November 29, 2007

Noses Up: Ashcroft and the Other Warclub

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It has been years since John Ashcroft’s days in the limelight, at the front of controversial Bush administration policies. In light of this fact, I would like to take a trip down memory lane.
In the midst of all of the uproar about the Patriot Act, the horrors of Guantanamo, 9/11 and the general recognition that perhaps we had voted in the wrong president, Ashcroft was the member of the Bush administration who gave us pause. In 2002 he composed a little ditty called “Let the Eagle Soar,” sang it at a press conference. It later appeared in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, flooded YouTube and found its way into Jon Stewart’s monologue almost daily.
Few could have guessed the lyrical prowess of the Attorney General, whose creative lyrics and melody could easily stand alongside such classics as “This Land is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful.” The irony of lyrics about eagles soaring paired with the crushing restrictions of policies like the Patriot Act almost goes without saying, but we cannot fault Ashcroft’s imagination.
Ashcroft, sadly, will probably not be performing his hit single this evening during his talk on “The Politics of National Security,” and it is probably good that he not take away time from the Q & A tango.
“Let the Eagle Soar” might not seem like it has anything to do with politics, and that it is just the musing of an eccentric public figure. To me, the song definitely conveys a political message, and is far from unimportant in understanding the neo-conservative ethos. For one, the controversial politics of the Patriot Act and the “assault on civil liberties” are a lot easier to stomach if the person bringing them to you is, on the side, a lovable crooner. Ashcroft’s performance wasn’t so much distraction as it was an act of smoothing over possible critics. The Daily Show still got its nightly jab at policy, but in the end the biggest laughs and cheers came from the impressive vibrato and deep vocal conviction of the Attorney General. How memorable is Alberto Gonzales without a string section behind him?
There was an element of distraction in the song, however. Instead of associating the administrations policies with one’s day-to-day phone calls, library visits and airport security procedures, “Let the Eagle Soar” allowed one to associate them with the timeless beauty of America, and her need for support. This country is “too young to die,” pleads Ashcroft, and it is implicit that without the curtailment of civil liberties, this really could be a possibility.
At the same time, in the song, America is put in sanctified, religious terms, suggesting its eternity. There is a definite timelessness to Ashcroft’s prayer-like lyrics. Old-guard Republicans are fond of bringing up America as an eternal place, and condensing her many historical enemies into a seamless mass of freedom-hating, irrational communists, terrorists and dictators. The fight we are fighting today, in other words, is the one that has been waged for centuries against though who hate freedom.
At the opposite end of the spectrum one finds music about the immediate politics of the present. A perfect example of this, a group called Warclub, is perfoming Friday night at Cornell. Unlike Ashcroft’s event, there will be music, and it will be loud, clear and angry. On their website, Ryakin Rip (Meherrin) and Ryme Hawk (Shinnecock), the half-Afro-American-half-Native members of Warclub, boldly state that they make “socially conscious hip-hop.”
Ihave always been fascinated by the way in which rap, even if not about politics, has a sense of immediacy. While a singer can communicate a message slowly, spending long amounts of time on a single note (think of opera or Celine Dion), a rapper, because he/she is setting spoken word to a beat, cannot afford this patience, and has to consistently get message after message out to the audience, keeping up with a relentless pulse. This definitely seems to suit political messages of oppressed groups, whom Warclub claim to represent, because unlike the simple, slow timelessness of Ashcroft’s croon, the racial and social groups that Warclub represents have immediate messages about immediate problems.
The enemies of the Bush administration are vague and timeless ideas like “terrorism,” while the enemies of Native Americans are specific colonial policies and atrocities, and this ends up coming out in the music these groups produce. Warclub’s lyrics are about the everyday struggles of sexual abuse, “fatherless children,” “homeless shelters” and the violent reactions the oppressed must take on against the “richest” government.
For me, it ends up seeming like the guys in power feel like they can take their time, and the people without power (whom Warclub claims to speak for), have no interest in this possibility. They must rap about the immediate problems of oppression.
While Ashcroft’s speech today will certainly be a performance, don’t miss the intense political reality of Warclub, who go on Friday night at the Townhouse Community Center on North Campus.