Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy"

From some comments on yesterday's post I am led to a post over at NewMusicBox: AM I NOT A MINORITY? That's innocuous enough, but a later subhead that I use as my title let's the cat out of the bag: The Problem: Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy. Why not go all the way? Western Civilization is rooted in white supremacy. I struggle a bit with the word "supremacy" as it is simply there to stimulate outrage. So let's be a bit more precise: the foundation and development of civilization generally, which would include the invention of aesthetics, logic, history, music notation, calculus, harmony, ethics, rule of law, democracy, economics, physics, biology, chemistry, universities, and pretty much anything else you can think of was, are you sitting down? largely the creation of the ancient Greeks and Romans (white people), Jews and Christians (semitic and white), and Western Europeans (white).

Now in the interests of fairness, we have to give points to the ancient Egyptians and inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent for a lot of early art and agriculture. We also have to give credit to the peoples of India, China and Japan for more early aesthetic and other contributions (the Chinese came up with noodles, gunpowder and paper, for example). But the only significant contributions in the last five hundred years have been from Western Europeans and their offshoots. Sorry, but there it is.

Unfortunately the most recent developments in Western Civilization seem to be designed to tear it all down and apologize for coming up with it in the first place! To any person of normal understanding and moderate knowledge of history this seems quite insane.

But go read the article and see if you find the argument convincing. Just one caveat: the citing of statistics is, by itself, not an argument. Quotas and Quality are contradictory notions.

I am, of course, sorry if I have offended anyone, but frankly, I find statements like "Western Classical music is Rooted in White Supremacy" to be deeply offensive!


15 comments:

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

... Augustine could be counted as a Roman African bishop, right?
A good number of early church father were in Alexandria so one of the ironies of contemporary attempts to "free" contemporary biblical scholarship from "Western readings" was that until German rationalist scholarship began to emerge and leaned on Hellenistic rather than Jewish influences on biblical literature a lot of scholarship in the West within Christendom was laboring to preserve the teachings of African and ancient near eastern bishops like Polycarp or Augustine or Clement and Origen or Athanasius. The Latin Church fathers didn't make much of a secret about where they got the ideas they were struggling to articulate.

Bryan Townsend said...

Augustine was born in what is now Algeria of Berber ethnic descent. Ancient art and depictions of Berbers show them as semitic, but not black.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

That's getting to one of my points, that one can be African but not have black skin, the other being that too many polemicists lately aren't literate enough to understand the extent to which Christian ideas, which influenced the West, don't necessarily automatically equate with the West.

I've got a few friends of South African descent who are tall white and blonde but that doesn't make them less African.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Christianity and Judaism both originate in the Middle East, which is certainly different, both ethnically and culturally, from what is usually called Western Civilization. I know what you mean. I have an acquaintance from what was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. African, but not black.

Marc said...

John Halle, in his blog post commenting on the NMB article:

"Just as Oberlin students will reflexively protest a small business being charged with racism regardless of the evidence, so too can the notion that 'western classical music is rooted in white supremacy' be simply asserted without the slightest argument. Indeed, anyone doing so can be confident that a mob will line up 'in solidarity'. Furthermore just as the Oberlin students received institutional support via the Dean of Students, the flagship publication of contemporary music and those who read it appear to get a visceral thrill from metaphorically slashing their own wrists and from attacking as reactionaries and racists those attempting to prevent them from doing so...."

I don't think I'll find the time to read the NMB piece.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, I don't think you need to bother. I glanced at it.

I am reassured that this mob, the Music Salon commentators, didn't jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps the Oberlin/Gibson's case is a kind of turning point.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Not too surprisingly, Conor Friedersdorf sums up things over at The Atlantic fairly thoroughly.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/the-publicly-shamed-sue-oberlin-college-verdict/591379/

He's glad the Gibsons got a happy ending but is concerned (as he would be) that the era of social media is going to potentially change working legal definitions of defamation in ways that could potentially have chilling effects on protected speech. Since he's a self-identified civil libertarian that's pretty much the stance I would expect from him.

I agree with Bryan the NewMusicBox piece is not really worth reading. I read it but because of Halle's take-down of the entitlement he sees in those kinds of screeds.

Bryan Townsend said...

After my first exposure to social media a decade ago, I passed it by out of disinterest. What it seems to do is amplify gossip a billionfold, which has a lot of unfortunate consequences. Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds has a new book out that has some interesting observations about social media: The Social Media Upheaval.

It seems to me that what we are seeing is the institutions of common law finally being brought to bear on the excesses of "social" justice amplified by social media. Some fine tuning may be needed, but I remain optimistic. Seeing what happens with the suits launched by Nick Sandmann against the Big Media (Washington Post, NBC and CNN) will be informative.

Will Wilkin said...

Maybe I'll get banned and vilified in the same way as followed my commenting on the "Musicology Now" website, but for some reason I couldn't resist posting this comment (pasted below) under the article you linked and wrote about above:

Ironically, this article is by far the most racist thing I've read in many years, though only because I care so much about music did I bother to read it. What is racist about it? The assumption that the most important thing about a person is their skin color, which itself seems here to be assumed to indicate a racial identity which is then assumed to be the most important way to identify a person, and that all persons should be thus categorized. Being surrounded by this kind of thinking has over the years changed me from being an anti-racist activist in my youth to now thinking that those obsessed with"fighting racism" are more racist in their thinking than any of the other people I know. When are we all just going to be people? This whole identity politics mindset is divisive and inflammatory and, ironically, crystallizes rather than dissolves the divisions of perceived "race" that is itself a highly unscientific and socially corrosive category.

Bryan Townsend said...

You just like putting your head in the mouth of the lion!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

the author has written a few more pieces and with the new one saying classical music should be allowed to do there's some pushback.

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/its-time-to-let-classical-music-die/

The author seems to be determined to conflate personal traumas from relational contexts with the sum of his experience with music pedagogy and classical music. That's ... I am trying to put this delicately, a potentially unbalanced perspective with respect to the difficulties of getting a formal education in any kind of topic. It's possible to feel bad a person has gone through bad experiences while regarding the adaptive strategies they adopt as being very maladaptive.

Will, you'll feel less alone when you see some of the comments in reaction, perhaps.

Bryan Townsend said...

NewMusicBox seems to be a venue especially for the disaffected, troubled and resentful. I think most musicians could tell a tale of woe about how they were misunderstood, neglected and ignored. However, most mentally healthy people would simply not bother. And, really, it has nothing to do with race.

Will Wilkin said...

Thank you much, Wenatchee, reading the comments below that "...Let Classical Music Die" article brings me great heart that I am not alone in seeing identity politics as exacerbating and entrenching social divisions that are at best dysfunctional in modern society. I wish that author well, as I understand from my own youthful thinking decades ago how easy and comforting it is to see everything in an ideolological way that makes the thinker feel assured of "deep understanding" and moral superiority while criticizing society. I have since found what I believe is a more accurate, human and genuinely historical approach: do not judge other times and places by the standards of today's politics. I try to find older functional explanations for social ideas and practices that might not be as functional now as they were when they emerged. Perhaps the author linked above will someday come to more mature and subtle understandings and look back on these writings as a phase he had to go through to give full consideration to the dominant ideas of this moment. Some thinkers continuously change while others ossify.

Marc said...

I re-read all this earlier because a) I conflated the article Bryan mentioned with the one Wenatchee and Will are writing about and b) I got involved in a Facebook discussion about Nebal Maysaud (because Titania McGrath's oboe)and have to read and/or re-read all four of his essays at NMB. He seems quite earnest (as Will wrote, "how easy and comforting it is to see everything in an ideolological way that makes the thinker feel assured of 'deep understanding' and moral superiority while criticizing society") and while I welcome musical creativity even if I'm not going to do much listening to its products I don't know why I cannot set most of the essays aside as so much academic/political 'theory' or nonsense. Gosh. Obviously, personal anguish articulated in the beauties of music is possible but Maysaud's 'Holy Doubts and Empty Prayers' is eighteen minutes of personal anguish without the compelling music.

As it turns out I knew one of his 'intellectual mentors', Andrew Cole, when he was doing his M.A. at Miami University. He is or was at UNC Chapel Hill and presumably continues to do 'theory' there.

Bryan Townsend said...

Those essays are what I would characterize as some form of artistic manifesto. Manifestoes are not unique to modernism (we have, for example, the 18th century one on opera) but they are certainly common in modernism. The idea was to condemn examples of bad aesthetics while laying out a plan for a better aesthetics. But these articles, with their goal of apparently killing off classical music, are really nothing more than sour grapes, aren't they? As you say, "without the compelling music..."