Protest Songs I

In my last blogpost, I asked where the protest songs were.  That post, “No Pasaràn,” was posted on Saturday January 21, and on that very date that a fine protest song (rehearsed online and performed for the first time at one of the Women’s Marches) saw the light of day.  I speak of “Quiet,” by Milck, here performed on the January 25 Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (on the link, it starts at 4:25 or so).  What I like about it is that—like many of the best protest songs—it gently straddles the personal and political; it’s musically strong (already rare enough) and has a personal message that is still sufficiently universal that one can imagine throngs of women singing along with it.

A day or two ago, Fiona Apple released “Tiny Hands” (Link found in this Washington Post article—“We don’t want your tiny hands/anywhere near our underpants”—that’s it), a chant intended for marches.  To my ear, the flaccidity of this release cannot be overstated.  Of course, the coverage (probably by her publicist) called it a “strong statement.”  No, it was a lame-as-hell statement.  Instead of actually saying anything that a wide swath of women might want to join in with, there’s a kind of elementary-school transgression (“She said ‘underpants’!”), coupled with a sort of premeditated confrontation.  In my world, at least, nothing is more boring than premeditated confrontation, and this example is informed (in the broadest, most charitable sense) by a sort of paleo-aesthetic of the mid-60s.  I—being of a certain age—have friends that can’t bring themselves to put on a pussy hat, however much they support the whole enterprise; it doesn’t look nice, it’s distasteful, really, must we be on this level?  Whether I agree or not, I’m in no position to judge the sentiment, and the wider question is raised: how wide a cross-section of women would really chant this kind of thing at a march, or after the moment has passed?  Is this barely existent—ah, “release”—really what is called for?  (Consider the clear concern, by the current occupant of the White House, of the size of a particular part of his anatomy.  “There’s nothing to worry about, believe me.”  Really.  Actually, pal, I hadn’t asked, and had not been inclined to think much about it.  I don’t think anyone else asked, either.  That you are inclined to talk about it redefines the entire idea of “distasteful.”)

Never mind that.  Another really good one is Alicia Keys’s “Holy War,” another of those deeply personal takes on a universal sentiment.  This one is also musically strong, and touches a deeply personal note—how is it that war (=bloodbath, fractured lives, unending grief) is noble while sex is obscene?  Is sex not a universal, or nigh-universal, experience and need?  How has this Land-of-Upside-Down worldview become a respected (or even tolerated) aspect of our national culture?  “Maybe we should love somebody/Maybe we could care a little more” is not a radical idea to a family-type guy like yours truly, or to many other familiar American types, but it’s actually a justified protest—since the 1980s, I think, Rush Limbaugh and other sub-insects have been making blame, resentment, contempt, and loathing utterly normal.  In such a culture, it is far too easy to forget that the baseline human experiences are lying down next to someone one cares about, rocking a baby one loves, wanting to veritably melt into the food-and-drink-and-hugs-and-family that is the clan-gathering of one’s own.  These songs remind us, at this most precarious of times, that the human default is connection (even for introverts!), and that if you care about, or have cared about, one other person, then it is no more than an extrapolation to care about the rest of your fellow-creatures.  It you’ve either found The One or would like to, the well-being of others (from other countries and cultures, from different classes) becomes a requirement for existence.  This is essentially indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders’s “If you hurt, I hurt” worldview: everyone should have love, medical care, education, opportunity, enough to eat, a safe place to live…the rest, we can argue about at our leisure.  But those are non-negotiables.  So Ms. Keys’s question is an old one: how is it that sex is obscene and war (agony, bloodshed etc.) is somehow OK?  What the hell is wrong with us?  To whom have we been listening, to our shame and detriment?

Now: these songs are all by women.  No one with even half a functioning synapse would say that women don’t have good reason to be infuriated by the current occupant of the White House.  Still, gentlemen, have we not had sufficient motivation ourselves?  I think of “Strange Fruit,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Eve of Destruction”—an infinite number of angles, tones, approaches.  When will our county be heard from?  Bring it, guys.  This isn’t just Vietnam or Civil Rights, it’s everything, all that and more: gutting of the rights of citizens, abuse of those seeking to be productive citizens in the American experiment (a long way from over, so don’t even think about it), the abuse of religious and ethnic minorities of all descriptions, gender equality of various kinds, tolerance of religious fascism to buy political approval…the whole shootin’ match.  Where are our songs?  I like Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”; but does that really answer the red-alert call of the present?

Everyone: get your guitars out.  All hands on deck.

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#triggered

triggered

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No Pasarán

First, a friendly confidential to Ms. Clare Ford:

Thank you for weighing in, and I’m sorry that it happens in this ugly season.  In all honesty, I did not even listen to Obama’s (by all accounts, nobly statesmanlike) address.  If I met him in person, I’m not sure I could even look him in the face.  For the past eight years, he has endured unimaginable slanders, betrayals, and openly treasonous and hateful behavior, not only from (trigger warning, Phil: here follows the sort of ragefilled, ugly rhetoric that upsets you) the sort of idiot thugs that are feeling ever more empowered here in the U.S., those who are now painting swastikas, threatening women, gays, Blacks, Latinos, people who can read, people who have 46 chromosomes, “coastal elites” in general, and—perhaps worse—from members of the press (or, recte, the “press”) and even high-ranking elected officials.  For me, all of this makes the nobility and restraint of the Obama family almost unbearable.  I don’t like saying this, but I do find myself wondering if Michelle Obama’s comment, “when they go low, we go high,” hasn’t passed its sell-by date.  How to put this?: my ethical and philosophical background and upbringing did not incline me to allow others to take on my suffering.  Not an admired national leader, not underlings taking guff meant for me, not even (ahem) a religious figure. I cannot offload my responsibility for feeling whips and scorns, or for responding to particular kinds of treatment, to another—real, historical, or mythical.  The “look how noble he is; can you not be more Obama-like in your responses?  What would Obama do?” goes in a direction from which I turn away.  I am a citizen of this country, and I have to take responsibility, on some level, for what happens here.  As I have no gun and am long past the age of effective physical combat, I need to use my voice, pen, and keyboard.  This follows the greater principle of “If you see something, say something,” I suppose.

Now, back to a brief comment on our dust-up:

Phil’s SHTF post seems to agree with most of my substantive points while disliking my ugly rhetoric…so I’m not even going to bother.  My parents often objected to my rhetoric, many of my teachers certainly disliked it, and under the present circumstances I’ll be damned if now, when not 24 hours have passed and it’s already harder for middle-class people to buy homes, and the clown is taking aim at the ACA and the NEA (medical care and the arts being, apparently, major threats), I’m going to constrain myself to talk nice about his supporters.  Charles Schulz gently but unmistakably called this out more than a half-century ago:

“Look out!! Ha! Now you’ve done it! Now you’ve broken a lamp, and you’ve got no one to blame it on but yourself!”

“Maybe I could blame it on society!”

Nope.  And now, having done the damage because they were credulous, manipulated fools who are already beginning to suffer buyers’ remorse (while still clutching their guns and bigotries), they are entitled to neither respect nor understanding.  They have done me and my country inestimable damage, and it is clear how effective “reaching out to them” has been.  Save the tears; not interested.

I am not in a frame of mind where solutions are presenting themselves.  When the neediest people vote to destroy their own access to medical care, or don’t vote at all, I’m out of ideas.  I work in arts education, though, so: as Melania’s husband takes aim at the arts, in the form of the NEA, I’m interested to see what artists do.  A rebirth of the protest-song genre?  Guerrilla art?  I hope that it takes internet snarkerei to an effective level, beyond dark entertainment.  A song like the Pete Seeger/Joe Hickerson “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” had a seismic effect, culturally.  Punk-genre rage songs remain with us, but they don’t stick, or spread.  Same with Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”

The anthem that miraculously hits the right resonance.  To paraphrase my favorite quote from The Untouchables, “What are we prepared to do?”

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SHTF

It’s been a while since Jonathan and I got into a scrap on Dial M. I kind of missed it. Whatever else may be said about Jonathan, he’s a fighter, and I like that about him. A couple of people have emailed me to express alarm at his recent post, but I don’t mind it when Jonathan takes a swing at me. Anyway, I started it.

I’m not actually going to respond directly to a lot of Jonathan’s points, partly because I actually agree with a lot of them.* Main point of agreement: it is stupid and obnoxious to tell people who are being targeted by organized and weaponized hate to love their enemies. My attitude on this score is actually far more militant than you might expect. My Mum posted a comment here that compares my stance to Obama’s, which is very nice but is the kind of thing a loving and indulgent mother would think about her boy. My real position is much closer to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. (Sorry, Mum.)

A lot of people forget or never knew that “for Self-Defense” was the other half of the BPP’s official name. The BPP formed when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale hit upon an action they could take in response to police brutality. (Who are you going to call when cops are terrorizing your community? The cops?) The idea was simple: California laws at the time (as in most states today) allow for the “open carry” of firearms so long as they are not brandished at anyone in particular and obey certain safety protocols. The Panthers memorably put this strategy into action when they descended on the state capitol en masse, bristling with guns.**

bpp

Point Seven of the BPP’s “What We Believe” statement reads,

We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.

I don’t really disagree with any of this. If the state is corrupted — and yes, I think there is good reason to suppose that it has been or shortly will be — and can no longer be trusted to safeguard the lives and freedoms of all its citizens … well, that’s what the 2nd amendment is for, isn’t it?

I know I’m not the first person to think this since November.*** The traditional (i.e. very conservative) gun community heaved a huge sign of relief when Trump was elected, and yet Black Friday saw the biggest single-day number of NICS background checks ever. Why? Hard to say quite yet, but it seems as if a lot of progressives — even fervently anti-gun progressives — are starting to realize that posting angry blog posts is not going to help them if and when the SHTF. We all hope the S doesn’t hit the F. But what if it does? That is what Jonathan’s original post was about. The academic’s usual answer to everything — keep the conversation going! — doesn’t seem quite good enough anymore. I strongly agree with Jonathan that the dumb Leonard Bernstein quote you see everywhere (“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before”) is worse than useless. It’s hard to get your embouchure right when someone is kicking the teeth out of your face. And I also agree with Jonathan that crossing our fingers and hoping for the best is no answer at all.

But the obvious and logical conclusion to the question what if the worst does happen — that if you can’t rely on the authorities you have to rely on yourself and your people — does not come easily to latter-day progressives. So everywhere we see a cataract of rage and loathing (of which Jonathan’s original post is a specimen) that comes, I think, of people stuck between the rock of a dire situation and the hard place of learned prohibitions and taboos that keep them from doing anything about it, except more and angrier talking. On the whole, we academics do not speak softly and carry a big stick; we speak loudly and constantly and carry no stick at all. Which, if and when the SHTF, is a bad strategy.

Long story short, I believe in the rights of threatened communities to defend themselves against tyranny. Now, I need to say a few things by way of qualification. No, I’m not advocating violence or lawlessness. No, I don’t think everyone should go out and buy a gun. No, I don’t own a gun. Yes, I know that guns are dangerous and a lot of American lives are lost unnecessarily because of them. No, I don’t think things are exactly the same, now, in 2017, as they were in Oakland in 1966. No, I’m not defending everything the Panthers did. And I’m not even saying that things are at a pass when progressives and members of threatened communities (African American, Jewish, LGBTQ, Muslim, etc.) should assume it’s time to arm up. Since I don’t belong to any of those communities, it’s not my business to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do.

If you are lucky enough not to be an easy target of hate crimes — if , for example, you are a straight Anglo-Canadian guy — what is your responsibility? I won’t pretend to know what would happen if I were witness to, say, someone trying to tear a hijab from a Muslim woman’s head. I would like to imagine that I would bravely intervene, though when people are thrown into sudden, unpredictable, violent situations, they usually freeze. I know what my responsibility is, though, and that is to do something, to act. And once you face that responsibility, the question becomes, what will you do? I am thinking long and hard about this question, and I think that the value of Jonathan’s post (leaving aside the rhetoric, which, sorry, I still think is pretty ugly) lies in the fact that he, at least, is trying to answer that question.

So I am not urging a turn-the-other-cheek approach here. On the contrary, I am urging self-defense and solidarity. But aren’t I contradicting myself? Wasn’t I saying that we should be nice to the all the White Supremacists and homophobes?

No. We should treat our friends as friends and our enemies as enemies. But just as it’s a bad idea to approach a crisis with loud shit-talking and no credible means of backing it up, it’s also a bad idea to proclaim, at the outset, on general principles, that all red-state Americans are our enemies, especially if we don’t actually know any. Right now, we need all the allies we can get.

This is my problem with Jonathan’s original post. He suggests that about half the electorate is our enemy, unworthy of the minimal baseline respect and obligations owed to fellow Americans. No, about half the electorate voted for Trump. A few of those people have been emboldened by Trump’s victory to commit hate crimes. I’m guessing that a small but nontrivial number of Trump voters would love to commit some hate crimes if they had half a chance. But unless someone gives me actual evidence to the contrary, I believe that this country is full of people who didn’t vote for our preferred candidate and yet would be fighting right along with us if the government sent its attack dogs after us. I know Jonathan doesn’t agree, and the example of the Third Reich (or, more recently, Rwanda) does offer the dismal spectacle of neighbors who were friendly and decent right up to the point they weren’t. Maybe I am being naïve.

But allowing my hatred of Trump (and yes, I really hate that guy, to a degree that sometimes makes me feel physically sick) to turn into a hatred of people who voted for him … that feels like capitulation to his barbarism. It feels like I’m playing someone else’s game, like I’m being played for a sucker. Given what recent intelligence leaks tell us, it’s quite possible that we are being tricked into playing someone else’s game — someone who does not mean the United States well.

This is why I brought up that stuff about Beethoven, Prometheus, etc. It is possible to have a hard-ass, come-at-me-bro attitude that is nonetheless not tinctured by bitterness and hatred, and the best responses I’ve seen (among younger people especially) are of this sort.

Well, this post should put the cat among the pigeons. Looking forward to reading all temperate and well-reasoned responses.

*This, though,

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,”

is a particularly lame attempt at tu quoque. But fuck it, I have other fish to fry.

**Interestingly, one of the first modern gun control bills (the Mulford Act) was drafted expressly to thwart this tactic. It is richly ironic that the NRA was happy to back this measure. This thought should give pause to modern-day progressives who want strict gun control; there is an argument to be made that, in the United States, prohibitions on private ownership of weapons have always been a tool of racist authoritarianism.

***A few data points:

  • The BBC reports that progressives are suddenly buying a lot of guns. This article quotes a spokesperson for the Liberal Gun Club (did you even know this existed?) saying that they have seen a 10% spike in paid memberships.
  • In the wake of Ferguson, a Philadelphia activist named Maj Toure formed a group called Black Guns Matter, which is a good deal more moderate the the BPP but which nevertheless agrees with them that “the best way to combat police brutality is to get armed.” BGM has gotten support from some unlikely places, including the NRA.
  • The Pink Pistols (motto: pick on someone your own caliber), a group that supports LGBTQ people who conceal-carry in order to protect themselves from hate crimes, has experienced a huge surge in membership since the Orlando shooting. Operation Blazing Sword has compiled and mapped a huge list of LGBTQ-friendly firearms instructors.

None of this proves anything, except that issues around gun ownership in the U.S. are a lot more complex than either the Left or the Right is willing to recognize.

Posted in Blogging, Current Affairs, Ethics, Politics | 1 Comment

“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.

Posted in Blogging, Current Affairs, Ethics, Politics | 4 Comments

Prometheus

I have been puzzling about how to react to Jonathan’s recent squall of fury. Long story short: I didn’t like it. I’m not going to get into the politics of the 2016 election, because as I’ve written elsewhere, I think it would be tacky for me to opine about the politics of a country to which I am not a citizen. But what I will say is this: when Jonathan characterizes the people who voted against his own preferred candidate as

people who like open carry and beating minorities and LGBT people to a pulp because they’ve—y’know—had enough, and reached out to those who hate “elites” with a bitter passion while being unable to spell or think clearly

and for whom

shootin’ lib’ruls or other wrong-thinkers

is a sport and who live in places where

the open presence of military-grade weapons, hateful rhetoric, or a particular brand of religious culture

make them places where, he imagines (with disturbing relish), the aforementioned troglodytes are

huddling in [their] basements wondering, increasingly hysterically, if [their] children will make it home safely

all of which renders them unworthy of

help, or infrastructure, or even respect, or medical care, or a safety net, or environmental protections, or safe food standards, or Medicare, from the invasive U.S. government which they find so threatening  

etc., I’m not too happy.

This 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. It’s bad enough when people email me stuff like this; it galls me to see this hateful thing squatting there when you dial up Dial ‘M’, a blog I have spent more than a decade trying to make a welcoming place for anyone with so much as a passing interest in “music, musicology, and related matters” — though I realize that the “related matters” part has occupied more and more space of late.

Of course, it is not my blog. It is our blog, Jonathan’s and mine. In recent years I’ve posted more than Jonathan, but it’s not as if I’m the boss around here; it’s more like we’re roommates. We both write what we want or have to, and we have figured out how to get along. I know I have written stupid, intemperate things that have caused Jonathan to wince and grit his teeth. On this occasion, at any rate, the shoe is on the other foot.

In the run-up to the November election, someone asked me “do you actually know anyone who voted for Trump?” I do, sort of. I’m pretty sure a few of the guys at my boxing club voted for Trump … or perhaps they voted against Hillary? I don’t know, because we don’t talk about politics. We’re there to work on our footwork (still, for me, somewhat impaired by the broken leg) and not to talk politics. I don’t know these guys outside the context of the gym; I wouldn’t know them at all if we didn’t share a love of the sweet science. I do know they are human beings who care about their families and who, by their lights, are trying to do right by them, just as I am trying to do right by mine. They are patient, encouraging, and generous with their knowledge when an aging, unathletic, thick-around-the-middle college professor comes in looking to learn how to box. They do not treat me as an outsider, even though I am, let’s face it. So if one of them showed up in one of my classes, how could I fail to show them the same respect?

Jonathan’s post seems to be saying that the time is now past for this sort of can’t-we-all-get-along kumbayaism. I don’t think it is. Or at least, I hope it isn’t. If it really is too late for understanding and sympathy, then I no longer recognize the country I have been living in for decades now, and I don’t know what kind of future it holds for me or my children. Which I guess is how Jonathan is feeling these days.

The one cheering thing I have noticed since the election is that there is a positive spirit among some of my students: a will not to be overcome, a will not to be a victim, a will to keep building something, just generally a Will. It is not some cheesy fantasy of La Resistance (puh-leeze). It is a spirit that doesn’t necessarily have to do with politics as such; it is more basic than that.

What is that spirit?

I’ll put it in musical terms. This semester I’m teaching the second half of our undergraduate music history sequence, and I started out the class by talking about Beethoven. What I wanted to talk about was less Beethoven himself and more whatever it means when we say something is “Beethovenian.” Beethovenian is a place in the imagination, a certain idea of what it is to be a human being, the Promeathean will to sacrifice and endure and create. I was trying to express what it is about Beethoven that has so stirred the imaginations of music-lovers over the past two hundred years. And part of what is “Beethovenian” has to do with the spirit of the man himself, and how that spirit is communicated in his music. I taught the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, the Eroica (yeah, I know, real original), and led off by quoting a letter from Beethoven to Franz Gerhard Wegeler: “I will seize Fate by the throat; it will certainly not bend or crush me completely — Oh, it would be so lovely to live a thousand lives.” Beethovenian is the image of Prometheus chained to his rock, condemned every day to have an eagle tear out his liver and every night to have it grow back in order to allow the torture to continue, day after day for all time.

I like to imagine that actually Prometheus decides to let his liver grow back every time. The eagle is puzzled by this choice, and, once his delight at an easy meal has worn off, the eagle discovers that he, too, is chained to that rock. He has to come back every day until Prometheus is dead, and Prometheus won’t die. (This isn’t actually in the original myth: this is just my cracked-out fan theory.) So one day, the eagle asks Prometheus, why do you persist? Why this stubbornness? Why do you insist on growing anew each day? And Prometheus says, in response:

“Because fuck you. That’s why.”

That is the spirit I feel among my students, and that I would like to be a part of, thick-middled and middle-aged though I am. That Beethovenian spirit.

Posted in Cognitive liberty, Current Affairs, Education, Sticking Up For The Humanities!, Teaching | 1 Comment

Images from the Dark Land

America is a tune.  It must be sung together.

—Gerald Stanley Lee

Yeah; about that, Mr. Lee: it only works if it is sung together.  I’m thinking more of Johannes Ockeghem, who will be quoted at the end.

It has been months since my last blogpost.  For me, this has been a killer semester; most of the writing and editing of our (Halina Goldberg’s and my) book Chopin and His World, the companion volume to the 2017 Bard Summer Festival of the same name, has had to be done in the last couple of months.  Moreover, I had a pile of guest lectures and other papers to write, and a residence at another university.  I hope to take it easier this semester, though whether or not I actually manage that is always an open question.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been, and that is not what this blogpost is about.

Following the Electoral College vote, we now know that there will be no Deus ex Machina, and that those of us who do not practice hatred as a recreational pastime are in for a long four years (regardless of potential impeachment; look at VPEOTUS and the Congress).  Many of us are dispirited, but we imagine ourselves to build a Resistance by sending worthless crap around on the internet: Leonard Bernstein’s infuriatingly over-quoted “This will be our answer to violence” pablum, jokes about the President-Elect’s hair, wives, etc.  Remember the W-Looks-Like-A-Chimp garbage from 2000, after that election also was stolen?  That did us a lot of good.  Andy Borowitz and The Onion provide some dark levity.  Those of us of the liberal persuasion, true to our nature, have been spending some time—stupidly, pointlessly, infuriatingly—scolding and blaming ourselves.  We somehow should have reached out to low-information voters in gerrymandered districts, had more respect and empathy for people who like open carry and beating minorities and LGBT people to a pulp because they’ve—y’know—had enough, and reached out to those who hate “elites” with a bitter passion while being unable to spell or think clearly.  Yeah, sure, had the Democratic nominee not run such a “bad” campaign, had so many insiders/outsiders/Huma Abedins/X chromosomes, it would have gone differently…

I’m also seeing lots of doomsaying.  Maybe it’s excessive, maybe it’s real, but God knows it doesn’t help me at all.  I see pieties from the mass media, who gleefully, as Les Moonves unctuously admitted, gave the PEOTUS hours and hours of free coverage, to the advantage of the shareholders and no one else.  I will not dignify their hangdog fingerpointing and “sober” handwringing with attention or acknowledgment.  Finally, I see dozens of E-Mails schnorring for money from all the progressive organizations, the Democratic party, etc.

This isn’t about any of that, either.

What interests me, currently, is the idea of survival, psychological and physical.  As a tenured guy with white skin, I may be in a more privileged position than others, and so be in a better position to ride this out.  However, absolutely nothing is a given because there are no relevant precedents; I’ve always been a public Jew (this very day, the targeted Jew-hating is to be found in Whitefish, MT), and I cherish all kinds of people and would act to protect them, so I might well not enjoy much in the way of privilege.  The extent to which we will see real fascism, or more benign (?!) corporate plunderigarchy, or once-and-for-all Dr. Strangelove on 1/22/17 is all up in the air.

How do we stay alive?  I don’t mean how do we continue unchanged, I mean how do we stay alive? After, I mean, upping the regular donations to the ACLU, PP, SPLC, and the local food bank.  No, I’m not looking for your favorite worthy charities, thanks; don’t add them in the comments.  The human race, the glorious American polyglot, gets a Fail on this one, and I’m not interested in sending more money other places.

Some ideas, and your mileage may vary:

1)  We might think very, very carefully about where we travel.  Are there places in the U.S. where the open presence of military-grade weapons, hateful rhetoric, or a particular brand of religious culture would make one uncomfortable?  In many places in the U.S., the prevailing environment is now one where people gleefully jeer and threaten individuals from marginalized groups (“Trump’s in now; you’d better get lost”)—and that is happening everywhere, including my university campus in a blue state—and so I will think carefully about travel, what gigs I accept, and how I get there.  Would I drive through a state in which I feel unsafe, spending my money in that state’s economy, to get to a gig?  Maybe it’s better to fly, or just say no.  If that sounds unfriendly to my fellow American citizens, gosh—y’know, we have to draw the line somewhere, and your state gleefully f—ed the nation, so ….  Taking as an example firearm safety an control (one issue among dozens): the will of the NRA and their legislative toadies and dogsbodies is a threat to my personal safety, and I am forced to conclude that the areas most in support of the firearms industry and culture clearly do not need my help or involvement in any way.  That includes taking an interest when you become Aleppo.  Do feel free to produce an exegesis on the Second Amendment while you’re huddling in your basement wondering, increasingly hysterically, if your children will make it home safely.

2)  More locally: my current feeling is that Learning About Others Different From Me isn’t a good reason to leave a comfort zone/neighborhood anymore.  Sure, they can always load up and come find you, but I don’t think that looking for trouble, or delusionally denying it’s there and believing that “you’ll probably be all right” is all that great an idea.  The people who not only brought this on themselves, but on everyone?  I’m not the person to speak for them, and it remains to be seen if shootin’ lib’ruls or other wrong-thinkers is going to rival Fantasy Football as far as entertainment for the general populace.  Regardless: I don’t want to be, and I certainly don’t want anyone I love to be, the subject of some public official’s hypocritical post facto “thoughts and prayers.”  So, it’s bad in many places?  Few jobs, many opioids, everybody is angry and frustrated and just striking out and easily manipulated?

Actually, no, I don’t have to sympathize.  It’s clear how those people voted, those that did, and the only possible conclusion is that they do not want help, or infrastructure, or even respect, or medical care, or a safety net, or environmental protections, or safe food standards, or Medicare, from the invasive U.S. government which they find so threatening.  Well, this was a matter of choice, after all, and there is nothing I can offer a place like that.  So I won’t try.

3)  I realize on some level—a deeply suppressed level—that malediction does not make for a healthy diet.  Those of us that teach need to cling to that—it will be an increasingly rare opportunity, in these dark times, to be able to light a light every day.  We constantly encounter people who need what we have, so to be able to nourish them—with liberal doses of cynicism, idealism, and above all critical thinking—may do us, our souls, as much good as it does them.  One thing about teaching is that you never have to wonder if you’re making a difference, if what you do is of value, if you’re leaving the world a better place.  Sappy idealism?  Yeah; come at me, Bro.  We teach your children things you can’t, we ignite the curiosity, and we awaken the parts of their lives that will get them through depressions, break-ups, the deepest insecurities.  That’s what we do, every day.  God knows that in the dark hours, in the midnight of the soul, that’s a pretty good thing to know and fall back on.

4)  So how to make it through?  The only possible solution is to find something we believe in with our entire being, and do it—it may benefit others, but we have to do it for us, because to go-along-get-along, to cave to the amorality of the Culture of Lies (they call it “post-truth culture,” and I’ll none) is—we know to our very core—death.  Alcoholism, then death.  It is not available to us, nor should it be.

For the love of God, hold tight.  “Now traitors have the season,” as the text from “Les Desléaux,” a Renaissance chanson by Johannes Ockeghem, has it.  And perhaps there will yet be light, as Thomas Jefferson wrote:

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt… And if we feel their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.

Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, June 4, 1798 in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson p. 1050.

We certainly hope.  Last word from the Boss:

No retreat, baby, no surrender.—Bruce Springsteen

Posted in Cognitive liberty, Current Affairs, Education, Teaching | 3 Comments