A New Long Hot Summer: Is Ferguson the American Spring?

Some on the leftare viewing the Ferguson uprising as the the long awaited American Springin which resistance to the routine murder of black youth becomes the wedge cracking open the system revealing itself to be rotten to the core.

It may become that. What happened to Michael Brown was all too typical and while his life was cut short by real bullets, so too does an entire generation see its prospects figuratively murdered as Wall Street consigns it to a future of permanent debt slavery abetted by militarized police forces crushing any attempts at mobilizing in opposition to it.

If a movement can connect the dots then it has a chance to galvanize a movement of the 99% back into the streets.

But there will be a lot of opposition and much of it will come from those who Brittany Cooper referred toas “figureheads of the movement” now claiming to speak for Michael Brown and the Ferguson protesters.  Among those having shown themselves as “friends of those with political power rather than fighters for real change” has been Reverend Al Sharpton who, according to Cooper, presided over the Brown funeral by

“stick(ing) to safe truths, convenient ones, about the problem of militarized policing, particularly in black communities.  Sharpton chose not to be a prophetic voice for the people of Ferguson but rather to do the work that the Obama administration sent him to do. That work entailed the placating of the people by ostensibly affirming their sense of injustice, while disaffirming their right to a kind of righteous rage in the face of such injustice.”

More troubling was Sharpton’s appearance at the funeral for Eric Garner the day before where, according to Byron York in the Washington Examiner,  pro forma criticisms of the NYPD functioned as an introduction to hectoring his audience with the “bootstraps” line associated with Bill Cosby and Sharpton’s increasingly close confidant President Obama.

“We’ve got to be straight up in our community, too,” he said. “We have to be outraged at a 9-year-old girl killed in Chicago. We have got to be outraged by our disrespect for each other, our disregard for each other, our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other, so that they’re justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go.”

Many in the audience were “enraged, among them Eddie S. Glaude Jr., professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton who “found the middle part of the eulogy profoundly disturbing.”

What remains to be seen is whether a new generation of black leaders will be able to step forward and not only give voice to this rage, but, to make strategic alliances with the 99% out in the streets two years before, and who were brutally suppressed creating a war zone in lower Manhattan which bore striking similarities to the that seen recently in Ferguson.

Should they do so, they will be sure to confront the full force of political and financial elites and their first lines of defense in the uniformed services.

When this potential was most actively present, nearly a half century ago, Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover made their names in infamy.

That role is sure to be adopted by Obama and Holder, who will assume the same role in blackface.

That black faces in high places now are fully capable of doing the work of elites up to and including smashing the faces of those who dare to challenge it has long since become obvious.  Ferguson, a relic of Jim Crown in its apartheid white governance of a black majority is a distraction from this reality.

The movement will need to look beyond this superficial difference between black and white servants of the plutocracy and see the naked fist which revealed itself in Ferguson and Zuccotti Park as the same one.

If it learns to do so, then we can look forward to the American Spring and many desperately needed long hot summers to follow.

Richard Wolff on Immigration

The following is a transcription of Richard Wolff’s remarks on immigration from the August 16th installment of Wolff’s Economic Update (audio here).  The view he is expressing, that immigration and “immigration reform” serves the interests of economic elites by creating increased competition for available employment, while often ignored, is neither new or original. What needs to be better understood is his observation that the charge of “racism” against workers concerned about the threat which immigration poses to their livelihoods is often cynically exploited by the same elites who benefit from an increased labor surplus. Worse is when self-described leftists parrot the same charge thereby doing the work of the ownership class though much more effectively as it is delivered in good faith from supposed friends of the working class rather than its enemies.

The issue I want to discuss now is the economics of immigration. And I’m going to use the United States as an example although what I’m going to say applies to many other countries that are experiencing an immigration process in their society.

The vast bulk of immigration into the United States for most of its history has been working people. People who leave a country because the economic conditions for them are difficult, getting a job is difficult, working on a farm is difficult, the income you earn is really not enough the prospects for you are very poor, you can’t support a family or you can’t support them the way you wish you could, you would like to offer a better life for your children than is available.

And so you hear about economic conditions in the United States and you make a wrenching decision to yank yourself out of the family you’re part of, the community you’re part of, the church that you’re part of, the friendships you’re developed, the neighborhood, and go to another country often whose language you don’t speak, whose customs you’re not familiar with, whose religion may be different from your own, and so on. A very difficult, a very painful, a very frightening decision, mostly made for a better economic chance.

Yes, there are some people who come because they’re politically persecuted, or persecuted because of their ideas, and that’s important but the bulk of people who have come to the United States are coming because they want something very unsurprising: they want a better economic deal-a chance to work, a chance to earn an income, a chance to live a reasonable life.

That tells you why they leave where they come from. Why do they come here?

Those folks would not come to the United States, or any other country, unless they were told by somebody, and told repeatedly-you don’t make this kind of wrenching decision based on one idea that somebody tells you over a drink some night-they only come if they are told and retold that there is an employer waiting for them. That there’s a job waiting for them. That they can earn a living; that their labor is desired.

Or if they’re a child of someone, that they’re the child of somebody whose labor is desired.

This gives us a clue to one of the key causes of immigration: the desire of employers to have either more workers that are available in their own country or workers whom they can pay less money to than the ones they have in their own country. One or the other or both things have to be true if employers are going to send out repeated messages directly and indirectly to countries from which people are leaving that you ought to think about coming here to the United States for example, or to Britain or to Canada or to Sweden or to wherever we’re talking about.

That means that one of the economic drivers of immigration, is the employer, corporations, those who want to see the workers come because they need more workers or they need cheaper workers or they need both. They’re not very interested in whether or how these workers get along with other people, whether they can find good or mediocre or awful housing, good or mediocre or awful education for their children, safe or not so safe neighborhoods-that’s really secondary.

They want to know whether they can get these workers to come here to work, preferably for less than they’ve had to pay workers who’ve been here a while or who were born in the United States.

So the more the merrier you might say is the attitude of the employer class toward immigration.

Now let’s look at it from the point of view of the workers already here-either born in the United States or been here for a while although having come as immigrants at some earlier point.

They look upon immigrants very differently. And that’s not because they’re different people, but because their situation in the economy is different. So for them, they say to themselves, first, oh my goodness! all these immigrants are coming and they’re going to compete with me for my job.

Number two: these folks are poor. They are coming from a place where they’ve gotten by with much less than we expect here in the United States so I’m afraid they will be willing to work for less than I’m willing to work for. And that they’re going to therefore be the choice of my employer at my expense.

Number three: if these are poor folk and they crowd in as poor folk usually do into the housing they can barely afford, we’re going to get a number of folks like this who may become dependent on government assistance of one kind or another and that’s going to come out of taxes on me because that’s the way our American tax system works: the rich get out of their share, the corporations who want these people won’t pay the extra taxes but I will be required to pay the extra taxes to support the public services for a person who may threaten my job. Plus i don’t want crowded neighborhoods near me, it makes life hard in the schools.

You can see where the arguments go: the point here is not whether these arguments are accurate or not. In some case they are, in some cases they aren’t.

But the point is that workers are in a fundamentally different structural position than are employers when it comes to the immigration of adult people who come looking for the job that the employer would prefer to give at a lower wage than whoever it is he is employing now.

And so we have here set up an ugly and unattractive struggle. And it gets more ugly and unattractive because there are groups in our society-and I don’t want to justify them or excuse them in any way-who are hateful towards immigrants-not for reasons of economics, they don’t like the religion of the people coming in; they don’t like the skin color. That is, they’re racists or bigots for various reasons.

They now find, these folks, who are always there to some degree, but they now find a new audience among the working class folks who are worried about immigrants not because of their color or their religion about which they care little or nothing. But they want someone to push back because they are fearful of what immigration will mean for them economically.

So they’re begins to be a coming together of the working class opposition to immigration-anxiety about immigration-and the racist or bigoted groups that are set against them. Meanwhile-and that gets ugly-there’s another kind of ugliness. The people at the top-the corporate leaders, the wealthy, the people who attend to them-their servants-directly and indirectly-begin to reproach the working class as if its opposition to immigration were racist or bigoted. As if your average working person had some moral lapse that a big wealthy person could reproach them for.

This is really ugly now. You are now casting the working class, whom you had endangered with immigration, whose risks at immigration you are precisely pursuing, because it advantages your profits. But instead of facing what threat you represent to working people you dismiss them all as racist and bigoted, which they never were and which they aren’t now.

I told you it gets ugly.

Well, what should we do? Let’s look for a minute historically at what has happened and then we can talk about what we ought to do.

Most of the time the employers win. We know why that is: they’ve bought the two political parties, you can see it being played out in Washington now as the Republicans and Democrats fiddle and faddle over immigration legislation-they never quite make a decision-mean time, millions and millions of people come to the United States, more or less able to continue to do so, often under terrible conditions, particularly recently with the children, but this is an old story.

What I’m saying to you is the corporations win. They control enough of the political system that when they want heavy immigration from poor places they get it.

For most of the history of the United States, it was poor people from Europe who came here. Since the second World War the Europe movement has slowed and largely collapsed but we get now from Latin America and from Asia and Africa a growing flow again, in the main, poor people. People looking for work, even those with degrees who come from higher levels of income in other countries, they also come looking for work. And they are also prepared to work for lower than the comparable salary or wage in the United States.

Workers have occasionally fought back with enough political muscle to stop immigration. Or to slow immigration. Or to limit immigration. But that’s been rare.

The victors have mostly been the corporate elite. And so we’ve had immigration. And so we’ve had an endless succession of tensions in our community of divisions in our working class along ethnic lines that are not so different from the lines between native born, recent immigrants and long ago immigrants.

With all the tension and all the injustice and all the pain and hurt that that has meant particularly for the immigrants but for everybody else involved.

Is there a better way? is there a solution? And the answer, as always is, of course there is.

If we want, and it ought to be “we” who make the decision democratically-if we want to open our nation, past and presents and future, to immigrants from other countries, then we ought to do so but provide the mechanism so that their arrival is not a threat to the people here but is in fact a blessing and a benefit as it brings more diversity, more variety, into the food, the dress and the ways of thinking of the American people-it enriches us with the cultures of diverse populations rather than threaten our working people. And the way you do that is, no one here loses a job or lowers their income because of their coming. An immigrant comes in and he or she will be provided with a job-an additional job-not a substitute job, at a decent income that’s comparable to what people here get, so that there’s no question of what people here are getting being reduced because of the competition from an immigrant.

You bring in immigrants without threatening the American working class and those immigrants will not have epithets shouted at them, will not have their children driven away, they’ll be welcomed for the diversity and the difference that they bring to enrich this society. You want immigration to work better, then do it properly. And who should pay for it? Of course, the people who wanted the immigrations in the first place. You want more workers? Fine. You want more workers for less? No, that’s not available. Let’s bring immigrants in if we need more workers, fine, bring them in in a way that enriches their lives and ours. And make those who benefit by having an available labor force pay the freight for making it work properly. No more folks at the top giving lectures on racism when the exacerbation of racial tension is precisely what they’ve produced by bringing poor people in to replace workers in this country. Anything else is insincere, duplicitous and dangerous in more social ways than I can count.

Asking the Hard Questions on Ferguson

A lot of outrage now about Ferguson-all of it righteous and all of it legitimate.

But there are bigger questions which need to be asked and answered.  For example,

While I haven’t studied the voter rolls, as a former local official, I can speculate on why this might be so.

First, the rate of participation of African Americans in local elections is almost certainly pitifully low. This is not, as Democratic Party operatives would have you believe, entirely or even mainly due to voter suppression efforts by Republicans. A lot of it has to do with local machines themselves discouraging participation, failing to mount voter registration drives or get out the vote campaigns.

Their reason for not doing so, as I observed first hand in New Haven, a city which shares some similarities with Ferguson, is because it gives the constituencies which reliably support machine candidates (mainly those revolving around black churches) disproportionate influence.  They are perfectly happy when their own handpicked candidates return to office with tiny numbers of votes rather than have to deal with potentially disruptive challenges which might emerge with more participation.

A second factor has to do with what the Black Agenda Report has pegged as the black misleadership class   There is nothing in any of the previous public statements of Ferguson’s African American Mayor James Knowles III which indicate any concern with police brutality, institutional racism, or anything beyond the most bland and uncontroversial “quality of life” initiatives.  In this, he takes his cue from black misleader in chief President Barack Obama who has still, predictably, failed to make a single statement expressing concern over or even awareness of the mounting destruction.

This gets to a larger point which is that the militarization of local police forces has been proceeding for at least a decade now with virtually no opposition on a local level a process which began with the receipt of surplus military equipment made available to localities.

They, or I should say we, were not required to accept it. And knowing how the guns, stun grenades and ammo would be deployed, there should have been unanimous opposition not only from the left but from anyone who is minimally concerned with civil liberties.

As far as I know, there was no such opposition not only in Ferguson but anywhere in the country. Based on my brief tenure as a local official, I’m pretty certain that the public safety committee hearings where the acquisition of the humvees, assault weapons and kevlar vests were discussed were almost if not entirely unattended by members of the public.  I also know from my experience that just a few calls to a local official would have resulted in, at least, some of the hard questions being asked about the wisdom of putting this gear in the hands of local police and quite possibly the rejection of some of the proffered gear.

Why did the left fail to act when it could have, and almost certainly would have mattered?

The answer is that the left has long since stopped caring about local politics even though our having obtained these positions, as we have seen, could have prevented the drift towards militarized police forces and their now routine suppression of protest.

There is one point of light in this-the Seattle city council campaign of Kshama Sawant whose path to victory began with the most notorious instance-the federally coordinated destruction of the Occupy movement.

Let’s hope that the left has now recognized that local campaigns, far from being “electoral extravaganzas unworthy of the attention of serious activists” are the first line of defense against the imposition of what can only be called a police state, operated by and serving the the interests of the one percent.

Hipster Hasbara: Klezmer Revisited

My father Morris, who turned 91 a couple of weeks ago, has fairly uncontroversial tastes in music.  The one exception is his attitude towards Klezmer, one of the favored styles of recent years.  Morris hates it-and eventually I began to understand why as it became an increasingly familiar part of the musical landscape of the 80s and 90.

Prior to that Klezmer, would be visible to those of us growing up in the 60s and 70s as innocuous Jewish folk songs sung on LPs by Theodore Bikel, Ruth Rubin and Pete Seeger. When it re-emerged in something closer to its raucous original form, it would do so as one wing of the world/ethnic music wave which brought to prominence various forms of West African pop, Bulgarian women’s chorus, and Tuvan throat singing among others. Of these styles, Klezmer was, arguably, first among equals-embraced across the board from conservative to “cutting edge” musical circles, quickly establishing itself and gaining acceptance, like the Jews themselves, in many different corners of the musical world, some quite prestigious.

To give some indication of the variety of niches it inhabited, one the first and best known repertory ensembles, the Klezmer Conservatory Band would be founded in 1980 with the support of the New England Conservatory and its powerful director Gunther Schuller. Several successful groups would spin off from the KCB, most notably the Klezmatics who would establish themselves in the then flourishing “downtown” scene.  Another NEC alumnus Don Byron would champion the music of bandleader Mickey Katz infusing Klezmer into the avant garde jazz scene at a time when relationships between the African American and Jewish communities were becoming increasingly fraught. Another downtown luminary John Zorn, would mine the Klezmer vein through his highly praised ensemble Masada at New York’s Knitting Factory in its heyday.

Klezmer would also establish a presence in traditional “uptown” quarters of the classical music world through new works by a then younger generation of composers. Among the most prominent of these was Oswaldo Golijov whose Klezmer influenced works would become among the most performed concert music works of the last decade. Golijov’s Prayers of Isaac the Blind served as a vehicle for many notable clarinet soloists including Giora Feldman, David Schiffrin and David Krakauer the latter of whom would play a seminal role in the revival through his group Klezmer Madness.(1)   Also drawn to Klezmer was one of the last remaining bona fide classical music celebrities, Itzhak Perlman, who would endorse the genre through his recording “In the Fiddler’s House” accompanied by both the Klezmatics and the Klezmer conservatory band.

Some of this activity was financed by grants and awards from arts agencies and non profit foundations as well as subsidized gigs on university campuses. But Klezmer, unlike many other musical styles, was able to bat from both sides, as it were, functioning equally effectively in the for profit sector of the musical economy as well. A fraction of many musicians’ bread and butter, mine included, was derived from performing with Klezmer bands at weddings and bar mitzvahs, often for Jews “returning to the fold” now eager rather than reticent about celebrating what they took to be their roots.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of this: appropriation and cross fertilization is the life blood of music and there is a lot right with being able to make a living performing, whoever pays the bill.

And even if there were something wrong with it, how could anyone object to the kinetic, virtuosic, joyous flurry of notes which is Klezmer?

***

But Morris, and his generation did object and they had their reasons. For him, the high dudgeon wailing of Klezmer was the music of the shtetl and all that implied, which is to say, rabinically enforced illiteracy, bigotry, intolerance, and misogyny little different from what one would encounter in theocratic hamlets in rural Arkansas, Saudi Arabia or Albania.(2)  It was Klezmer, loud, uncouth, hyperactive, after all, not the subtle urbanity of Mendelssohn or Mahler which would form the basis of stereotypes brandished by those eager to erase from history Jews’ role in the forefront of European cultural ferment.  My father’s family was deeply connected with precisely that which much of the fascist right found most threatening: educated, assimilated, secular Judaism. It was the bearded, skull capped village Shylock which they caricatured in most anti-semitic stereotypes, not chemists, engineers or poets. From my father’s perspective, a definition of Judaism imposed by its oppressors should not be embraced, it should be repudiated and while those who have been victims of shtetl life shouldn’t be looked down on, that doesn’t make their vicitimization any less tragic or their backwardness any more worth celebrating.

My point here is not to defend my father’s attitudes (which I have some ambivalence about) but only to note that they were prevalent among Jews of his generation and background. That their existence needs to be reasserted is due to their having long since been made invisible by rose-colored glasses the donning of which was made inevitable by Hitler.  The profound divisions which characterized my father’s relationship to Judaism have understandably but by no means always defensibly been replaced by the myth of a Jewish national identity which papered over the chasm separating Jews of differing classes and profoundly different outlooks.

The main ideological force behind the attempts to unify Jews under a single national flag was, of course, Zionism, the success of which required that Jews look beyond their extreme and obvious differences seeing themselves primarily if not exclusively with respect to their historical victimization of which the holocaust was one of many albeit the most extreme manifestation. As has been frequently noted, the construction of a national identity was not so easily accomplished.  Unlike other nationalities, Jews were geographically dispersed, did not share a common language, or even, since the rise of secularism and reformed Judaism, believe in anything like the same god.  What commonalities there were resided in the amorphous category of culture though it was often unclear, given the extent to which Jews were assimilated whether their contributions should be seen as expressions of their Jewish identity or better explained as attached to national traditions which many Jews warmly embraced.

The perception of a core Jewish culture, albeit with multiple expressions, was necessary for the success of the Zionist project. Among those taking the lead in reifying it were Jewish Studies programs established in the post war years at many of the country’s most prestigious universities.  Wikipedia identifies thirty two of these which are often augmented by cultural centers sponsoring events, conferences, films and concerts promoting “Jewish life” on campus.  The Klezmer revival was nurtured by these as it was by non-academic institutions such as the Lowell Milken Archive for Jewish Music formed with the objective “to preserve and disseminate music related to the American Jewish experience, . . . encourage academic research . . .  as well as encourage the performance of American Jewish music.”  The organization specifically references its support of both David Krakauer and John Zorn and their role in the downtown Manhattan “radical Jewish culture” movement as well as Klezmer influenced works by composers Paul Schoenfeld, Robert Starer and Yehudi Wyner.

In this light, Klezmer can seen as one wing of the broader project of Jewish self-definition and as among its most successful.  Sons and grandsons of Jews who, like my father, would have dismissed Klezmer as vulgar and entirely foreign to their identities as modern, liberal and enlightened now embraced it in the concert hall, in movie soundtracks, in jazz clubs and at their weddings and bar mitzvahs dancing the hora as if they were characters in Fiddler on the Roof.

In addition to helping to address the centrifugual tendencies in Judaism itself the popularity of Klezmer also served a related purpose: to humanize and make palatable an ultra-orthodox shtetl culture which was not only backward and impoverished but also deeply strange and alien not only to Jews but even more so to non-Jews. The rabbinically enforced adherence to Talmudic law in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in Israel is now only with great difficultly seen as belonging to a shared Judeo-Christian culture. More significantly, the enforced rigid separation of the sexes, forbidding of secular literature and suspicion of outsiders bears a much closer relationship to reviled theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia than Western liberal democracies.  For this reason, the ultra-orthodox were a liability in attempts by Zionists to portray a Jewish state meriting of the financial and military support of the western powers.

By celebrating the music of the shtetl culture, Klezmer not only softens what would appear to be repressive and forbidding aspects of the ultra-orthodox, it succeeds in turning them on their head.  The charismatic gesticulations accompanying Hasidic Torah recitations, not much less bizarre than the snake handling and speaking in tongues of a backwoods evangelical, become aestheticized as impassioned virtuosic pyrotechnics in Golijov’s Isaac the Blind.  The nigunim (prayer songs) take on a neutral identity as secular earworms when recontextualized in Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The skull caps, forelocks, scraggly beards and black cloaks of Hasidism appear not as they were intended, as antithetical and/or hostile to what initiates regards as a secular, decadent West, but, when paraded on stage by the Klezmatics, as hipster alternative fashion statements. (3)

While by no means its leading edge, the Klezmer revival thereby functions, knowingly or not, within the wider public relations (or, as it is increasingly better known, hasbara) strategy, to smooth the rough edges of ultra-orthodox Jewish elements. By helping to consign to the attic ultra orthodox intolerance and misogyny, known and sometimes harshly condemned by Jews themselves, Klezmer universalizes what would otherwise have been seen as a Jewish experience far removed from Western liberal tradition.

***

The goal of connecting Judaism and Jewish culture to the root of universalist conceptions of Western liberal democracies has been shown to be easily elided with promoting the role of the state of Israel as the front line of defense against Eastern fundamentalist, barbarism and terror.  To cement this equation as conventional wisdom is, of course, a longstanding objective of what has become known (albeit somewhat problematically) as “the lobby”, one which it has undertaken with remarkable success.

An indication of its success is finding even those most committed to secularism endorsing an explicitly religious state. These include “new atheist” Sam Harris, who is comfortable asserting that “The truth is, we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.”

Along similar lines, Elie Wiesel in a recent advertisement submitted to several newspapers describes the conflict as “not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian. Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.”

Wiesel’s crude attempt to consign the Palestinian population to dark, irrational infamy while promoting what is increasingly becoming a pariah state of Israel as the beleaguered defender of life-sustaining civilization was rejected for publication. That it was even considered has much to do both with the successful demonization of the Islamic “other” and with the longstanding polishing of the reputation of a religious state claiming to speak for Western values.

Klezmer has done its part by affixing a happy face on some of the least attractive and most alienating characteristics of Jewish tradition, one whose adherents such as the Jewish Home and Shas parties comprise a majority component of the right wing coalition committed to a de facto policy of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian minority.  For those becoming all too familiar with the brutality, violence and cynicism, a few clarinet high F’s and augmented seconds are all that is necessary to evoke this depressing reality.  My father never wanted to hear these sounds again, and, after a while, neither will many of us.

(1) Krakauer has written perceptively about his role here.

(2) Norman Cantor, in “The Sacred Chain: the History of the Jews”, pp. 224-225 is among those willing to look beyond Broadway musical conception of shtetl life: “What you do not learn from Sholem Aleichem is the superstition and the ignorance and the general ambiance of cruelty and deprivation, of fatalism and magic, and of comatose squalor that characterized the culture of the shtetl.”

(3) Perhaps the most conspicuous prior instance of the selling of ultra-orthodox as superficially unfamiliar but ultimately woven within the fabric of modern western, indeed, American culture were the series of books by Chaim Potok widely assigned in high school curricula during the 60s and 70s.  In the best known of these, The Chosen, the son of a Hasidic Rabbi decides to withdraw from rabbinical studies in order to become a Freudian Psychoanalyst.  The father, while initially opposed to the son’s decision eventually reconciles himself on the grounds that as a psychoanalyst, his son “will be a Tsadik, not just to his congregation but to the world.” Hasidism is therefore shown to be fully consonant with liberal, enlightened ideals, albeit those of the Upper West Side circa 1974.

The Case of Norman Cazden

Freddie DeBoer’s letter protesting the administration’s disgraceful termination of Steven Salaita’s appointment to a position at the University of Illinois references the McCarthyite smearing of two UI faculty members in the 50s. One, DeBoer’s grandfather, was protected by tenure. The other, composer Norman Cazden, was not. He lost his position and would eke out a living for the next 15 years, according to wikipedia, giving private piano lessons and doing hack arranging and continuing to compose prolifically. Cazden was, from all accounts, an impressive musician and scholar, and while I don’t know his music, it is said to be of very high quality. Interestingly, just yesterday when I was at NYU’s Tamiment Library researching the history of the music curriculum of New York City’s now completely forgotten Jefferson School for Social Science.  There was Cazden listed on the faculty in, I believe, the year 1948. Here are the pages from the Jefferson School course catalog listing some of the music courses offered. This should give everyone some idea of the kind of artistic and intellectual ferment which existed in left circles at the time and which has been completely written out of history. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone were to write about this subject.

 

Words, Brains and Science: A Response to Gary Marcus’s The Trouble with Brain Science

Gary Marcus, who seems to be gradually emerging as the Neil de Grasse Tyson of psychology, has a nice Times op ed today calling for greater scholarly focus on (and possibly funding for) efforts to not just compile but to make sense of the huge amounts of data which neuroscientists have been accumulating over the past decade or so. He notes, in particular, that the success of the field “ultimately rest(s) not just on the data to be collected but also on what can be done with those data once they are collected.”

He gives an indication of what he has in mind in observing that “we know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.”

While this is surely well taken, it struck me as a bit unfortunate that the observation is not fleshed out by mentioning the field implicated in the “”memories of individual words” which assemblies of neurons will need to be reconciled with. That field is, of course, linguistics.

Gary, who is, at least for Facebook purposes, a friend, responded to me when I brought this to his attention that “linguistics actually was in the early draft, but cut in the savage but elegant trim to 800 words.”

The cut was understandable. However, one wonders what direction the piece would have gone in had the cut been restored and Gary able to develop it somewhat. Obviously, I don’t know, but I can suggest one sort of story he could have told which might have made the case for the relevance of the field.

It would begin with the observation that we all have a pretty good intuitive understanding of what a word is though if you ask most people, they would likely offer as a definition that a word is the group of letters separated by spaces when we write or read texts. But of course people don’t really believe that since they know that whose who either speak unwritten languages or who, for whatever reason, do not read or write are well aware of what linguistic segments are and are not words. Even those English speakers who have only heard or spoken, for example, the sentence

1)The dog is well trained.

know that the unit indicated by the letters “dog” is a word, whereas the last two letters “-ed” are not.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a grey area-and we intuitively understand this as well.

For example, consider the closely related sentence

2) The dog’s well trained.

Is “-‘s” a word? I don’t know what people would say, though I think it’s likely that those who provided a yes or no answer would be more or less evenly divided into two groups: lumpers designating “-‘s” as included within the single word “John’s” and splitters who would argue that “-‘s” remains a separate word.

Both sides have a basis for their conclusions.

The splitters might argue that we know that “-‘s” in 2) is a word since it can be moved to the front to produce the question

3) Is the dog well trained?

It would seem that only separate words are sufficiently self-contained linguistic objects so that they can be moved around in this way so on these grounds it seems reasonable to designate “-‘s” (what linguists call a clitic) as belonging to the mental category word.

But to that the lumpers would respond: yes, but notice that you can make the same argument with the “-ed” in the word “trained.”

Consider the sentence

4) Bill trained the dog.

When we change that to a question

5) Did Bill train the dog?

the same thing happens: you detach the “-ed” from the stem “train”, move it to the beginning of the sentence and then-so that it can function as a self-contained word-tack on a “d-” at the beginning to make “did”. We do almost exactly the same thing in converting in 2) to 3): the “-‘s” is altered to “is” and then it is moved to the beginning to make the question.

So, says the lumper, if you want to call “-‘s” a word, you have to call “-ed” a word too. But we know that “-ed” is not a word, it’s just a syllable (more precisely a past tense suffix), so by that logic, the lumper concludes the splitter is wrong to call “-s” a word.

To be honest, I don’t know who’s right-whether clitics such as “-s” should be construed as words-or “phonological words” as the linguistics refer to them (as distinct from the orthographic word which is an artifact of writing systems, as mentioned above). I do know that the question of what constitutes a word boundary is something which linguists have given considerable thought to having advanced what is known as the “prosodic hierarchy” for this purpose. Applying one formalism devised to describe the relevant facts, the boundaries between “Bill” and “trained” in 4), understood to be considerably more prominent than the boundary between “the” and “dog” with the former thereby represented with three as opposed to, for the latter, one pound sign (#) resulting in something like

6) Bill###trained##the#dog####.

I’m not going to continue with this discussion here since my objective in laying it out is not to provide an answer but rather to show in a simplified form the kinds of arguments which are made by linguistics-or more precisely one specific aspect of these arguments. Notice that nothing in what was just outlined required any sort of neurological data. This is so because, to repeat Gary’s observation, neuroscience as of yet has nothing to say as to “whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.”

Neurology is no help in telling us anything about what a word is, let alone whether “-s”, or for that matter “the” or “dog” is. But does that mean we should abandon trying to come up with an answer for what we understand words to be and how they are arranged to form sentences until neurology has something to tell us? Surely not; it means rather that we need to look elsewhere for evidence, namely in the sort of data the lumper and splitter were appealing to in their argument: our intuitions with respect to linguistic form. To take their examples, we know intuitively that certain sentences including 1)-5) are all more or less unproblematically acceptable in English, and based on this, they were correct in assuming that the arguments they were offering were supported by these sentences.

Furthermore, they were right in proposing that 5) can be derived from 4) and 3) from 1) or 2) according to the movement operations outlined, though it’s important to keep in mind that this is only the initial stage of the inquiry. To return to their argument as an indication of how it can be extended, as we saw in 4) we know that you can form a question by moving the last syllable of a past tense verb like “trained” to the front of a sentence, after altering it to “did”. However, it will be seen that you cannot apply the same operation to passive sentences such as

7) The dog was trained by Bill.

Here moving the “-ed” produces the sentence

8) Did the dog was train by Bill.*

which is clearly impossible (as indicated by the asterisk). It follows that the computation deriving questions from declaratives is more complicated than the simple movement rule suggested by the splitter.

As it turns out, the problem of how one derives the grammatically correct question from 7) is hard-or, rather, I should say that it’s been relatively hard for linguistics to come up with the answer (though it’s very easy for us English speakers to do it!) But while tricky the problem has turned out to be by no means impossible, and linguists have made real progress identifying the mechanisms underlying passive constructions (in particular, the theory of theta roles interacting with Case assignment) which need to be posited to get the right answer.

I won’t discuss what these are except to reiterate the point that our intuitions with respect to language are both necessary and, as it has turned out so far, sufficient, to provide the data which goes into constructing this kind of account. In short, within a theory of syntax and neurological data is, at least so far, neither helpful nor relevant.

Now, as Gary notes, it is true that we will eventually hope to unify linguistic syntactic theory with neuroscience, just as, for example, genetics was unified with chemistry with the discovery of the DNA molecule. Prior to the unification of these two fields, genetics and chemistry were self-contained disciplines each achieving results based on theoretical frameworks each had devised for its own purposes. As it turned out, pretty much normal application of existing principles of chemistry was all that was required to explain the basic facts of genetics. But before this could occur, a substantial theoretical literature within genetics having to do with inheritance of specific traits, dominant and recessive genes, alleles, chromosomes etc. dictated the form of the answer which chemistry was required to provide by means of atoms, molecules, compounds, reactions etc. And Franklin, Crick and Watson were required to understand, at least to a sufficient degree, what these boundary conditions imposed by genetics were in order to devise the correct account within the terms fundamental to their own field.

As Gary suggests, much the same should be the case with linguistics and neuroscience: we know there are words, but beyond this we know there is movement of these elements in sentences. In fact, we know, according to linguistic theory that there are two types of movement covert and overt movement (one taking place before the sentence is uttered the other after). We also know that movement is constrained within certain configurations as can be seen when the linguistic hierarchy is represented as a tree structure derived from combining (i.e. merging) pairs of syntactic units-the basis of the computation we perform in assembling sentences.

As the linguistic account becomes more detailed and robust, it becomes on the one hand more intricate and requires a bit more work to assimilate. But neuroscientists should be enthusiastic about engaging it. For as linguistics develops, the questions which neuroscience can and should be able to derive the answers to become clearer. At this happens, the “troubles with brain science” which Gary cogently discusses, while surely never disappearing, will begin to recede into the background.

Theorizing Underpants and Mr. Burns’s Skirt: Multiculturalism and the Left Road to Nowhere

A couple of weeks ago Jacobin ran a blog post by Peter Frase attempting to answer certain criticisms pertaining to the dominant role of multiculturalism and identity politics in the left as it is now constituted.

The consensus, in my social media circles at least, appeared to indicate that it was not very convincing, with some objecting to what one commenter referred to as its reliance on “90’s grad seminar” discourse.

If it were only a question of style, the piece wouldn’t be worth discussing. What requires that it be dealt with is the substance, revolving around the claim that critics of the diversity agenda “do away with race” by taking “class (to be) the universal solvent that does away with all identity.”

That Frase’s characterization is not without merit is apparent in that it is not hard to find examples of what he has in mind. One is the following remark by Adolph Reed.

(T)he fact of the matter is that if you want to improve the social position of black americans, latino americans or non-whites the most effective way to do it, the biggest bang for the buck, would come from pursuing programs and goals that would enforce the economic well-being and security of the vast majority of working americans. Because not only (does) the vast majority of those non-white groups fall into the working class broadly construed but disproportionately so according to those who focus on racial disparity as a key metric of inequality. So that’s the only way to do it.

Another is from a Jacobin article by Sam Gindin cited by Frase, though not what would seem to be the most relevant passage:

“The alternative (to attempting to mobilize African-Americans as a particularly oppressed group) is to define racially coded inequality as part of a more general class inequality and mobilize the class as a whole around universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions. Only the latter approach would seem to hold out the potential to build political capacity for substantive reform and such reforms would, given the nature of existing inequalities, disproportionately support the African-American working class.”

Frase is correct to construe these strategic proposals as “doing away with race” provided they are understood in the following narrow sense: any left majority will need to be assembled from groups which could, if they choose to do so, define themselves as minorities. The left needs to provide a reason for why they should ally themselves with what will necessarily (based on demographic reality) be a white majority coalition advancing issues such as “universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions”. And they need to do so even when this means withholding their support from, indeed, opposing, for example, an African American leadership class, including the president and members of his administration, whose hostility to the left agenda is by now a matter of record.

If helping the left succeed in this way is “doing away with race”, Gindin and Reed provide a simple basis for why it makes sense to do so: it will benefit the great majority-including minorities and women disproportionately, which is to say what the coalition achieves will benefit them substantially more than it will benefit everyone else.

***

While the argument seems straightforward enough-not to mention plenty familiar-it is revealing that nowhere does Frase attempt to address, let alone answer it. Instead, his rebuttal consists largely of repackaging various elements of 90s social construct theorizing, among them the “current (of) discussion among radical feminists, . . . which sees the ultimate aim not as an equality between hypostatized essences but as eliminating the gender binary entirely.”

As Frase continues the old story, this “performance of gender could then become more fluid, playful, and theatrical, following the models set down by queer and transgender cultures.”

Of course, there would be nothing wrong and a great deal right in achieving the gender negationist utopia Frase describes. However, there would be nothing socialist-or even necessarily just or decent about it; to see why, all we need to do is imagine Mr. Burns in a skirt. Frase along with an alarming number of others on the left completely miss this obvious point: exploitation without discrimination is still exploitation. As a result of their conflation of opposition to discrimination with opposition to exploitation, the essence of their proposals amounts to a multiculturalist restatement of the underpants/gnome theory which here take the form 1) elimination of gender binary 2) ???? 3) expropriation of the expropriators.

Just as it is unclear what stroke of gnomic inspiration can derive profits from collecting underpants, it is hard to see what step 2) can link radical conceptions of gender performativity to nationalization of major industries, democratic control of the means of production, or the institution of a wealth tax.

The reason why Frase doesn’t attempt to argue for or even mention how 1) and 3) are to be connected may be due to there being no real connection to be had. As the economist Gary Becker has suggested, the meritocratic logic of neoliberalism is intrinsically hostile to all forms of arbitrary discrimination and by extension fully consonant with “the elimination of the gender binary.” If multiculturalism can be naturally achieved within neoliberalism, what purpose is served by attempting to show that it is a natural fit with socialism?

One of many indications of the harmonious combination of neoliberalism and multicultural diversity is the top prize “in workplace innovation” from the Human Rights Campaign having been awarded to Goldman Sachs for its creation of an LGBT friendly workplace. While Goldman is, needless to say, among the more odious capitalist institutions, most accounts of its hiring practices indicate a sincere commitment to recruit candidates who will serve as the most effective plunderers of the remaining assets of the 99%. By doing so, it shows that it fully accepts Becker’s logic that its shareholders’ interests in a maximum return of their investment derived from successful plunder would not be served by excluding candidates on the basis of their race, gender or sexual preference. Goldman’s policies in this respect are a special case of the general trend towards rainbow complected corporate boards far beyond that which left institutions have managed to achieve. All this is indicative of both how naturally multiculturalism can be accommodated and how cheaply multicultural credentials can be purchased by those with a prime claim to huge agglomerations of capital.

It should be noted that none of this has any bearing on Reed and Gindin’s argument. Rather it serves to show how the multicultural agenda can function as a smoke screen through which neoliberalism is legitimated and even accepted by some of its primary victims. Among these are African American communities who have suffered the largest drop in aggregate wealth in their recorded history, hemorrhaging rates of home foreclosures and continuing application and maintenance of the new Jim Crow system of incarceration. The administration’s continuing high approval ratings demonstrate the success of multiculturalism in obscuring the target which should be clearly in the sights of those most on the receiving end of its predations.

In addition to the smoke screen there is the offensive weapon of raising doubts as the sincerity of the left’s commitment to racial and gender equity. Frase offers a low-wattage recycling of this charge in his suggestion that “among intellectuals, appeals to class as the universal identity too often mask an attempt to universalize a particular identity, and exclude others.” Frase offers no evidence of attempts by intellectuals to “exclude” for the likely reason that very little exists. What possible objective, after all, would “exclusion” of any significant group serve those trying to build a mass movement? By reinforcing African American suspicions that they need to be continually on the look out for “masks” hiding an underlying racialist agenda Frase’s rhetoric is a close cousin to that of Obama apologists’ routine claim that any criticism of the current administration derives from white intellectuals threatened by “black faces in high places”.

If Glenn Greenwald is correct, a gendered variant of the same tactic is in the offing should Hillary Clinton receive the nomination. A debased, neoliberal feminism will be deployed to tar all criticism of Clinton’s policies and governance as sexist, to be followed in the sequence by a gay neoliberal Democratic nominee, protected by the inevitable charge of homophobia directed at his or her critics.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Jacobin itself has been one the receiving end of a particularly unpleasant form of weaponized identity politics, namely the charge that all males are implicated in perpetuating a “culture of rape” designed to silence and prevent women’s participation in the left. As Jacobin well knows, these smears, usually based on little to no evidence are highly effective at undermining and discrediting promising left institutions.

Frase and Jacobin should know better than most the damage which a debased multiculturalism inflicts when it is resurrected in a vampiric form. It’s high time that they, and we, began a more critical examination of its underlying premises.

Fighting (for) the Right to Party

Fighting (for) the Right to Party
Response to N+1, Issue 19 Editorial, “The Concert Hall”

When the left imagines the final expropriation of the expropriators, the soundtrack accompanying it might be folk, Motown, hip-hop, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, punk, Metallica, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Red Army Chorus, Bob Marley, Victor Jara, electronica or Crosby Still Nash and/or Young-all of these have been proposed at different times. Whatever we choose, it is a safe bet that it is not Beethoven string quartets or Bach trio sonatas.

Rather that is what the vile plutocrats themselves are listening to as the pitchfork wielding hordes mass outside of their bunkered compounds.

This is why, insofar as it is not seen as merely obtuse, expressing a preference for what is called classical, art or concert music over what used to be referred to as “popular” musical forms is viewed as potentially reactionary, an implicit defense of the privileged class which had financed the construction of the concert halls, hosted the salons, established systems of patronage and otherwise supported and promoted the art form over the generations.

In some of my recent articles I have tried to challenge or at least to add some nuance to this picture. I’m glad that the N+1 editors have taken notice and I’m also grateful that they have provided some subtle and erudite arguments agreeing with me that the conventional left wisdom on these matters is not as self-evident as is generally assumed.

Our agreement takes for granted several points of departure, among them the recognition that a dim view of musical high culture among the left is not a practical inevitability or a logical necessity. Indeed, as I argue in my piece “Nothing’s too Good for the Working Class” it is a relatively recent development. To take a few examples I cite there, in the past, one could assume some familiarity with what use to be called concert music warhorses such as Beethoven Symphonies, Mozart arias or Chopin Nocturnes, the basic themes of which would have been recognized by Marx or Lenin and are still by Stanley Aronowitz or Joel Kovel among others in their generational cohort. Similarly, while one rarely encounters classical music as a topic of conversation now, it was frequently at the IBEW Union Hall in Schenectady, NY, and at the ILGWU summer retreat Unity House. While few know the names of more than a two or three classical performers or composers this was not the case for what may have been hundreds or even thousands of students enrolled in music appreciation classes at the now forgotten but highly successful people’s schools sponsored by the Communist Party USA, including the Thomas Jefferson School for Social Science in New York City.

We also would probably agree that the left as it is now constituted would not regard this absence as something to despair-indeed they celebrate it. And they have some basis for their doing so, including that provided by Lawrence Levine’s influential Highbrow/Lowbrow, which depicts turn of the century elites developing the modern symphony orchestra and the codes of conduct associated with them as part of a broad effort to create appropriate habits of obedience, deference and respect for authority among a potentially restive working class. If classical music is finally dead, so the argument goes, we should be applauding just as much as we would the death of any other reactionary institution, whether it is the Heritage Foundation, the NRA or the Republican Party.

A third point of agreement is in recognizing that if the loss of authority and cultural prestige of the high arts and culture generally and classical music specifically is a defeat for social and political elites, it is an isolated and insignificant one: where it matters, their triumph is near total, with the 1% having managed to concentrate income share and wealth to a degree that would have been the envy of plutocrats of virtually any prior epoch. Along with this has been the near complete collapse of institutions by which the 99% had been able to exercise some degree of political influence, most notably unions as well other once powerful left wing constituencies both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

According to the logic assumed by the left, this is not what was not supposed to happen. Rather, the Dionysian energies of popular musical forms replacing the staid rituals of the concert hall were to be accompanied by analogous mass political movements overthrowing entrenched wealth, power and privilege and its accumulated social, cultural and economic capital. Alas, when the lights went on, it turned out the masses weren’t interested in pitch forks after all-the only right they were fighting for was the right to party. And they won. The codes of behavior associated with classical music are almost entirely reviled. As the N+1 editorial observes, almost everyone, including those who appreciate the music when it is experienced elsewhere, find the rituals of the concert hall oppressive at best–unbearable at worst.

The question raised by observing this set of facts is whether there is more than a random, frivolous connection between the death of hope for a decently functioning and minimally just society and the perennial pearl clutching topic of “the death of classical music.” In responding to critics of my Jacobin article The Last Symphony, I’ve attempted to argue that there is, or, more precisely, that it should be seen in a broader context in which the left consoles itself for “the absence of substantive achievements,” by “tak(ing) refuge in symbolism”, or more precisely, confusing symbolic victories for substantive gains. Other examples along these lines include that

“we have failed to make any difference in addressing the desperate conditions of indigenous peoples, but we have succeeded in changing of names of a couple of sports teams. We have done essentially nothing to prevent the largest drop in African American wealth in history over the past six years but we gladly take credit for and celebrate as one of our own the phenotypically African American president who presided over the carnage. A full one quarter of all African Americans rot in prison or on probation, but jazz (“black classical music”) has been granted a central place in music school curricula.”

Shifting the analytical focus, the same logic applies to one of the few compensations we receive for suffering under the imposition of austerity economics: our hearing a faint echo of what were once thought to be “revolutionary” aspirations in the deluge of commercial musical product marketed to and willingly (or unwillingly) consumed by us.

I’ll have more to say about this, but before I do, it’s worth considering going beyond noting this connection, that is, considering whether there is an element of causality linking the embrace of the cultural and artistic legacy of aristocratic/haute bourgeois high culture of a prior left with its relative success and, conversely, the rejection of these with our comparative failure.

Excavating the matter a bit more deeply, the N+1 editors may be on to something when, via Proust’s creation of the imaginary composer Vinteuil in Swann’s Way, they note that Swann in

listen(ing) to the whole piece—at last experiences it from beginning to end—his thoughts are freed from the prison of his self-reflection. He understands that the music he heard was not, as he once thought, like a perfume, or a caress, or any other sensual accompaniment, but an idea and event of its own . . . The music exceeds the frameworks in which it’s performed—which banalize it, strive to render it unlistenable—and yet survives intact.

Of course, as someone whose daily labors consist of helping students develop the aural and analytical skills necessary to internalize the intricate, composed structure of canonic masterpieces, I am sympathetic to the possibility that these generalize to a larger capacity to view the world critically. And I’m even sympathetic to the view associated with Adorno that this species of critical engagement is in some sense analogous to that required to make sense of, and ultimately issue a fundamental challenge to, the underlying structural logic of capitalism.

But that’s not the argument which I want to make here. Rather what I’ll defend is the more easily supported complementary proposition, namely, that the conventional left wisdom on these questions–viewing music as functioning primarily as an occasion for the liberated expression of primal, unreflective “collective joy,” the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets is by now all washed up. Rather than being a transition to politicized forms of mass uprising, the carnivalesque spectacles are dead ends, channeling what might find expression through political channels into narrowly personalized exercises in adolescent subjectivity–hence the connection with Swann.

This explains why it is now many years since anything even vaguely resembling a critical left political content has been allowed anywhere near mass popular culture, something I can attest to as a parent of a nine year old still willingly immersing himself in the warm bath which it provides. Bearing in mind that, purely as music, popular music is neither better or worse than it ever has been, it is also readily apparent that a song dealing with the content of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol”, “Four Dead in Ohio”, or “War: What is it Good For?” or even “Brother Can you Spare a Dime?” would never find its way past the corporate filters mediating the connection between musical production and mass consumption. Of course, as always, there is plenty of rebellion acted out in popular music, albeit in its most banal, adolescent, cynical and reactionary form of which the following is not atypical:

I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone.
I crashed my car into the bridge. I watched, I let it burn.
I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs.
I crashed my car into the bridge.

I don’t care, I love it.
I don’t care.

The notion that any kind of adversarial political culture will arise from popular music now seems a cruel joke-a mirror image of Swann’s trajectory from a critical awareness of objective musical content back into the most debased celebration of human subjectivity. Reduced to its barebones essence, what Swann learns from confronting the Vanteuil Sonata is that which teenagers (hopefully) learn when confronted with the pithy phrase “it’s not all about you.” Popular musical forms in their fully corporatized maturity serve as a high volume rejoinder to this recognition, smothering the expression of objective awareness, including that required for politicized mass action, constantly exhorting its targets to celebrate narcissistic self-absorption as the ne plus ultra of human experience.

At least, that is my opinion, one which I would not have been willing to advertise had it not been strongly reinforced by the dubious privilege of attending a live performance of the abovementioned contribution to the vocal music canon some weeks ago. It occurred, as it happens, in the context of a rock festival only a few miles from Woodstock, New York, just a few miles from the late Pete Seeger’s homestead. The Icono Pop duo, two comely young Swedes, took the stage inquiring of the mosh pit “How ya doing out there? Are you ready to party?” then proceeding to exhort their audience to “make some noise”, following it by a performance which, were it somewhat in-tune, would be indistinguishable from an aerobics routine. Unsurprisingly, this, compounded with high temperatures, lack of shade and a single water fountain servicing several thousands (bottled water was available-but for the extortionate price of $4.00),resulted in frequent calls to EMT crews to tend to sufferers of heat stroke. Kiosks representing loan refinancing, cosmetic dentistry, insurance company offices, car dealerships and, most conspicuously, recruitment outposts for all branches of the military service, lined the perimeter of the performance site. State Police, perfectly at home in this environment, threaded through the crowd scouring it for illegal substances, entirely unnecessary as a requirement for entry was submitting to a security patdown with anything other than a sealed eight ounce plastic water bottle subject to confiscation.

Suffice to say that Woody Guthrie, Country Joe Macdonald, John Lennon, or Gil Scott Heron would have soon discovered they had no business here, had they been allowed entry. As the truism goes, just we as individuals come to embody much of what we hated in our youth so too can the same be said of the legacy of the Woodstock generation in its hypercommercialized, reactionary dotage.

This, of course, raises the question of the new world waiting to be born, as the song goes. That is, what style or performance context will be able to articulate in musical terms the inevitable next wave-a tsunami, one hopes, of political dissent. I can’t say that I share the optimism of the N+1 editors that the ruins of the traditional classical canon be reconstructed to function as the foundation of the “fully enlightened human subjectivity” which they suggest it did in the past and can in the future. Nor am I optimistic, based on what I have heard, that works currently being composed within the remaining threads of what has become a stultifyingly self-aware art music tradition can sustain the level of engagement necessary for providing the necessary inspiration.

All that’s to say, as Tom Lehrer did about citizens of Pompeii, we should get used to crawling around in the rubble-both when it comes to political and musical culture. At the moment, while neither seems capable of supporting anything other than an increasingly decadent and unsustainable status quo, there is at least some basis for the hope that it will not always be thus.

Why the Left is Hopeless (bourgeois feminist edition)

Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communication at University of Illinois at Chicago Deidre McCloskey participating in Kathleen Geier’s excellent new colloquy, The Curve, in The Nation:

“What is not a feminist issue is raising the minimum wage to, say, Seattle’s $15.00, since it is women, and especially women of color, who will be first to be shown the door—or, silently, not hired in the first place. And I don’t see dumping on Hillary Clinton as a good idea. She is at present likely to become president. Do we really want to be seen as opposed to the first woman president on account of her imperfect feminist purity?”

Here’s where McCloskey is right: Raising the minimum wage is self-evidently not a feminist issue since it is about raising wages for ALL low wage workers. But notice how she contradicts herself: her claim is that it IS a feminist issue since, according to her, it will disproportionately disadvantage women.

It is likely that the opposite is true: the $15 minimum wage will proportionately benefit low wage women workers. But it is obvious that she doesn’t care one iota about this demographic: for her feminism is primarily about “breaking the glass ceiling”, promoting nongendered access to positions of extreme wealth, power and privilege, hence the single minded obsession with electing Clinton.

This is not my fight to engage in as I don’t consider myself a feminist-at least insofar as the term now means what we used to call “bourgeois feminism” represented, as we see above, in the pages of The Nation and, for that matter across the board of the establishment left.

I would love to be proven wrong about this. If I am, those who consider themselves feminists will need to reclaim feminism from those such as McCloskey who have often succeeded in redefining it as an adjunct of neoliberalism-fully compatible with the bipartisan austerity agenda.

That’s a strategic objective around which I can offer one bit of advice: writing and promoting books about “mansplaining” won’t be the slightest help in achieving it.

Of course, this advice is sure to be dismissed out of hand insofar as it is not entirely ignored.

Yet another indication of how profoundly unserious the left has become through having allowed itself to be defined itself by a depoliticized multiculturalism accommodating itself to the neoliberal state, as McCloskey’s remarks nicely demonstrates.

The Left is Hopeless, installment 7,329

A tweet from journalist Allison Kilkenny-who has done some good work over the years.

“Key to success: Be old and white and male and make decisions that kill lots of poor brown people.”

So let’s see, the guy who’s signing off on the drone attacks is middle aged and black, his U.N. ambassador justifying them a middle-aged, black female, the previous secretary of state responsible for massive death and destruction was a white female, preceded by a black middle aged female etc. In short, killing poor brown people is an equal opportunity employer.
It has been for a long time. Those who own and operate the political system love it when they can find young fresh faces-especially black and female ones-to do their business for them.

Why can’t we wake up to that fact?

Essays on politics, music and culture.