“Humane” Letters

Let’s get right at it, then.  Phil writes: “[Jonathan’s] post indulges in the same tough-guy posturing and eliminationist rhetoric as right-wing rage radio. It is the very opposite of whatever is meant by ‘humane letters,’ dehumanizing the people it deals with and proudly announcing its refusal to understand them. It turns political opponents into political enemies, into vermin fit only for extinction.”

This is simply crap, Phil.  I appreciate that you don’t like my tone; I don’t like my tone, but in the present circumstance, my tone is unquestionably called for.  Of course, the guy who has dropped far more S- and F-bombs etc. on our blog than I have—for style reasons, doubtless—may want to show a tad more restraint in talking about “rhetoric,” but what of that; let’s talk about content.  Beethoven, to whom your seminar is devoted, is clearly up to his good work, and your immersion in him for this semester’s seminar at IU is, unavoidably and quite properly, showing in your current mood.  As it happens, this semester I’m giving a special topic seminar myself; mine, however, is on Mozart and Da Ponte’s Nozze di Figaro, a work that one of my Rabbis (Leonard G. Ratner) described as the one Perfect Opera.  As you know, in key respects Mozart and Da Ponte are no idealists.  In this thoroughgoingly masterful work, all motivations are human, all too human—fear, jealousy, revenge, lust, loneliness, and so on.  In the case of Count Almaviva, the motivation is purest power, entitlement, and the inclination to crush those less powerful than he is, without the slightest thought. The various predicaments make us laugh.  And we continue to laugh, less and less comfortably, the better we understand the opera.

In my squall of fury, as you put it, there is nothing resembling either eliminationist rhetoric or tough-guy posturing.  Who am I threatening, pray?  Am I doing a racist/misogynist Ted Nugent/Mike Huckabee number on the G.O.P.?  That’s the other side.  Am I bringing military-grade weapons to their rallies and strutting around to demonstrate my stubborn incomprehension of the Second Amendment?  Well, that’d be the other side, too.  Am I reducing the female half of the species to subhuman status by persistently referring to them and treating them that way?  Guess who does that.  Am I describing anti-feminists at Nazis, as that side has described feminists.  None of this is mysterious.  Am I really acting in an equivalent fashion?

Phil, I’ve done nothing of the kind, so please be fair.  What I said—clearly, I think—is that liberals like me should not be blaming themselves, aw we are still doing, for how things have gone.  I still see the usual earnest, self-blaming garbage: we didn’t reach out, we didn’t listen with sufficient seriousness to the feelings of the Westboro Baptist Church, we didn’t learn from the NRA, whatever.  Yes, I’m being satirical, but it is THE LIBERALS who have been screaming for health care for all, jobs programs, proper support of military veterans, attention to infrastructure, and so on.  For this, we are roundly laughed at, pissed upon, and vilified.  My point is that I’m done with it.  Those who voted for the guy now called the PEOTUS are going to be the first to suffer under his reign, and I actually don’t have to love them, or even f—ing care.  They have had nothing but contempt for me—as I am a member of what is usually called (with euphemistic flair) a coastal elite, someone who does not fantasize about the power gun ownership confers on me, someone who does not see himself as a perennial victim or the war on…whatever: white people, Xmas, etc.  If you don’t see those people as 1) a potent political and cultural force; 2) a manipulated group who are considered to be less than trash by the very people—like the PEOTUS—who rhetorically pander to them; and 3) a tragic group who will eventually be devoured by the hate that has been carefully fostered in them, then you are living in denial.  I’m from the let-there-be-peace-on-earth-and-let-it-begin-with-me generation, but when people are emboldened to more and more openly hateful and threatening, the time for kumbayaism is long past.  It has no place in life, in conversation, on a blog.  Here, Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics was particularly helpful for me: the proper role of humanists, practitioners of Humane Letters, is to resist the dehumanization of anyone, and to reaffirm the value of human enterprise and aspiration in all its manifestations.  It is not to maintain a bland can-we-be-nice-and-please-don’t-raise-your-voice relativism, because bullying and force cause bloodshed, and I’m goddamned sick of bloodshed.  While I do believe in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dictum about the long arc of history bending toward justice, I don’t like the idea of being an idle observer.  I believe in drawing lines and standing my ground.

And this brings me to my final point.  In my town, swastikas have begun appearing in various places, students of color and women have been yelled at and baited on campus etc.  Now, I don’t like saying this, but: a non-Jew/non-Rom will never, ever see a swastika the way a Jew, Rom, or Romni does.  Never; don’t ever even imagine that you will.  And it is neither eliminationist nor “tough-guy” to simply draw a line at that point: Thou. Shalt. Not.  It is not a matter of a candidate other than my chosen one winning, it is a matter of the normalization and approval of hatred that has been clear at the PEOTUS’s rallies and among his, um, advocates.  It is obvious that the nepotistic appointment of son-in-law Jared Kushner—hardly the brightest candle in the box of Hanukkah lights—has a huge potential to end badly for my community.  If the PEOTUS’s imminent failures can be blamed on one of his “trusted advisors,” who do you think is going to be in the crosshairs even more than we currently are?  He’s just a normal guy, but he was betrayed by…

Our first commenter below has some strong feelings, and mine are in part parallel with those expressed.  Civilized anglophile chats over tea—or the internet equivalent, a blog where strong, clear-eyed opinions may not be expressed for fear of, God forbid, making someone feel unwelcome—have no resonance with people under real physical threat. The world of “Humane Letters” denies and discredits itself if it insists upon a tone of ritual politesse rather than speaking truth to power, speaking truth to the mob, and persisting in blaming itself for the follies it has repeatedly tried to counteract.

My “squall of fury”?  STET.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to “Humane” Letters

  1. Clare Ford says:

    First I will state that I am Phil’s Canadian Mom. I have been reading Jonathan’s and Phil’s blog posts for many years now and I think that this will be my second comment. I will say that when I read Jonathan’s initial post on this topic I sympathized with all that he said. As a Canadian neighbour and cousin I felt deeply touched. (Commentator to Phil’s post, Tara, likewise claims my sympathy.) Being Jewish himself Jonathan has such an intimate awareness of everything surrounding the Holocaust and of what is at stake when the worst side of human nature is unleashed. I fully understand your fear (Tara, that includes your fear, too).

    And then Phil’s post arrived and of course he was, in effect, making very much the same argument that Obama did in his superb Farewell Speech. There is also a better side to human nature, a better side to most people if only it can be touched. A possibility for people, the American people, to come together. It must surely be a real possibility even if it takes infinite work, infinite tolerance, infinite determination. Such a struggle must seem impossibly daunting. But the alternative to a peaceful struggle is horrifying to contemplate, appalling for the children.

    Clare Ford – a concerned Canadian friend

  2. Benjamin Fowler says:

    I’ve not read this blog long, but I appreciate the perspectives presented here. I, like Phil, was disturbed by Mr. Bellman’s post. Though I empathize with the fear of a changing political climate the answer is not to lash out at the people who voted for Trump. Trump thrives on divisiveness and everyone who responds to his negativity gets drawn into his delusions. Already, I have been mistaken by my colleagues as being a Trump voter, something quite offensive to me, but most likely because I’m married with children and I take a firm stance against abortion and pornography because of my religious beliefs. I get that there are many perspectives and I’ve engaged in many discussions with people, who view differently than me, to understand how they think the way they do. These are civil conversations, where one is not persuaded but an understanding occurs between us. But I am troubled by the labels “Conservative” or “Liberal.” Is this not a way to pit people against each other when there is so much in common that we share? Surely this is a pluralistic society and we all must live with each other, regardless of political persuasion. I choose to be a good neighbor or colleague because it’s the right thing to do, not because I agree with everyone around me. It was a proud moment for me to cast a vote that was not for Trump, probably the most important thing I have done as an American to date. But I am equally proud that I did not cast a vote for Clinton because I’m tired of political dynasties. So the question I am faced with is, “Is there room for someone like me, who is tired of the radical right and arrogant left?” I’m not interested in labels or political posturing I’m interested in solutions. So when Mr. Bellman speaks of drawing a “line in the sand” that’s what scares me. It’s one man pitted against another, that’s no different than war. One thing that I have appreciated about Phil Ford is that he is inclusive, not just to the LGBT population or minority groups who have historically been shut out, but to people like me, trying to find my way in the world. I’m less interested in a person’s political persuasion or agenda but more interested in their dignity. I’m a person forgotten by the left and the right who falls in the in-between of the war of words and political dogma that rages in America. Judged only by whether or not I agree with either side. That, I think, is where Beethoven (or Schiller) can teach us the most important lesson. “Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!” And perhaps we should replace friend with “Brother.” Are we not all brothers and sisters in this human experience? Respectfully submitted.

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  4. Peter Alexander says:

    I’m really with you on this, Jonathan. When it comes to existential threats, which I believe we face, you have to draw a line: this far and no further. I do not hate anyone per se, and certainly not people just because they vote differently than I do, but I DO hate what people are doing and what they are saying. I too have seen the upwelling of hatred toward any number of non-privileged groups, even here in Longmont. I am not willing to stand aside and let the things that I believe in about our country—things I believe in enough even to have served in the military against my preferences—be destroyed by thoughtless, careless demagoguery and the actions of selfish people. So I will fight the H8, as my bumper sticker says, but I will also fight the action of the haters.

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