Monday, May 11, 2015

Culture and Culture

I live in Mexico, a country of many traditions. One of them, practiced annually by a church across the street from where I live, takes up an entire weekend from Friday evening through to late Sunday evening. There are troupes of Indian drummers, brass marching bands, rock bands with big sound systems and choral chanting. They alternate, 24 hours a day, for the whole weekend. The first year, I could hardly believe that this was happening. It was like trying to sleep in the middle of a disco. Last year I booked a hotel room for Saturday night, but that was not sufficient. So this year I left and spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in a hotel. Peace!

This is why you didn't get a post from me this weekend. The hotel was peaceful, but I was cut off from my library and usual sources of inspiration. However, I did get some composition work done!

I got to thinking about the differences between Canada and Mexico. This is not the kind of thing that takes place in Canada. Why? Well, if a Canadian church had a tradition of this kind of festival, many decades ago all the neighbours would have gotten together and submitted a petition to City Hall to have it stopped and that would be it. In Mexico, tradition is very, very strong and neighbours don't even bother to petition the authorities. So there are hundreds of traditions that take place and have done so for, perhaps, hundreds of years.

Canada is a rather more progressive place so it is guaranteed that any Canadian suburb will be free from this kind of noisy festival. Of course Canadian suburbs tend to be very dull places. The trouble with progressive societies is that, for the most part they have been taken over by the Gramscian "Long March", which is to say, they have been subjected to a tradition-erasing ideology. As an example, I refer you to the "learning objectives" of the US College Board which can be found on pp 20 et. seq. of this document. The first of these learning objectives is Identity:
This theme focuses on the formation of both American national identity and group identities in U.S. history. Students should be able to explain how various identities, cultures, and values have been preserved or changed in different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities. Students should be able to explain how these subidentities have interacted with each other and with larger conceptions of American national identity.
If you think there is nothing odd about this, then you are a product of recent decades of indoctrination. "Identity" here can only refer to national or group identity. The one that is omitted, intentionally, is, of course, individual identity! But perhaps the defining characteristic of the US, carefully protected in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is the importance of individual freedoms. The section on Identity over and over harps on group identity. But I think a very good argument could be made that there simply is no such thing. Your identity is who you are as an individual. But the underlying assumption behind this curriculum is that the group defines who you are: black, gay, Indian, or Presbyterian, that's who you are. Which is, frankly, nuts. As a very wise historian wrote about a similar ideology:
"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful." --Edward Gibbon
Group identity is a very useful tool for any unscrupulous politician, then and now.

Antonio Gramsci was a very important Marxist theorist who laid out a game plan for "progressive" societies. Quoting from the Wikipedia article:
Gramsci stated that bourgeois cultural values were tied to folklore, popular culture and religion, and therefore much of his analysis of hegemonic culture is aimed at these.
Bourgeois cultural values were exactly what had to be replaced, of course.

The interesting thing is that popular traditions tend to insulate a society from the ideology of the state:
Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology. The bourgeoisie developed a hegemonic culture, which propagated its own values and norms so that they became the "common sense" values of all. People in the working-class (and other classes) identified their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie, and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting.
The irony here is that a lot of this is just projection. It is socialism that maintains control through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology. Perhaps mainly through ideology. Socialism fundamentally views people as units in society, as groups, as collectives, NOT as individuals.

While a lot of the intellectual class in Mexico have been socialists to some extent, they have failed to transform society according to the Gramscian program because of the immense power of tradition in Mexican society. So, while I don't care for it personally, I am rather glad that the church across the street continues to have its extremely noisy annual festival.

Now I have to ask your forgiveness for wandering so far away from music qua music. I also have to offer some caveats. Of course Mexico has many things to overcome. It has, by Canadian and American standards, a low level of intellectual capital, though improving. It has low levels of education. It has high levels of corruption (though, depending on how and what you measure, so might the US). Canada and the US have powerful and long-standing traditions of freedom and justice that Mexico does not.

Now, what could I possibly find for a musical envoi to this post? How about La Noche de los Mayas, music originally written for a film by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. This is the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:


Marc Puckett said...

And what kills me (figuratively speaking) is that precisely what the US has gotten right (i.e. its respect for the rule of law and individual liberty, at least so long as one wasn't a slave etc) it is in the process of throwing away because of identity politics and some imaginary ideal of an egalitarian post-post-modern society-- see the Washington Post's hed the other day wrt the Geller event in Texas, "Event organizer offers no apology after thwarted attack in Texas", as if the intended victim is responsible for the assassins' deaths. Gosh.

On my visits in Oaxaca, I spent quite a bit of time talking with farming folks-- this in response to your observations about 'Mexican traditions'-- and was amazed to hear oral history reaching back to the 19th c, and more reliably (perhaps) to the land reforms of Porfirio Diaz and the War of the Cristeros.

Have been diverted to Bach and Schubert these last days and haven't made additional attempts to listen to Steve Reich-- but I will. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, the endurance of tradition in Mexico is remarkable. Some of the prominent families where I live have been here for 500 years. Some of the events celebrating Christmas have been held by the same families for going on a hundred years.

Anonymous said...

Your constant advocacy for Haydn's music led me to watch a concert version of The Seven Last Words of Christ;it was such a wonderful experience..I'm now starting to wonder why Haydn isn't rated higher in terms of musical merit;

Thanks for Revueltas recommendation;If only all film scores are of such quality!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks John, and welcome to the Music Salon, but it sounds as if you have been reading for quite a while.

One year I had the luck to attend a concert of the Seven Last Words of Christ performed by a string quartet--wonderful experience! I'm delighted that my continuing advocacy for Haydn has opened that door for you. It is too bad that he never seems to make it into the top ten composers. I suppose that the dullness of his biography might be a factor. Mozart and Beethoven have a lot of information about their lives that program note writers can relate, but Haydn, not so much.

My apologies for not getting my concerto guide post up yesterday--perhaps today!