By Faisal Ansari and Suhaib Webb
“Where are the men?” asked an Islamic leader from Brooklyn New York, “Where are the men?” I will tell you where they are! They have gone “Ten thousand miles into the mouth of a graveyard,” as Bob Dylan said, they are in the devils den, they have taken the hand of the magi; The eleventh hour has passed and “some of us here think that life is but a joke,” (Dylan). Designer labels, Mods and rudies, Teddy boys, and rockabilly, hip hop and 2Pac. We must ask; what culture do you belong to? What is your name? Malcolm little or X?
“It’s this freakin life, you never know what’s going to happen next, see, most people don’t know how they’re gonna feel from one moment to the next, but a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles. I knew it in my heart. You can buck the system but you can’t buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface. The ones some people call superstitions. I was still alive, hope they can keep me alive.” (Drugstore Cowboy).
In August of 2001, the New York Times reported that Carr`e Otis, former cover girl of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, had breached her run in with the “cult of personality,” and decided that she would cash out from the A-cult of the damned, namely the super-modeling business where she was offered small amounts of cocaine by her agents to keep below a size eight. She road a roller coaster addiction with heroin, attempted suicide three times, was one of the first models in the business to brand a tattoo. At the age of 32, Ms. Otis jumped ship and made a philanthropic trek to an orphanage in Katmandu where she found starving babies barely living. Ms. Otis said that the experience made her to realize she had spent her whole life being unhappy with her looks and body. “I’ve been on a level of self-esteem about whether I fit into a perfect size, dictated by the industry. That’s one thing when your 17, but when you get into your 20s, your early 30’s, your body changes,” Ms Otis quoted by the NY Times. She then began her journey to reverse her suicidal materialistic binge of self-indulgence to a new concept of self-reflection. Cultural theorist Duane Elgin wrote that, “Self-reflective consciousness gives us access to a trustworthy observer or watcher from which we can view the workings of our ego and its habitual patterns of thought and behavior. To the extent we are able to see or know our automated patterns, we are then no longer bound by them. We are enabled to act and live voluntarily.” In order to become aware of what sub-culture we have fit ourselves into, we must first self-reflect on what one’s condition is locked by. Maybe, it’s booze for some us, or maybe your hooked to the gills on powder delodid, sex-addiction, Janes addiction, the dollar bill, because you feel naked without your addiction. Your fetish has made you a “prisoner of your own device,” as The Eagles sang, “Welcome to the Hotel California-you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” So the concept of self-reflection according to Elgin will allow us to become wide-awake and enable us to become self-conscious human beings. In his book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley wrote that “man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.
Popular Culture = HEGEMONY
Cultural imperialism builds a framework for media ecologists such as Neil Postman to analyze just how we cultivate meaning through the rhetoric of signs and symbols. It is no allusion that young Britney flew across the country just this February of 2007 and happened to land in my backyard of San Fernando Valley. She visited a hair salon and shaved her hair Marine Corp style and then went and branded a couple of tattoos on the back of her neck and one on her wrist. What correlation does Ms. Carrie Otis and Ms. Spear’s dilemmas have with young men and machoism? In order to link the two concepts we must first explore the definition of culture. It was T.S. Eliot author of “Hollow men” who defined culture as “….all the characteristic activities and interests of a people.” Culture becomes a hegemonic force when we as a society deem a symbol or sign such as “Tommy Hilfiger” or “The Sopranos” is allowed to be canonized. It may take Britney Spears many years as in the case of Carrie Otis to realize that she is refusing internally to accept that she has become a symbolic meaning, a definition of culture, and most importantly a weapon or tool of style as pop art. It is no wonder that she shaved off her hair, which stood as an icon of style on a global level. Her newly found crew cut and her tattoos are what HEBDIGE calls a “form of stigmata-, tokens of a self imposed exile.” Britney is to not worry, because her followers will reinvent themselves to her image. She cannot escape the dimensions of popular culture as her fans live vicariously through her media presence. There is a symbolic meaning to her style in the context of popular subcultures. The infamous French writer Jean Genet described as a vagabond, political activist, and a homosexual whose writings were ultimately banned in the United States during the 1950s (1967) described subcultures as “the idea of style as a form of Refusal.” This concept can be applied to Britney Spears who opted out of her cult and has now begun a new trend in which she has no control over. Her sin is that she is famous and a product of a media machine that exists to supersede our hearts and minds. As Johnny Depp once told me in an airport security line, “Fame; Nah Man- that’s the last thing you want,” (Faisal Ansari 1995). In order to understand the nature of the beast, being the media machine we must understand culture as a whole. Pop or “Kitsch” according to social cultural theorists is a constant process of producing meaning of and from our social experience, such meanings will produce a social identity for the people involved. It is an ongoing process. The questions we should be asking should be what makes culture popular? Culture becomes popular when a way of life of an individual, institution, an art form and vernacular language transcend time, distance and space and probe into the lives of the masses of people. It happened throughout history since the first people and why must we pay attention to such a debauchery, a morbid situation in which human beings no longer can make sense of their own lives. We can no longer recognize the inner self in the realm of nature versus nurture. The environment outdoes our sense of cultural norms, philosophy of good and bad, and the ethical dilemma that leads us to only one conclusion as we head into the generation X, no Baby busters, no wait Tweens, no no I tell you, it is generation Y? I think? So the answer, the answer is “PPP, Pizza!” Oh Yeah! The simple pleasures of life on a warm summer day in land of the free and the home of the brave, is what makes us Americans so much more worth wasting our memory cells. Anyone born between 1963 and 1978 in North American are classified by social scientists as Generation X. We were mainly concerned with a post war and post colonialist mentality with the end of the Cold War. Colors of popular culture included Atari, Jam Master J, Graffiti Art and Magic Johnson’s public hell with the Aids virus. Today, we are faced with what NEWSWEEK called in an October 18, 1999 article, “The Age of Obsession.”
William Damon, head of Stanford Universities Center on Adolescence described this generation as “Tweens,” including the ages of 10, 11, and 12. Damon described them as a generation of kids that are on the verge of not knowing anything that would make them feel apart of the community. They are obsessed with Pokemon and Harry Potter. They have a warped sense of reality in which they are described as focusing on culture that has no meaning or that would lead to the betterment of man kind. They are out of sync with the environment and are living in a computer matrix if you will. Damon also said that Tweens develop obsessions very quickly and as a result they withdraw as a result of loneliness. Some Tweens and teens of the late 90s and today are finding ways to feel alive again. They call it “Cutters.” They use razors to make non-deep slices to their arms and legs. The sight of the blood makes then remember that they are human and alive. We can go on an on with topics such as Bulimia, suicide and many other physiological and psychological disorders that plague cultures, however, let us return to idea of popular culture as a transformation into subcultures.
In the 1920s, the streets of Harlem sounded like a symphony and buzzed through a movement of creativity to promote a culture and race in transition. Musicians including Luis Armstrong and John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, artists, painters, and writers who blew a hole in the sky by inventing a popular culture with the sense of direction leading towards freedom from injustice. This popular culture also known as the Harlem Renaissance produced individuals such as Langston Hughes who wrote about the plight of the average African American Hughes posed a question to America asking,
What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
By Langston Hughes.
A community in transition is the key phrase that we must pay heed to as Langston Hughes paid attention to what was happening around him. His cause was a just cause. Harlem was a renaissance of creativity that has given us blues, bebop, Hip Hop, as they were telling a story about their generation and that story has flourished through the human experience. However, we must not forget that the creativity of Harlem and all the other movements that have transformed culture for the better, for positive change represented a conscious message for betterment of mankind. Thus Harlem is a classical example of a culture popularized for its message. Today however, all of Harlem stood for has been forgotten as we have deferred our dreams by allowing our creativity and imagination to be put into auto pilot by the mass media “one eyed monster,” namely TV and are now “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a term coined by Professor Neil Postman. Postman described our modern day society as a “slot machine,” personified to represent American discourse as a toy. He called it the “Age of Show Business.” Las Vegas has become a metaphor for our society and has replaced transcendentalism in which America and its people were very much once concerned with nature and the art of simplicity. Today we are disconnected from reality and with the advent of global communication, we have reached a point in which distance is no longer relevant in our lives and thus we have created robotic humans not in tune with the world around them as it once was the case. We have become a dream society, a cliché widely used by media professors. Tali Williams wrote an article entitled Dream Society that appeared in Adbusters magazine says that advertising agencies are predicting that consumers will no longer buy a product simply for its physical trait, but rather we will buy into its “lifestyle,” as she wrote and all the human experiences associated with that product. We will become the product. Advertising firms such as Revo based in Auckland, New Zealand and many others are making sure that they keep us attached to material products, as was the case with the new American VW Beetle, which Williams described to be a completion of the lifecycle of Generation X.
You see, the problem is that we do not have a clue about the present culture and are allowing ourselves to be bombarded with lifestyles such as “Sex and The City,” which features a promiscuous women hunting for sex in all corners of the city and then bragging about it. I have overheard Muslim muhajibah women talking about how they love to sit and watch this show and many others including Desperate Housewives. A particular way of life has been allowed to infiltrate our hearts and minds and we sit back and laugh as T.S. Elliot described in his poem entitled “The Hollow Men.” “We are the hollow men; we are the stuffed men leaning together- head peace filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quite meaningless.” Media educators explain that the media shapes and cultivates attitudes and beliefs that are reinforced within homogeneous subcultures globally and ultimately legitimizes the enculturation of cultural norms through the accumulated affect, (Bobby Eisenstock/ CSUN). In plain English, we are constantly mainstreaming popularity of a particular culture, which becomes common amongst its inheritors. E.g. pornography has been normalized in society at large. “Asked if she feels she is sexy, she replies, ‘That’s what people say. I just feed off of everybody else when I do it. I guess I am sexy. Sexy is an attitude and naturalness, how you wear your clothes, you can be sexy in sweat pants and a tank top,” Rapper Lil’ Kim reported saying in August of 2000 in an article by Jet. Lil’ Kim is also notorious for keeping her followers in the blue about what she will or will not wear in the future. All we can do is wait; the suspense is killing me!
“Masculinity in an Age of Non-Men”
“Where are the men?” asked an Islamic leader from Brooklyn New York, “Where are the men?” I will tell you where they are! They have gone “Ten thousand miles into the mouth a graveyard,” as Bob Dylan said, they are in the devils den, they have taken the hand of the magi; The eleventh hour has passed and “some of us here think that life is but a joke,” (Dylan). Designer labels, Mods and rudies, Teddy boys, and rockabilly, hip hop and 2Pac. We must ask; what culture do you belong to? What is your name? Malcolm little or X? As we try to answer these questions, let us focus on the idea of reversal of the rhetoric that has caused our youth to stink and breathe a culture that is completely foreign to the Islamic concept of Fitra (natural state of the human being). At Askmen.com, which averages nearly five million reader’s predominantly male readers, touts the latest fashion and trends of the GQ male including Justin Timberlake and Nicholas Cage’s “Hot Inspiration.” You can find tips on plastic surgery and what Pamela Lee Anderson thinks is hot about a “man.” Let us go further into the abyss of this graveyard where you will be asked to only give up the minimum amount of your masculinity in the form of creeds and mottos lectured by non other than 2Pac Shakur who will dazzle you with statements like, “All I need in this life of sin is just me and girlfriend- Down to ride to the bloody end, just me and my girlfriend.” The irony of the situation is that 2Pac was trying to tell the story of young black males, but the story teller was induced by the toxins around him and they stigmatized him as a “thug” constantly feeding him with messages which marred his stories and the story teller turned bad. It is this world that turns a Pop star into a hero and it is this world that can drive a good man insane.
In an article entitled Men Growing Up to be Boys, writer Lakshmi Chaudry paints a tremendous picture of what it is like to be a male surrounded by a media blitz. She refers to them as “lad-culture” and “man-boys.” Chaudry extended her idea after viewing a 2004 novel entitled “Love Monkey,” in which author Kyle Smith reveals the ultra modern version of the American male being a “sick boy” who repels the idea of responsibility yet is dragged into manhood by his girlfriend. The mid-1990s and now more recently saw a trend of maleness being tough. There was a breach of trends that crossed over into the later baby boomer generation who began to take on the appearance of hip cool teens. They began wearing cut off sagging jeans with their hair slick back and sporting Nike Airs. The 2000s have provided a popularized the idea of what it means to be a male in today’s day. With an influx of shows and movies such as Til’ Death, 40 year old Virgin, My Best Friends Wedding and many others, we are seeing a trend setting of what Chaudry calls the dumping-down of adult masculinity. Males of today are suppose to reject any idea of responsibility and should take the easy way out. Corporate media executives are producing these messages in order to sell a lifestyle of “Easy Rider.” Young men are suppose to graduate with honors and from the best known schools in order to secure that house on the hill and a fresh cold beer. The media wants to sell them a glamorous lifestyle secure with computer jobs that allow them to stay at home and vegetate. Chaudry writes, “Commercials for cell phones, fast food, beer and deodorants offer up an infantilized version of masculinity that has become ubiquitous since the rise of “lad” culture in the ’90s. These grown men act like boys—and are richly rewarded for it. A recent cell phone ad, for example, features a guy who responds to being dumped by his girlfriend—because “you’re never going to grow up”—by playing, on his cell phone, an ’80s pop song that tells her to get lost. Of course, this immediately earns him the attention of a younger, prettier woman walking by. While these ads pretend to mirror a male fantasy—say, of walking down the wedding aisle armed with a six-pack of Bud Light—they in fact reflect a corporate executive’s dream,” (MEN GROWING UP TO BE BOYS-MADISON AVENUE CULTIVATES A PETER PAN VERSION OF MASCULINITY BY: LAKSHMI CHAUDHRY). The idea that today’s male can get away with not having any responsibility to family or the world and yet can still enjoy the amenities such as sex and free time but without commitment. This “Peter Pan” version of what it means to be a man has been vicariously reinforced as a positive behavior by the mainstream media. As a result males are modeling the behavior of popular media figures and are internalizing it to the point that media pornography has replaced the sanctity of marriage in the youth’s life. This also includes Muslim American males who have been reported by behavioral therapists as being confused about their identity. They are not here nor there, but lost in a Twilight Zone of their own.
Consumer and advertising firms are targeting males through movies such as Failure to Launch in order to resist being grown up solely for the purpose of selling their product. Chaudry calls them the metro sexual male, which is a term for males who buy on impulse and are poster boys for advertising corporations. There aim is to devour as a total generation and plant the seed of metrosexualism can produce a slacker like mentality and their mantra will include, “I am not under any orders to be a contributor to society in any way.” Hence, a sort of counter re-counter cultural revolution that leads only towards giving into the web of corporate consumerists who teach less trust in self, in God and more trust in commercialism and materialism. Between 1950 and 2000, the gross world product has shot to over 20 trillion dollars, (KALLE LASN Adbusters). Go on son; indulge yourself till your veins run black and you sink in to quicksands of deception where you must come to term with your fears and desires. Are you in or are you out? Don’t be scared, come hold my hand and we will fulfill your every fantasy as you kick and scream and dry numb.
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by —
From the thunder, and the storm —
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view
— Edgar Allan Poe
THE Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) AS A POPULAR CULTURAL ICON.
Let us now confront the reality of a Man whose epitomizes the idea of popular culture and whose style, ideology, philosophy, was followed more closely for last 1400 years than any other popular figure to ever set foot on this earth. And that man was Muhammad (peace and blessing of Allah be upon him). The Prophet’s method of life is the last spring that directs us to our true nature. It is not the lack of cars, money, nice tune or i-pod’s and phat shoes that we lack, but it is a God driven consciousness that leads to a self imposed Norton Anti Virus sweep of the soul. Men complain about the cost of marriage, but do their life-styles feed and distort the images that our sisters are looking for. Sisters complain about wanting to marry men and only find boys, but do fathers set noble examples for their boys to follow? Communities complain about the high rate of (early) divorce. But when both spouses’ reference points are stepped in a deadly cocktail of bollywood movies, ‘Amir Diab and the Western Cultural nightmare, one can only wonder why? If our reference is Justin Timberlake instead of the Prophet, then what will our marriage be like, If our reference is Lil Kim instead of ‘Aiesha, then what will our marriages be like? Thus, what is needed is a shift in reference points, a reworking of priorities and familiarity with the life and example of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
The Prophet (peace be upon him) reflects the complete male persona. He is, (peace be upon him) our lighthouse as the waves of consumerism and the post modern hurricane seek to drown our hearts. The idea that a convicted felon, shot 9 times whose represent the height of misogynist rhetoric could be a hero to Muslim youth the world over can only proof the point.
Imam Malik used to say, “The sunnah is like the ark of Noah. Whoever boarded it was safe.”
• Fathers start a weekly halaqa around the sirah of the Prophet (sa). Entertain discussion from your family members and don’t have it as a one way experience
• Fathers! Sit with your son’s and talk about what it means to be a man. The responsibilities of leading a noble life and being a dedicated husband, leader and father.