged 50 to 64 are white Evangelicals, against only 13% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. The public tide has turned against religion.
Important documentation of the state of the evangelical movement is found in Robert W. Nicholson’s essay on evangelicals and Israel at Neal Kozodoy’s superb website Mosaicmagazine.com. He addresses among other things the attenuation of evangelical support for Israel and puts it in the broader context of the fraying of faith:
Whether and to what extent evangelical religion has been taking a left turn in recent years has been much debated in Christian media. Many of the movement’s leaders, alarmed by developments in their local communities, have warned against doctrinal drift among the young. Others have denied it, citing survey data to maintain that young evangelicals are actually more conservative than ever. Without entering into this by-now hoary debate, I submit that sizable parts of the evangelical community have indeed departed from a traditional understanding of their faith.
This exodus is no secret. Participants in the trend are hardly shy about their beliefs and ultimate goals, and sympathetic outsiders have been quick to notice and applaud them. Indeed, the “New Evangelicalism” has been heralded by progressive figures within the larger Christian community not as a turning away but as a restoration of the true essence of Christianity. Driving this move, one hears, is the desire to exemplify Jesus’ love for the world by breaking free of old stereotypes and knocking down the barriers between evangelicals and “mainstream” American culture.
….Thus, in a wildly popular book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons sift a mountain of polling data to conclude that young evangelicals, just like their peers, find conservative Christianity to be “too anti-homosexual,” “too judgmental,” and “too political” for their taste.
There is one small but telling exception to the decline of social conservatism among young people, and that is in the numerically tiny world of Orthodox Judaism. The retention rate for young Orthodox Jews (up to age 29) is a remarkable 83%, much higher than at any time in the past century. In the past Jewish immigrants were overwhelmingly “Orthodox” (there was no other form of Judaism in Eastern Europe or the Muslim world). The great dichotomy was between “Old World” religion and assimilation into America. Orthodox Jews raised in America have no such dichotomy. They already are assimilated, comfortable in their Americanism as well as their Judaism. Orthodoxy, moreover, has built broad and deep institutions that sustain a counterculture independent of the ambient decadence, most importantly day schools. Orthodox success stands in contrast to liberal Jewish denominations, which are declining as fast as mainline Protestantism did a generation ago.
By no means do I wish to present Orthodox Judaism as a utopia. We have many problems and little cause for complacency. But the high retention rate of young observant Jews bears a broader lesson: the conservative movement is rooted in a set of values that cannot be separated from religion, just as de Tocqueville wrote in 1835. Without our own institutions and our own alternative to the prevailing culture, we will decline.
We need to stick to our principles and strengthen our institutions. Again, from my Torah Musings essay:
As the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore told the Wall Street Journal, Christians are becoming a minority. And what they best can learn from the Jews is how to be a minority, as I argued in a comment on a recent symposium on the future of First Things. There are some concessions that traditional religion cannot make without sacrificing its authority, and the character of the human family is one of these. Orthodox Judaism survived decades of cultural isolation when conventional wisdom predicted that it shrink to the status of an irrelevant sect. Orthodoxy has thrived, on the contrary, precisely because it refused to abandon Torah values, while progressive Jewish denominations are shrinking. Christians should take encouragement from the Orthodox example and remain true to their principles.
This is a war in which there are no knockout punches, no decisive battles: It is an extended war of attrition to recreate a conservative majority from the grass roots up, in the face of a truly evil effort to exploit the rage and frustration of young Americans. It will last the rest of our lifetimes and more.
From time to time one finds conservatives hoping that someone as popular as Jay-Z might deliver a conservative message. That is delusional: the culture is the message.