A Tale of Two Rap Songs

Before I dive deep into hip-hop (words I never thought I’d type), I’d like to introduce you to a term you may not have heard. The term is “condensed symbol,” and it’s recently been revived by my friend Rod Dreher. He explained its roots in a 2015 post, but it dates back to the 1960s and the sociologist Mary Douglas. Essentially it means that certain ideas, practices, or controversies can become symbolic of an entire world view or cultural trend. 

Because most of us don’t think in terms of data and charts, but rather more through stories and experiences, condensed symbols can have enormous cultural and political power. For example, the celebration surrounding Caitlyn Jenner after Jenner’s transition was a condensed symbol of cultural changes around gender identity. 

To take another example, Rod recently pointed out that the fight over masks may well be another condensed symbol. The conservative resistance to masks was a symbolic expression of resistance to progressive experts. The refusal to mask was an expression of “folk libertarianism.” 

Condensed symbols can be so powerful that a large percentage of our political and cultural fights can be summed up as a battle over symbols. To what extent is any given event symbolic of larger truths and trends or just one of the inevitable quirks of a large, pluralistic democracy? Look hard enough, after all, and you can find basically any kind of behavior in a country this big. 

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