• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Kanye Speaks, The Country Listens

April 2018

Kanye West, the controversialist and musical genius to whom we can’t help but listen, has never feared, so far as I can tell, being thought too extreme. No stranger to controversy, he’s certainly no friend to orthodoxy, a revelation by which none of his more ardent fans will be surprised.

Nevertheless, as he’s become in recent days the all-subsuming topic of conversation, it does bear repeating. For nearly two decades, his career has been not defined, but rather punctuated by his instigation of the former and his refusal to accept the latter. To controversy, he’s been forever attracted—drawn to it like a musical moth to a flame. Always outfitted with contrarian ideas, actions, dress, and views, many of his ways have infiltrated and supplanted those of his amenable followers. To orthodoxy, on the other hand, he’s been consistently allergic. He sneezes at the faintest scent, with nose and eyes awash and itching. It’s because of this that Kanye has turned into both an American idol and an enigma. He’s the spoon that stirs the drink, the tectonic shift that ruffles the feathers of the status quo. He’s become the man America loves to hate, and whom—just as eagerly and passionately— she hates to love. We’re just as apt to bop our heads along to his rhymes and beats as we are to shake them after hearing another of his interviews or reading another of his tweet threads.

This very type of head shaking began not so many years ago, when first he arose to notoriety after publicly accusing President George W. Bush of being a racist on live television. The clip of him standing and venting next to a slack-jawed Mike Meyers remains one of televisual history’s finest and most provocative of a cringe. At the very least, it’s in my top three. Not even Steve Harvey could top it, though at the Miss America pageant in 2015, he certainly tried. And while it was indeed a fine moment for Kanye, for television, and for controversy writ large, it proved in time even more to be an ironic one.

Kanye appeared then to have anticipated the racial and political strife that has unfurled in our current day. You’ll recall with little effort that in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina, that tumultuous and frustrating time during which Kanye made his remark, many people on the left could be heard accusing President Bush of being a racist. It was an outlandish attack, but such imputations and calumnies against Republicans are nothing new. The cry of racism is the Democratic Party’s oldest, most reliable, and frankly least self-aware ammunition stuffed into every new generation’s gun. It’s an assault with which Republicans, those same people whose core tenet was founded at least in part by the urge in the mid-nineteenth century to abolish slavery and to promote universal equality among all Americans under a color-blind law, have had to contend.

Those like Kanye on the left claimed, without an iota of proof, that President Bush harbored a deep-seated and abiding racial animus toward black Americans. This, they reasoned, was the only logical explanation for his administration’s initially slow and ultimately futile response to the social and economic ravages of the storm and the city’s disintegrating infrastructure. Never mind the unfounded, slanderous, and abjectly gross nature of claiming a man a racist (the charge of which should be held up only to the highest level of scrutiny and, falling short of that, should be most judiciously withheld), and ignore if you can the fact that much of the responsibility for the levee’s failure should and must be laid at the feet of New Orleans’s city officials and its political class—many of whom were themselves black; the left’s indignation justified above all its attacks on President Bush. So too, though, did it immunize Democrats to reasonableness. In light of this, Kanye wasn’t alone in thinking the way he did, but he was the most influential and visible person to give those who were perhaps least circumspect and most angry on the left a clear and pointed voice. It was then that he proved himself a force capable of moving with a word the cultural needle as if a finger on a disc. And he’s been moving it and pushing its boundaries ever since. (As an aside, it would take decades for us to learn that we shouldn’t attribute to racial animus that which can be better explained by political incompetence. It’s a lesson, sadly, that we’ve not yet fully learned).

In hindsight, it’s ironic that Kanye inveighed against President Bush in the way that he did. He helped to make a caricature of a man who was nothing of the sort. Unequivocally, Bush wasn’t and as far as I can tell, still isn’t a racist, but Kanye made him out to be just that. Yet the irony is that the caricature upon whom Bush was drawn all those years ago, might realistically exist today and Kanye hasn’t even noticed.

Now, we have a president in Donald Trump who is largely and, at times, not unjustifiably accused of holding racist points of view. One could go so far as to call him an outright racist, and the charge wouldn’t be without evidence. To say as much isn’t an act of partisanship or a vote of allegiance to one side or its counter. Trump, on this point of his racial biases, has been expressly, if not discomfortingly clear. Between Mexican judges and Muslim bans, the ancient chimes of racism have clamored in the president’s thoughts and words more than once during his campaign and continue to do so, though at somewhat a lesser pace, as he ventures through his circuitous presidency.

Yet toward President Trump (who maybe more than any other president since Pierce or Buchanan, can be credibly accused of harboring racist attitudes) Kanye seemingly turns in adoration. Unlike for President Bush, Kanye has profound respect for Trump. He acknowledges and celebrates the latter’s having accomplished that which was deemed by so many impossible. He likes the fact that he came from left field, stormed the castle of the established order, and arrogated the throne. In this image of a man, Kanye sees himself. He sees a fighter scrapping his way to the top and obliterating any impediment between him and his end. He likes Trump’s swagger and his unmitigated pomp, his self-aggrandizement, and its hypnotic wealth. He sees a familiarity in the ego and the ambition to get things done that Trump portrays with so much rehearsed élan and flair.

Smitten as he’s recently become with President Trump, Kanye sent out a few tweets about his newfound affinity for the man and for the right. He remarked on his interest in Candace Owens, a young, black, and vocal Republican who has lately defected from the left to the right. She’s since been impugned as a member of the Alt-Right, but the very charge leaves wanting a clearer definition of that which is or is not Alt-Right. Alt-Right can’t become a stand-in term for “of the right”. If it does, the term is effectively skunked. It will have been emptied of its previous meaning. As it is, Alt-Right denotes those disaffected and irascible white-nationalists (most of whom are young men of varying degrees of intellect but endless amounts of energy and time) who champion rather blood, soil, and common origin than free markets and limited government as someone of the traditional right would.

Almost definitionally, Owens can’t be of the Alt-Right even if she wanted to be. The reason for this impediment to her recruitment, of course, is the immutable color of her skin (a strong endorsement, if ever there was one, for the charm and the sound philosophy of the Alt-Right who sees very little beyond ethnicity and skin). Owens is the communications director of “Turning Point USA”, a conservative think tank for college-aged youth that advocates classical liberal political views. She lauds the victor mentality, scorns that of the victim, and invites an invidious response everywhere she goes. It appears that Kanye appreciated Owens’s emphasis on personal responsibility and the necessity to “pull oneself up”, so to speak, in order to reach for one’s aspirations and goals. This is an idea that the esteemed and unsurpassed economist, Thomas Sowell has advocated for years and much of his thinking is implicit in hers.

Kanye also went on to forward a portion of a conversation by Scott Adams, creator of the beloved Dilbert cartoons and staunch and unexpected apologist for President Trump. Adams, in turn, reciprocated the love. He narrated a twenty-minute video in which he celebrated Kanye’s outré move against the tides of the status quo and of the prescriptions of the left. And if this alone weren’t sufficiently sacrilegious, Kanye roiled liberal elites even further when said that he intended to pull out from his closet (whose depth can only be imagined) his “Make America Great Again” hat, signed, no less, by President Trump himself. The fear is that Kanye will begin wearing it with renascent right-wing pride and absorb from it directly through his scalp and into his brain a new neo-conservative point of view.

It could be that Kanye is just grabbing for attention. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s done so. It could be that he’s merely capitalizing on the factionalism du jour and enjoying everyone looking at him askance. It could be that he only cares that they’re looking at him at all. Doubtless, it’s always better to be seen than to be seen not, and bad press (or simply controversial press) succeeds where no press fails. What’s more, he has an upcoming album soon to be released, and whether your political colors are blue or red, your dollars are green.

A savvy promoter and businessman, he knows this full well. But I think, or at least I hope, that this isn’t entirely the case. I hope that this is more than a momentary blimp in the scene for mere sake of downloads and albums sales. It seems like Kanye is on the precipice of something noble and potentially lasting. By that I don’t necessarily mean that supporting a man like Trump is an ennobling endeavor. Quite the contrary. One should be supporting not a man, but a philosophy, not a demagogue but an ideal. But I do hope that Kanye, by stirring the glass just a bit and shaking the status quo, is able to lead others into thinking about politics and their lives in a different way.

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