In culture this year, as in politics, the extremes are touching. The tribunes of the people have joined forces with the conglomerated princes of capitalist darkness to defend the right of Ice-T and Body Count to arouse their listeners with fantasies of cop-killing. Thus Barbara Ehrenreich, oddly conflating two Bob Dylan songs and mistaking “Cop Killer” for rap, writes in Time Warner’s Time magazine that “you don’t need a rap song to tell which way the wind is blowing,” that is to say, the fury of the song has a basis in reality; and Gerald M. Levin, president and CEO of Time Warner and, it seems safe to say, something of a stranger to the streets, writes in The Wall Street Journal that “this song is rooted in the reality of the streets,” and proceeds to call, as a witness for the defense of his corporation, Malcolm X. The comedy is delicious. If ever there was evidence that freedom of expression in this society will be defended in all its precincts, here it is.
The defenders of “Cop Killer,” however, are having it a lot of ways. Because of its basis in the wretchedness of South-Central Los Angeles, “Cop Killer” should sound an alarm; and because “Cop Killer” is (in Ehrenreich’s words) merely “hyperbole” and “boast” and “gesture,” there is no need to be alarmed. Well, which is it? Is the inflammation real or isn’t it? Of course, what Ehrenreich has inadvertently described is only the bad faith of a liberal and a rock fan, for whom black rage must be real enough to provide a thrill but not so real that it actually threatens anything. Thus she praises what she calls “the outlaw subcultures of rap and rock,” which is about as incorrect and idealized a description of rap and rock as anyone has lately seen.
Nor is that all. How would—how did—some of Ice-T’s defenders react, say, to the Willie Horton ad? Did they insist that there was an empirical basis for the white fears of crime upon which the ad preyed? Did they reassure the American electorate that the ad was only hyperbole and gesture, that there was no reason, therefore, to make a fuss? Of course not. They treated the symbol like the real thing. And, in a sense, they were right: not about the liberal refusal to speak candidly about crime, but about the power of symbols in politics and culture. All cultural expressions, after all, are gestures. None of the kisses or the bullets of American popular music, Body Count’s included, is real. But symbols are real, which is why they influence thought, which influences behavior.
No, Ice-T has not killed a cop, and neither has anybody else killed a cop in the name of Ice-T’s song. But those who wish that such a song, and more generally American popular culture, be taken seriously had better take it seriously themselves. There is a picture of a world in this song, a picture of the inner-city world and the courses of action that are available to its inhabitants. It makes emotional recommendations. (Consider only the chorus: “COP KILLER, it’s better you than me/COP KILLER, fuck police brutality!/COP KILLER, I know your family’s grievin’/(FUCK ‘EM!)/COP KILLER, but tonight we get even”.) When the peddler of rage from the record company writes that “it doesn’t incite or glorify violence,” he is lying, or at least disqualifying himself from the business of music criticism. The song certainly does incite and glorify violence. If it didn’t, it would be only second-rate speed-metal that nobody would buy or discuss.
We do not believe that the record should be withdrawn from the stores, or that censorship of any kind would improve anything in any way. But the contents of American culture cannot be hidden behind the freedom of American culture. For culture brings news. Consider another song on Ice-T’s record, called “Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight.” Here the singer tells the story of his own disgust at his own mother’s hatred of white people: “She taught me hate for race.... She taught me bad things, `Don’t trust white people.’” The pure and sorely needed air of tolerance, it would seem -- but then “mutha” rejects the singer’s white girlfriend, and a rejection of racism gives way to an exaltation of murder. “I found out my mutha was an evil woman ... So I got some lighter fluid ... and I set her on fire! Ha, ha, ha. Burn momma, burn momma, burn momma, burn bitch, burn, burn, burrrrn. Ha, ha, ha. Burn you racist bitch....” After which our hero grabs a carving knife and cuts her almost dead body into pieces.
Is the freedom to make such a song all that needs to be remarked about it, or should we also make mention of its cynicism and its pornography of violence? Of course we must hear the news that culture brings. But then we must engage it, and challenge it, as citizens of an open society do. To defend freedom, you must also defend foulness; and then you must acknowledge that it is foulness that you are defending.