Saturday, November 30, 2019

Rod Dreher gets around to reading stuff at the World Socialist Web Site and discovers that left and liberal are not exactly the same, by way of WSWS critiques of the NYT 1619 project

One of the things I've noticed as I've read political commentary and economic coverage of issues in the last ten to fifteen years is, to put things in a brief, axiomatic way, liberals, progressives and leftists are not the same.  To translate that for conservative readers, it's dubious, historically inaccurate and intellectually specious to regard everyone to the "left" of you as Marxist.  Not all forms of socialist thought necessarily derived or derive from Marxism, for instance.  The United States didn't exactly have problems backing socialist groups in Europe provided those groups were not explicitly or implicitly Marxist about it.   The mirror of such an axiom would be that for those who regard themselves as liberal, it would not be historically accurate or intellectually consistent to say that anyone to the "right" of a liberal position, whether neoliberalism or progressive or left, is "fascist".  Authoritarian tendencies and temptations have emerged across the entire spectrum of human ideas and it would be hard to make a compelling longform case that amounts to a no true Scotsman that if one embraces the correct doctrinal/dogmatic/ideological stance the faintest possibility of tyranny is gone.

In a technocratic age such as ours we should not even go so far as to act as if the forms oppression can take will be directly and explicitly political.  The age of the dictator is perhaps the age of mass media before the age of social media, in which technocratic forms of control can be masked.

So, with that out of the way, or on the proverbial table, Rod Dreher has come across leftist, socialist writers who object to the simplistic racialized counter-mythology of racism as a prescribed corrective to an older Founding Fathers account of the American experiment.

I restricted myself to expressing concerns that the NYT 1619 project piece by Wesley Morris seemed to define African diaspora music more in terms of African American popular music that postdates the development of mechanical recording and the commercial music industry.  The trouble with presenting a story, and it's a story more than an explicit argument, that black music (of the American variety) represents freedom is that it doesn't.  My friend from Nagasaki considered blues too formulaic to relate to it but did appreciate jazz.  What's more, Morris' essay functionally skipped over, as if they never existed, contributions by Joseph Bologne or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and other Afro-European composers whose work are getting some renewed consideration.  If the NYT 1619 project were moving beyond a simplified counter-mythology that presented racism as the lodestar or touchstone of all things American setting up a contrast between classical music as "white" and American popular music as "black" in which the entire range of concert music practices that includes contributions from William Levi Dawson, William Grant Still, Florence Price, and by way of canonization the ragtimes of Scott Joplin might have been avoided.

To put this more sharply, if one sets out goals of racial purity narratives or successful integration and miscegnation in social terms it's not exactly clear the NYT 1619 started off on the best footing.  Conservative reactions tended to denounce the 1619 project in ways that set them up to be dismissed as racists.  Dreher has figured out that if criticism of the historical misrepresentations of projects like the NYT 1619 project get made from the left it is more difficult for those criticisms to be dismissed as racism, although that dismissal can be made anyway.

Dale Cockrell's books on the evolution of minstrelsy as street level or working class theater as distinct from middle class and highbrow theater have a couple of sharp polemical points that I would have to guess have been discussed and debated since Everybody's Doin' It came out earlier this year.  It's more pointed in Demons of Disorder from the 1990s, but Cockrell has made a case that at the lowest rungs of society, in dance halls and dives and visiting brothels that racial segregation was not as valued as it was in middle and upper class rungs of society.  Laws against racial amalgamation were on the books in many places and there were cases in which whites and blacks marrying each other ended up being cases where judges passed down sentences and, to keep my summary of Cockrell's work brief, working class men and women kept crossing the color lines the laws said weren't supposed to be crossed.  Cockrell flipped the script, arguing that the racism was being imposed by the institutional taste-makers and figures who controlled media and legal systems from above rather than reflecting groundswells of uneducated racial animus.  To translate Cockrell's point still further, he's made a claim that the racists are the ones selling upscale respectable art and history and not the people down in the wage slave or plantation dumps who might only be recorded in local newspapers if they got arrested for something.

It's the kind of thing I have been thinking about remembering Wesley Morris writing about sometimes wistfully wishing there was something about black music so pure and raw that no one could steal it.  I'm ultimately not sympathetic to that kind of view just as I'm not at all sympathetic to any variation of view that says there's something so profound and deep about Beethoven's piano sonatas that there's nothing in that that could be realized by starting with gestures you could hear in blues guitar or ragtime or any number of gestures from popular styles, whatever the skin color of the practitioners, that have permeated American popular musical life. 

I might take a step further and propose that white liberals have a lot riding on the power of a myth that claims that black music has some ineffable blackness to it that defies working by "the rules" of Western notational conventions.  That sounds cool to people who are defending a conception of black music that somehow "can't" fit into the conventions of concert music as it developed in Western music but that's not going to convince me that George Walker's five piano sonatas somehow don't fit into the classical tradition.  Walker went much of his life being asked if he played jazz.  His piano sonatas don't sound like jazz.  By contrast, the composer Nikolai Kapustin made a point of drawing inspiration from jazz giants like Tatum and Peterson alongside Scriabin and Russian composers to arrive at a synthesis of the musical style and vocabulary of jazz with the formal developmental processes of concert music.  Kapustin has denied decade after decade he plays jazz but he's not ashamed to say he's drawn inspiration from jazz.

I've been hammering this point for a few years now, but attempts to develop a practical fusion of what scholars are calling African diaspora music with what are called Western European concert music forms and traditions has been going on in earnest in the East and West since the dawn of the Cold War.  It was not just Jimi Hendrix who aspired to develop a Bach, Handel, Muddy Waters flamenco type sound, even if Hendrix distilled the hope and dream of such a sound most succinctly in the last century.

The trouble is, as I see it, is that there are purity police writers on both sides of the "high" and "low" divides and on the "classical" and "pop" divides who have an interest in playing these categories off of each other.  People who are into pop songs have an interest in presenting sonata forms as something incommensurate with the expression or "soul" they find in songs and people into sonata forms as they were perceived in theoretical and formal terms in the last two centuries within the western European concert music traditions were defined in ways that defined them by front-loading formal aspects and passing over the ways in which processes of development could be shown to be guided by the nature of the materials used.  To invoke Adorno, Americans misrepresented Haydn as having standardized sonata forms when he crystallized a way of working with musical gestures.  Adorno's great mistake was thinking that Haydn's way of working with musical gestures couldn't be used on jazz standards and his mistake has been one largely taken up and parroted by artistic and cultural conservatives who retained is polemics against popular song as art and merely subtracted the Marxist aspect from those polemics.

So, anyway, looks like Dreher has managed to read some stuff at and worked out that there are differences between liberal, left and progressive perspectives ... maybe ... for a bit.  We'll see if he remembers this in a couple of weeks, though.  Journalists can be so in the news cycle moment of things.  There's an axiom among soldiers that when a crisis hits you revert to training, which is why training to handle crises sensibly and responsibly is important.  Not that I've ever been a soldier but I have had enough friends and family who have served in my lifetime I've heard some of the things that are shared in military life.  One of those axioms is that you shouldn't worry about the bullet with your name on it as much as the one labeled "to whom it may concern".  Well, that digression is to say that a journalist like Dreher and other journalists may "default to training" when it comes to attending to news cycle and news peg level events.  Sometimes you need to back away from the news cycle/news peg level of events to gain enough time and distance to think about higher levels of social or organizational or cultural change.  I don't get a sense, to be plain, Dreher is necessarily the kind of writer who does that, which is why he may be more interesting for hot takes that keep up with news peg/news cycle events than for analyses of what those moments may mean.

So ...

Leftists Attack The ‘1619 Project’

and he was a bit more roundabout mentioning the interviews he read than I intend to be.

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