A New York Times interview with controversial rapper and ex-convict Tekashi 6ix9ine offers a rich catalog of the curious values that characterize contemporary US culture. What emerges from the feature is a series of reflections by both the interviewer and the interviewee on some of the driving forces in today’s society, including ambition, fame, money, commercial media, tools of influence, law and social rules, and freedom of expression.
Some may wonder why the Gray Lady — aka The New York Times — should take such a serious interest in a scandal-ridden rapper. The answer to that question tells us quite a lot about the values that now dominate, even in what are deemed the most serious media. Scandal, crime and celebrity have moved up several notches in the priority list of “all the news that’s fit to print.”
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What appears to make the interview worthy of coverage by The Times is a spectacular scoop. The interviewer, Joe Coscarelli, gets 6ix9ine to admit that, if allowed to vote, he would go for US President Donald Trump. This meets an essential criterion for New York Times stories in this election cycle. An article that associates the extreme, manifestly irrational personalities of marginal celebrities with a taste for Trump’s politics is a strong argument for voting Joe Biden in November. It has the twofold advantage of confirming that Trump’s fans are marginal freaks and suggesting that the president himself implicitly shares the criminal instincts of those freaks.
This approach to the news could be called “divisive,” though not in the sense that the word is used by The Times itself and the intelligence community to characterize Russian interference in US elections. It implicitly divides Americans into those who think and make serious decisions — a category that would include all readers of the New York Times — and those whose sole interest is to express their irrational impulses.
To Coscarelli’s question, “You feel like the art you’re making is adding to the world?” the rapper answers, “Of course.” The interviewer then offers this critique of 6ix9ine’s music: “Maybe it’s fun, it’s turn-up music, but it’s not introspective.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An attitude attributable to people who deserve to be taken seriously not just because of their success, but because they sometimes stop to think things through and weight their own responsibilities
US social and political debate has become so divisive in recent years that society can now be separated into two groups: those who, like Barack Obama, pronounce the second syllable of “divisive” with a short “i” sound (as in “it”) and those who pronounce it as a full diphthong (as in “eye”). Alas, this distinction cuts across all boundaries of political and cultural orientation.
The question of introspection highlights a more telling distinction in US culture. Over the past two centuries, self-reliance and atomistic individualism have risen to the level of a philosophical ideal. This became a central message of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influential philosophy. This ideology initiated a tug of war between assertive action and introspection.
P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century founder of the Barnum and Bailey circus and the man who said, “Never give a sucker an even break,” set the tone for Emerson when he proclaimed, “Fortune always favors the brave, and never helps a man who does not help himself.” Initiating the great American tradition of giving to those who need it least — as exemplified in recent government bailouts as a response to the economic crisis — Barnum added this thought: “The best kind of charity is to help those who are willing to help themselves.”
Ever since Barnum established the principle that success belongs to the assertive, the very idea of assertiveness flipped from being seen as a moral weakness — or moral traditionally, as the capital sin of pride — to becoming the supreme personal virtue that separates the rich from the poor.
In the hierarchy of values that regulates US culture, being assertive does not necessarily exclude introspection. For Emerson it even required it. Introspection allows the ambitious individual to assess and correct any of the weaknesses that may undermine a veneer of assertiveness. But for at least half of the population, if introspection exists, it should be hidden because the average person (the suckers) will perceive it as a weakness. For the other half of the population, it still stands as a moral virtue.
Effective assertiveness thus implies the skill of hiding the reality of introspection to create the appearance of certitude based on the person’s unwavering convictions and self-confidence. It is only when the assertive person is caught out for being too assertive and must apologize after a glaring mistake that it becomes necessary to invoke the virtue of introspection. This typically translates as the standard cliché of confused denial: “That is not who I am.”
The half of the population that dismisses or hides introspection from view correlates roughly with the Republican Party. Trump stands at one extreme, thanks to his apparent total absence of introspection. As president between 2001 and 2009, George W. Bush may have been capable of introspection, but he carefully hid it from view. He projected an image of resoluteness and unwavering conviction even when faced with facts that contradicted his stated beliefs. He won the 2004 election by accusing his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, of flip-flopping.
Democrats prefer to maintain their faith in introspection as an intellectual and moral virtue, setting themselves apart from the rabble. Their defense of introspection enabled Republicans in the 1950s to term them “eggheads,” people who prefer thinking to acting. When Hillary Clinton called Trump voters a “basket of deplorables” in 2016, she was implicitly accusing them of being incapable of introspection.
After two centuries that have seen the growing dominance of the idea of assertiveness in the US, what is the status of introspection in today’s culture? The interview with Tekashi 6ix9ine confirms the division highlighted above between the Democrat-aligned Times and its belief in the virtue of introspection vs. the rapper who identifies with the Republicans and Donald Trump and dismisses introspection as irrelevant.
In the interview, Coscarelli affirms his belief in the value of introspection. He appreciates that the late rapper Tupac Shakur “grappled with his demons” and said, “I’ve done good, I’ve done bad, I want to be better.” Coscarelli implicitly condemns 6ix9ine for not including self-criticism to his repertoire of artistic sentiments.
But rap thrives on extreme, borderline criminal assertiveness, unlike traditional forms of black American music: blues, jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues. Traditional black music focused on sophisticated musical form and ironic expression in a complex cultural context. It contained at its core a pair of emotions: humility and love. The player was always less important than the music, even in the case of dominant figures admired for the power they built into their performances, such as John Coltrane or James Brown.
In the 1980s, the rise of rap and hip-hop as the dominant if not unique form of black music consecrated the triumph of assertiveness over introspection. The music industry — run essentially by white executives — saw this revolution as a godsend. Rock and roll — which took root in the 1950s — had already lowered the bar of musical complexity and introspection for the white community, making it easier to produce highly profitable hits. But it maintained the link to humility and love.
Rap provided another advantage for white record producers, who defined it as the culture of the ‘hood. Music took a back seat to extremely individualistic aggressive intent. In the Ronald Reagan era, this helped to consolidate the white community’s perception of black culture as essentially criminal and antagonistic to traditional white values, even though white youths enthusiastically purchased the records. Rap made money for its star performers, producing a new generation of rags-to-riches heroes. For the first time, they were black males who embodied, in their way, the Reaganian ideal of the self-made man recognizable by his financial success.
6ix9ine is right when he contradicts Coscarelli’s apparent belief that simply because he wants “to do better,” Tupac Shakur was introspective. Coscarelli’s take reflects the political orientation of The New York Times and its minimally introspective Democratic Party ethos. The neoliberals have done bad but want to do better. Which means doing the same thing but fixing it on the edges. “Vote Biden” is the message.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.