Americans have always been skeptical of government support for the arts, with one shining exception. When it comes to publicity driven congressional investigations into comic book reading, risque dancing, dirty songwriting and the many other threats to the commonweal that crazy kids throughout the ages have considered "dope," this nation has been happy to devote its tax base to the enrichment of world culture.
So props to Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who today will be getting to the bottom of this whole gangsta rap business. In his capacity as chairman of the House subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection, Rush is kicking off "From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images," a hearing that will include hip-hop luminaries and business leaders testifying on excessive use of what the Rev. Al Sharpton has coyly called "the b-word, the n-word and the h-word."
Rush, a longtime progressive and co-founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party, is no right-wing culture warrior, and it is not unusual to find a community-minded Democrat leading this type of circus. From Fredric Wertham, the academic star of Kefauver-era Senate hearings on the danger of comic books, to Tipper Gore, co-founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, pressure on indecorous speech has frequently been a left-liberal phenomenon. And in the immediate case, there's plenty of legitimate cause for concern. To believe that there is no potential downside to the relentless misogyny and violence celebrated by Cam'ron or his enemy, 50 Cent, is to believe that words have no value at all.
The wise response to bad speech is more speech, and there are plenty of platforms available short of a House inquisition. The strong arm strongly implied by congressional shaming has a way of inspiring "voluntary" cooperation from record companies and studios -- which are lukewarm supporters of free speech and free markets even under the best circumstances. Without making any great claims for today's stars, it's worth noting that N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," now a widely recognized classic of American popular culture, is as offensive as anything that will be on the playlist at today's hearing. The difference between now and 1988, of course, is that gangsta rap is a genre in decline, running on narcissism and tired shock effects, with sales in this decade dwindling even faster than those of the music industry as a whole. Which is why we referred to "government support for the arts" above. If anybody can make this genre seem edgy and dangerous once again, it's an official denunciation from the U.S. Congress.