Saturday, November 26, 2011

The wreck of the 112th

"You can't negotiate with Democrats; they have to be defeated."

That's what a clerical friend reports hearing last week from a Fox-News-watching member of his congregation. It's hardly news to me, of course, that many Republicans have taken on that attitude. Certain well-known media personalities have been trumpeting it for years, so it's not surprising that their listeners/viewers have come to regard Democrats and/or liberals as an alien species hostile to core American values.

That widely held belief probably made the failure of the so-called "super-committee" earlier this week inevitable. Many people seem to think that if Congress had accepted the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, we could be on our way toward a grand bargain that will save our country from the precipice. In fact, it's clear that the Democrats on the super-committee were willing to accept an agreement that was well to the right of what Simpson-Bowles recommended, and the Republicans still rejected it. In their eyes, no compromise is possible; anything the Democrats propose must be defeated, as must the Democrats themselves.

The 112th Congress, in other words, has shipwrecked on its own hyper-partisanship. This much was clear after the debt-ceiling fiasco last summer, but what needs to be repeated as much as possible is that both parties were not complicit in the disaster. Only one party has insisted on driving us over this cliff.

Let me illustrate the significance of that point by returning to the analogy I raised last month in my post titled "The Carriage and the Brakes." Regardless of what Rush Limbaugh might think, all of us Americans are in this together. Both conservatives and liberals aim to maintain a democracy based on free-market economics; the differences are over how fast the process should be allowed to go and when, and how firmly, the brakes need to be applied. Since we're all invested in the ultimate success of the process, it is fair to say that in the broader historical sense, all Americans are really liberals. We don't see a serious political faction calling for the reinstatement of monarchy and the abandonment of representative government.

Since the success of our democracy matters to all of us, we should value and respect each others' opinions, not for idealistic reasons but for deeply practical ones. If the brakes are applied too hard and too often, no forward motion will occur. However, if the brakes are not applied, the carriage will be destroyed. The driver should value the brakeman for the same reason the brakeman values the driver; without both doing their jobs, neither of them is going to get anywhere in one piece.

What we are now witnessing, however, is a situation in which the driver wants to kick the brakeman permanently off the carriage and run it with no safety mechanism in place. There are enough people, unfortunately, whose grasp of reality is sufficiently tenuous that they find this vision appealing. In a Manichean world-view, you defeat your enemies rather than compromising with them. In a democracy, though, that doesn't work; all that will happen is that we'll end up in the ditch together. In fact, that's where we already are, and the sooner the us vs. them mentality is dropped, the better off we'll all be.

It's not the Democrats whose attitude will need to change to make that happen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Some things that are true

I stole the title of this post from the composer David Maslanka, whose article of the same name has now unfortunately disappeared from his website. Happily, one of my students used the Wayback Machine to dig up a copy, which I recently reread: an experience that reminded me of why I like it so much.

Before I elaborate, I need to mention that I recently encountered an article in the New York Times suggesting that, despite what Geoff Colvin thinks, there may be something to the idea of talent after all. Apparently, if you're not in that top .1% to begin with, it's very hard to fake it, no matter how hard you try.

Since my earlier post on this topic (See August: "Golden Oldies: Is Talent Overrated?") ended inconclusively, I see no need to revise my previous views. I'm still not really sure how big a role inborn talent plays compared to hard work or other less tangible advantages. (The latter, I take it, are the main subject of Malcom Gladwell's Outliers; thanks, Debbie, for the recommendation.)

What I do want to discuss is exactly what it is that defines, not the top .1%, or even the top .01%, but the top .00001% or so. What makes the difference between a Mozart and a Shakespeare, who manage to write for the ages, and your average phenomenally gifted artist who just doesn't quite measure up? (I won't name any names, so as not to raise any unnecessary hackles.)

Certainly a part of the answer, as I suggested in a Facebook post yesterday, is that the truly great are not simply speaking for themselves. They manage, through the combination of their hard work and some mysterious additional factor, to give voice to things that touch upon our common humanity, in ways that are still apparent centuries later.

An essential read for anybody who is interested in this subject is Robertson Davies's novel What's Bred in the Bone, which I first encountered about 25 years ago and have reread several times since. Davies tells the life story of Francis Chegwidden Cornish, the son of a prominent Canadian banking family whose talents happen not to lie in the world of finance.

Through an elaborate metaphorical back-story (a frequent device with Davies), it is shown that Francis's life was ruled by a daemon: not your stereotypical evil spirit, but a hermaphroditic, amoral font of artistic inspiration who forces Francis inward by repeatedly denying him satisfaction in real life. Having become mixed up with a spy ring that is involved in smuggling art out of Nazi Germany, Francis creates two paintings that, if they had not been great works of art, would have been simply forgeries.

What makes them great is that Francis has managed to use figures and themes from his own life, heritage and confused religious upbringing to crystallize content from the deep unconscious. His paintings, which appear to come from a Renaissance master (even down to artificial craquelure created by baking them in ovens), are actually timeless.

Maslanka, a fellow Oberlin grad whose Symphony no. 4 will be performed by the Baylor Wind Ensemble tonight, is unusual among modern composers in that he acknowledges deliberately trying to do the same thing. Here are a few ponderable quotes from his essay:

"After a lifetime of being myself I have come to the conclusion that the only tool I have for the perception of the 'click of rightness' is myself! On the conscious level that self is patently limited: the senses have limits, the talents have limits, the intelligence has limits. It is possible nonetheless for the conscious mind to reach 'inward' and find a universe of powerful images and feelings, and conversely to have things thrust on it from an unknown source—which means that there is the possibility for revelation."

"One of the most profound revelations that human consciousness has received is symbolic language in all its forms. ... The great tradition of musical language exists apart from the individual. I remember awakening gradually to this tradition, first as a young clarinet player, and then as a young theory student and beginning composer. I remember at age 18 the sudden realization how little I knew of this vast language, and what a complicated business composing really was. For more than 40 years I have been actively exploring that language, and understand that I will never encompass it all."

"The idea of the language using you is a profound one. It implies that the language wishes to speak, that there is a partnership between your conscious mind and the unspoken forces of the universe. My tonal musical language uses me. No matter what I do it won't be denied. In allowing myself to open to language, I open to the great common pool of human musical experience, and the language uses me. Out of tradition is invented the personal voice."

Anyone familiar with the controversies in modern music, and in post-modernism generally, will recognize these as fighting words. The idea that there are universals, revelations, and vast pools of common experience that can speak to all mankind and always will, are, to say the least, out of fashion. When Maslanka acknowledges that the musical language that seeks to speak to him is tonal, and that one of its fonts is the Bach chorales, he is making claims for tonality and for Bach that many are still eager to dispute. Just last summer I tried to make a similar claim for Bach on my professional society's listserve, and was treated to a lecture from another contributor explaining that any advantage Bach appeared to enjoy stemmed solely from the privileging of the German tradition that he represents. The implication was that exactly the same thing could have happened to any number of other composers from other national traditions who are now considered also-rans.

I am going to say here what I did not say there: I don't believe it. The privileged positions accorded to tonality, and to Bach's particular take on tonal language, are due to the fact that both are capable of drawing vast amounts of material from the universal human unconscious. This is what any great art does, and it's what makes it great. Yes, an artist needs extraordinary gifts and needs to work extraordinarily hard. To be truly great, though, an artist needs to become a vehicle for the language of art, and there's no way to make that happen unless, like Francis Cornish, you are also the vehicle of expression for a daemon of your own.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Advent conspiracy

I haven't written anything here for a while because I've been too busy. I spent nearly a week in California at two separate academic conferences. My wife and I got some valuable time together, which we spent sightseeing in San Francisco. Then I returned and spent most of the last week trying to clear up the backlog of work (mostly paper grading) that had been piling up since my surgery back in September. I'm almost feeling back to normal now, but I'm exhausted and more than ready for Thanksgiving break and what will follow. This has been a grueling week.

I team-teach an interdisciplinary humanities course, and every year we dedicate some class time to 20th-century atrocities, focusing on the Holocaust and the atomic bombing of Japan. That's the week we just finished. For the sixth year in a row, I led my students through a discussion of Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. We chose Levi's book because almost everyone has read Elie Wiesel's Night by the time they finish high school. Levi was almost ten years older than Wiesel when he was deported to Auschwitz, and he looked at the experience with as much detachment as he could muster. He saw that the camp was a kind of experiment in bringing out the worst in human nature, and he understood that those who survived were the ones who pursued naked self-interest with a single-minded intensity that would brand them as criminals or lunatics in any normal society.

We also read and discuss multiple first-hand accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima, and examine historical writings that make the case both for and against its necessity. I mention having grown up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where many of the parents of people I knew went to work each day at the "gaseous diffusion plant:" a facility for electromagnetic isotope separation that turned out fissionable uranium in amounts large enough to produce nuclear weapons. I describe my lingering memories of the emotional nightmare caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and tell them frankly that when I was their age, I never expected to live as long as I have. With all those nuclear missiles my friends' parents were helping to make pointed at Russia, and a similar contingent of Russian bombs targeted at us, it was nearly inconceivable to me that someone, someday, would not decide to use them. When, along with our undergraduates, I read the accounts of victims of the Hiroshima bomb losing their skin and slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning, I am reminded that this is the way I long expected to die.

It is perhaps too much to expect 19- and 20-year olds to come to terms with the naked evil that the 20th century brought back into the foreground of human self-awareness. Having swallowed their obligatory Wiesel in mid-adolescence, many of them are understandably not eager to tread that ground again. The answers come a bit too easily. Freedom is God's gift to humanity. Even though Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor (we read that one just before the California trip) thought people weren't up to the challenge, the gift remains. Of course some mistakes are going to be made.

Next week we celebrate Thanksgiving, and the Christmas carols are already jingling in the background. The season of forced cheerfulness is upon us. I have been following with some bemusement the concern expressed in the media that Christmas, not satisfied with having taken over December, has now nearly devoured November as well. Christmas lights were already up in San Francisco, and large red Nutcrackers suddenly appeared in the hotel lobby the day before we left.

So it's worth remembering that Christmas actually doesn't start until - December 25th. The time before it, which begins next Sunday, is Advent, and it is a time for penitence, not celebration. I think this matters whether you're religious or not. Our lives need punctuation, and holidays—which we will all be celebrating soon regardless of our faith or lack of it—need to be balanced by introspection and soul-searching. No new seed can be sown without first making the ground ready, and heaven knows the ground has been poisoned this year by demonstrations of our increasingly impoverished vision of ourselves.

I speak as an American, and one who has always thought that being an American was a source of pride. In no other country in the world would a descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants have been as likely to marry a Protestant turned Catholic turned agnostic and produce someone with the mixture of spiritual deficits and advantages that have defined my life. At the moment, though, the magic that made America is not working, and the tent city that was stretched out right next to the tourist vendors in front of that San Francisco hotel was a reminder of what Americans can all too easily forget: that blessings come to us not in the middle of prosperity and chest-thumping pride, but through the back door of want, deprivation and yearning. They are defined by our very human need for what is unseen and, as yet, unimagined.

Unfortunately, that back door can also let in the demons we fear the most. Inhospitality, distrust of others and demonization of those who think and act differently are lurking there as well. Rarely have those traits of human nature been on such blatant display as in what has passed for our national conversation this past year. The blessings may be there too, but here's the thing; they're going to try to sneak in where and when we least expect it, and in all likelihood there will be no room for them at the proverbial inn. That's why the holiday season requires repentance as well as celebration. This doesn't mean we need to flagellate ourselves with guilt and regret. All we need is to open ourselves up to new possibilities and remember to look for hope in the face of the lowliest and most despised among us. We must exercise our freedom to be human, which means being broken, weak, inadequate and desperately in need of a helping hand.

So in preparation for the inevitable commercial and emotional onslaught that's sure to come, I would like to share my favorite Christmas song that I encountered last year. Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter Paul and Mary, packs more wisdom and understanding into these lines than we're likely to encounter anywhere in the commercialized Christmas season that's about to begin. All I can say in response is "May It Be So."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The good, the bad and the bully

[Gentle reader: I had to make light of this one, because trying to tackle this serious topic seriously would have taxed my eloquence beyond its capabilities. If you want to hear eloquence, listen to the video at the end. Then share it with everybody you can.]

Here's the good news: Michigan just passed a new anti-bullying law, called "Matt's Safe School Law," named for a gay teenager who committed suicide recently after being bullied beyond endurance. As a former victim of bullying, I have my doubts about whether passing a law is going to stop anyone from being a bully, but at least it's a nice gesture.

Isn't it?

OK, here's the bad news: Republicans in the Michigan legislature refused to pass the law unless it included an exception for bullies who act out of religious or moral conviction.

Let's start with "moral." Words do occasionally change meaning, or acquire new connotations, so it might be a good idea to consult a current dictionary definition, or definitions. Microsoft Word Tools menu to the rescue.

1) Involving right and wrong.

I guess that means that if you're right and your victim is wrong, it's OK to be a bully. Right?

2) Derived from personal conscience.

Ah yes—personal conscience is a flexible thing. Given that a personal conscience can be pretty much anything you want it to be, this means that anybody who wants to can be a bully. Still with me?

3) According to common standards of justice.

Well, (as George Will would say). That one's a little more difficult. Most common standards of justice would assert that it's wrong to bully, period.

4) Encouraging goodness and decency.

This one might leave some room for the old "be good or I'll beat you up" maneuver. Goodness and decency can't be too dearly bought, one might say. (That's up to one's personal conscience, after all.)

5) Good by accepted standards.

Ah. "Accepted by whom?," one might ask. If we're talking about the kind of standards that are accepted by society at large, it's probably fair to say that bullying isn't good by those standards, no matter who is being bullied. You have to have some pretty warped standards to think otherwise. I sense that we're getting to the core of the matter here.

6) Able to tell right from wrong.

The ad hominem definition. Somebody who can tell right from wrong is moral. Therefore, such a person can advance moral reasons for his or her behavior. Such a person is not likely to argue that bullying is right, at least if he or she is judging right and wrong by accepted standards.

7) Based on personal conviction.

Uh-oh. I see a loophole here the size of Lake Ontario. Personal conviction is something that most bullies I've encountered have lots of. Conviction that it's OK to treat other people like dirt, hurt them, belittle them, and reduce them to sobbing, helpless defenseless. That's a personal decision, isn't it?

Let's try "religious."

1) Relating to religion.

Hmm. So if someone's religion says it's OK to bully people, it's OK with Michigan too.

2) Believing in a higher being.

Oh. Kay. ...  Most bullies I know believe in a higher being. Themselves. As in: "Let me knock you down and trample on you until you could be standing on Mt. Everest and you'd still feel like a helpless shrimp in my presence." That's Bully Psych 101, in case you didn't know.

3) Thorough.

Oh wow. Bullies will love this one. They've got all the time they want to be as thorough as they feel like being. After all, somebody can't be humiliated out of every last vestige of his or her self-respect in a day or two. It's a good thing for the bullies that they put this one in.

4) Belonging to a monastic order.

I'm not even going there.

I just can't help myself, I guess. I wanted to make sure that the idea of allowing bullying because of moral and religious convictions had some real basis, and it turns out it does. Never mind that most reasonable people would agree, in the abstract, that a moral or religious person would never bully anyone. That's just something a nerd would say. Bullies know better. (Go back to religious, 2).)

So here's what Michigan has done. It's told anybody who wants to be a bully for any reason his or her personal conscience allows that it's fine and dandy with the state of Michigan for him or her to bully anybody that he or she doesn't think is a good or decent person. But don't take my word for it. Listen to the minority leader of Michigan's State Senate.

And to all you newly empowered bullies out there: Have a nice day, by accepted standards.