Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph
The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives
Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters
Barricaded blocks and borders
Look what you taught us!
It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets
Wall Street, corporate offices
Banks, employees, and bosses with
Homicidal thoughts; Donald Trump’s in office
Kendrick Lamar raps these heavy lines on “XXX,” the eleventh track on his masterful DAMN. album released last April. It is one of my favorites on the album not only because the Compton rapper unleashes some of the sharpest political commentary of his career, drawing a direct line between the 45th president, corporate America, and murder, but also because it addresses a topic that I can’t seem to get my mind off of: the inherent violence of politics.
Have you ever really thought about why you (or a friend) love(s) Game of Thrones so much? Although it’s one of my favorite television shows of all time, it’s taken me a while to learn how to articulate why I love this show about medieval kings and queens, fire-breathing dragons, ice zombies, and ironclad soldiers going to battle every Sunday night.
Sure, medieval-inspired fantasy violence is entertaining. But fans of the show know that a fire-breathing dragon, by itself, isn’t really that interesting, no matter how cool it looks. In truth, we love Game of Thrones because we get to watch a dragon breathe fire, in all its violent glory, for a political purpose.
Game of Thrones, once past the dragons, zombies, and nudity, is at its heart a political drama. Sure, its players and the way power manifests itself look very different from those in a modern political drama such as House of Cards. But at its core, the hook lies in the entertainment of watching powerful people use their resources to gain even more power — in other words, politics. Daenerys Targaryen may call her prize the Iron Throne and Frank Underwood may call his prize the White House, but it is clear that they are both playing the same game.
I won’t sit here and pretend that anything I just said is all that original or insightful. Of course dramatic politics, medieval or modern, is interesting! The more compelling question is what can the world of Game of Thrones reveal about our real world?
With Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX” in mind, I would like to suggest that violence fundamentally operates in similar ways in Game of Thrones and our modern, American political system. Wait, hear me out before you call me crazy.
The most obvious site of violence carried out by the American state comes in the form of military operations abroad and police operations at home. When Kendrick raps, “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives,” he refers to bombs dropped once upon a time in places like Hiroshima and Vietnam as well as the 21,171 bombs that the U.S. dropped in seven countries last year alone. That’s a bomb dropped somewhere in the world every three hours. The line similarly refers to police officers who seem to take pleasure in routinely using bullets to take the lives of unarmed black and brown teenagers.
But violence doesn’t have to look like bombs or bullets to be considered violence. It can be much more subtle than that. State violence also looks like erecting “barricaded blocks and borders” to keep brown people out of this country. State violence looks like having the world’s largest prison population by putting mostly black, brown, and nonviolent people in cages when they could have easily been given health resources instead. State violence looks like corporate interests driving policymakers to take healthcare away from 22 million people in order to give the richest Americans a tax break. State violence looks like lawmakers in Michigan not caring whether or not black people in Flint have safe drinking water. State violence looks like authorizing the construction of a pipeline through native people’s land without a care for its effect on their water supply or even for how it would desecrate a sacred burial ground.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had the most famous dream in American history. Unfortunately, his dream has been misconstrued so severely that people like me could be taught in school that his dream amounted to nothing more than people of all races being able to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” together.
That younger version of me would have been shocked to learn that King once called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence on earth today.” A United States that dropped fewer bombs and shot fewer bullets and cared more for those who have less — that was King’s real dream.
It’s Kendrick’s dream. And it’s my dream too. But this dream will never come true as long as we exclusively think of violence in this country as “thugs” or “gang members” or “terrorists.” It’s time we realize that the violent actions of some individuals, as awful as they may be, are simply a reaction to, a reflection of, the violence that the American state itself is responsible for every single day.
If you enjoyed this piece and you would like to support my writing in other ways, please check out my first short work of fiction, Frederick Douglass and the John Brown Scouts, available now on Amazon.