Some backstory: when Phil and I started Dial M in 2006 (that’s a decade ago, Phil!) we had previously volunteered to get involved with an American Musicological Society blog, but AMS was having difficulty figuring out precisely how much oversight they wanted, and from a larger number of people we were the only two left standing, so finally we started Dial M. In recent years AMS had finally started its own blog, which is very different from ours—there are many authors, and they tend to produce individual thought-pieces. The most recent is by Pierpaolo Polzonetti, who teaches in Notre Dame’s Liberal Studies program, and he wrote about his experience teaching Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in prison.
His blog post is here; the rest of what I say won’t make any sense at all unless you read it. I’ll wait right here; it is a quick read.
A FB friend posted immediately, upset at the racism, classism, microggressions, and so on. Many friends posted follow-ups, in agreement and support, in high dudgeon with AMS for allowing such a thing to appear under its auspices.
I responded with the following:
So as not to disappoint, I’ll be that guy:
1) There was no reference to Black men liking rap; that was a reference to the entire group of listeners. Prison populations are disproportionately African-American, yes, but we had no information on anyone except the one guy with the long beard.
2) Are you saying that it’s classist to assume anything about the listening habits of a population of people who are likely to have made bad choices earlier in life, probably because of their socioeconomic circumstances? It’s not that the privileged rich don’t commit crimes, God knows, it’s that they have ways of staying out of maximum security, right? So the writer has no business assuming that these men were unlikely to have had the opportunity to learn to appreciate a stylized dramatic form in a foreign language that depends on cultural references that were relevant centuries ago?
3) Polzonetti’s first degree listed on his Notre Dame webpage is from an institution in Rome. I’m assuming that his first language is Italian. Given the “frightening crescendo” of the bearded guy’s objection, he was not unreasonably afraid that emotions quite possibly born of unspeakable earlier experiences would boil over into violence. Perhaps “calm down” or some other phrase might have sounded less trivializing to you than “chill out,” but perhaps this is an opportunity to float a highly accomplished ESL person just a bit of the difference for a possibly slightly misused slang phrase?
I respect his effort, his account, and would not be surprised to discover that the men requested a return visit. Perhaps it’s my myriad privileges that prevent me from seeing all the microaggressions. It does seem to me, though, that the harsher the judgment we pass on people who make this kind of effort, the more we make such efforts (getting out of the ivory tower, sharing what we have, being inclusive, all that) unprofitable even to attempt.
Who wins then?
Now, I accept that this entire issue may seem, to those whose daily lives for the most part take place outside academia, ludicrously trivial—a squabble among modern-day electronic feuilletistes. More is at stake, though: accusations flying about things that are simply not to be found in the blogpost, and the piling on is wondrous to see. People find microaggressions (I do not deny that they exist, and are common), elitism, racism…not only am I not seeing these things, I’m not seeing why these accusations are going unquestioned. An accusation of racism or elitism does not automatically mean that the accused is guilty, right? And how is the AMS guilty and complicit and all that for not editing/censoring/censuring/setting on fire the guest author of the post? Really, might something like free speech be relevant, here?
One possibility, certainly, is that I’ve crossed the chronological rubicon to being the befuddled and irrelevant old buzzard that mutters “Oh, let’s not get all het up about it,” and promptly forgets what he’s talking about.
Another possibility is that some other frustrations, and I’m certainly not the person to say what they might be, are causing this boilover to occur, and that it’s focused on a guy who was sharing his account about teaching opera to inmates at a maximum security facility, and how engaged they were, and what a good experience it was.
Now noises are made about departures from AMS over this matter.
To quote Randy Newman: “Where are we, on the moon?”
I’d like to see clear identifications of the microagressions, racism, elitism, and classism. Maybe it’s obvious and I just don’t get it, sure. It seems to me, though, that the way Prof. Polzonetti is being taken to the woodshed about this with the parent learned society merits something clearer than what I’m seeing.