Kanye, the Mainstream, and “The People”

Joel Osteen, Youtube

After being dropped by Adidas, Kanye West (hereafter “Ye”) responded with a post on Parler:

“I lost 2 billion dollars in one day and I’m still alive. This is love speech. I still love you. God still loves you. The money is not who I am. The people is who I am.”

Like others in search of popular conservative religious/political leadership, Ye stresses his love for “the people” (“I still love you”) and God’s love for the people (“God still loves you”). Likewise, he makes the populist leader claim to identify with the people in a way that assumes that his identification means leadership over the people–“The people is who I am.” By identifying this way, Ye shapes his activism so that his will can claim to be seen as the will of the people. But Ye’s claim pales before Trump’s. Over the last seven years, Trump and his followers have shaped each other to the extent that Trump’s will can be seen as the will of the followers who he also calls “the people.” Ye’s not popular enough and his following is not committed enough to justify his claim that “the people is who I am.” Indeed, the following Ye seeks is already devoted to Trump and Ye is more of a mid-level player in the story of Trumpism than anything else.

I’m sure there’s reasons for Ye’s lack of a following, but I’m stuck on the question of what Ye means by “the people” and how we can think of “the people” in relation to the on-going struggle between the multicultural, socially liberal mainstream and right-wing white insurgency in the U.S. What Ye does NOT mean by “the people” is becoming more clear. Most obviously, Ye is like most Trump supporters in having a version of the people that most definitely does not include black people as he stresses that black people chose slavery, Harriet Tubman didn’t free any slaves, “white lives matter” instead of black, and white men are the world’s most disrespected group. Ye’s so anti-black I’m surprised he didn’t quote the Dred Scott decision on black people having “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Ye also went all out with his current war on Jews, saying that he was going “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” accusing Jews as “[owning] the Black voice” through Black people wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt, “being signed to a record label, or having a Jewish manager, or being signed to a Jewish basketball team, or doing a movie on a Jewish platform like Disney.” Like anti-Semitic bigots worldwide, Ye attributes the same all-encompassing power to Jews as the Nazis did and is apparently acting on his longstanding fascination with Hitler and the extent of Hitler’s power. One has to wonder about the extent to which Ye now approves of the Holocaust.

But what about the long list of constituencies Ye’s offended–black people, white liberals, Jews, women, Adidas, the record industry, the fashion world, the mainstream news media, and social media. For Ye, it’s the Trump right wing and especially the religious right and white men who are “the people” but is there any way to consider the broad and diverse coalition of Ye’s opponents as a “people?”

In the Western world, “the people” is a concept that’s at least as old as the Greek city states of antiquity and was long articulated in opposition to the nobility. What gave an organic quality to the idea of “the people” was the shared life of small-scale farming, the seasonal rhythms of agriculture, the work of the urban trades, and the festivities celebrating planting, the harvest, marriage, death, the seasons, the gods, and local patriotism. Because of the roots of the Trump coalition in agriculture, mining, and small town life, Trump supporters routinely see themselves as the “people.” But the rise of America’s urban belts and major interior cities has created a new dynamic in which urban life and service industries are the central dynamic and small towns and agriculture have become peripheral. Trump constituencies have been further marginalized by their addiction, depression, high rates of suicide and violence and general rejection of social norms, education, and science. In many ways, Trump constituencies are too alienated from society to form a people in the traditional sense. In this way, attachment to the “flag” isn’t so much a representation of their connection to the life of society as a substitute for that connection.

But there are also apparent problems in viewing the whole multicultural coalition as a “people.” If the idea of a “people” relies on a common life, then how can lib/left whites, black people, Hispanics, LGBT folks, Jews, American Muslims, Asian-Americans, and Native-Americans be seen as sharing a common life and thus being a people on that basis? But diversity is not as much an issue as hierarchy and class. People from different ethnic and racial groups do live a “common” life in cities in the sense that they share an urban economy, navigate a common transportation system, and work for a deluge of intersecting government agencies, corporations, mom and pop stores, and small businesses. What primarily diminishes the sense of shared life is the extreme disparities of wealth that make rent so expensive, create homelessness, and create opportunities for specialized consumption and concierge systems that for the elite of wealth.

The U.S. has only been a multicultural democracy since the 1965 Voting Rights Act overturned the legal/police apparatus for excluding black people in the South from voting. Likewise, my sense of the U.S. being a multicultural society and having a multicultural politics did not coalesce until Barack Obama’s second term and especially the 2015 legalization of gay marriage. In this sense, it’s too early as of yet for the various groups to fully coalesce into a “people.” But there are some things that have the effect of increasing the sense of shared commonality among the various groups. Among those are:

  1. Opposition to Trump: Millions of people across the multicultural spectrum participated in the opposition to President Trump and his immigration policies, deference to Putin, and attempted coup against the election of Joe Biden. The term “Resistance” faded but the common cause of “The Resistance” continued to be expressed and had an impact on the 2020 election. Despite Biden’s not engaging in public campaigning and Dems not doing public events and door knocking because of COVID, the Democrats still increased their vote by 16 million and much of that was due to the collective spirit of opposition that had been developing since Trump’s announcement in 2015.
  2. Intersectional ethics: The ethics of fully recognizing those in traditionally marginalized groups as citizens and valuing and embracing the differences among a multicultural population. This can especially be seen in the Democratic Party and their constituencies defending transsexual teens and their families against bigoted attacks from the religious right. It would have been politically advantageous for Democrats to retreat under the banner of “compromise” but multicultural constituencies would not have stood for it and Democratic politicians have assimilated enough of those ethics that they were little tempted anyway.
  3. Embracing Difference. I was 10 years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and remember other white people talk about “toleration” in the sense of enduring the presence of black people and others who were different (Jews, gay people, disabled folks, etc.) even though that presence was not particularly welcome. But the movement of multicultural and socially liberal people has been toward “embracing” difference and being welcoming to people of different races, ethnicities, immigrant, and disability status. The question of tolerance is directed more often at conservatives who are seen as not accepting the common morality
  4. Empathy. A key to a multicultural principle of empathy is that the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes extends to people across racial, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and regional lines. At the same time, the value of empathy extends to caring for people who are traumatized, damaged, or chronically ill. to give a couple of examples from lib/left and black twitter, people have been broadly sympathetic to my growing up in an abusive family and its attendant traumas and there are continuing outpourings of sympathy and compassion for recovering addicts, cancer patients, and people experiencing deaths in their families.

In a way, the United States is developing a situation where two segments of the population are articulating themselves as “the people” in a separate and mutually opposed manner. It’s part of what makes America such an unstable nation at present.

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