I’ve been reading Jonathan’s long post from the other day, which he bills as a “dissonant counterpoint” to this post of mine, and I’m at a loss to figure out where, in those 1074 words, the “counter” part is. “The issue is really torture, which to me is always wrong, period.” Then we agree! End of debate. No, wait, there’s still 961 words to go, so something must be getting on Jonathan’s nerves. And it turns out his argument is simply this: I don’t like torture, but I really don’t like the kind of people who make a big deal out of torture.
Sorry Jonathan, but this is humbug. You yourself took a stand against double standards when you asked whether Cusick “et al.” (meaning what, exactly? other icky new musicologists?) have written statements against “Central American governments
that “disappear” people, or the treatment of women under Saddam’s regime (especially those designated for use by his sons)?” Probably not, and maybe that’s bad. Torture is torture, whether we do it or whether Uday Hussein does it. Again, we agree.* So, by the same token, protest against torture is the same whether an icky new musicologist does it or when someone more appropriately serious does it, right?
Right. That’s exactly what it means. Judge the arguments, not the person making them. The English pacifist Alex Comfort, arguing against George Orwell’s insistence on armed resistance to the Nazis, told American readers of Partisan Review that they “may not realize Mr. Orwell’s status in this country and take his commentary seriously.” Orwell shot back, “A writer isn’t judged by his “status,” he is judged by his work.”**
There’s a kind of vulgar sociology that insists that cultural objects have a value or meaning only relative to their use in society — so if you like to listen to classical music, it’s because you’re from the ruling capitalist elite, whereas the urban proletariat properly concerns itself only with hiphop. So individual taste and aesthetic response becomes nothing more than an involuntary reflex borne of one’s social position, and individuals nothing more than automata running a cultural script. (Although the people making such arguments always seem willing to make an exception for themselves. And their friends.) Jonathan has expressed irritation at this kind of reductive thinking before, and rightly so. But one of the more annoying features of contemporary intellectual life is the metastization of this idea throughout the wider American discourse. In retrospect, David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise was a huge step forward of this idea from Birmingham-school Marxists to everybody who reads the editorial page of the New York Times. And everyone else, too, because this idea is nothing more than the intellectual rationalization of the high-school clique mentality. Like, my god, he’s such a tool, I mean, he listens to Coldplay! And did you see his shoes?
But there’s an important principle in Jonathan’s post — liberty of conscience — so I’m not (completely) mocking Jonathan’s stance. I have elsewhere described myself as an anarchist with a mortgage — someone who dislikes and distrusts politics on principle, and suspects that all political leaders are frauds who wrap their own hunger for power in sanctimonious appeals to virtue. Like, I don’t want power for myself, you understand, I just want to protect you from The Terrorists. Or, I don’t want power for myself, I just want to fight racism/secularism/sexism/liberalism/war/The Man/puppy-kicking/Zen veganism/priapic onanism etc. Give me that power, and I will fight for you. And if you don’t want to submit to their power, then of course it can only be because you actually want to kick puppies.*** And academics are not immune from this authoritarian temptation.
In fact, the 1990s presented almost unlimited opportunities for academics to indulge this temptation. I remember one particular academic meeting long ago (not the AMS, but I won’t tell you which one) where, during the business meeting, someone moved to have the society rise up with one voice to affirm our approval of fluffy puppies. (Well not really, but it might just as well have been.) “All in favor of fluffy puppies, raise your hand! Votes against? Very well. (solemnly) Let the record show that our support for fluffy puppies was unanimous.” I remember burning in anger and shame at raising my hand, like everyone else, not because I secretly hate fluffy puppies, but because it’s degrading to be herded into a pen and have your opinion extorted by the collective moral suasion of “the community.” (And, like academics generally, I’m really not brave at all, so I didn’t just stand up and scream “this is all bullshit!” but instead just obediently raised my hand and hated myself for being such a wuss.) Regardless of whether the opinion is a good one or not, there is something to be said for liberty of conscience — which includes the right not to give a damn, even if the cause is really, really important.
So I take it back, I don’t suggest that the AMS draft a position against torture, because, hey, I don’t want to put people through that kind of nonsense.**** I do, however, think that I, and Suzanne Cusick, and every other academic and intellectual, can do something useful by writing about torture, and that it’s not just posturing.***** And, on this particular issue, I really don’t care whether you listen to Coldplay (although it might be better if you didn’t): if you’re against torture, we’re on the same page.
*Although I wonder whether we really want to measure American standards of human rights against those of Uday Hussein. Surely we could aim a bit higher?
**This from the exchange titled “Pacifism and the War” (in the Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters), to which owe the “objectively pro-fascist” meme we all heard so much of c. 2001-03.
***I’m reading the epic Bone comix series with my son, and the one we’re doing right now — book 4, The Dragonslayer — wonderfully illustrates this dynamic.
****It’s probably an index of just how pissed off I get about this issue that I went so far as to suggest this.
*****And even if it is, who cares? If someone’s being insincere, it’s
between him and his conscience — not my problem. And an insincere
argument against torture is still better than a sincere argument for
it, because, you know, it’s still torture we’re talking about here. [UPDATE] Looking back at the penultimate line of this post, it looks like I’m arguing that every academic should start writing about torture, but that’s not what I meant. My point was that, for those academics who want to do something about torture, there’s nothing wrong with writing about it, even if, as a music scholar, that pretty much means you’ll just be writing about torture and music — and that just because you’re writing about torture and music it doesn’t mean you’re a posturing weenie. That is all.