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New York Daily News - News Gangster chic needs ethics check

The ongoing corruption of popular entertainment in which street scum is celebrated inspires cliches that would drown us if they were liquid, and not hot air.

To the Marxists and left-wing airheads among us, the negative, gangster-driven images glorified in movies like "Hustle & Flow" and video games like "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" are a byproduct of capitalism, which is surely part of it, but hardly the whole.

Our actual problem is more complex than profit. The history of Marxist regimes ever since they began to emerge proves that the perpetuation of the corrupt and the polluting of the social fabric that binds us have other sources.

That source is ethics, not capitalism.

Once ruthless men take charge, the people are in trouble, no matter the economic system. In the 1930s, when Hitler and his crew were rising to the top of the toilet, their methods were described as gangster politics. This description was obviously not extreme because it was referring to the laws of the streets in which one took what one wanted and either beat down or killed whoever stood in the way. We have seen many variations on this in many dictatorships, but the adjective gangster has always fit.

Gangster films were quite popular in the 1930s, but waned in the decades that followed. The genre made a remarkable return in 1972 with "The Godfather," which was more than a classic and more than the best film of its kind ever made. It had a very strong impact on black American boys from the lower class. For them, the lure of street cred was too strong to ignore, and gang activity began its comeback. One of the first signs of this renaissance was the creation of the brutal Los Angeles street gang, The Family. Soon there was talk of having to kill someone to join certain gangs and kill them in a way that would make the newspapers. How much of that actually happened is beside the point; we do know that from certain acorns poison oaks grow.

We have now evolved an entire industry in which the gangster esthetic is promoted, making many ignorant, young black men wealthy. So wealthy, that the fantasy of huge success in the world of entertainment floats through many black slums and trumps the idea of getting an education or developing a skill.

American entertainment does not have to return to any period in which the pressure of life was lost in the suds of insipidly lifeless comedies and melodramas. But we should understand how unethical a time we live in when, as a Hollywood executive wrote me in an E-mail, "The only thing we allow black people to do in our art is live out this racist fantasy of what we think blacks are meant to do in our society:%A0catch footballs, pimp ho's and commit crimes."

He was not talking about capitalism; he was talking about ethics. Popular entertainment has done much to make bigots unattractive at least since the late 1950s. The industry had to take a chance on finding out if the public might have a taste for something beyond the narrowest stereotypes of black people. The litmus test involved seeing if there is a willingness to face how undemocratic bigotry is and what a threat to our collective freedom it always represents.

It would do us a great deal of good as a nation to see our entertainment industry turn away from presenting the gangster esthetic as a form of rebellion or hipness and show the limitations and consequences of amoral materialism, misogyny and anarchy.

Our young people need more and we, as one of the most inventive cultures in world history, can provide it once we decide to do so.

Originally published on July 31, 2005

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