Reading the notices on Eminem, you get the distinct impression that what the boffo rap star needs now is some really awful press -- a hit of florid outrage, a grassroots boycott or two, maybe some fresh congressional testimony defining the depths of his deviance. But no. Instead, he gets good-to-mediocre reviews for his performance in "8 Mile," box office receipts by the Brinks-truckload, and the adulation (yech) of America's women, who reportedly forked over more than half of the $54.5 million the movie earned in its opening weekend. Poor guy. How long can any self-respecting "scourge of bourgeois values," as the Times' Frank Rich calls him (with a wink and a nudge), go on if the bourgeois scourge values him?
It gets worse. Describing the "high point" of a typical evening on the "2002 Anger Management Tour," Mr. Rich quite neutrally depicts Eminem, mid-rap, as he "vows to urinate on the White House lawn and hurls expletives at Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore." Cole Porter, Noel Coward, eat your hearts out. There's genuine "artistry" for you -- Eminem's signature way with words critics swoon over -- but does it start a revolution, a rampage or even a tentative roar? Not from this audience, a "happy crowd," Mr. Rich notes, that could just as easily be tromping through a mall, rooting for the home team or even filing into church. Eminem raps on about being "in trouble with the government," but this, too, is another crowd-pleasing fantasy. Eminem clings pathetically to Tipper Gore (she who repented to Hollywood for her anti-smut sins 15 years ago), but not even so perky a lifeline can save the dark star from sinking into the polluted cultural mainstream.
The fact is, Eminem is not "in trouble" with the government and never has been, notwithstanding the valiant efforts of a Lynne Cheney here, or a Joe Lieberman there, to shine a light on Hollywood's crawly underside. The big debate in our more peaceful past was not about a rapper's freedom of speech, but about the social responsibilities that go along with that freedom -- or should.
Silence on the subject today is not because Eminen has been launched, finally, into the mainstream: Critically acclaimed and marketplace validated, he has really always gone with the flow. Nor has the political let-up come about as a result of conservatives abandoning cultural controversy after rediscovering the meat-and-potato issues of national security in the wake of 9/11.
If Osama bin Laden didn't stop the culture wars, as one executive with Eminem's recording company intimated to The New York Times, he certainly changed them. Or at least changed the battleground.
That is, the conservative shift away from domestic cultural issues in the last 14 months hasn't occurred solely because Islamic terrorists with big bombs might end the world long before homegrown cultural rot ever could.
In the fight against Islamofascism, there is a familiar aspect of the old culture wars: namely, the need to oppose cultural relativism. This same philosophy, roughly, that now causes Westerners to quiver when called upon to judge such non-Western practices as death-by-stoning or female genital mutilation, long ago stripped the West of the guideposts, barriers and taboos that once upon a time would have consigned any man who sang about murdering mothers and wives to society's margins -- not to the top of the charts.
On some level, Eminem seems conscious of the unbearable lightness of today's (nonexistent) constraints. He appears vaguely aware of the need to resist an overbearing social order -- which, of course, doesn't exist -- to avoid appearing utterly ridiculous. Hence, he leans on Tipper like a crutch, and raves on about being "in trouble with the government."
Exactly which government, one wonders, is that? Faint echoes of the rapper's plaints come through recent headlines about people who really are in trouble with their governments for speaking out.
There is Kola Boof, a Sudanese author in hiding who has been sentenced to death for denouncing the oppression of women under Islamic law and the enslavement of non-Muslim black Africans in Sudan.
There is Hashem Aghajari, an Iranian professor who has been sentenced to death -- not to mention 74 lashes and exile -- for questioning why clerics only have the right to interpret Islam. And there is the Netherlands' Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This Somali-born woman hasn't been threatened by the Dutch government, but has received inadequate protection from it, forcing her to flee the country after receiving death threats from Dutch Muslims for revealing the sexual and physical abuse Muslim women and girls suffer inside Holland -- as permitted by Muslim clerics in direct contravention of Dutch law.
Sounds like a new kind of culture war -- one in which Eminem will have to share top billing.