Identity overwhelms merit in the postmodern world

Life is full of unexpected turns. For instance, I had considered writing about the Schiavo case this week, but it occurred to me that the Republican leadership’s crass and hollow attempts to violate Florida law, threaten the separation of powers, conjure up phony medical “evidence,” exploit the Schindlers’ pain for their political gain and smear Michael Schiavo at all costs was so egregious and blatantly stomach-turning that it required no further elaboration on my part.

Instead, I find myself writing about a topic that has thus far been entirely ignored – the identity trap. Identity, be it race, gender, religion, sexual preference or political affiliation, has always been an ingrained part of our culture.

The rise of identity-specific works, however, seems to be a product of modernity. The Black Arts movement, the popularization of feminism and the rise of social constructivism (understanding traditional academic disciplines in a social context) all occurred within the past 50 years or so.

The explosion of identity-based approaches to the arts and sciences is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the emergence of traditionally stifled perspectives provides us the opportunity to increase our understanding of the world around us.

Yet, at the same time, there is an inherent danger in that the “identity” element can easily overwhelm the work itself.

This latter phenomenon is certainly the case with rap music. Rap has legions of fans and supporters of all races and cultural backgrounds. No less a scholar than Cornel West has referred to it as “the last form of transcendence available to young black ghetto dwellers.”

It has, in popular conception, become virtually synonymous with black urban culture, to the extent that a criticism of it is often interpreted as a criticism of the culture itself.

Because of this overwhelmingly strong identification, little attention is paid to rap as a musical, rather than a cultural, product. The genre’s musical flaws – lack of originality, simplistic repetitiveness, poor vocal quality – are all but ignored. And yet rap artists are continually awarded Grammys and other accolades for their musical, rather than their cultural, contributions.

When Chuck D (of Public Enemy fame) visited the College two years ago, he conceded this point. “Rap is not music,” he said. “It is vocalization on top of music.”

With this in mind, there is no shame in hating rap (or, at the very least, current mainstream rap) simply because it isn’t good music. This is not racist nor is it a reflection of racist musical standards. The same standards that denigrate rap celebrate the contributions of Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson and James Brown.

If rappers want to continue to be considered musicians, they should start making better music. Otherwise, they should brace themselves for the day when the world tires of its cultural fascination and realizes how artistically lacking the genre is.

The identity trap befalls not only artists, but critics as well. I can’t count the number of CDs, books and movies that have been unjustly dismissed because the reviewer didn’t agree with any message contained therein.

We are all entitled to our preferences, but anyone who goes about the serious study and evaluation of literature/music/film should look at it first as literature/music/film. Concerns regarding ideology and identity should be secondary.

To put it another way, can you imagine what the world would be like if we no one read “Romeo and Juliet” because it is “sexually suggestive” or watched “The Godfather” because of its alleged “negative Italian stereotypes”?

To some extent, arguing over the merit of music and movies is fruitless because so much of it is purely subjective. The same cannot be said for the sciences, on the other hand.

Scientific disciplines are generally guided by rules and principles that are far more concrete than literary theories. In this light, the triumph of identity over quality and merit in the sciences is inexcusable.

More than a decade ago, Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein wrote a book entitled “The Bell Curve.” Due largely to the claims it made regarding race and intelligence, it caused quite a furor.

The rightwing punditry then went on to suggest the book was received with such hostility because liberal readers could not handle its scientific truth. In actuality, the inverse proved to be true – conservative pundits easily overlooked the book’s scientific flaws because they identified with its conservative, politically incorrect message.

Thomas Sowell, himself an intellectual conservative, made the following criticism, “Perhaps the most intellectually troubling aspect of ‘The Bell Curve’ is the authors’ uncritical approach to statistical correlations. One of the first things taught in introductory statistics is that correlation is not causation.”

Identity-centered works are not, by their very nature, inferior or unworthy of being taken seriously. Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” was very much about the early Civil Rights Era black experience (and was in that sense propelled by a black identity). It succeeds because of Ellison’s skill as a writer. Radical leftwing populism drove Rage Against the Machine’s recordings, yet Tom Morello’s guitar prowess ensured the band’s musical credibility.

It is only when identity overwhelms craft that the identity trap claims its victims.