The subject line was ominous: "This is difficult to watch," it said. I probably shouldn't share with you what sort of video I was expecting to find upon opening the message, but I can tell you that the enclosed clip, though not what I imagined, was indeed difficult to watch, especially for a huge hip-hop fan like me.
If you like politics and have HBO, or are just into YouTube, perhaps you've seen the video of rapper Mos Def and author Christopher Hitchens, bookending Salman Rushdie and Bill Maher on Maher's talk show, engaged in a conversation about the Taliban. It is a conversation that quickly devolves into the sort of scene that usually precedes a shouting match, or even a fistfight. In and of itself, angry, televised ranting about politics is a vulgarity too often tolerated by Americans (a problem The Root has touched on before), but what made this heated bickering particularly cringe-worthy was the imbalance of it.
Mos Def was overwhelmed by men far more learned about the topic at hand than himself, and in the carnage that ensued, viewers were exposed to one of the sadder problems plaguing parts of the African-American community today: an immovable distrust of everything.
Without a doubt, for blacks in America, maintaining a cautious disposition is a good idea. Many African Americans who have let their guard down in the past have paid for it, sometimes dearly. But caution becomes problematic when it goes from simple self-preservation technique to worldview, something affecting a person’s every interaction. Like the shellshocked soldier who sees even his comrades as enemies, a person who has come to trust nothing is a danger to everything and everyone—most of all himself.
Shun the government completely, and you’ll miss out on the occasional JFKs of the world. Distrust the entirety of the mainstream media, and you’ll never be privy to the brilliant work of Woodward and Bernstein. You believe white people are out to get you? Then how to account for John Brown?
The true danger in mistrust is that it ultimately leads to fear, which in turn can lead to any number of negative outcomes. It was mistrust and fear just as much as it was a bullet that cut down Martin Luther King Jr., and it was mistrust and fear that caused black activist Kamau Kambon to proclaim on C-SPAN that the answer to the world’s problems is the extermination of all the whites. More recently, mistrust and fear mucked up what should have been a very simple interaction between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a Cambridge police officer.
Luckily for Mos Def, thus far, his mistrust and fear have just made him look pretty silly on television.
It began innocently enough, with Mos calmly asking, "What are al-Qaeda and the Taliban's political ambitions?" It was an odd inquiry, as decades of violent attacks and fiery rhetoric from Osama bin Laden have clarified for most people the goals of those groups. Nevertheless, it was also a question for which Hitchens, Rushdie and—to a lesser extent—Maher, had a variety of answers:
- The return of an Islamic empire
- An ultra-puritan agenda
- A fascist state
- The death of all Jews, Hindus and secularists
In the end, Maher tied it all together, pointedly telling Mos, "They're bad motherf—kers!"
For many, a Hitchens-Rushdie assurance that the Taliban is committed to reckless and violent ends would be reason enough to close the debate and move the conversation on to something else. Despite what you think about the controversies surrounding both men, it's undeniable that they are both well-versed in Middle Eastern radicalism (Rushdie was once even forced to hide out from an Iranian fatwa). Yet Mos Def pushed back against the assertions in the strangest ways possible.
Seemingly ignorant of the insidious ways of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda—"You're sounding as if you've only just heard of this," Hitchens noted—the talented hip-hop artist grew obstinate at the three men before him, at one point declaring, "I don't believe that someone's bad just because you say so." He sounded both childish and churlish, the statement coming across like something a teenager who's just discovered punk music would shout at his parents. Then Mos went further off the rails, bringing up Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther convicted of murder who escaped prison and has since lived in exile in Cuba. The rapper’s point being: "There have been lots of crimes leveled against people which they didn't do."
Mos might have made sense had bin Laden et al. not released multiple videos over the past decade affirming their roles in several heinous crimes and assassinations. When Hitchens suggested Mos watch those videos, Mos, a devout Muslim, contended that he didn't trust the media's translations of the videos. A few moments later, when Hitchens, grinning and catty, said Mos should "do some work on [his] own account" and look into the Taliban's crimes, the rapper, angry now, shouted, "Don't start no shit, Mr. Hitchens! I'm from Brooklyn! I'm not afraid of nothin'!"
That's when I stopped the clip, clicking it off the way someone at a bullfight might turn away from a speared, dizzy, increasingly lifeless bull.
To be sure, after watching that video, I was embarrassed for Mos Def, a smart guy who went up against equally smart guys and lost both the argument and his cool, but I was also fully aware of why he flamed out so horribly.
Growing up as a person of color in America, you're often astounded to learn how poorly your ancestors were treated. From slavery to the three-fifths compromise to lynchings to redlining practices, the horror stories are endless, and they can plant in you an onion of bitterness and suspicion. If you're unlucky, it's not only stories of prejudice that will add layers to that onion but actual incidents of bigotry, too. For some, eventually, that ball of embitterment can simply grow too big, leading them to trust only themselves and their own kind, even if that means forsaking rationality. It’s one of the cruelest paradoxes of the black experience: an unreasonable fear of the world around you, and it happens for good reason.
Such was the case, I'm afraid, with Mos Def that night on Real Time with Bill Maher. In just a few short minutes, before HBO viewers' very eyes, Mos revealed a pain so deep that he was unwilling to believe mainstream (read: white) media reports about something as simple and irrefutable as the maliciousness of Osama bin Laden.
Ultimately, you have to wonder if Mos Def actually believes that the news stations would collude to intentionally deceive viewers with fudged translations of bin Laden's terror rants. If he does, then you mustn't giggle at him, the way Chris Hitchens did—you have to feel sorry for him, and then wonder how much pain it takes to get to where he is.
Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV. You can contact him here.