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PARTING SHOT AMERICA: AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY OFFENDER

By Chris Tucker |

By the time you read this, we may have a new group of cultural martyrs, the Geto Boys from Houston. The uninitiated may think that these Boys are merely musicians (and if we define music as beautiful noise, they are at least halfway there). But it is quite clear to those of us with cultural antennae a-twitching that their debut last month signaled not just something so mundane as another rap group blowing out hate-for cops, women, whites-in the stupefying, machine-driven rhythms that mark this music of the lowest common denominator.

No, these are freedom fighters and artistes. Imagine a cultural plumb line leading from Voltaire to D. H. Lawrence to the Geto Boys, and you’ve got the picture. If you’ve read interviews with these courageous lads, you know that making what passes for music is only a tangential concern for them, subor-dinate to their real task on earth: the spreading of Truth.

For example, the Truth of psychotic woman-dismemberers. As the main man of the Boys told The Dallas Morning News, one of the group’s most Truthful songs-that is, tracks-is called “Mind of a Lunatic,” a first-person glimpse of the Truth about “a psychotic rapist-murderer who dismembers a woman, has sex with the corpse, and then goes on to stab and shoot other people.”

You know, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Mincing no words, the head Boy states flatly what many of us have sensed with growing alarm: “They’re not hip to us yet. But we already know there is no freedom of speech here.”

Some bigots will call Boy One an unlettered bozo who is ignorant of his American heritage. Cruel cynics will suggest that the Boys are actually courting repression, hoping to gain through a First Amendment furor what they might have a harder time winning with their own talent and performing skills. (Wouldn’t it really, really be tragic if some headline-seeking DA somehow got wind of the Boys, maybe by reading an interview in one of the state’s largest newspapers, and dragged these heroes kicking and screaming onto the ten o’clock news?)

But if you doubt that the fascist forces of darkness are circling, ready to snuff out the candles of freedom held aloft by these gritty crusaders, and if you are under the delusion that we enjoy even an iota of freedom in America, ask yourself this: why has the nation had to wait more than 200 years for one decent song about a psychotic rapist-murderer who has sex with dismembered corpses? Huh? From Irving Berlin to Sinatra, from Bobby Darin to the Beatles, from The Animals to The The, generations of musicians have been denied this most basic freedom, as the shades of Jefferson and Lincoln wept bitter tears.

Remember the plaintive cry of Peter, Paul and Mary? “But if I really say it/ The radio won’t play it/ Unless I lay it between the lines.” Surely they spoke for scores of repressed musicians and singers, sending a message for savvy fans to decode. “Yes, we’ve been stripped of our right to put out a mellow, gently harmonic song about mutilation and necrophilia. We’ve had to turn out a bunch of pap about freedom and raising healthy children and the heartbreaking madness of war. But if I had my way. . .”

Boy One tells the News that despite what millions of racists will think, neither he nor his fellow Boys have ever really had sex with a corpse. The song is just “a rude awakening to what is going on in the world.” Let’s get that straight: this is artistic license, not biography or confession. Anyway, who’s to judge? One artist paints The Water Lilies, another emits “Mind of a Lunatic.” Of course it’s all the same, and only a cultural imperialist would say it’s not. A matter of taste, really. You like pistachio, I’ll take strawberry. You dig those gal-dismemberin’ sounds, I’ll stick with Springsteen.

Dropping the ironic mask-irony, we know, is bad because it can be construed as elitist and unfairly subtle-it seems to me there are two popular answers being tossed around to get us out of our current cultural quandary. Both cures are as bad as the illness, I think.

One is the there-oughta-be-a-law solution. Why isn’t it illegal to broadcast messages that, if exchanged face to face, would probably result in violence? Why should anyone defend the right of 2 Live Crew to “sing” about busting vagina walls and treating women as objects to be used and brutalized?

The best answer so far is this: because America is still involved in an experiment, unique among nations, in valuing individuality over order. We’re an equal opportunity offender. And whether it’s the Ku Klux Klan or the Geto Boys doing the offending, we simply have to grit our teeth and remember that for every disgusting, exploitative use of free speech, there are a thousand noble uses of free speech every day. And there is no way to devise a society in which you can benefit from the latter without tolerating the former. As loathsome as 2 Live Crew is, there is something just un-American about the sight of Luther Campbell in handcuffs for singing a song. We don’t do that here.

The other dead end is the strawberry-pistachio solution, to wave the wand of cultural relativism and say that there are no cultural distinctions possible. Nobody has a right to condemn even the vilest spewings of hate and misogyny as long as they come draped in the trench-coats of Art. Ice-T, N.W.A (Niggers With Attitudes), and the Geto Boys are writing the sagas of their culture, and outsiders have no right to criticize.

The answer to cultural relativists, black and white, is to point to a magnificent use of free speech and artistic skill like the recent PBS series, “The Civil War.” The series reminded us that there was once a culture, not without its virtues, that practiced slavery. It was part of the “value system” of their “community,” as we would say. Others had the courage to proclaim those values evil and misguided. The slaveholders demanded tolerance and understanding. They got cannon fire instead, and the world is a better place for it. Nobody wants war over pop songs, but it’s good to remember that some ideas are worth fighting for and some ideas are worth fighting-not with laws but with other, better ideas.

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