|Reflections on Do the Right Thing|
pike Lee's film Do the Right Thing depicts turmoil and conflict in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The conflict takes place among a variety of ethnic groups-- black, Hispanic, Korean, and Italian, among others. What struck me was how similar all the characters were in their social class: virtually all were lower class rather than middle class. That is, they shared the lower-class characteristics of low educational level, low income, and lack of ownership of property or means of production. I believe that social class is far more important than ethnicity in determining an individual's opportunities in America. Young people of the middle or upper classes of any race can generally succeed because their parents provide them advantages of education, financial backing, habits of enterpreneurship, high self-esteem, and so forth. Young people of the lower classes do not have these advantages. However, the Scandinavian example has clearly shown that political unity behind Social Democratic policies can create an effective redistribution of wealth, so that most of the disadvantages of being born into the lower class can be overcome.
So why hasn't there been a Social Democratic transformation in the United States? Mainly because conflicts over ethnic differences have prevented the lower class from achieving political unity. Or, as Spike Lee's film seems to say, "The ruling classes can rest easy for another generation-- the poor will be too busy battling each other over trivial differences of ethnic culture to realize that they should unite and fight for a redistribution of wealth."
But why does intraclass conflict so completely preoccupy poor people? The key, I think, has to do with the phenomenon of Noise. Noise is not just the auditory expressions of human loudness in the inner city, such as people yelling at one another, radios played at top volume, car tires screeching, or a high level of racket in too-small residential spaces. In its most general form, Noise includes all the senses: food that is highly spicy or sugary; perfumes that are overpowering rather than subtle; colors that are vivid and clashing; fabrics that incline toward satin, leather, or polyester rather than cotton or wool. The way people interact can also have a quality of Noise, for example when they are physically confrontative or threatening. And Noise extends to intellectual and cultural life as well, as in the blaring headlines of the New York Post or the National Enquirer, or in the violent disorder of kung fu or Rambo movies.
In all these aspects of Noise, the middle and upper classes incline to "quieter" forms than do the lower class. There are countless examples, many of which have been substantiated by careful social-scientific studies.
It is in the measure of "signal to noise ratio" that the plight of the American lower class can most clearly be seen. To communicate a message, or "signal", there must usually be a high ratio of the signal's power to the power of the background "noise". Thus, if the volume of background noise is high, that of the signal must be made higher still. The chief exception to this rule is when the recipient of the signal is highly attuned to select it from among a distracting background of noise-- for example, a mother who can discern her baby's cry in a distant bedroom amid the noise of family and friends and TV in the living room.
But lower class Americans tend to a high degree of cultural prejudice about "signals". These prejudices were splendidly enunciated in Do the Right Thing: people wanted to hear their own ethnic group's music, see images of faces like their own, and so forth. Because they lived in a mixed (by ethnicity, not by social class) neighborhood, the "signals" of different cultures were constantly in conflict-- and one culture's "signals" are other groups' "noise." To hear the desired signals over the background noise, there were three choices: raise the volume of the desired signal, lower the volume of the background noise, or sensitize oneself to perceiving the signal amid overpowering noise. In Do the Right Thing, the first of these alternatives was by far the most often chosen. The result was a constant war of all against all in the realm of Noise. The climactic moment came when a black youth attempted to impose the music of his boom-box on the unreceptive audience of the pizza parlor. Danny Aiello's character regarded the boom-box as "noise", but instead of trying to outdo its volume with his own choice of "signal" (as a Hispanic youth attempted earlier), he simply and brutally did away with the "noise".
What's the way out of this ocean of conflict? Could we make the inner city a more peaceful place by simply segregating ethnic cultures from one another? Probably not, because an ethnically homogeneous lower-class neighborhood will still find reasons for conflict over matters just as trivial as the cultural differences between Rap and Frank Sinatra. And, quite apart from intergroup differences, poor people will continue to prefer their "signals" to be loud simply because they have such low self-esteem, and they fear that a subtlety of expression would leave them ignored and without real existence. I believe that Noise will only lessen in the world of the inner city when there is a true Social Democratic revolution, which raises the economic status, educational level, repertory of choices of taste, and self-esteem of the lower class through a genuine redistribution of wealth. Until then, the great Noise of the life of the proletariat will simply have to be tolerated. I only hope that as many as possible of the inner-city lower class can be made aware of the worlds of Quiet, of the suburbs and the countryside, and that individuals can be given opportunities to emigrate if they choose.
Do the Right Thing's world is a powderkeg, thanks to an unlucky constellation of realities: (1) adolescent humans, especially males, are inclined to meanness rather than kindness; (2) "I won't tolerate no disrespect!" is a code of life among many of them; which results in (3) an inner-city arms race, "you push, I shove; you shove, I shoot!"; and then (4) a high Noise level provides lots of triggers or "pushes". In this dreadful context, to lessen the Noise- or to escape from it -is the only cheap and quick way to reduce the numbers of explosions.(printer friendly version)