Sunday, December 02, 2007

I've been uptight and made a mess...

Another voice joins the chorus of those bothered by my (among others) criticism of Gustavo Dudamel, his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and the media fervor over the same (in addition to the Chávez government).

Darcy James Argue once had this to say, in the comments section of Mr. Guerrieri's post, which I dealt with below, beforehand, I should note, he called this "intemperate," (no kidding)
Thanks for this. It has been, frankly, depressing to see so many in Classical Blogdonia make transparently... (I'm afraid there is no other word) retarded arguments, holding Dudamel and the SBYO to standards of conduct not observed by any other artist in the history of mankind.

So fine -- while we're at it, let's ream out Duke Ellington for not publicly denouncing American apartheid while touring on the State Department's dime. Because Duke was a big fucking hypocrite for acting as the cultural ambassador for a nation that systematically surpressed the rights of hs people... is that how we're rolling now?

And are the people criticizing Dudamel and the SBYO really so stupid that they cannot wrap their minds around the idea of being proud of your country while being perhaps somewhat ambivilent about your government? I don't think so. Instead, I think those people are making the kind of self-evidently moronic bad-faith arguments that would make Fox News producers blush.
Fair enough. I do trust that Mr. Argue, though, is aware that Wilhelm Furtwängler was subjected to and made to account to similarly high standards of conduct, standards that pretty well train-wrecked his career (more so in the United States than in Europe) from 1945 to his death in 1954. Would I compare a tin-pot Latin American strongman and his grasping ambitions to an organization on the shortlist for "most evil of all time," though such senseless measuring ignores the inconceivable human toll of such an organization (Viz. Günter Grass' Im Krebsgang)? Probably not. But to say that no one has been held to similar standards is, and I am sorry to be so blunt, just not entirely accurate. No one who stays, so to speak, can live up to the standards. Why? Because staying is the problem. Leaving is the only choice for people confronted by such situations, regardless of what they leave behind when they leave. If Furtwängler's argument that he stayed to save culture for those who needed it most didn't hold cultural water, even if the denazification tribunal found it acceptable, then why should any similar argument hold?

In direct response to Mr. Argue's comment, though, I have this to say: So what? I certainly don't see much ambivalence coming out of the SBYO. The only argument is that they could be wearing their national colors in the same spirit as the protesters who wave the Venezuelan flag. You can be ambivalent about your government and still love your country, God knows I'm walking proof of that much, but you first have to be ambivalent about your government. That means doing something about it. Simple, I know, and I wouldn't have thought such a statement necessary before becoming a bit-player in this blogoconflict.

Now, I further suppose that I am just making more "self-evidently moronic bad-faith arguments that would make Fox News producers blush" by answering Mr. Argue's latest post, but I am apparently self-evidently a moron, so I don't feel too bad about that. How could I? In the course of his critique, he had this to say,

Have any of the critics and bloggers writing about the Kirov Orchestra's current tour mentioned how they are troubled by Gergiev's "direct line" to Putin? (Especially given the farce of a Russian election currently underway?) Has anyone asserted: "Supporting [Gergiev], his [Kirov] orchestra, and other [Russian] cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship"?

Anyone? Anyone?

I do not like to play the "if you are outraged about this, why aren't you outraged about that" game. But in this case, the parallel is too clear and the double standard too glaring to let pass without comment.
I do so assert as of this moment, since Mr. Argue is quoting me. I am personally more worried about Putin resurrecting the Soviet empire and saying nice things about Stalin than anything a puffed-up, self-important potentate (who wouldn't be at square one if not for his oil money) being just as undemocratic. Indeed, Putin's decision to seek the premiership after his presidency ends is likely the first tolling of the death knell of Russian democracy. In this weekend's Wall Street Journal, the centerpiece article "Gorby's Choice" wonders in the subhead, "He brought democracy to Russia. So why is he backing Putin, the man undoing his legacy?"

I could answer this in a broader context of Russian nationalism, which - in the modern era - was institutionalized by Stalin, despite being a Georgian and surrounded by Georgian retainers, who allowed Mikhail "Papa" Kalinin to serve as president of the Soviet Union, since it was necessary to appease the nationalist tendencies of Russia, despite the cosmopolitan trends of Marxism-Leninism. What's more, Stalin's Russian nationalism became stronger and more virulent (Doctors' Plot, anyone? The Anti-Semitic Purges ring a bell?) after 1945. Putin seems to have focused on and tapped into that nationalism, which inclines most rank-and-file Russians to support him, even as he tank-parades back to the glory days of Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Suslov.

I digress.

Mr. Argue is bothered by a double standard. I don't see a double standard at work here. No one is hauling the Kirov around, which makes a strongly pro-Soviet (and not just run-of-the-mill Soviet: hardcore, brutally repressive, and genocidal Stalinist) statement with its name, by the way, and touting it as a good thing. No one is arguing that the Kirov is somehow a force for social good and proof that musical education works. No one, no matter how benighted, holds the Kirov up as evidence that Russia is doing something right. Where's the problem? There is a problem with Moscow, Gergiev's relationship with Putin, and what's happening in Russia today, but it's a different problem on one level than Dudamel and the SBYO.

Arguing that Chávez and his regime, of which Dudamel and his band are unquestionably part and for which they are cultural representatives, is not as bad as Putin is specious. It's a big "So what?" Any assertions about Putin and Gergiev have no bearing on any assertions about Dudamel and Chávez. They might be the same assertions, but that does not imply that the boundaries are not closed. Conflating the two questions is part of a bigger argument that no one seems to want to have, but to which many seem to want to allude: What is the moral duty of an artist in a repressive regime? I've made my answer, and I apply it equally.

I see the defenses of Dudamel et al. as being based on the emotional aspect of El Sistema: Chávez is bad, true, but children are getting a chance, so how bad is he? The other option is that folks aren't all that bothered by what's happening in Venezuela, which option is so egregious that I wouldn't dream of imputing it to anyone. I'll just assume that the first option is the rationale at work. My logic, below, still holds. You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It's just that simple. You can't do it with Putin, either, but I don't see that argument made.


At 9:52 PM, Blogger DJA said...

You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It's just that simple.

Only if you have a completely binary world view that admits only "good" and "bad" -- not even degrees of goodness and badness.

And, I might add, only if you accept that El Sistema is "part of the Chávez regime" -- when in fact it was founded in 1975 and has been funded by every Venezuelan government since, left and the right.

Look -- I am glad to hear that you are not turning a blind eye to what Putin is up to in Russia. He is a very nasty piece of work and his actions are not just bad for the citizens of Russia, they are bad for the world. That said, even I would not claim, against the facts, that Putin has done no good as president, or that no aspects of everyday life in Russia have improved under his watch. That's simply not the case. Putin is bad because if you work the utility calculus, the bad very much outweighs the good.

That's true of Chávez as well, albeit to a lesser extent. (For instance, from all accounts I've seen so far, the current Venezuelan referendum has been free and fair.) This may not matter to you -- it certainly matters to me. So I have no problem believing that El Sistema is a worthy program, and Chávez deserves a certain amount of credit for continuing to support it. Do I think that support in any way makes up for his authoritarian maneuvers? Of course not. But El Sistema was around long before Chavez and will persist long after he's gone.

As for your point that "[n]o one is arguing that the Kirov is somehow a force for social good," that may be true, but the fact remains that no one (that I've seen) is holding it or Gergiev up to anything remotely like the kind of scrutiny that Dudamel and the SBYO have received. In fact, as I mentioned in my post, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra website touts Gergiev's closeness to Putin as a good thing. I've not seen anyone, anywhere, ask Gergiev how he feels about his good friend Putin's profoundly antidemocratic regime.

No one who stays, so to speak, can live up to the standards.

Just so we're clear -- this can't really be what you are suggesting Duke Ellington and other African-American artists ought to have done during the years of American apartheid. Leave the country? Seriously?

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

Believe it or not, when dealing in logic, you have the Law of the Excluded Middle (and the Law of Non-Contradiction, but that is another issue, though related). Something cannot be both A and not-A at the same time. It is either A or it is not-A. That's just how it works, and even something done out of love cannot be done beyond logic.

The argument that El Sistema is not part of the Chávez regime does not hold water for precisely the same reason you outlined: it's funded by his government. It might have and was funded by every preceding government since 1975, but that does not make any difference.

I just don't see your double standard. The Kirov is another band and Gergiev another conductor. He is not the (overhyped) wonder-boy of the age, and his band is not held up as a shining point of light for the regime. He might be too close to Putin and he might have worrying political views, but that's another issue entirely. Dudamel merits strict scrutiny because of how is being used (or letting himself be used) and the implications frequently made about his background in El Sistema. When you use something for a broader cultural or political point, then you trigger scrutiny of that cultural or political context.

That having been said, this is ultimately the point-at-issue: can you separate a good program from an odious regime? By the rules of logic and formal proof, you cannot do so without invalidating the "odious regime" assumption. Once you've done that, then there is no problem. Indeed, there should be no issue with asserting both Regime X and Program Y are good. You proved it. If you want to proceed in some non-logical fashion then, I suppose, the rules don't apply.

As to Duke Ellington: Anyone who is good on some level enough to be a cultural ambassador (i.e., to represent what is best about the life of the mind and soul in the United States), but not good enough to be a full citizen should leave the country, if for nothing else, then as a protest at his or her unconscionable treatment. That goes for anyone in such a position, for - believe it or not - there are American apartheids going on to this very day.

At 11:52 PM, Blogger DJA said...

I'm utterly unpersuaded by your argument, which is circular: "Anything a bad regime does is bad because it's axiomatic that a bad regime can't do anything good."

Bad people -- and bad governments -- sometimes do good things. If you're not even willing to admit that much, well...

At 12:21 AM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

That is not my argument, which you are welcome to find unpersuasive. Here it is, though I outline it more for the record than to make any effort at convincing anyone.

Axioms: The Law of Non-Contradiction. The Law of the Excluded Middle.

1. Assume Regime X is bad.
2. Assume Program Y is part of Regime X.
3. Program Y is indisputably good.
4. Part of Regime X is indisputably good.
5. Contradiction. Therefore, Regime X is not-bad, which - since we are following our axioms - means that Regime X is good. QED

You are welcome to reject some or all of that, but let's not act as though we're proceeding rationally if any one of us does. All I am doing is showing that the assumption is wrong, since it was contradicted in the argument. If one is not prepared to accept the consequences of the contradiction, then one should reconsider the either the premises or the argument. It is not an intractable problem: Either Chávez is better than one would think, or El Sistema is worse. Not difficult by a long shot. You can't have it both ways and pretend to have a rational basis for doing so.

At 12:43 AM, Blogger DJA said...

You are the one playing fast and loose with both of your assumed premises. You need to show your work.

1. Assume [the Bush government] is bad.
2. Assume [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] is part of [the Bush government].
3. [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]is indisputably good.
4. Part of [the Bush government] is indisputably good.
5. Contradiction? So you assert.

Don't patronize me with your claim to have cornered the market on rationality. I'm a utilitarian. I'm not interested in your black-and-white all-or-nothing deontology. That's Randian crazy-talk.

At 1:14 AM, Blogger Patrick J. Smith said...

You can disagree with my premises, but that more or less bifurcates the discussion, since we cannot agree on the premises.

You can be interested in outcomes of actions more than actions themselves, which is fine, I suppose. That is another issue that bifurcates the discussion.

The utilitarian argument in this case, working against a deontological argument, arrives at much the same place: they don't even agree on premises, so they cannot coexist.

While this digression into formal logic and proof has been scintillating, I am forming the impression that the camps in re Dudamel are intractably and almost necessarily opposed. They are, I think, opposed on the broader framework that we have outlined here. That's fine, I suppose, too; it then becomes an issue for history to sort out and allow the final judgment to be made.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger daland said...

As I wrote recently in a comment to the Soho-the-dog blog, I'm not a Chavez supporter.

But when a referendum, decided by the dictator-to-be, ends officially with his defeat by 50.71 vs 49.29... this means that democracy is holding firm and that Chavez is far from being that dictator that many depict.

Remember: few thousands NO that any Florida-like-system could have turned into YES!

At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am still not very convinced of Gustavo Dudamel's interpretations as a conductor. I find his performances superficial, shallow, brusque and exaggerated. That Mr. Dudamel may have good talents as a conductor I will not deny. And his repertory is limited to a few "big blockbuster" works like Beethoven's Fifth, Tchaikovsky's Fifth also and some Mahler. Can he conduct Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, more Mahler including his "Das Lied von der Erde", Schoenberg and others? Good conductors take decades to develope. Leonard Bernstein started to conduct with better acclaim when he was in his forties. The same Karajan and Solti. Solti himself once said that a conductor must start in the bottom, mostly as assistant in opera houses to gain experience. Dudamel is still young. And maybe we won't know for sure how good is he until two decades later. For me he is only "show" and nothing else.

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