Saturday, December 01, 2007


I was totally unaware that my comments on President Chávez, Mr. Dudamel, and the rest of that had sparked some controversy.

Until today, when I read this post from Alex Ross, which linked to this post from Matthew Guerrieri's Soho the Dog. Mr. Guerrieri lays down this challenge, which Pliable has answered,
In fact, it's that pose of vague uneasiness that bugs me. For all the delicacy of the political situation in Venezuela, and El Sistema's place in it, the calculus here is not really all that complicated. Do you think the mission and accomplishments of El Sistema are worthwhile? Worthwhile enough to justify Abreu and Dudamel playing nice with Chávez while they cast their net for less fraught, more diversified institutional and financial support? Or is Chávez so awful that reliance on his government is a taint that renders El Sistema's educational achievements worthless? The association benefits Chávez, to a certain extent—but it also benefits 250,000 other Venezuelans, and I would say those benefits are far more real and long-lasting. That's my opinion; yours may be the opposite. But as various constituencies begin to try and replicate the System's model in the U.S. and Europe, I think it's time to actually have an opinion, rather than furrowing one's brow and murmuring inconclusively.
Here is my answer, which I will frame in terms of Mr. Guerrieri's "two salient points,"

First, El Sistema predates Chávez, as pretty much anyone in the position of defending Dudamel et al. will note. Granted. Does that, then, imply some sort of insularity from Chávez' regime and what is going on in Venezuela? If it does, well, that pretty much does my argument in as far as even I am concerned. If it is as isolated and insular as argued, then the regime in power makes no difference. If not, then there is a linkage there that cannot be ignored. Mr. Guerrieri answers my question for me,
So what exactly should Dudamel and Abreu do differently? The orchestra isn't a self-contained touring ensemble, they're the representatives of the entire system, a system that still gets the vast bulk of its funding from the Venezuelan government. When Chávez comes calling, and asks you to record the national anthem for state TV, what do you do? Jeopardize the entire program in order to express your displeasure? [bold mine - PJS]
That is what they call a close and substantial relationship, and it goes a good distance to showing that there isn't enough distance between the regime and the group. Why should this matter? Simple: if start excerpting parts of an otherwise-unpleasant regime, where does one draw the line? Can one even draw a line? In my mind, it's roughly akin to saying "[Pick a historically odious regime] wasn't all bad, as they did [pick a not-bad program]." Think about it. Do a proof by contradiction: assume regime X is bad and that "not bad" is equivalent to "good," from the Law of the Excluded Middle; program Y, which is a part of regime X, is not bad; therefore, our assumption must be wrong, so regime X is good.

I am not at all prepared to call any of a whole host of governments around the world "good," and I am equally not prepared to accept any logic that forces me to do so.

As to Mr. Guerrieri's second salient point, I sort of slid into it toward the end of the above argument. Now, before I am taken to task as insensitive, ignorant, or whatever else anyone can and might call me for that, let me say this (the self-defense part): Do I believe that President Chávez has done what he can to pervert this organization and make it serve his own ends? I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me. Such projects make otherwise reprehensible characters look almost decent. As long as he is allowed, from necessity or otherwise, to use such a program to serve as a PR face to a regime, whatever good is done by the program is abrogated. I will answer the question directly: As long as it is used to put a happier face on a regime with a troubling program, it doesn't help anyone. Least of all 250,000 Venezuelans who are getting an education so a near-dictator can look a little better in the United States and Europe.

What do I know, however? Only history can show if I saw through the smiles or if I was just a paranoid reactionary, ready to indict innocents for imagined crimes at a moment's notice. I know what I think, and I know what I see; using Art Garfunkel's words, "and that's all I know."


At 9:03 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

As long as it is used to put a happier face on a regime with a troubling program, it doesn't help anyone. Least of all 250,000 Venezuelans who are getting an education so a near-dictator can look a little better in the United States and Europe.

Educating 250,000 Venezuelans doesn't help them? That puts an awfully low premium on the value of education to help build the long-term health of a democratic society. For the record, I was not attempting to argue that El Sistema is already insulated from the Chávez administration, I was suggesting that the touring and hype, which you categorize as propaganda, was in fact a good strategy to create such insulation. And I would argue that this sort of constructive activity does far more good in the long run than would be done by Abreu or Dudamel antagonizing Chávez and jeopardizing the program. (Here's a thought experiment: in order to protest a current administration, a local U.S. school board refuses federal education funding, even though it results in children—who didn't vote, by the way—getting a poorer-quality education. An effective protest? Maybe. A responsible one? I would say, especially in the long run, no. Finding additional funding so the board isn't put in the position of having to make that decision? Now we're getting somewhere.)

Simple: if [we] start excerpting parts of an otherwise-unpleasant regime, where does one draw the line? Can one even draw a line?

Yes, you can. It's called recognizing that the world is a complicated place, and there's very little in it that's an unalloyed good or an unalloyed bad. The current extremist-driven world mess is a direct result of people running away from that compexity with their hands over their ears rather than engaging it and doing their best to come to some conclusion about it. It's called a moral compass:360 degrees, not just backwards and forwards.

I hate all-or-nothing thinking, because, at it's core, it's based on fear: we can't praise the SBYO because it might let some of that Chávista evil in the door with it! It's unstoppable! There's no cure! That's ridiculous. If you have a clear sense of good and bad, you can celebrate the former without validating the latter. I mean, surely we Wagnerites have mastered that skill.

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Lane Savant said...

Yeah, theres a mote in Venezuela's eye.
Whence comes money for our big time orchestras?
I second Soho's dig about Wagnerites.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

I, too, appreciate Mr. Guerrieri's dig about Wagnerites. Of course, the title of my blog might indicate that I am personally ambivalent about it. Indeed, such ambivalence was a major part of my choosing that title. That having been said, I still don't see any concrete evidence - other than recording contracts, the terms of which I don't know, and touring - that Dudamel et al. are somehow protesting Chávez. The lack of the positive doesn't prove the negative, so we're in the realm of interpretation here, and I just find the less subversively positive interpretation somewhat more appealing, all told.

As to letting Chávista evil in the door, which seems less likely now after the referendum, if Chávez would adopt some more liberal, progressive, and less-authoritarian methods to implement his Bolivarian socialism, I would be among the first to say that the third way had finally been reached. The methods are the problem; not the goals.

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