Monday, October 25, 2010

The Rope Business

I have just learned that the Washington Post columnist Juan Williams has been fired by National Public Radio. This was done, apparently, because he regularly appears on Fox News, and because he dares to present less-than-far-left views in public. The official of NPR who fired him has said, according to reports, that Williams needs psychiatric care. This sent a chill down my spine.

I did Russian Studies in college and I was for some time a student of the old Soviet Union. Towards its final days, officials in the USSR were in the habit of condemning dissidents to psychiatric institutions on the grounds that anyone who openly disagreed with soviet communism must be insane. Indeed, they maintained that dissension in the USSR was de facto evidence of mental illness. And so we saw leading dissents such as Vladimir Bukovsky and Leonid Plyushch condemned to the silent nightmare torture of the mental institution simply because they dared to disagree with the prevailing ideology. At the time this reminded me, and I wrote of the fact, that such behavior was characteristic of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition, which declared that heresy was proof of demonic possession. Though the theories behind the two systems differed, their methods did not.

When I was a student at the Paris Film Conservatory in the late 70s, I had the privilege of meeting Bukovsky and Plyushch, and I can assert with confidence that they were not insane, despite what the soviet authorities and their servile psychiatrists declared. They were, in fact, erudite, passionate, and open-minded political, artistic and social thinkers who had the courage not only to form independent views, but to express them in a public way. Now, it seems, their example has been followed lamentably in our own country by Juan Williams and NPR.

NPR, which is supported by taxpayer money, has declared Williams to be mentally ill because of his political views. The irony, of course, is that his views, though voiced on Fox News, remain unabashedly leftist, though clearly not so far left as NPR requires. That our taxpayer dollars can be used to censor and malign an honest, sincere, and well-respected journalist is an index of how far out of touch the mainstream media is with the basic decency of the American public. I do not often agree with what Juan Williams says, but in the spirit of Voltaire I will defend to the death his right to say it. That, in my understanding, is the American way.

It is not, evidently, the way of National Public Radio. A recent survey has shown that there is not a single conservative commentator on NPR, and even such a liberal spokesman as Williams has been cast into exile for having the audacity to voice opinions not sufficiently far to the left, and to appear on Fox News. But not content to fire him, the officials at NPR have felt it necessary to declare him mentally incompetent for having insufficiently espoused their prevailing ideology. This is Stalinist behavior - this is the antithesis of what America stands for, and it is what we fought a sixty-year-long Cold War against sovietism to defeat.

But it seems that the Bolshevist spirit is alive at NPR, and that our taxpayer dollars are paying for it. Lenin said that when the communists are ready to hang the capitalists, the capitalists will sell them the rope. NPR is now firmly in the rope business.

Unreal Time

I recently heard Bill Maher on Larry King's show ranting about the Tea Party. He was spewing the usual hate: that Tea Party members are buffoons who have crawled out of the backwaters onto the national stage, that they are reactionaries, retrogrades; racists with little education and less political acumen. As I was listening, I began to wonder what he might have said about earlier backwoods upstarts.

Imagine now that it is 1860; America is at a crossroads, disaster looms, and so do elections. And imagine that Maher is being interviewed on a proto-television show by a mid-19th century Larry King...

King: There's a lot of talk about a fellow named Abe Lincoln running for president on the Republican ticket--

Maher: Oh, come on! Who can take that stovepipe shyster seriously?!

King: Evidently the Republicans can--

Maher: Well, that should tell you something. I mean, he's a perfect fit for them, isn't he? This guy spent so little time in school, he mistook the back of a shovel for a copybook. The only book he ever read was the Bible and he thought it was a history book. I mean, do you really want a president who thinks that a slide rule is something you post on a playground?

King: Are you saying he's ignorant?

Maher: Ignorant? Hellloooo?! He didn't even graduate from grade school! He tried to get a GED because he thought it meant Get Even Dumber. Just look at the guy -- those gangly arms, that droop-eyed expression, that rag of black hair -- he looks like an anorexic gorilla on a banana binge. And he must be, what?, eight feet tall. I'd say he couldn't play basketball 'cause he's white, but have you seen him? His skin is green! He's got some kind of disease; probably whatever was killing off the elm trees in Sangamon County when he was born.

King: Folks say he's a good orator--

Maher: Come on, Larry! Have you ever heard him speak? His accent is so thick you could put it on your hoecakes - if you ate hoecakes, which I don't but I'm sure he does. He doesn't seem to know any words of more than two syllables, and his voice -- well, all I can say is I've heard asthma attacks that sound better than he does. I mean, Larry... the guy should be running the Hicksville horse and buzzard show, not running for president.

King: What about his views on slavery--?

Maher: Oh, come on! He says right out in public that the Southerners have the Constitutional right to keep their slaves! And that the Congress has no right to take them away!

King: Isn't he legally correct on that, Bill? I mean, the Constitution--

Maher: Who cares if he's legally correct?! Slavery is morally wrong, so what difference does it make what the Constitution says? If a president feels like something's unfair and the Constitution stands in the way, then he should have the power to say damn the Constitution. If Horace Greeley were president - which he should be - he'd go right in and take those slaves away and to hell with the Constitution! Lincoln clings to the Constitution like it was one of his split rails in a Mississippi flood.

King: But Lincoln agrees with you that slavery is a moral issue, doesn't he? Hasn't he said so all along?

Maher: Yeah, but have you heard why he says it? I mean, have you heard what he says about religion? Come on! This guy actually believes that God is involved in running the country's affairs. That God manages things like some Georgia plantation owner. And by the way, those Georgia peanut guys are doing a heckuva lot better job with their slaves than God is doing with his.

King: So you don't accept Lincoln's views on religion in public life--?

Maher: Come on, Larry, what are we talking about here?! It's the middle of the 19th century. I mean, sure, if you think that medieval superstition is a valid political point of view, then I guess I'd have to agree. Look, this Lincompoop character comes straight from the backwoods, right outta some hick town in Kentucky. I mean, he was born in a log cabin that had hot-and-cold running inbreeds. He gives bumpkins a bad name. What else would you expect?

King: He has a lot of political experience--

Maher: If you call two terms in the House a lot, yeah! And remember, he wasn't even re-elected in his own district. I mean, even the boonies turned against him. He lost to Steve Douglas for Senate after people heard him try to debate. Debate? It was more like sedate; I mean, I couldn't keep my eyes open. The only government job he was qualified for was postmaster in his hometown, where half the people couldn't read and the other half thought a stamp was something you did to a roach. And that wife of his... have you seen that broad?

King: Mary Todd--

Maher: Mary Odd, if you ask me. Built like a whale and spends like the sailor that harpooned her. And she's a Southerner! Are we really gonna elect as president a man who's married to some shiksie from Dixie? Her family probably sold ice skates to Simon Legree.

King: Do I get that you're suggesting Lincoln is Jewish?

Maher: C'mon, Larry...anybody named Abraham... I mean, draw your own conclusions.

King: So you don't think Lincoln should be elected?

Maher: Look, Larry, I think the minimum qualification for president should be that you've managed to evolve successfully from a lower species. Which leaves old Abe somewhere in the Jurassic. Come on... with that green skin and those long, bony fingers, he looks like he just crawled out of some mesozoic swamp in search of oxygen. I mean, look at those ears -- they look like gills.

King: So you're saying you'd vote for Douglas?

Maher: I'd vote for my granny's cat before Abe-baboon Lincoln. And frankly, Snuggles has more of a chance of being elected. I mean, Steve Douglas may be bland, boring and bald, but he's a like a fifty-year-old hooker: at least you know what you're in for. Look, Larry, this Republican Party is nothing but a bunch of backwoods baboons. They think we ought to return to the 18th century when men were white and slaves were three-fifths and women were knickknacks and a bunch of old guys in powdered wigs thought that amounted to equality.

King: But if Lincoln is elected, he'd be the first Republican president--

Maher: I may not have an overinflated view of the intelligence of the American people, Larry, but really, they're not that stupid. This whole Rebooblican Party gas attack will blow itself out, and Lincompoop will be gone with the wind.

King: Is that a prediction, Bill?

Maher: Larry, you want a prediction? I'll make a prediction: If Clueless Abe gets as far as the front lawn of the White House, somebody's gonna shoot him. Hell, I might do it myself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Revolution and Devolution

As I sit here I listen to one political ad after another. All are cynical, all are lies, all are crude, petty and accusatory, and none addresses the core problems that face our state and our nation. These are not the clear-eyed and noble declamations of statesmen; they are the ramblings and rantings of pedants and poseurs who crave power and the spotlight; these are the insane bumblings of crass buffoons. I recall advice from some comic pundit: Never vote for anyone who actually wants to be elected.

Both parties have failed us. Indeed, there are no longer two parties in America, but only one -- two wings of the same spendthrift, hypocritical cabal of bloody-minded power-grabbers who have little or no regard for the founding principles of this nation or the sacred liberty of its people. They pander to interests and purchase votes at the public's expense and make a mockery of our democracy and the sacrifices our forbears made to preserve it. They are, by and large shallow, venal, puerile, small-minded, cowardly and driven by narrow self-interest and I, for one, am fed up with the lot of them.

Elections, which used to be exciting bouts of ideas and personalities, have now devolved into shoddy spectacles of recrimination, venom and greed. There is only one value now in American politics: to get power, buy it if you can, and hang onto it for as long as possible at any cost and any sacrifice of honesty and virtue. The debates of Lincoln and Douglas would not be tolerated today; indeed, Lincoln himself would be laughed off the national stage by those arbiters of political taste, Leno, Letterman, Stewart and Saturday Night Live. One can only imagine what such hucksters of political bias as Olberman and Matthews would have to say about Abe's gangling back-woodsmanship, his quaint accent and his adherence to a set of principles based on the Constitution, God and human liberty. They would malign and demonize him, bowdlerize his ideas and mimic his traits, and public opinion would be poisoned against him before he had a chance to speak.

Our republic is in very dire straits. Ideas have been trampled by self-interests, the public good is being consumed by petty ambitions, and individual liberty is being sold daily on the auction block of collective submission to the authority of the central state. I was struck to read that a recent poll found that, for the first time in our history, a majority of the American people believe that their government does not represent them. This is shocking, it is troubling, it is a signpost for anyone to read who knows the history of this nation and of its founding. If such is true, then it is time for a revolution - a second American revolution. And it is not just I who say it; the Founders said so, and they had the intellect and vision and courage to bring it about.

What disturbs me most is the possibility that our society has been so numbed by decades of crass political propaganda and so dumbed by a system of public education that fails to teach our children how to think for themselves but, rather, indoctrinates them in the politically correct culture of the time, that our people are no longer capable of mounting such a revolution. Indeed, they know so little now about the first American Revolution that they may not even be able to conceive of it. I hope it is not so.

For if it is, I fear that the future holds for us what it has for so many societies whose citizens sacrificed their freedom on the pagan altar of collective comfort: mediocrity, submission, capitulation to the dictates of the state, economic and cultural bankruptcy, the withering of the human spirit and the death of initiative and creativity - the very initiative and creativity that propelled our civilization to the highest levels of achievement, prosperity and liberty the world has ever known.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What to do about Petya?

The other day as I was driving to work, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony was on the satellite radio. I subscribed to satellite radio, quite simply, because having access to classical music twenty-four hours a day helps keep me sane. Also, the channel provides a text prompt that tells who the composer is, which I find very useful in the case of pieces with which I am not familiar.

As I listened to the symphony I was reminded of several things. First, of how much I enjoy Tchaikovsky's work, of how wonderful the melodies are and what a master of orchestration he was. I cannot think of another composer who uses instrumental colors to create sonic and emotional effects who can surpass him. Second, of what an extraordinary personality Tchaikovsky must have been. It is difficult to imagine living life with such wonderful melodies streaming continually in one's head. But beyond that, I was struck again by the puzzle which Tchaikovsky has always presented to my mind.

That he was an important composer is beyond dispute; indeed, I suppose he must be considered a great composer. And yet, to me, his music is almost entirely devoid of that spiritual dimension which I believe characterizes truly great art. With the possible exception of the Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky's music is, to my ear, purely secular; driven by emotion rather than by enlightenment. Only in his last symphony does he attain toward something like spiritual insight, and this, I think, only because the symphony is in large part a meditation on death. That he knew he was near the end of his life, that in some sense he could feel it coming, moved him, apparently, to reach for a deeper truth in his work. And though the Pathetique, as it is called, does aspire to such heights, it nonetheless remains as moving, as emotionally driven, even as excessive, as all of his other work. I consider it to be his most significant accomplishment. The Fifth Symphony, for all that it is thrilling, even bombastic, is a far less erudite work. It is vintage Tchaikovsky, filled with energy, exuberance and pathos, and in listening to it I understand (though I do not agree with) those dilettantes who maintain that Tchaikovsky's music is tasteless and even vulgar.

That Tchaikovsky was an extraordinarily gifted artist is undeniable. He wrote some of the most moving and beloved melodies in Western culture. He produced a large body of work, much of which is of a very high quality, and some of which has become a part of our cultural consciousness. And yet, he is far from the formal perfection of Bach, the intense spiritual insight of Beethoven, the intellectual and aesthetic virtuosity of Mozart, even the powerful and lyrical humanity of Brahms. Where Bach's music, to my way of thinking, reflects something like divine logic, Beethoven's, divine presence, Mozart's, divine intellect, and Brahms', divine humanity, Tchaikovsky's music reflects for the most part his own personality. That he was brilliant, intense, passionate, and sensitive to the point of delicacy is clear. That he was emotionally and sexually tormented is apparent. He was almost certainly homosexual and suffered greatly for the fact. Indeed, it may have led to his death which, some sources suggest, was a suicide ordered by the emperor of Russia to avoid scandal.

But his work, for all that, is universal, accessible, and vastly entertaining. There is nothing in his work that challenges us like, for example, the solo violin Chaconne of Bach or the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven. In another post I tried to make a distinction between art that is entertaining and that which goes beyond entertainment toward genius. Was Tchaikovsky a genius? By my definition, since his work lacks a spiritual dimension, I must say no. I cannot place him in the same category as Beethoven and Bach. Yet... does Brahms belong in that category? Does Mozart?

To my mind, Mozart was undeniably a genius, though I have never thought of him as a spiritual artist. I feel much the same way about Brahms. Yet the scope, depth and quality of their respective canons must be called genius, for its invention, creativity, brilliance, and beauty. And so, I think now that I must speak in terms of levels of genius or kinds of genius, and not of genius as an absolute. Mozart and Brahms, though to me more secular than spiritual artists, are most certainly geniuses. Yes, their work is entertaining on a very lofty level, but so is that of Beethoven and Bach. However, in that it lacks the profound spiritual insights and implications of the latter, I must make a distinction between them. I must say that Brahms and Mozart possessed a kind of genius which sprang from the deepest and highest levels of the human spirit, intellect and experience, and which translated into work that, in Mozart's case, was something like the height of intellect in art, and in Brahms, something like the breadth of humanity.

Having said this, the questions remains: What to do about Petya? I think there is a form of art which, and a kind of artist who, documents the human character more vividly and movingly than others, and to this category belongs Tchaikovsky. Where Beethoven is a spiritual artist, Tchaikovsky is a personal one, drawing on the depths and nuances of his character and translating them into art which is wonderfully entertaining because it touches us so. And it touches us precisely because it reflects so much about us as human beings. Tchaikovsky was a uniquely intense and passionate person, filled with conflict and contradictions, aspirations and disappointments, and in laying bare his uniquely sensual soul, he speaks to that in all of us which is vital and lyrical, but which would otherwise not have a voice. His work is the song of our longings, sufferings, hopes and heartbreaks.

Beethoven reaches for the soul; Mozart reaches for the mind; Tchaikovsky reaches for the heart. Each in his own way expresses and embodies the spirit of genius which, I think now, is not homogeneous, but diverse.