Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I've alluded a few times on Facebook this past week to my family's history with McCarthyism. I'm writing this post simply to lay out the facts. Three members of my family were blacklisted in the 1950s. Here are their names and their stories.

Prof. Charles W. Hughes was the husband of my grandmother's older sister, Fannie Lipman Hughes. He was a musicologist, and his example is probably the main reason I chose that profession for myself. Like many Americans, he had a passing interest in Communism during the 1930s, when capitalism appeared to be manifestly failing throughout the world. He attended a few meetings of an informal "discussion group," but to the best of my knowledge never identified himself as a Communist. By 1955 he was the same age I am today, and held a tenured position at Hunter College in New York. He was asked to reveal the names of others who had attended the discussion group 20 years earlier, and very appropriately refused. As a result, he was suspended from his job without pay for "conduct unbecoming a professor." Five years later, the New York Supreme Court gave him his job back, with full back pay. I honestly have no idea how he got by in the meantime.

Dr. Thomas Lockwood Perry was the husband of my mother's first cousin, Claire Lippman Perry. (Yes, the two "p's" are correct. Variant spellings and all.) He was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC for short). I listened many times to the recording of his speech to HUAC, in which he explained that, having grown up in North Carolina, he had acquired a solid appreciation for American values, and was expressing those values through the stand he was taking. He may have been a Communist, but, as hard as this may be to imagine for those who have grown up since Ronald Reagan, he was also a patriotic American. Nevertheless, he moved his family to Vancouver, Canada, where he was allowed to practice medicine and continue his active peace advocacy until his death about 20 years ago. Having been driven from the country of his birth, the country he loved, he never looked back.

Dr. Richard Lippman was also my mother's first cousin and Claire's brother. He was a distinguished kidney specialist who now has a building named for him at the City of Hope in California. During his lifetime he would not have been allowed to practice there. He was blacklisted on both coasts. He worked extensively with Linus Pauling, who considered him a protege and colleague. Dr. Pauling had two Nobel Prizes, so he was harder to persecute for his political activity—not that that stopped anyone from trying. After several years of frustration that must have taxed human endurance, Richard developed acute pancreatitis and died on the operating table. He is the family martyr. There is little doubt that his death, which left his wife a young widow and his four young children without a father, was hastened by the persecution he endured.

It is because of examples like this that I have grown up both a passionate advocate of democracy and a deep skeptic of the exceptionalism that Americans tend to claim for themselves and their country. Our country has done horrible things, and it could do them again at any time. The recent persecution of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon by another Wisconsin Republican, Scott Walker, follows a familiar script. My family may be left of center politically, but we are deeply American. In fact, the closest thing to a religion I was brought up with was belief in the powerful democratizing power of American organized labor. Crossing a picket line or in any way refusing to support a union action was a betrayal comparable to that of Judas: a betrayal—make no mistake—of America.

I very much fear that the specter of Joe McCarthy is haunting our country right now. As a patriotic American, I urge you to consider the stories above. These were my family. They were American patriots. I honor their memory.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Don't immanentize the eschaton, or The perfect is the enemy of the good

Two of the people who have influenced my thinking most profoundly in recent years are the musicologist Richard Taruskin and the writer/war correspondent/theologian Chris Hedges. I've only been catching up on Hedges fairly recently, but I've noticed a common theme that links their writing and drives their passion. It is anti-Utopianism.

Both writers agree that the desire to create an earthly Utopia - indeed the very idea that one is even possible - is the source of most of the evil in the modern world. For Taruskin, this means, among other things, an ongoing appeal to reject authority in musical performance in favor of tradition. This may seem like a fairly abstract thing to be so passionate about, but let's formulate it in the simplest possible terms. I am performing Beethoven. Who is speaking? The range of possible answers might seem to be covered by the following : "Beethoven is speaking." "I am speaking." "Somebody else entirely is speaking."

Now, it's important to understand that much of the ideology of classical music performance and composition in the last 100 years has been based on the idea that somebody else is often speaking, and that this is a bad thing. The imperative has been to recover, insofar as possible, the voice of the composer. I may be interpreting when I play, but Beethoven is the authority, and this is expressed through the notes he wrote. My job is to deliver those notes to the audience with as little interference as possible, either from my own subjective reading of the text or from those of others.

The voice of tradition, on the other hand, claims to speak for everything in between Beethoven and me. Everyone who has heard, played and interpreted this music over the years has added something to it, and if I understand the nature of that tradition, I will either add imperceptibly to it myself, obliterating my own personality in the process (T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent") or I will seek to produce a "strong misreading" of what others have found in Beethoven's notes (roughly, Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence) and impose it as an act of Oedipal homage to my forebears. What I will emphatically not do is insist that I have the final word, or that, indeed, the final word can ever be spoken.

Hedges says very similar things about politics. A perfect world will never be created, and the desire to do so in an abiding fallacy that inevitably leads to great evil being performed in the name of good.

Now here's the interesting thing: The phrase "don't immanentize the eschaton," which is a fancy way of stating what I just said, is closely associated with William F. Buckley and American conservatism. Its most recent expression can be found in the rants of Glenn Beck, who has warned that "social justice" movements will inevitably lead to mass death. Good intentions will lead people to do evil things. We must simply try to do the best we can, as individuals, in a world that will never be perfect, at least until, to quote Tom Lehrer, we have all gone directly to our respective Valhallas, without passing go or collecting two hundred dollahs.

I think I can at least begin to understand where Glenn Beck is coming from. Taruskin and Hedges, however, are liberals. What gives?

The answer, I believe, can be found in a quote from G. K. Chesterton's book Orthodoxy, which for a couple of years now has been buried in my "favorite quotations" section on Facebook. "The only real reason for being a progressive," Chesterton wrote in 1908, "is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive, it is also the only argument against being conservative." Not for him the idea that progress was inevitable, and that lining up to accelerate it was a harmless diversion. If it were true that on its own the world gets steadily better, nothing would make more sense than getting out of the way and joining Glenn Beck in denouncing social justice as a misguided Utopian dream.

The world, however, is getting worse. Toxic chemicals in our atmosphere are threatening to destroy the delicate ecological balance in which human civilization has lived for its entire history. Wealth is inexorably gravitating away from the poor and toward the wealthy, who are learning to pull the levers of power without any interference from messy democratic processes like collective bargaining. America is well on the way to creating a class of permanently unemployed and unemployable paupers. Our helpless dependence on massive amounts of energy has been fouling our air, our water, and our relations with much of the rest of the world. This is corruption, in the deepest sense, and standing against it is the only real reason for being a progressive. Not to try to create heaven on earth or impose a socialist Utopia. That's not why I'm a liberal, and anybody who insists on believing that those are my goals just doesn't understand. I'm not trying to use the government to make a perfect world. I'm trying to use whatever means are available to keep greed, lust, sloth, envy, wrath, gluttony and pride from utterly destroying the only world we have to live in.

Pass it on.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Guns and me and Senator Whitmire

Yesterday was the day I made the drive down to Austin to speak to the Criminal Justice Committee of the Texas State Senate about guns on campus. As anybody who has been reading this blog knows, I'm against the idea of allowing concealed weapons anywhere near a college classroom, office or dormitory. In an ideal world, I would just stop there, because I would assume that any reasonable person would immediately understand why.

I have yet to live in a place, however, that has only reasonable people, and Texas, being bigger than most states (you knew that, right?), has more than its share of loonies. That's why I spent nearly five hours in my car yesterday and over four hours sitting in a hot, packed committee room waiting to testify. Whatever you might have imagined that experience would be like, it was more so. Grade A lunacy was on display, as were passion, conviction, eloquence and human witness to unspeakable tragedy.

The first instance of the latter occurred shortly after I arrived at Capitol Extension E1.016 at 1:45. Under discussion was a bill extending the reach of the death penalty so that it would be easier to execute people who had murdered children. The mother of a girl who was murdered 24 years ago at age eight spoke against it. She described the twelve years of ongoing criminal proceedings waiting for her daughter's killer to be executed as being far worse than the loss itself. I have never had a loved one murdered, so if I were to say that I can't imagine ever hating anyone so much as to desire that person's death, my words, though true, might ring hollow. When this woman made the same statement, she had the moral authority of a prophet.

She also set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Every single victim of gun violence whom I later heard speak to the committee testified against extending the right to concealed carry. (I define a victim as someone who has actually been shot, not just threatened.) It seems clear that the more actual experience of gun violence a person has, the less likely that person is to believe that defensive weapons are helpful, and the more likely to want to reduce the number of weapons in play, not increase it.

This was not immediately evident, because when the gun bill finally came up at around 3:30, the "fors," following what is apparently standard procedure, were allowed to speak first. This was when the real lunacy came out for public viewing. The first person to speak was a student who wanted to make it clear that he was talking about defending his own body, and that his right to do so was absolute. He did not care in the least if the way he chose to defend himself made other people uncomfortable. Being comfortable isn't a right. Having guns is.

Several others offered similar opinions, including one man who appeared to truly doubt whether his 21-year-old daughter would survive until her 22nd birthday without the right to carry a gun with her at all times. He became deeply emotional as he begged the committee to save his daughter's life.

The real prize, though, went to a young man who spoke, he implied, for the honor of the State of Texas itself. We all knew, he assured us, that Texas is not like the rest of the United States. We value families. We believe in God. We don't let gay people get married, and we sure as heck need our God-given right to own guns in order to make it clear what good and moral people we are in the midst of a country rapidly descending into damnation. Let "them" defeat this bill, he told us, and "they" will stop at nothing until they have taken away every single right that makes us good, noble and human. Those who want to take away our guns clearly have no faith in God, no morality, don't care about marriage or families, and are determined to turn our entire country into a hellish Sodom of state-mandated atheism. Only Texas is good enough to stand up to this Satanic conspiracy, and the people must seize the moment before the devil can start sneaking into our homes at night and slitting our children's throats while they sleep. OK, he didn't actually use some of those words, but that was the gist of what he said.

Meet Senator John Whitmire, the balding, domineering committee chairman who alternately coaxed, chided and interrupted witnesses throughout the hours of testimony that were to follow. There was no doubt that Senator Whitmire and most of the rest of the committee were for this bill, but they were legally obligated to listen to everybody who wanted to testify, and they knew they were in for a long evening. Senator Whitmire's solution to being stuck front and center seemed to be entertaining himself by being alternately sarcastic and condescending, especially to the people who spoke against the bill. However, the testimony I just described was too much even for him, and he chided the young man for not acknowledging that not everyone who disagreed with him on this issue was a family-hating atheist. The man said he understood that, but did not retract any of his testimony. Several other witnesses also spoke of the God-given right to defend themselves with deadly force.

By the time I finally had a chance to speak, around 5:45, I had been observing Senator Whitmire long enough to have a pretty good idea what to expect. I had come with a carefully prepared written statement which I had timed to take exactly three minutes: the length of time that any citizen is allowed to testify. The good senator was remarkably capricious in enforcing this time limit - some speakers went on for what must have been ten minutes or more - but from time to time he cracked down and announced that everybody who had yet to speak should plan to stop after two minutes. This is what he told me as I took my seat at the witness table. I responded, politely but firmly, that I had written a three-minute statement and I intended to read the whole thing. Mock surprise on the senator's part: There was no need to read a statement; I should just tell them what I thought. It's so much more natural that way. I told him that I had a three-minute written statement and that I was going to read it, and proceeded to do so. After a couple of sarcastic interruptions that I barely acknowledged, he seems to have given up. I didn't hear another word from him, even though virtually every previous witness, no matter how well- or poorly-spoken, was praised for giving good testimony.

Just to make the good senator happy, though, I made a statement at the end that was not in my written speech. "In response to what was said earlier: My God told his disciples to lay down their weapons. It may be in the Second Amendment, but calling it a God-given right is blasphemy." I spoke the concluding word with what I hope was the appropriate degree of gravity, then left the witness table with absolutely no acknowledgment from anybody on the panel. I did get a fist bump or two on the way back to my seat.

At this point, I had to leave, since as it was I didn't get back to Waco until 9:30, and I still had a class to prepare for this morning. The "against" testimony went on for several more hours, and at the end the committee took no action on advancing the bill, apparently because they no longer had a quorum. At this writing it's not clear what their next move will be or when it will come.

During this process, I went through the extremes of nervousness, anger, stunned appreciation and, ultimately, deep-rooted spiritual calm. My words were my own, and I meant them all. I faced down a bully and left with my head held high. I don't know if I made any difference at all, but I'm glad I went.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hagar and Hafiz at Wheaton

I spent portions of the last three days at Wheaton College - sometimes called the "evangelical Harvard" - at the annual convention of the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship. It's fair to say that this was one of the most meaningful academic meetings I have ever attended.

Our group is small, with fewer than a hundred members, which means we can have relatively intimate discussions and gatherings. Not all of us agree theologically, but we share the conviction that the mainstream academic world has marginalized talk either about God or about the myriad spiritual questions that for centuries have been essential to the definition of art in any of its forms. Over the past ten years, we have met at small, conservative colleges like Wheaton, but also at Ivy League schools and other large universities. Our membership is correspondingly diverse.

Since I had never visited Wheaton before, I wasn't sure what to expect. I am aware that the college holds some theological positions with which I, as a liberal Christian, am deeply uncomfortable. (Catholics are not welcome on the faculty, for example, and belief in Biblical "inerrancy" is widely held.) However, the professors and students that I spoke to were impressively open-minded. In particular, I will single out a speech by Harold Best, the retired dean of the Conservatory of Music, who succinctly articulated many of the things that I wish had been said to me when I was in graduate school: art begins from the commonality of being human at the simplest level; the most sophisticated statements of musicians belong to that commonality because they articulate it profoundly; discourse about art and education needs to retreat from superlatives (excellence, awesome) that have been rendered meaningless through overuse and recover an understanding of what it means to be "good," both as humans and as artists; interdisciplinary study is a dangerous misnomer, because the whole human heritage suffers when disciplinary lines become rigid enough to require it.

I also attended a performance of the Brahms Requiem at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on Friday evening that featured the Wheaton undergraduate orchestra along with all of the college's choral ensembles and the Apollo Chorus of Chicago. It was stunning. During intermission (there were some shorter pieces performed first), I realized that the man sitting next to me in Row H was in fact the president of Wheaton College. We talked for a while about the role of a college president in helping the faculty to educate students and the need for the faculty to place that goal above our individual careers or reputations. If he wasn't just talking a good talk, and if every college president in the country had similar priorities, we'd all be better off for it.

The most meaningful part of the entire meeting for me, though, was a worship service on Friday morning. In the main auditorium of the Billy Graham center, FMCS member Cheryl Pauls, who teaches at Canadian Mennonite University, gave a multi-media presentation about Hagar, the Egyptian slave/concubine of Abraham who is often considered the first ancestor of Islam. You would have had to be there to understand how moving this was. Cheryl managed to retell Hagar's story from the scraps that appear in Genesis in a way that invested her with dignity and her son Ishmael with divine favor, albeit of a kind that in the West is little understood. Apart from Genesis, the central text was a poem by the Persian writer Hafiz, whose text I linked yesterday on my Facebook wall. "I have come into this world to see this," Hafiz wrote: "the sword drop from men's hands even at the height of their arc of rage, because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound." The audience watched in stunned silence at the suggestion of a peaceful reconciliation with the Muslim world, presented from the Muslim perspective within a Christian worship service. We sang along with enthusiasm when asked to do so, and then applauded with wild gratitude at the end. I nearly wept.


Now, it turns out there are some wrinkles. Wheaton had specifically told Cheryl that this presentation could not be given during one of the student chapel services, which means that only a few Wheaton students got to hear it (most of them were helping with the music). It also turns out that the translations of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky, around which the service was based, are controversial. Some have claimed that he didn't so much translate Hafiz as write new poems under his name. Interestingly, though, this would be nothing new. Goethe wrote his "West- oestlicher Divan," which inspired many Romantic song composers, out of a similar desire to bridge the East-West, Christian/Muslim divide by imitating Hafiz.

What truly intrigued me was the reviews I read on Amazon while waiting for my flight back to Texas. Most reviewers were overwhelmed by the beauty and spiritual depth of Hafiz/Ladinsky's verse. The greatest dissenter was an English speaker who claimed to know Farsi fluently and to have read all of Hafiz in the original; he said outright that he couldn't recognize any of Hafiz in Ladinsky's versions. Another review was by a native Iranian who grew up hearing Hafiz, and thought Ladinsky's versions were the very best translations he had ever read. Clearly, Hafiz is still bringing dramatic differences between Western and Eastern perspectives into the open.

So in conclusion: good meeting, positive impressions of Wheaton, but also regret that my friend Cheryl was not allowed to bring her moving plea for reconciliation to the college's students, who needed to hear it as much as anybody. We've got work to do.

Friday, March 11, 2011

This is how you do a tax protest

Like many Americans, I've been doing my taxes. Let me start by laying a few things on the line.

• I fully accept that paying taxes is one of the responsibilities of those who live in a civilized society.

• I am perfectly willing to pay taxes in order to help the government do all the things it does.

• Knowing that the US has some of the lowest tax rates of any advanced country in the world, I have always found claims that our taxes are too high to be ludicrous.

• I nevertheless claim all the exemptions I am entitled to. This year, that means I am itemizing what will likely end up totaling more than $14,000 worth of out-of-pocket medical expenses for my family. That's what we had to pay last year even though we have health insurance. The part of that which exceeds 7.5% of my income is tax deductible.

• When this is all finished, I will still have paid thousands of dollars last year to the federal government, to the state of Texas in the form of sales taxes, and to McLennan county in the form of property taxes. I am a major taxpayer, and I'm entitled to expect something in return.

In fact, I am considerably more entitled to help determine how my money is spent than are ExxonMobil, General Electric, Bank of America and Citigroup, all of which paid $0 in federal taxes last year. http://www.usuncut.org/about

I am also entitled to get quite indignant at a chart like the following, which shows how many things I care deeply about—as should anyone with a conscience—are being slashed to allow wealthy corporations and billionaires even greater tax breaks than they were already receiving.

And, when I find that the state of Michigan is planning to raise taxes on poor people and the elderly and give the proceeds directly to billionaires, without using any of it to address the budget deficit that people keep complaining about,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUpO1QFMDtM, I am entitled to say that our country has lost its moral balance completely.


Fortunately, UKUncut, which I wrote about here recently, has come to the US. If you think what I'm describing here is deeply immoral—if it offends you at the gut level that the rich are pulling all the levers of government power in order to take money away from the poor, and are even willing to depose elected officials in order to do it (see the video if you don't believe me), please join me in clicking on the first of my links and affirming your support for the real tea party: the one that is not a bought and paid subsidiary of Fox News, and hence actually deserves our support.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Today, like many Christians, I will attend a church service at which somebody will smudge some ashes on my forehead while saying: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." This memento mori is the traditional beginning of Lent.

Not everybody does Lent, of course. For those who do, though, there's a sense that this is a pretty serious time, marked by lots of soul-searching and giving up of something that we enjoy. The payoff, I suppose, is that when Easter comes, you can stop doing all that. Until next year.

I want to say something very personal here. I like Lent. I don't find it oppressive at all. Maybe that's because I understand that the word "metanoiete," translated in most versions of the New Testament as "repent," actually means "renew your mind." It's not about giving up things. It's about expanding yourself and embracing what you might have rejected and condemned.

I first had the ashes imposed in my early 30s. I wasn't brought up religious, so religious ritual had a kind of novel appeal for me that it still retains. I'm not sure what I expected to happen afterward, though. To my great surprise, what I experienced was freedom. Freedom from fear, freedom from dogma, freedom from relentless self-criticism. Lent, I discovered, is a time to let your spirituality free - to let the permeable membranes that separate you from the rest of reality breathe and stretch.

Ever since then, I have experienced Lent every year as a joyful new beginning. I have experienced repentance as something that is not limited to Lent, but that, thankfully, goes on constantly. Oh, it will be very somber tonight, and that will fill a desperately needed hole in a world in which religion is increasingly limited to the upbeat and affirming. Neither religion nor life works that way, and this yearly reminder of that fact makes us whole. How glad I am to have discovered that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Beethoven for spring break

You've all been patiently reading my thoughts on various political issues. Just to show that this is a multi-purpose blog, I've created my first YouTube video and have embedded it here. This is a Beethoven sonata that I'm particularly fond of, and I hope to perform it in a few months on a joint recital with my son Jeremy, who will also play the piano and sing. We'll be raising money to help fund his trip to the UK this summer as a People to People Student Ambassador.

In the meantime, though, I just like this music, and I thought some of you might enjoy it as well. If you're curious, the passage from about 3:14 to 3:28 is the one I described recently on Facebook as "one of the strangest passages of tonal music ever written."

Enjoy, and happy spring break!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hooray for free speech

So far, this has been free speech week. In an 8-1 decision, the US Supreme Court upheld the right of people like the Westboro Baptist Church to picket funerals. They're the ones who believe they have a mission from God to make the rest of the people in the US hate them so we'll all go to hell and God's righteousness will be upheld. (I'm not making that up.) Both liberals and conservatives on the court (with the strange exception of Justice Alito) agreed that this is the price we have to pay for living in a free society.

Then there was the story I shared this morning on Facebook. In case you missed it, Fox News tried to open up a franchise in Canada. It turns out, though, that they had a significant hurdle to clear that doesn't exist in the US. In order to bring his friends at Fox across the border, Stephen Harper, Canada's right-wing prime minister, had to ask the Canadian Radio-Television and Communications Commission to reconsider an inconvenient restriction that they have so far managed to impose on Canada's broadcasters. Apparently, in Canada, news organizations are not allowed to lie on the air. That's why Fox won't be moving north.

There is something so blatantly shameless about a head of state appealing for the right of broadcasters to lie to the public that there's really little more to say. But I'll say it anyway. To quote Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., "Harper's attempts to make lying legal on Canadian television are a stark admission that right-wing political ideology can only dominate national debate through dishonest propaganda."

Got that? Fox lies. Everybody knows that Fox lies. "Since corporate profit-taking is not an attractive vessel for populism, a political party or broadcast network that makes itself the tool of corporate and financial elites must lie to make its agenda popular with the public." THE. PRIME. MINISTER. OF. CANADA. HAD. TO. ASK. HIS. OWN. REGULATORS. TO. ALLOW. FOX. TO. LIE. Otherwise he knew perfectly well that he had no hope of setting up a similar propaganda service north of the border.

Where is Justice Alito when we need him?