I should have known better.
I’m a 45-year-old man, I’ve been alive a long time. (Too long, it seems, every morning when my back seizes up as I bend over to put on my socks.) And I should know better, I should have learned a long time ago, not to put much stock in the strength, intelligence, beauty and power of any individual human being. I should know better than to believe in heroes.
I have this thing for Kanye West. I happen to believe that he is the best, most important artist, working in any form, of our time, of the 21st century. His music, his art, his overall project, moves me and inspires me, like that of no other single human being alive today. (Let Jennifer Egan or Marlon James write another couple masterpiece novels, and that might change the conversation. But for now, it’s Kanye.) And he’s so ambitious, so big-screen, so worldwide, finding the biggest spotlight he can find, standing right in the middle of it, alone, and aiming to reach every set of eyes, every pair of ears, on the planet. “Give me room, and I’ll fire at the sun,” Ice Cube rapped back in 1991—one of my favorite lines ever written. That’s Kanye, always going for more, more, more. Bowing before no man or god, claiming the universe as his stage, as his canvas, and leading the way, as we boldly go where no man has gone before.
Ridiculous, I realize, to gush like this. (“Sincerely yours, Stan.”) But, hey, I love music. I love art. I believe in its power and I’m passionate about it.
A big part of this is thinking that Kanye understands celebrity, and the power and the danger, the risks, that come with it. “No one man should have all that power,” he says, in his song, “Power,” with a sample of King Crimson’s “21st-Century Schizoid Man” ringing as the bridge, letting us know how well he understands his own complexity and flaws. His honesty in facing all this, and the way he uses it as material for his project, is one of the most exciting and interesting things about him to me.
But that means that he should understand how important it is for him to NOT SAY THINGS LIKE THE THINGS HE SAID ON STAGE IN SAN JOSE THURSDAY.
in our new era of Trumpism, Kanye's statements Thursday night amount to an absolutism that I can’t accept; to a nihilism of a sort that I must reject.
You’ve likely seen the video or read the transcript. Kanye said he didn’t vote in the recent presidential campaign, and that had he voted, he would have voted for Trump. And he said, “Specifically to black people: stop focusing on racism. This world is racist. This world is racist, okay? Let’s stop being distracted to focus on that as much. It’s just a fucking fact. We are in a racist country, period. Do not allow people to make us talk about that so fucking long.”
America is a racist country, he said, always has been. And I agree with him on this point. But then he said, “No one or the other candidate was gonna instantly be able to change that because of their views.”
That might be right. But I think Kanye is missing something. Something important.
Kanye said he admired the way Trump ran his campaign.
Trump ran his campaign by fanning the flames of racism in a country already burning like a wildfire. Trump did this knowingly, using our country’s greatest vulnerability—its history of racial strife, white America's hatred and fear of the darker other, seeded by slave-owners 350 years ago, but still flowering so fully today—to put himself in the most powerful position in the world. No ends, not even if Trump can somehow make the U.S. better for everyone, blacks, whites, Latinos—everyone—can ever justify those means. It’s a deal with the devil; as close to pure evil as anything enacted on the public stage during my conscious lifetime.
And Kanye is smart enough to see this, smart enough to know that. In the face of this evidence, in our new era of Trumpism, his statements Thursday night amount to an absolutism that I can’t accept; to a nihilism of a sort that I must reject. “It would better if there were nothing,” said 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in a statement that pretty well sums up a philosophy what Friedrich Nietzsche, another 19th-century German philosopher, called “passive nihilism.” “Pessimism” is maybe even a better word. Or “hopelessness.” It’s a giving up, a resigning ourselves to an unchangeable world. I have to admit, I can go pretty far with this way of thinking sometimes (especially when my back’s seizing up as I’m trying to put on my socks.) But in the end, I reject it. If only because saying “the world is bad and there’s nothing I can do about it” gives us an excuse to just shrug our shoulders and go about our business, selfishly, hedonistically, without trying to make things better. I can’t accept that of myself, as a well-off white dude. And, as much as I don’t like to tell other people how to think, especially black people, especially geniuses who’ve made my life fuller and more enjoyable with their art, it’s hard for me to swallow from a cult-of-personality millionaire like Kanye.
I reject it. He’s aware enough to know better.
He let me down.
But I should have known better than to think he wouldn’t. I shouldn’t believe in heroes. We all shouldn’t. We’re better off without them.
Do not stop focusing on racism. We should focus on it more than ever. We should focus on it until we can make it go away. (We will probably never be able to make it go away; not completely. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make our situation better than it is now.) Reject these ideas. Resist Trump. Fight. And don’t give up.