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Eminem vs. Trump

The political importance of the artist

I was in Chicago with my son, visiting colleges, and he was listening to the new Eminem album while he was working out in the hotel gym. He told me that he thought the album was great, but that he was not sure if he agreed with Eminem using his celebrity for political purpose. I usually let my son (and my daughter) have their say, but I shot from the hip. “Sebastian,” I said, “Eminem is not a celebrity; he is an artist. When artists turn to politics, it is often a sign of trouble.” I told him the difference between an artist and a celebrity, as far as I can draw the distinction. In Eminem’s case, he does not and has never sought the limelight. His private life is private. He rarely goes to award ceremonies. I would take a guess that few reading this essay know that Eminem has at least one daughter and that he sent her off to a great college a few years ago. You do not know he has a daughter because he has fastidiously kept her away from his fame.

Recently, Public Seminar shared an open letter to the Directors of the National Museum in Krakow. That letter argued that there comes a time in the formation of fascist regimes when neutrality is complicity. The authors outline such a time in Polish history, explaining that not all fascists wear a fascist uniform, and that if we move to the now, the United States in 2018, not all racists scream “all lives matter.” In times such as this, times when the leader of the free world fails to condemn Nazis and Klansmen and stands behind ICE, a group designed to terrorize and deport a population— an innocent population — you have to choose a side. You cannot go about your aristocratic games, your life as usual. To remove yourself in the name of neutrality is to tacitly support Nazis, Klansmen, and organizations like ICE, and this tacit support strikes as more dangerous than outright racism because without it, outright racism is a fire with limited air. Just think about the name “ICE”– it is chilling.

What is more, we often think of art as occupying a kind of neutral space, or we argue for its necessary ambiguity. It is not the job of artists to produce polemics. We also think of museum directors and curators as being tasked with choosing an artist’s or several artists’ best work and elucidating the presented work for its anticipated audience with plaques on the wall. In the letter mentioned above, the authors also note that popular culture, during times of the intense targeting of all “others,” cannot be neutral either. Eminem is both an artist who has won several Grammys and his music is popular culture. His fan base is enormous, cutting across all demographics.

So, when Eminem released a video at the BET awards that had none of what makes his typical work controversial in it, we can safely assume that he did this — left out any sentiment that might distract the audience — on purpose. Eminem focused most obviously on Trump by letting him know: you cannot divide us; we have each other’s backs; we are not afraid of you; we see through you and we hate you. Alongside his message to Trump was an unequivocal message to his fans that goes something like this. You cannot love me and listen to my music and support Trump; it is either him or me and if you cannot decide who you like more, “F**k you.” It is a statement made both against Trump and anyone who supports Trump or prefers to remain neutral, to not choose a side.

Eminem does something else in this video that I assume is deliberate. He keeps the lyrics and the rhymes simple. He is known for his dense rhymes and difficult syncopation; his work usually demands more than one listen to understand and it is often unclear where he stands in his own narratives. In this video, he makes where he stands resoundingly clear and again, he makes sure that you only have to listen once to understand what is saying and where he stands.

Eminem is not civil with Trump; he is, however, until the end of the video, civil with his fans. He is like a teacher teaching the class (his fans) what Donald Trump has said and done, and why he thinks Donald is dangerous. There is subversion in this civility and there is also subversion in the incivility found in his forceful challenge at the end of the video. There is nothing civil about saying “f**k you” to someone — but there is a time for incivility, or the refusal to let people off the hook; there are times in countries and cultures when no neutrality is permitted. There are times when the two sides of the same story cannot be given equal credence or weight. An analogy to Hitler is apt here because we are talking about Poland and we know that it has recently become illegal to mention the complicity of the Poles in the murdering of Jews. Also, who, besides the avowed Neo-Nazi, would ever argue that there were two sides to that story? Do we really need to put “Neo” in front of “Nazi”? We do not say “Neo” in front of “Klansman.”

The deportations of Mexicans have begun and we have no idea when, where, or how they will end. I suspect much of the work of ICE is underreported. And what happens when the deportations solve nothing, when they prove to be actions of mere cruelty that do not improve anyone’s lives? Given this reality, we are at a time when no neutrality is permitted. To sit back and let deportations take on a life of their own is to be complicit.

And given Eminem’s popularity and reach, we need him. He can reach far more people than we can and because he was born “poor white trash” he has a street cred with many Trump voters, a kind of credibility that intellectuals do not have. He was born Marshall Mathers III (M&M) to a drug addicted mother eight miles outside of Detroit proper. His father left them when he was two months old and has never tried to find him (it would not be hard to find Eminem). He was moved from school to school, repeatedly bullied and beaten up. He is not a “bad boy” as he is consistently labeled; he is the scrawny and awkward kid in all of us. His music has enough anger to sink a ship. He is white and he is the stereotype of a Trump voter — a white working class kid who grows up in black neighborhoods and is given little to no chance to find a way out. This is the story of the artist who, in his video, outlines Trump’s suicidal fantasies, his fascist tendencies, and his politics of distraction without any fancy language or appeal to any of the literature on the topics.

I live in Southern California. Mexicans have been the target of bigotry for at least as long as I have lived here, and they are, at this point in time, visibly afraid. The woman who cleans my home is Mexican and she has started to call me Señora. Of course, I have asked her to call me what she has always called me, Lisa. I have no idea if she is here legally. I let her continue to call me Señora because I think it gives her comfort. Yes, there is paternalism in her deference to me but that paternalism may make her feel protected. And there are days when I find myself asking myself: what do I do next? Do I tell her in Spanish that if she and her family need shelter, then they can come to my home? It has crossed my mind, but I have two children. Am I going to be faced with such a choice? I think I would feel more certain about what I would do if doing the right thing did not potentially involve the safety of my children. So for all of the people I know who said that Trump was not really going to deport people, this is my “f**k you.”

* * *

Here are some more videos released on YouTube related to Eminem’s video, all designed to give the people Trump has disrespected a voice. Many of them have nonsensical dates of release. My interpretation is that the dates are meant to communicate that this did not start with Trump; it was going on two or three years ago.

Lisa Aslanian is a freelance writer with a focus on political art. She holds a PhD in sociology from The New School for Social Research and is currently studying clinical psychology with an emphasis in spiritual and depth psychology and community psychology.

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Lisa Aslanian

  • Caroline Muir

    Dear Lisa – Please allow me to use some of my street cred to make some comments and pose some questions. First, my street cred. Eminem and I share the experience of having grown up white and poor, but now live in materialist comfort we never dreamed possible. I grew up in Wyandotte, Michigan. Wyandotte is an industrial city 3.5 miles from Detroit’s southern border; and, while I was growing up, nearly every family was one auto strike away from ruin.

    First, some advice. There are certain words and phrases that people should never use unless they are using such words and phrases to refer to themselves. “Poor White Trash” is such a phrase. If Eminem were to ever read your essay, I would not want to be near him while he did so. And no, he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the scrawny and awkward kid in all of us.

    Second, paternalism is the “policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed interest.” People who work for you cannot be paternalistic to you.

    Third, anytime a working-class person in your employ stops using your given name, Lisa, for a generic term such as Senõra, it is not because it gives her comfort. It tends to signify that you have lost status with her.

    Fourth, what would your children say if they later found out that you could have helped your housekeeper and you chose not to?

    Have you seen the film “Beatriz at Dinner” with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow?

  • CMuir

    Dear Lisa – Please allow me to use some of my street cred to make some comments and pose some questions. First, my street cred. Eminem and I share the experience of having grown up white and poor, but now live in material comfort we never dreamed possible. I grew up in Wyandotte, Michigan. Wyandotte is an industrial city 3.5 miles from Detroit’s southern border; and, while I was growing up, nearly every family was one auto strike away from ruin.

    Second, some advice. There are certain words and phrases that people should never use unless they are using such words and phrases to refer to themselves. “Poor White Trash” is such a phrase. There are many sources one can look to for an explanation why. And, no he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the scrawny and awkward kid in all of us.

    Third, paternalism is the “policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed interest.” People who work for you cannot be paternalistic to you.

    Fourth, anytime a working-class person in your employ stops using your given name, Lisa, for a generic term such as Senõra, it is not because it gives her comfort. It tends to signify that you have lost status with her.

    Fifth, what would your children say if they later found out that you could have helped your housekeeper and you chose not to?

    Have you seen the film “Beatriz at Dinner” with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow?

  • CMuir

    Dear Lisa – Please allow me to use some of my street cred to make some comments and pose some questions. First, my street cred. Eminem and I share the experience of having grown up white and poor, but now live in material comfort we never dreamed possible. I grew up in Wyandotte, Michigan. Wyandotte is an industrial city 3.5 miles from Detroit’s southern border; and, while I was growing up, nearly every family was one auto strike away from ruin.

    Second, some advice. There are certain words and phrases that people should never use unless they are using such words and phrases to refer to themselves. “Poor White Trash” is such a phrase. If Eminem were to ever read your essay, I would not want to be near him while he did so. And, no he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the scrawny and awkward kid in all of us.

    Third, paternalism is the “policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed interest.” People who work for you cannot be paternalistic to you.

    Fourth, anytime a working-class person in your employ stops using your given name, Lisa, for a generic term such as Senõra, it is not because it gives her comfort. It tends to signify that you have lost status with her.

    Fifth, what would your children say if they later found out that you could have helped your housekeeper and you chose not to?

    Have you seen the film “Beatriz at Dinner” with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow?

  • CMuir

    Dear Lisa – Please allow me to use some of my street cred to make some comments and pose some questions. First, my street cred. Eminem and I share the experience of having grown up white and poor, but now live in material comfort we never dreamed possible. I grew up in Wyandotte, Michigan. Wyandotte is an industrial city 3.5 miles from Detroit’s southern border; and, while I was growing up, nearly every family was one auto strike away from ruin.

    Second, some advice. There are certain words and phrases that people should never use unless they are using such words and phrases to refer to themselves. “Poor White Trash” is such a phrase. There are many sources one can look to for an explanation as to why. And, no he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the scrawny and awkward kid in all of us.

    Third, paternalism is the “policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed interest.” People who work for you cannot be paternalistic to you.

    Fourth, anytime a working-class person in your employ stops using your given name, Lisa, for a generic term such as Senõra, it is not because it gives her comfort. It tends to signify that you have lost status with her.

    Fifth, what would your children say if they later found out that you could have helped your housekeeper and you chose not to?

    Have you seen the film “Beatriz at Dinner” with Salma Hayek and John Lithgow?

    • Lisa Aslanian

      With all due respect, I used the pejorative on purpose– because it has bite. And I have little doubt that if I were lucky enough to sit down next to Eminem, we would get along just fine. I think he might find your insistence that we use sterile language insulting. It is a kind of fake respect and he would not appreciate the pat on the head. He is called a bad boy, but I do not see him that way. He refers to himself as scrawny and shy— so perhaps I should take his lead. He does not need to be treated with kid gloves. As for the rest, I would never put in writing what I have or have not done for Mexicans– or their names. Think about it. It would only lead to a way to find people. And I have grown weary of the self-righteous left —- part of the problem.
      I know what paternalism is and whether you want to hear it or not, there are cultures that find that arrangement of power better and there is no way around it– if you go back to Michigan, don’t talk to people like an academic. It comes across as talking down to people— and no one responds well to it.

      • Lisa Aslanian

        you may want to listen to jay z’s interview with van jones — he nails it on political correctness. If we on the left do the ‘oh my virgin ears’ thing then we lose people. And you do not know my background.

        • Lisa Aslanian

          I doubt I have lost status with her. You don’t know her and you don’t know that I can read another human being.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            and she is not working class, she is poor.

          • CMuir

            First, I agree with you in that Eminem is an artist first and a celebrity second. I should have pointed out that your essay does convey the sense that you really do care about what you are writing about. I apologize for my combative tone. Your essay hit a nerve close to home.

            The recent evolution of the phrase “poor white trash” into taboo territory has everything to do with respect that my community would appreciate; and, it follows in the same lane for usage of other derogatory terms for other ethnic groups. Unless you belong to that group and are invoking the phrase against yourself or you are writing about the phrase itself (history, usage, etc.), it is wise not to use that phrase. When you use the phrase outside of those parameters you are legitimizing and reproducing a negative stereotype. There are many of us who are asking you not to do it. Of course, it is up to you to decide if it is fair game for “bite” or against PC. Just ask yourself if you would be so cavalier with derogatory terms for other groups.

            I talk with my community in Michigan as I do with any other. I speak like an academic when the occasion calls for it because I know they are smarter than the world will give them credit. Not to do so is what is condescending. Would you not agree? Also, my community in Michigan overwhelmingly voted for Obama in ’08 and ’12 but, sadly, voted for Trump in ’16, so there is something more at play then what is being played out in the media.

            I took an amazing course at TNS titled “Whose Heritage Is It?” given by Jennifer Scott. It was a transformative experience. It illuminated the ways in which narratives are constructed and the reasons why there are some who have the right to shape that narrative and why others do not. I wish it were compulsory for students and faculty alike.

            Michel de Certeau’s book, The Practice of Everyday Life, can shed some light on the ways in which ordinary, powerless people exercise power in small ways.

            I share your frustration with both the far right and left. It was Jeffrey Goldfarb’s post on “gray areas” that drew me to the Public Seminar site. There are few conversations that acknowledge the social and political complexity of what we are now living through. Peace.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            I put the terms in quotations for the reason you mention– to signal that it is a pejorative and one that hurts people. What would I say that would convey the way Eminem was treated — what would be a substitute phrase? It is a sincere question. I don’t like when men use the word cunt, or women even, but if someone used it to say that that was what someone else was called and put it in quotations I would see what they were doing.

          • CMuir

            In order for the quotation marks to be used properly, the phrase “poor white trash” must be referring to the individual or group who actually believes Eminem is poor white trash. For example:

            —Because Eminem was born “poor white trash,” his new affluent neighbors refused to invite him to their backyard barbecues.—

            The group you are referring to does not believe Eminem is poor white trash. I would have written it this way:

            —… and because of Eminem’s background, he has a street cred with many Trump voters. A credibility that comes from their shared experience of deprivation and hardship due to poverty.—

            I would still advise against using the quotation marks as it still legitimizes and reproduces the slur.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            what would you say about Eminem’s lyrics—not the lyrics in his rant against Trump but his more controversial lyrics. Should every insulting thing he says be erased?

            I understand what you are saying but the repetition of something can also lead to its undoing.

            What I hear you saying is that I should be more polite. Ok. But what would such politeness alter? What would it change.

            The entire essay undermines the idea that someone from Eminem’s background should be denied voice or has nothing to say—

            I apologize if I offended you but I am not down with the idea that correcting the way someone speaks will change the way someone sees the world.

          • CMuir

            No offense taken. I apologize again for my combative tone. I think we can agree that both of us are attempting to chip away at the same thing. That’s all that matters.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            Yes we are– xo

          • Lisa Aslanian

            also to be clear I was trying my hand at writing for a smart but non-academic audience. I come from a family of Trump supporters, with the exception of one brother. All of their kids listen to Eminem. I also have friends who voted for HRC but are now on the fence and cannot see the difference between Trump and the Dems. Their kids listen to Eminem. Keeping the term in the essay was intentional— so that they could hear themselves in it. Hear how gross it is. I have no other way of reaching them. It went from no talk of Trump to no talk of anything because they support Pence and they are anti student demonstrations and call CP a brat, etc. I am having a hard time seeing any humanity in them and they are my family of origin. And I have tried all angles, even lowering myself to talk to them the way they talk about liberals. Nothing works.

          • CMuir

            The only way out is by flipping seats — we have flipped at least 39 so far. All hands on deck and full steam ahead.

            I thought you might relate to this recent comment by Joy Reid: “Rick Saccone walking offstage to Eminem at his campaign rally is one of those cultural disconnects you just can’t explain.”

            The world is a strange place.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            agreed. And we have Generation Z.

            I am clearly in awe of Eminem. Not just his talent but his maturity at this point. He is giving interviews about growing up, taking responsibility and what it really means to be a good man. He tells the truth— he had a lot of rage and it is gone; he has worked it through. I am disenchanted sometimes by people who want to be able to refer to other people as ‘the comments section’ and then turn around and tell me what kind of language I should use. What can I say?

          • CMuir

            Please show me where I have ever referred to people as “the comments section.” You won’t find it because I never have. Really? I thought this would have been beneath you.

          • Lisa Aslanian

            I said that people often do this on the left—- refer to people as ‘the comments section’ —

          • CMuir

            You wrote in an earlier post in this thread:
            “I know what paternalism is and whether you want to hear it or not, there are cultures that find that arrangement of power better and there is no way around it”

            Which cultures are you referring to that find paternalism better than their own freedom? On what evidence do you make this claim?

          • Lisa Aslanian

            This is not something I can offer any evidence for that does not come from works of fiction or anecdote. These forms of evidence are not what scholars like to work with.

            I would ask instead that you address the challenge of Eminem’s lyrics and when and where you draw the line on what someone is allowed to say. Take me question seriously and try to answer it because it is a complicated question that cannot be sidestepped.

            I would also like you to address how circulating phrases that cannot be used gets us anywhere.

  • lisa aslanian

    What I meant when I said do not talk like an academic, I meant do not speak in a speak. It loses people. I agree that the reality on the ground is far more complex than we acknowledge and people are not stupid. If it offends you then the next time I use a phrase that is considered offensive I will do as you suggest. With that said, I think this notion on the left that if we stop people from using certain words or phrases then we will stop them from thinking that is a fool’s game. I am happy to comply — but my entire piece shows the absurdity of using the pejorative to describe Eminem.

  • Lisa Aslanian

    and, please, no ad hominem attacks. Nothing is beneath me. To say something is beneath me is be contemptuous.

    • CMuir

      Calling someone out for lying is NOT an ad hominem attack. You wrote:

      “I am disenchanted sometimes by people who want to be able to refer to other people as ‘the comments section’ and then turn around and tell me what kind of language I should use.”

      In the context of this conversation this statement implies that somewhere I referred to people as the “comments section” (which I have never done) and then I had the audacity to tell you what kind of language you should use.

      So, yes, I would have thought lying was beneath you.

      • Lisa Aslanian

        As I said I was not referring to you. There are plenty of people ON THE LEFT who use the phrase –please refer to a previous article in this publication.

        I appreciate your feedback and I am pretty sure I said that I will not use the phrase going forward.

        If you want to something challenging—address some of the questions I asked you about the content of Eminem’s work. And see the interview with Van Jones given by Jay Z. What he says about politically correct speech is important.

  • Lisa Aslanian

    My point is this. Forcing someone to locate him or herself in a discourse, as we often do, opens up the gate for ad hominem attack. I see it as a mistake to do this and you don’t— we have a difference of opinion.

    And do I, as a woman, have the right– is it my place— to tell Eminem not to say such unkind things about women?

    These are questions without easy answers.

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