Reluctant nationalists and Drake defenders

Crystal Clutchers

Dear Editors,

I just read your piece about astrology (“Stars, They’re Just Like Us!”) and was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite Carl Sagan books, The Demon-Haunted World (1995):

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time  —  when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

P.S. I just bought my girlfriend a full set of Reiki-infused chakra crystals for Christmas.

 — Nathan Curry

On Drake

Dear Editors,

I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, by a number of assumptions Frank Guan made in his review of Drake (“Gone Guy”), but my concern boiled down to two points, which I’ll try to outline briefly.

The first was the lack of distinction made between different modes of public performance: there was little to distinguish a teenage Aubrey on Degrassi from Drake’s actions onstage and online from the lyrics he raps in his songs. This seems minor, but it’s crucial to understanding rap as an art form. Rap lyrics create a persona distinct from the rapper as a person, even if that persona is similar (Guan acknowledges the existence of a Drake persona, but folds it in with all the rest of his examples). As in any other genre, the lyrical persona in rap obeys and plays with conventions. That rappers, even mainstream pop-rappers, aren’t 100 percent coincident with who they claim to be in their songs is an important thing to consider when holding one up as a symbol of his time.

Second, rap presents us not only with the general question of authenticity in art but with the problem of its commodification. As a middle-class black-and-white rapper, Drake appeals in part because he never hid his past (and couldn’t). In his lyrics, he makes the same claims to an authentic struggle that any other rapper does; the hustle just looks different. I can’t shake the sense that Guan had reduced the problem to a black-white opposition, in which if a rapper could just be “black enough,” he could bust through the commodity structure of pop music, pop culture, and pop art.

That seems false, since no one, not even Aubrey Graham (rather than Drake), can answer the question Guan poses at the end of his essay, asking whether Drake is “a black man with white social capital or a white guy with black cultural capital.” It’s more than fair to criticize Drake’s music (including his lyrics, or his use of assistance in writing them), his means of achieving and maintaining popularity, and aspects of his life in public. But Guan collapses a lot of related but complex issues into a history of rap that betrays his own nostalgia for the period “between 1994 and 2003 [when] popular rap was, primarily and essentially, a space where young black men with nothing to lose and everything to gain by representing violence could excel.” That rappers afterward — not just Drake — might play around creatively and productively with the boundaries set by the idea of the rapper as a young, violent black male seems to elude Guan as a possibility. I think that’s a shame.

 — Nicole Gounalis

Dear Editors,

I used to spend a lot of time defending n+1 against charges of pretentiousness. “Pretentious is publishing 6,000-word articles about Lady Gaga or on the complicated cultural cross-coding of Beverly Hills 90210” — that was my line. Now, having read Frank Guan’s epic-length assessment of an adolescent television star turned popular musician in your pages, I will either need to come up with a new argument or switch my allegiances to the New Criterion.

 — Ernest Vieuxtemps

The Editors reply:

We’re grateful to you for defending the magazine, but the roots of n+1’s pretentiousness go deeper than Issue 24, especially in the genre of music criticism — see, for example, Mark Greif’s “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” in Issue 3 (2005). We’re also told that the New Criterion ran a very long essay on Lady Gaga and Mannerism in 2011, so you may be better off sticking with us.

Harm Reduction

Dear Editors,

I found Sarah Resnick’s article (“H.”) compelling and beautifully written on a subject that I certainly have my views about. As a professional in the field of drug and alcohol addiction and recovery, I have for a long time belonged to the school of “complete abstinence.” Throughout my years of experience, I’ve seen the benefits of twelve-step recovery many times; anything short of total dedication to recovery has seemed to me worthless. I’ve been an avid critic of drug-replacement therapies — from methadone maintenance to the newer “miracle drug” buprenorphine — which can involve lengthy and excruciating withdrawal periods for longtime users and make getting clean extremely difficult.

Resnick’s essay, however, convinced me that a harm-reduction approach might, in some situations, be a better alternative to the all-or-nothing approach. People with drug problems come from many different backgrounds and face unique challenges. A one-size-fits-all solution may thus not always be realistic. For those of us who work in addiction recovery, the best we can do is keep the door open and hope that when someone is ready to seek help, access to information — and a reminder that there is another way to live — is readily available.

What’s changed in my view, having read Resnick’s article, is that harm reduction may be a viable choice for those not open to, or ready for, complete abstinence and recovery. What has not changed is my belief that recovery and twelve-step programs offer a solid path for millions of people to live happy, joyous, ethical, and productive lives free from active addiction.

 — Michael Ossip

A Reluctant Nationalist?

Dear Editors,

As you know, I’m a great fence-sitter on Israel — this may not be particularly to my credit, but ambivalence is my disposition. So it should come as no surprise that I found Bruce Robbins’s essay on BDS the most thoughtful argument for the movement I’ve read to date, and provoking of several nagging questions, or rather one big question that goes right to my conflicted Jewish heart.

When Robbins talks about a Palestinian “right of return,” to territory lost in 1948, he seems to suggest that it is a purely strategic demand that could be exchanged, in any eventual agreement, for reparations, a tactic among tactics. “A tactic . . . is precisely what BDS is,” Robbins writes. If this is true  —  and I wonder, first of all, how true that feeling is for the vast majority of the world’s and the left’s committed anti-Zionists and BDS activists  —  doesn’t this tactical thinking perversely legitimate the logic of strategic positions on the other side? Israeli-government support for the settler movement was also reputed to be partly tactical, as seen in Barak and Sharon’s willingness to give up Jewish settlements in Gaza.

By now, the tail wags the dog and settler maximalism is essentially state policy. I wonder why Robbins thinks this won’t be the case with a Palestinian “right of return”? Even if I feel that the ideology of Eretz Israel threatens to become another disaster for our people, and not just in the moral dimension, I can’t wish away the idea of a majority Jewish state without also imposing on myself the responsibility of thinking about where Jews living there now will be able to go and live freely. Europe and the US’s shameful handling of a mere million-plus Syrian refugees does not give me hope that one could expect great things from the international community. And I am rather perpetually shocked by the inability of most anti-Zionists to imagine a real future for Jews outside Israel. Am I becoming a reluctant nationalist?

  —  Marco Roth

Bruce Robbins replies:

I didn’t say in the piece that I’m a one-stater myself, although I am, at least in theory. In practice, I suppose we have to see what we can get short of one man, one vote. But one man, one vote, in one state, would still be Israel, no? Just as whites were not asked to leave South Africa, but just to abide by the same laws as blacks. I don’t imagine anyone being forced to leave.

In practice, I think the overwhelming majority of Americans who have any sympathy for BDS at all, even potentially, would feel satisfied if Israel were to retreat behind its 1967 borders and offer equal rights to its Palestinian citizens, hopefully adding an apology. In other words, I don’t think right of return would be a deal breaker. Monetary compensation should certainly be offered  —  the Palestinians I’ve talked with about this (pre-BDS, admittedly) were pretty sure that would work. Even if things have changed since 2005, with the huge rightward turn in Israeli policy and the bombings of Gaza, I don’t think they’ve changed enough to cancel that out.

It’s funny you talk about becoming a nationalist. Friends on the left have called me out on hidden patriotism  —  but American rather than Israeli. And a couple of Israeli friends have told me my film (Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists) is Zionist as well as patriotic. I’m sure there’s some truth in there somewhere. I’m certainly not a cosmopolitan of the totally antipatriotic sort. Global capital being what it is, we all still rely on the nation-state more than we admit. 

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