Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In Rapped Attention . . .

In the current edition of City Magazine, the quarterly journal of the Manhattan Institute, the magazine's editor-at-large, Myron Magnet, has a piece on the moral and social catastrophe now occurring in parts of the inner-city black culture. It is a difficult piece to read. His analysis of rap music and the gangsta ethos that it often celebrates is deeply disturbing. Here are two short excerpts:
Over 16 percent of black men have been in prison (and 22.4 percent of those between 38 and 42 years old), blacks account for about 40 percent of the nation’s entire prison and jail population, and, extrapolating from its 2001 numbers, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that nearly a third of black men will go to prison during their lifetimes. In New York, home of the nation’s largest African-American community, blacks commit 68.5 percent of all the violent crime, Heather Mac Donald calculates, even though they compose only 24 percent of the population. It’s hard to argue that poverty explains these numbers, since blacks, 12 percent of the U.S. population, committed 48.5 percent of the nation’s rapes and sexual assaults in 2005.
How did this disaster happen? Magnet concurs with the analysis offered by Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Standford University. He writes:
By World War I, Sowell’s data show, northern blacks scored higher on armed-forces tests than southern whites. After World War II and the GI Bill, black education and income levels rose sharply. It was only in the mid-1960s that a century of black progress seemed to make a sudden U-turn, a reversal that long-past events didn’t cause. Beginning around 1964, the rates of black high school graduation, workforce participation, crime, illegitimacy, and drug use all turned sharply in the wrong direction. While many blacks continued to move forward, a sizable minority solidified into an underclass, defined by self-destructive behavior that all but guaranteed failure.

What was going on in the mid-sixties that could explain such a startling development? Political scientist Charles Murray gave the first answer to that question: welfare benefits sharply rose just at that moment. Offering more purchasing power than a minimum-wage job, the dole, he argued, provided an economic incentive for women to have out-of-wedlock babies and for their boyfriends to live off their welfare payments, too.

A decade after Murray, I suggested that, though welfare was part of the answer, the real explanation was larger. It was cultural, not economic. Begun by the elites, vast changes reshaped mainstream attitudes in the 1960s. Sex became fine outside marriage, and illegitimacy lost its stigma. Drugs were cool; social authority and tradition weren’t. America was deemed a racist, unjust society that victimized and impoverished blacks, who could rarely better their condition and who therefore deserved generous welfare benefits as reparations for past and present oppression. If blacks committed crime, the system that drove them to it, out of poverty or as an act of protest, was at fault: we shouldn’t blame the victim, as the saying went—meaning the poor criminal, not his prey. Since people shape their actions according to the ideas and beliefs they hold, when these new attitudes reached the inner cities, what could result but an epidemic of social dysfunction?
Magnet's article turns to the lyrics of rap "music" to diagnose the pathology that is currently infecting the minds and hearts of the most vulnerable young black children. After reviewing in painful detail the brutally misogynous lyrics of much of gangsta rap, Magnet offers this:
The great accomplishment of civilization has been to replace the reign of force with the rule of law, and to humanize the animal realities in which our lives are embedded by means of manners and rituals that give those realities a human meaning. And if the rule of law fares poorly in rap, civilization’s great effort to transform the animal facts of reproduction into love and marriage doesn’t do so well in gangsta-land, either. This is what so much of our culture is about—our manners and morals, poetry and song and film, from the Song of Solomon and the medieval French romances to “The Way You Look Tonight”: yes, I have these feelings, but not just for anyone; it’s you personally I love, so much that I want you always. And many of the popular songs of the 1940s and 1950s, making the promise of permanence explicit, end with talk of marriage. Human beings undergo an education of the feelings, and popular culture’s love songs were once great instructors in this school.
It makes for very depressing reading. It's here if you are feeling up to it. But I would add this: Without for one minute wanting to excuse this deplorable situation by attributing it all to historical racism, it is important to realize that culture matters. What the naive liberationist ethos of the 1960s let loose on the world has had devastating consequences everywhere. (I say this with personal remorse for how readily I found many of its fashionable nostrums convincing at the time.)

Many of us fortunate enough to have received moral, religious, and cultural formation, and who had the luxury of loving and stable families, may have seen our youthful idealism morph into something vulgar and aimless. But it was those without this cultural and psychological grounding who were to take the brunt of the revolution. The crisis in the black community is today a glaring and deeply disturbing symbol of a much wider moral and cultural disintegration. In my view, this terrible situation cannot be rectified without the reawakening of genuine religious devotion (and not simply quasi-religious zeal -- which often amounts to little more than the redirection of resentment). More to the point, what's needed is the revitalization of Christian faith, once the moral and social bedrock of African-American life.

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