Or, I mean, what’s going on with how the chatterati are going to write about it.
As I’ve said for a long time, a lot of progressive educated white types have essentially replaced having a politics with having certain cultural attachments and affectations. Really aggressively praising the Wire becomes a stand-in for “I am not racist.” Complaining that Selma was robbed becomes a stand-in for having done the necessary work to understand the history of race in America. Telling anyone who’ll listen that you think all of the creativity and risk are in hip hop now becomes a stand-in for advancing a meaningful political platform that could actually improve the lives of actually-existing black people. White people are so weird about Beyonce because Beyonce has become an all-purpose floating signifier, a vessel on to which bourgie white folks project all of their desires for how other people should see them. These vague associations with arts and media are intended to send a message that, if voiced explicitly, we all know by now to ridicule: some of my best friends are black.
So here we have a seemingly perfect scenario for people to invest celebrity news with political meaning: a highly respected black producer speaking out in a way that’s traditionally viewed as socially impermissible, in favor of a wildly-popular black singer and against an aging white rock star. It aligns with so many of the ways our chattering class loves to argue about race. It’s risk free! It comes pre-analyzed! It’s drawn across very, very obvious lines in the cultural battles we love to fight! But you could be forgiven for asking what it actually means for anyone who’s not already a millionaire.
Now I’ve been dinged in the past for suggesting that these cultural objects don’t have political valence. But I don’t mean to suggest that here. I’m not suggesting that there’s no political meaning to be had in these various artistic affiliations. What I am suggesting is that these attachments cannot possibly substitute for a healthy, functioning racial politics. They are designed to be a way to hide out from exactly the kind of risk and personal investment that are a prerequisite of meaningful political advancement. Precisely because they operate at a remove from policy and philosophy, they carry with them the shield of permanent plausible deniability. At the same time, they perform the necessary function in the most useless kind of politics, which is the social signaling that we have made a part of 21st century elite culture. By design, even if it’s unconscious design, treating your attitudes about celebrity as a substitute for having an explicit philosophy on racial politics gives us the worst of both worlds. And it seems to have become incredibly common these days.
You can already predict how the cycle will go. Someone (white) will write a grumpy piece, attacking Kanye West for not being classy. Someone else (also white) will write a piece insisting that “classy” is a racially coded word, and asking West to comport himself that way is indicative of white privilege and latent racism. And everyone will rush to their already-established positions, ready to once again have the same tired arguments that we’ve seen a thousand times, dutifully laying out predigested lines and canned outrage, barely noticing that there’s no there there. Just as happened to Richard Sherman, who became a champion to liberals precisely to the degree that they erased him from his own story and treated him like an inert symbol, whatever actual human concerns are at the heart of this story will vanish. Only the Takes will remain. Meanwhile, actual racial inequality– the structural conditions that hurt the lives of actual black Americans– is worse now than when I was born.
And on it goes.
Update: For example.