Fluffy puppies

Phil Ford

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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Fluffy puppies

  1. Scraps says:

    Phoney Bone is a good illustration of the effectiveness of demagoguery. And when he successfully turned the town against Rufus (if I am remembering his name correctly) and Grandma, Rufus clearly could not comprehend how people couldn’t see through it. It was so obvious and so transparent, yet it worked. That’s done for comic effect, but I think it’s true, too.
    (I just wanted to talk about Bone.)

  2. Galen says:

    I believe something fairly close to the “vulgar sociology” you describe, so let me assure you that not all of us make exceptions for ourselves and our friends 🙂
    My minor disagreement with the model you describe is that I recoginze that there’s a genetic component in addition to the memetic component. Clearly our genetic evolution has laid some sort of foundation for the kinds of sounds we find pleasing, although I hesitate to speculate on any specifics. It’s conceivable that one element of whether we think a piece of music is “good” has to do with whether it satisfies our biological needs, although that’s probably a pretty small factor, especially given that most people have pretty much the same genetic makeup but vastly different opinions on what’s “good.”
    So now we move on to the cultural component. It’s easy to see how memes about aesthetics would propogate through cultures, and how certain segments of society would be more habitable environments for a given meme than other segments due to which memes are already thriving there. (Much in the way that a genetic mutation for longer arms would do well in simian populations, but presumably didn’t provide any real advantage for T-Rex.)
    The only possible metrics for cultural objects to have value is in their value to our culture and/or our genetic makeup. Unless you introduce a god into the picture who has aesthetic preferences, which you’re welcome to do, in which case we’ll have to disagree. Is there an alternative I’m not thinking of?
    Anyway, while most of the time I use the convenient shorthand of referring to things as “good” or “bad,” I recognize that my opinions on those matters are derived from my cultural and genetic programming and that I am, in fact, an automaton running through a cultural script.
    On the other hand, I too am in favor of fluffy puppies. The pro-juvenile-cainines crowd has done a good job brainwashing me 🙂

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Scraps, hey Galen . . .
    Actually, Galen, while the issues you raise are deep and significant ones, my point was actually a bit different. I was talking about those who maintain a simple and rather essentializing relationship between culture and identity. Like, if you’re a young black man, you can’t “relate” to classical music, you can only listen to hiphop, because that is the music of your people, the music that expresses your social condition. Or, contrariwise, the only possible reason you might have for listening to classical music is your privileged class position. While there is always a grain of truth to this sort of analysis (you don’t see a lot of black people in the AMS, for one thing), it doesn’t do justice to the infinitely complex reality of individual lives. People do in fact make decisions as a function of their race/class/gender/demographic type, but they also make decisions as individuals. A lot of social-sciences and humanities academics are apt to discount what they see as naive individualism, but such people will still think of themselves as individuals, perfectly capable of making individual choices. And what I called “vulgar sociology” (which is not the same as sociology tout court) provides a kind of intellectual ratonale for a bad high-school habit of judging people on the basis of their social type. High schools are famously caste-riven places, and teens are apt to make judgments about one another solely on the basis of what music they listen to or what clothes they wear. And this isn’t so different from David Brooks’ red-state/blue-state schtick — if you’re a blue-stater, you like Chardonnay and watch Bravo, if you’re red-state you like Bud and NASCAR. Brooks’ most recent book on this topic has been comprehensively pounded for its reductionism, but this style of analysis is very much of its (our) times. People like to think of culture in these incredibly simple ways, like the white and black hats worn by cowboy movie characters for easy identification.

  4. Galen says:

    Ah, okay. You’re talking about making race or class based assumptions on which cultural scripts a person is capable of running, and assuming that because somebody is from a particular group they _must_ be running a particular, essentialized cultural script, right? There’s certainly plenty of that going around. And I think we can easily attribute the exceptions for self and friends to ingroup-outgroup bias.
    A lot of what happens is the assignment of particular cultural artifacts as tokens of “authenticity.” So a white guy listening to rap is automatically partly inauthentic, and a black guy listening to country is automatically inauthentic. Classical music is a token of authenticity for rich people, rock for middle class and poor people.
    I’m not sure this phenomenon really comes from the belief that cultural artifacts have value only with respect to their value to society, though. In the Beer/Chardonay example those items aren’t considered for their value as cultural artifacts but for their value as markers of social status. My understanding of the argument (I haven’t read much Brooks, so I’m talking about the common, genericized version rather than Brooks’s specific construction) is that beer, especially cheap beer, is the liquor of “the people” because it’s what they can afford, and wine is the liquor of the upper class because they can afford the best. “The people” are “authentic” by definition, and it’s representative of their “authentic” lifestyles that they enjoy objectively inferior products because it’s all they can afford to enjoy. That objective inferiority of the artifact is essential to the argument–part of the authenticity comes from allegedly believing that an inferior artifact is good enough for you. The blue-state wine drinkers are inauthentic not because they enjoy the superior product but because they allegedly enjoy it for the wrong reasons — that they choose it because they think they’re too good for the liquor of the people.
    Returning to music, I’ve actually found that one common attitude toward classical music is that “sure, it’s objectively better, but I like rock better anyway.” Again, choosing the “inferior” artifact becomes a marker of authenticity. At the same time, the declaration of other outgroup musics as “objectively inferior” is in part a strategy for tarring the Other people who like that music as inferior. Often, part of declaring that it’s okay or authentic for an outgroup to like an inferior music is about saying “what else should we expect from an inferior people.” Again, the inherent value of the music is critical to the model.

  5. Bob Judd says:

    Hi Phil–
    I guess I’m not at the nadir of cynicism yet. I want to toss down two gauntlets.
    Gauntlet 1: write about the issues in the next bit of research you publish.
    Take up torture. Or at least some angle of the justice/injustice issues (aren’t these issues–torture, Darfur, belligerent unjustified warring [Iraq], why thousands go to bed hungry every day while Americans throw tons of food away–all to do with justice?). Blogging and talking is fine, of course, but I sense there’s more challenge, more value, to it when you do it in a paper, book, something that’s been vetted by the editorial board and published. If the thought brings to mind something like “oh, my friends/colleagues/tenure committee won’t want to see that,” I’d say, all the more reason to do it. Is it possible to write about musicology and justice at the same time? I’m an optimist; I think so.
    Gauntlet 2: talk about the issues in your classes.
    Fight the students’ “what do I have to do in this class to pass/get an A?” at every turn; draw together musicology and issues of justice at every opportunity. (I wonder whether our failure to do this is behind the current campus docility in the face of multiple injustices?)
    I will be interested to see whether readers feel these are gauntlets worth considering. More to the point, if I toss ’em down it’s up to me to take ’em up first. I will try to figure out how.

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