Six Thoughts on the Ferguson Uprising

1) I honor, respect and admire those participating in the Ferguson uprising. All of them: not just those engaging in what the bien pensant have designated as acceptably “non-violent” forms of protest.

2) As I have written about here, Ferguson is unusual in having an overwhelmingly majority white city council and police force presiding over a majority black population. This imbalance is likely to be corrected sooner or later with the result that African American local officials and police will be in charge.

3) As a consequence of 2), one of the protestors’ main demands will be met, namely there will be an end to “racist” police murder. What will replace it will be black on black police murder–by definition, not “racist”.

On this basis, the black misleadership class, the community and the left will be mollified.

4) We know this because of recent history in which the devastation of African American communities was almost total-the wars on drugs and crime continuing to take their toll and now compounded by their having suffered the largest loss in their aggregate wealth in their history due to the banking and foreclosure crisis.

As this was presided over by an African American president and attorney general, there was almost no protest, as there will be when “black faces in high places” in Ferguson institute similarly repressive policies locally.

5) This provides the grounds for why I don’t think it’s correct to view Ferguson as within the same trajectory as OWS, as Francis Piven has remarked.

While the uprising is entirely righteous, 2) suggests that it is ultimately about unfinished business of the civil rights movement, necessary but which should have been completed years ago.

In contrast, OWS was, as Piven notes, “something new” and different in that it put on the agenda precisely that which was taboo during the 60s: the 1% vs. the 99%. In a word capitalism, or in two words, class struggle.

6) The behavior and expressed attitudes of the white population around Ferguson make inevitable the view expressed by a facebook commenter: “The problem is that the majority of whites are racist and class unconscious — they are essentially counter-revolutionary at the core of their existential being.”

While there is plenty of reason to assume that this is the case, a movement which takes the vast majority of the population as “essentially counter-revolutionary” and unreformable is one which is by definition incapable of uniting the majority against elite power and privilege.

The new movement which OWS presaged will need to move far beyond Ferguson. In short, what Ferguson has to teach us will need to be learned and forgotten for our real work to begin.

The Two Cultures Revisited: Can the Left Bridge the Gap

Colleen Flaherty’s recent piece on the Steven Salaita affair observes that Salaita’s supporters, both on campus and off, derive overwhelmingly from the “soft” academic disciplines— the humanities and social sciences — while the administration is strongly backed by those in STEM fields. Flaherty points out other instances of tensions between the “two cultures”, connecting these to C.P. Snow’s widely discussed book on the subject.

Most academics have stories of more or less dramatic instances of the “two cultures” fissure. Here’s mine: about a decade ago, I served as an official observer for Yale graduate students’ union recognition election. The first ballots to be counted were those from the liberal arts departments around central campus. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the union.

But as votes arrived from further out — most notably, those from science buildings and the medical center — it  became clear the drive would fail. This was no surprise to those who, in working to build support in prior weeks, had found a solid wall of opposition there.

For those of us who are sympathetic to Noam Chomsky’s belief that science and rational discourse are “tool(s) of emancipation,” the failure of these and other campus initiatives to achieve support in the sciences is distressing.

Those most at home with the scientific method should, according to Chomsky and others, be the most willing and able to critically examine the claims by those in positions of authority and recognize (as in the Salaita case) their patent dishonesty and fraudulence.

In the past, Nobel Prize winners Salvatore Luria, Linus Pauling, Owen Chamberlain and, most prominently, Einstein saw their radicalism as entirely consistent with and deriving from their commitment to science.

Now it is Stranglovian figures like Edward Teller at worst or bland establishment moderates like Steven Chiu or Harold Varmus at best who are taken as typifying science.

And that is at least part of the reason why the “two cultures” now seem particularly unbridgeable.

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But the responsibility for the gap does not, unfortunately, reside entirely in the reactionary conformism of scientists. Equal blame must be placed on sectors of the academic left, whose hostility to science began to become an issue in the mid 90s, brought to attention through the work of Alan Sokal and his collaborator Jean Bricmont.

Also making similar observations was Chomsky whose 1995 essay Rationality/Science catalogs the anti-science, anti-rationalist views of “left allies.” These include the assumption that science is “dominated by the white male gender,” “limited by cultural, racial, and gender biases,” “thoroughly embedded in capitalist colonialism,” and “used to create new forms of control.” Moreover, science, according to them, “screens out feeling, recreating the Other as object to be manipulated . . . made easier because the subjective is described as irrelevant or un-scientific” by those for whom “to feel was to be anti-science.” Based on these indictments we must conclude “there is something fundamentally wrong with science” and learn to view Western “scientific endeavor (as) also in the world of story and myth creation,” along with other “stories and myths.”

While Chomsky’s patient demolition is, as always, worth revisiting, what Chomsky doesn’t address are some of the predictable consequences of these absurdities having become dominant in the academic left.

Among these is the difficulty, demonstrated in the examples Flaherty cites among others, in recruiting science departments in support of left campus initiatives. Scientists are no different from anyone else in being disinclined to join forces with those who have made no secret of their personal contempt for you. Furthermore, on a political level, it was eminently predictable that scientists, or for that matter, anyone with a minimal claim to sanity, would view any political tendency disavowing scientific expertise in public health, energy, environmental, agricultural, and transportation policy, as a serious danger, indeed, a menace, whether emanating from the left or right.

Finally, it was predictable that the right would eventually make easy pickings of a left willing to associate itself with the attitudes Chomsky itemizes. In particular, university administrations having as their main campus allies those in the sciences would be in a strong position to sell to their governing boards, the media and the public the increasingly heavy-handed crackdown on campus radicals belonging to those departments which, as Andrew Delbanco has written, “only make people laugh.”

 That the two cultures schism on the left has continued and even widened is a clear indication the warnings issued by Chomsky and a few others were heeded or had much influence. Also revealing is continuing influence in the academy of postmodernist icons who, as Sokol as Bricmont document, inspired much of the contempt for science in left academic circles: Kristeva, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, and Guattari and now Lacan’s follower Zizek–remain sources of authority frequently cited and highly influential across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, their comical ignorance of science greeted with indifference and even with applause.

That said, it would be a mistake to view the irrationalist currents affecting the left as confined to the academy. Anyone who has been involved in retail political organizing can anticipate that a significant fraction of those expressing interest in many left objectives will be those who view political reality through the distorting lens of conspiracy theories involving 9/11 “Truth”, the Kennedy assassination, or chem trails. As the parent of a 9-year-old, the most problematic for me are “anti-vaxxers,” who allege a conspiracy of the pharmaceutical companies to cover up the side effects of childhood vaccines.

Those buying into crude conspiratorialism tend to be ridiculed by the academic left, who are quick to see them as the contemporary descendants of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style in American politics. But there is ultimately little practical difference between hostility to rationality and science that has its roots in les deux maggots or in 19th century farmbelt, populist know-nothingism.

Of course, scientists are only one of many constituencies who have become less supportive of the left agenda over the past decades and it would be mistake to reconsider our goals and tactics based on our failure to reach them. They are, after all, disproportionately among the economically advantaged 1% not to mention the beneficiaries of long standing connections to the national security state via Defense Department funding of basic research. For this reason, as was the case in the past, only a few will be able to resist a system in which their skills command top dollar and confer on them much prestige.

But that the left can no longer count on the participation of even a small corps of dissident scientists is problematic on two counts. First, any political tendency competing for power-presumably our ultimate objective-will need at least a few with technical expertise on public health, energy and transportation policy if it expects to govern responsibly. Their absence from within our ranks is a sign of our ultimate dysfunctionality. More fundamentally, it is troubling on deeper, philosophical grounds. For some of us, the most compelling reason for identifying with the left is that it offers the best explanation for the facts which are before our eyes. In that respect, it not only resembles science, it is its virtual twin. That so many on the left feel comfortable with the banishment of science and scientists from our ranks may have a lot to do with the our having become almost completely irrelevant as a political, moral and social force.

 

 

 

All You Need(ed) to Know

We could have saved so much time and trouble and had we listened to Adolph Reed back in 1996.

In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances.

So it seems to me a good idea to listen to Glenn Greenwald telling you all you need to know about the likely 2016 nominee.

Hillary is banal, corrupted, drained of vibrancy and passion. I mean, she’s been around forever, the Clinton circle. She’s a fucking hawk and like a neocon, practically. She’s surrounded by all these sleazy money types who are just corrupting everything everywhere. But she’s going to be the first female president, and women in America are going to be completely invested in her candidacy. Opposition to her is going to be depicted as misogynistic, like opposition to Obama has been depicted as racist. It’s going to be this completely symbolic messaging that’s going to overshadow the fact that she’ll do nothing but continue everything in pursuit of her own power. They’ll probably have a gay person after Hillary who’s just going to do the same thing.

 

 

On Jazz Music, Jazz Politics and “Failed Ideas”

New Music Box, the house organ of the composers advocacy organization New Music USA has issued a two part request: that I respond to a posting attacking my article Jazz after Politics, and that I do so on their site, “subject to . . .  editorial review”.

As for the former, as it is mostly composed of trivial misrepresentations which I have dealt with previously, what I have to say about it I will deliver more or less in passing.  What is worth discussing is the latter: why it would be impossible to convey my reaction under New Music Box editorial auspices. The reason is that doing so requires broaching the main subject which I have been writing about over the past few years, namely, the relationship of the high arts to traditional elites of the past and present. Given that the organization has declared what I and others have to say on this matter essentially off limits, as I will observe in the following, it will be necessary to convey the substance of my position on this matter and on others relating to it elsewhere.

That NMB has imposed and maintains a de facto ban on these subjects may have passed unnoticed by most of its readers, though those who read it carefully will have recognized that something of the sort might be the case.  More conclusive is behind the scenes evidence provided by two episodes from my own experience with them.(1)  The first concerns their having commissioned me to write on composers’ reaction to the Occupy movement which was then attracting considerable attention.  The piece I submitted was initially enthusiastically received by the editors.  However, when it was forwarded it to higher-ups for approval, a problem was detected in that it “named names” of certain dubious financeers who are also funders of new music. Mentioning this rogues’ gallery would, according to them, draw an unfavorable response from their board possibly having financial consequences for their organization.  And so they rejected a piece they both commissioned and approved-or to be more precise, they censored it.

A second piece submitted to them on the subject of the historical relationship between composers and socialist politics was also initially favorably received, albeit in draft form. Unfortunately, the edited version they returned to me eliminated entirely the introduction where the subject of composers’ current relationship to the plutocracy was connected to prior epochs.  The result of this cut and others was logical and rhetorical hash which failed to convey what had been the article’s main point, so I decided to publish it elsewhere.

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While it might initially seem otherwise, I should stress that I am not mentioning these facts to criticize either New Music Box, its parent organization New Music USA, or to criticize them for running this article.

We all make various compromises to manage within the brutal economic realities which capitalism in its late, neoliberal form imposes all of us in the 99%, including artists and arts organizations. When it comes to composers, it has always been the expectation that we keep our opinions to ourselves about the hands which are feeding us and to stifle our inclination (insofar as we have one) to bite them.  In the current climate, what is required goes beyond this traditional arrangement in that what is increasingly expected by elites in exchange for their largesse is not only the suppression of ideas they find unpalatable but actual cheerleading.

That is the context in which the following assertion from the article, which claims to be a defense of jazz against what it sees as my attacks (2), is to be understood.

“It’s The Man who preserves failed ideas—like Marxism.”

While I was initially annoyed by this, in retrospect I’m grateful that the sentence, tying together de rigeur bashing of academics with no nothingist red baiting, appeared.  For if nothing else, it removes any doubts that a hipster variant of rightwing ideology has penetrated into new music circles.

It also serves a nearly perfect illustration of two of the major points of the piece.  The first of these is that jazz has long since lost any connection with a past in which it was taken, at least by the left, to serve as a vehicle for radical, or at least minlmally progressive sentiments.  Long gone are figures such as Max Roach, the “Marxist Mozart” Teddy Wilson or Fred Ho who would have quickly dismissed the description of Marxism as a failed idea.  Now, whatever its purely formal musical virtues, and I heartily agree that these are substantial, jazz has become politically neutered and arguably reactionary, a development the author seems to approve of. (3)

What is likely behind the shift to the right is a second point discussed in the piece, namely, the substantial corporate funding jazz institutions have received over the past decades. A primary objective of this support is that just mentioned: to co-opt potentially dissident voices who might use their reputations to challenge the domination of the 1%.  It has been known for years that making artists aware of who pulls the strings is a guarantee that they will be less likely to exercise their independence, so this tactic should by now be familiar.

Another tactic, however, is more subtle and more insidious:  by supporting an art form deeply rooted in the historical sufferings and struggles of African Americans, elites masquerade as allies, or at least sympathetic.  The reality, as documented by historians Gerald Horne and Edward Baptist, among others, has always been exactly the opposite: economic elites were the predominant beneficiaries of the slave economy, of the Jim Crow policies which followed and, most recently, by the waves of offshoring, deindustrialization and wage stagnation by which African Americans have been among the hardest hit.

As I noted, waving the flag for jazz does effectively nothing for the five centuries of victims of the past or those of the present.  That we as musicians think otherwise is understandable though, of course, delusional on our parts. On the part of elites, however, it is not a delusion at all, but much worse: it is part of a cynical game by which they exempt themselves from legitimate demands that they return some reasonable fraction of the wealth they have accumulated on the backs (disproportionately African) of those who have produced it.  What they offer as compensation is patronage for a tiny percentage of those involved in the creative arts judged as “worthy”.  That this is a distraction from the unpleasant reality is among the core “failed ideas” that can’t be mentioned in New Music Box, except as a smear.

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It is, of course, well known that the establishment media functions as a megaphone for the elites agenda while limiting access to those attempting to challenge it. While it does consistently excellent work, like many other mainstream outlets, New Music Box is ultimately part of this establishment.

Given this fact, I hope that New Music Box has convinced its board that composers and jazz musicians’ flirtation with radical, anti-capitalist politics is long in the past.  Let’s hope that nine and ten figure contributions to NMB are in the mail though for reasons I have discussed, I don’t consider this likely.

In the meantime, composers and musicians need all the help they can get. New Music USA plays a vital role in providing it and they should continue in this capacity.

But that does not exempt those benefitting from it from the responsibility to recognize the ultimate taint from which the support derives and the underlying agenda being advanced through it.

 

The article is a useful demonstration of how far we need to go to achieve this awareness.

(1) I have informally recounted some of this story here.

(2) As discussed here, my response to the jazz canon should be seen as normal criticism of the sort which any serious artform should not only expect but welcome.
(3) Rather than applauding jazz’s right wing turn, other response to the piece challenged the claim that jazz musicians are no longer sympathetic to left wing causes. It’s obvious by now that the “concerts that jazz musicians staged in support of U.S. President Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008”, taken as an indication of left sympathies should be viewed as quite the opposite.