You say you’re tired
How I hate to hear you use that word

—Warren Zevon, “Never Too Late for Love” (1982)


Those who have truck with musicologists may have noticed a certain despondency, in recent days, in their Facebook posts.  Quite a few (of my friends, anyway) are talking (again) about leaving the listerv of the American Musicological Society, AMS-L, or of leaving the Society altogether.  A bit of background on what can get musicologists riled to the point of such a firefight:

Several days ago, someone posted an innocent (to me) query about language requirements in Ph.D. programs; they’re revising their requirements, do we all still feel two languages are necessary, is German required to be one of the languages, and so on.  Several people chimed in (myself included), extolling the virtues of language requirements, two languages at least for translation purposes, some said yes on German and some not necessarily, and so on.

A pause for background: German was the native language of the young discipline of Musikwissenschaft in the nineteenth century, and as such much of the crucial literature on many topics of research—which, in classical musicology, meant music of the middle ages and Renaissance—was in German.  I finished my undergraduate degree in fall, 1979, at about the time that the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the first edition, 1980, as distinguished from the older Grove’s Dictionaries) appeared; before that, the only comprehensive music reference source was “MGG,” Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart [Music in History and in the Present], and all classical musicians, not just musicologists, were told that learning German was a necessity, myself included.  We thought those were the rules, and that was that.  My doctoral program required two languages; before I entered in 1986, I reviewed my junior high and high school French and spent five hours per day for a month or so pounding through Debbie’s undergrad German textbook. I passed my exams that registration week, and entered the program on Day 1 with my language translation exams completed.  Yay me.  Anyway, back to our story:

One person had enough of the all the agreement and posted a bitterly satirical letter of “support,” a real boilover, making arch reference to the “time-tested customs from half a century ago” (the irony is apparent to those familiar with the musicology job market), making the point (via sarcasm) that plenty of musics are studied now that are not dependent on German- or any foreign language capability for familiarity with their scholarly literatures, that there are plenty of other literatures beyond traditional musicological publications that need to be mastered, and so forth.  (This person is a friend, incidentally; I wrote privately, surprised by his tone, and a long and frank dialogue ensued.)

Following this, the conversation continued on his and others’ FB pages.  Things got a lot more heated, personal, sometimes insulting, and occasionally weird.  On the listserv and the FB pages, there were charges and counter-charges of privilege—privileging of classical repertories over others, the privilege of those who had the opportunity to study languages and lecture have-nots about the benefits of language acquisition, so as to make them, presumably, and more like mid-century polylingual European emigrés, that other important literatures are ignored when we emphasize the traditional German scholarly literatures…then the counter-accusations: the privilege inherent in speaking English as a first-and-only language because so much scholarly literature is now in English so anglophones are expecting other people to accomplish what they never had to, the idea that related literatures (e.g. post-colonial criticism or Queer Theory) are by no means only in English and that to assume so betrays an underlying hegemonism…you get the idea. The claims of a very short time ago that anglophones ought to learn languages to better understand each other and other cultural values and thought systems (even as reflected in their scholarly literatures) suddenly evaporated into bitter objections to being made to follow traditional degree requirements, and the implied invalidation of those requirements.

So we’ve all seen, recently, a certain amount of ugly and dismissive writing. It is no wonder, really, that when people treat each other this way some consider bailing from the Society, period.  Still: the AMS is not a monolith; it’s a society made up of humans.  I’ve been a member for over thirty years, and have seen bitter critiques of the Society for its traditionalism and conservatism, and (contrariwise) for its pandering to newfangled and fashionable but ephemeral subdisciplines, for its lack of interest in teaching (which many of us do) in favor of a kind of lordly, they-can-like-it-or-lump-it-but-look-at-my-important-research focus, or (contrariwise) its exaggerated interest in teaching, which excludes independent scholars (those without jobs), for its lack of improving the dire job situation, and so on.  Really, the Society—were it a single Being—should feel quite proud of itself for having such power and influence over everything.  It should also feel wretched about itself for (apparently) failing at absolutely everything.

Let me offer one key point, and gloss it.

Beware words like “privilege” and “entitlement”. Whether originally so intended or not, those words are now wielded like nightsticks.  Facile comments like “Check your privilege!” and “That’s because of your entitlement!” (true story: a guest lecturer from Berkeley once responded to a question from my Doktorvater with “You wouldn’t ask that if you weren’t a straight white male!”) too often betray a glib lack of reflection. There are different kinds of privilege: the privilege of being blissfully monolingual, or the privilege of being polylingual, whatever the circumstances that got you there.  A tougher one: the privilege of being safely part of the majority culture vs. the privilege of biculturalism, of standing outside it enough to gain an understanding of what others don’t even notice.  Some consider biculturalism a disadvantage, some an advantage.  The privilege of having enough money for anything you want vs. the poor-little-rich-kid syndrome where one essentially has no friends, talents, or even identity because one never had to work for anything or be anything; all was provided, and all scrapes could be smoothed over with money.  [Example deleted: a certain Reader felt that the would-be assassin I used as an example was inappropriate.  We all know such cases, though, and despite their privilege often pity them.]  You may feel like a lifelong victim because of your ethnicity, gender, or gender preference, but another might wave all that aside and look longingly at your teaching position and see you as one of the privileged few—very, very few.  It is virtually impossible, I think, to avoid a certain blindness: I got my job because of the quality of my work, whatever my background; with others however, class, or ethnicity, or gender (whether the box is prominently ticked or prominently unticked) obviously played a major role.  I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, in other words, but other people had lots of help and advantages I didn’t enjoy.

This is natural human psychology, and it’s hard as hell to tame it, especially in straitened times of scant resources and dicier contemporary culture—thinking of the open tolerance (if not encouragement) of racism, victimization of women, and much else. The deep stresses and concerns we feel are real, yet turning on each other and scrambling to the moral high ground with our banners of self-righteousness is not going to get it done.  Another key point:

Too often we unknowingly become others’ demons.  The language discussion outlined above exemplified that we can over-analyze at the drop of a hat.  Someone’s warm endorsement of the benefits of language study can become, in another’s mind, the very embodiment of an stereotypical authority-brandishing, tyrannical academic figure.  The very mention of one of the newer critical schools might raise hackles as one remembers an unhappy faculty meeting or Q & A session after a paper.  Simply to advocate for the importance of something you like must really mean that something I like is being marginalized and disrespected.

We all do it, on various levels, and it’s infantile.  We have to do better.

Finally: for those considering leaving the AMS, I think you shouldn’t.  A professional disciplinary society is only as good as the people in it, and those who leave cede any claim to further representation or influence in it.  (Not to mention the other obvious point that those who are not invested in it have no right to offer criticism later on, or ask for support—join up, or shut up.)  If the character of the organization troubles you, step up to lead and change the attitude and discussion.  A past president once congratulated me for an exasperated E-Mail I once sent that made this very point: you think everything is run by swells from the Ivies and the east coast? Send an E-Mail offering to serve on a committee or two! No, you may not get your first choice immediately, but there are many committees and the AMS Board is always looking for people to serve on them.  Don’t sit and sulk by the phone; let people know you’re interested and get involved.  Apparently, this frustrated E-note had had some success and some younger people had gotten involved.  It’s still advice to consider: you don’t like what you see? Work to change it—you may learn something about other people and other constituencies in the process.

The Warren Zevon song quotes above continues

Who am I to say
I know the way you feel
I’ve felt your pain
And I know your sorrow

True; and I don’t know your rage either.  Here’s the thing, though: you don’t know mine.  As long as we give ourselves permission to go off on each other, personally, for such elusive reasons as what another “obviously” represents, we are being self-indulgent rather than constructive.

These are not pretty times, culturally, in the good old U.S. of A.  Angrily shooting inside the tent is hardly going to make things better.  We all may have more allies than we think, if we could stop looking through the gunsight enough to see them in real life.

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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1 Response to Privilege

  1. It seems to be similar in other disciplines. … partner taught Modern European History at a British University, and there was NO LANGUAGE REQUIREMENT. That is, students were able to study the history of the Second World War with no German…….The Spanish Civil War with no Spanish. ……..and so on.

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