Musicology Later, Politics Now

Considering that white nationalists can barely attract a crowd of more than a few hundred nitwits — a figure that’s hardly changed for decades — and that neo-Nazis and the KKK are so insignificant as to be a fringe movement within a fringe movement, I struggle to see how they are of any real concern. Yet musicologist Bonnie Gordon, writing over at Musicology Now, thinks it’s an urgent problem for her academic discipline. Gordon works at the University of Virginia where the ‘Unite the Right’ rally took place last month. So I can understand why she is particularly concerned, but the conclusions she draws are worrying and, alas, predictable. An excerpt:

To put this in terms of a curricular challenge, it’s relatively easy to get college students to see the grotesque potential of some of the music they love, especially if it includes sounds mobilized by the likes of Stalin and Hitler. And most undergraduates who take music classes learn about sonic performances of nationalism; it’s a box or chapter in many textbooks. But it is so much more work and so much more important to make our students hear the ways that racialized nationalism played and plays out today in our own spaces — politically and musically. We need to make sure they can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements with the same critical eye that they turn on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. In other words, if we, and our students, can’t read the signs in the current climate and can’t respond to them, then I’m not sure we are doing our jobs.

Can’t read the signs? Where does that leave the thoughtful student who, analysing the situation, concludes that the only signs are those anachronistically erected by their musicology tutor? Under a ‘progressive curriculum’, such free thinking would be punished, I suppose.

Earlier in the piece, Gordon writes of Richard Spencer, leading Alt-Right figure, ‘I want to dwell on Richard Spencer because he reminds me that a progressive curriculum alone does not defend against white supremacy’. So unless we slant the curriculum way to the left, they’ll be an endemic of white supremacy, is that it? But even this isn’t enough apparently. Neither is ‘implicit bias training, inclusive syllabi, and safe space statements’ enough either. Something more is called for. Reading the piece twice now, I can’t work out what exactly she means. And the more ambiguous and broad her statements, the more pernicious they seem. She calls for ‘a willingness to use the musical and musicological toolkit to hear the current situation and speak or sing out against [white supremacy]. This is a good time to remind everyone not only of the white supremacist traditions that undergird all of our disciplines and schools, but of the tradition of progressive faculty and student activism.’ Cleansing history of its whiteness. Doesn’t sound pernicious or anti-academic at all. And of course there will be no time left to actually study, you know, the music.

I’d like to come back to her argument that ‘We need to make sure they [students] can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements’. Ignoring the postmodern guff, I must make the point that there are simply no contemporary fascist movements. Fascism is now a term used to mean only one thing — racial superiority. This is completely ahistoric. Perhaps the only movement who it makes sense to call fascist, the Italian Fasci, were racial supremacists, but this wasn’t the most central aspect of their ideology. In fact they really didn’t have much of an ideology, and tended to simply instrumentalise ideas towards one goal: state power. (And Italian fascists only became very antisemitic when their alliance with Hitler made it necessary.) One way, for example, that the Fasci consolidated power was by making all professors pledge an oath of loyalty to Fascism. The Fascists were a modern, futurist and progressive movement, one that sought to make sure the young, whom they built a cult around, would have the politically correct ideas. In Gordon’s call for a curriculum so obviously utilised towards political ends, is she edging towards fascism?

I don’t actually think she is, but how easy it is to erect a sign that says, ‘here is a fascist’. The logical end-point of this would be an academic world that spends much of its time searching for the fascist hidden round the corner. Academics would be preoccupied investigating the personal failings and hypocrisies of past thinkers, judged by our obviously unassailable 21st century standards. Academia would become an intellectual police force that exists to prevent and correct ‘bad’ ideas. Actual academic discussion would come to a halt.

Perhaps we will see a decline in the importance of universities as this silliness continues. Having a formal education, and the credential that comes with it, just won’t have the same social and cultural weight. There is precedent for this. Michael Faraday was basically innumerate, yet he was one of the most important scientists. Samuel Johnson did not have a degree. Edmund Burke’s Catholicism meant he did not have one. David Hume did not graduate. Will the greatest minds of the 21st century come from outside academia?

Claire Lehmann, founder of the site Quillette, was recently interviewed at Psychology Today, and said this:

I was also pursuing graduate studies at the time in forensic psychology and was becoming increasingly cynical about the university system. I was reading Peter Thiel, and was struck by his iconoclastic views on education; in particular his claim that the higher education system is like the Vatican on the eve of the reformation. So in mid-to-late 2015, I wrote an article for the Herald about universities in Australia being a road to nowhere, dropped out of my course, and two weeks later started Quillette.

Quillette also has an excellent and highly relevant piece up at the moment by Ben Sixsmith: Defending Western History from Political Propaganda. A sample:

Classics are the foundation of Western civilisation. No amount of scare quotes will obscure Aristotle’s impact on science and philosophy; the Homeric influence on literature; the Athenian origins of republicanism and the Roman promotion of Christianity. The belief that this is true does not make one a white supremacist. The Chinese think Confucius, Laozi and Sun Tzu built the foundations of their culture but this need not make them Chinese supremacists.

In truth, there is little Nazis like about Western civilisation. Enlightenment values are clearly verboten. Christianity is suspect, as a universal faith, not the preserve of whites. Classical societies are uninspiring, as they dwell far more on civic virtues than blood and soil. This is why Nazis have drawn on ancient pagans, aristocratic esotericists and other such eccentrics. Their racialism – that is, their idea of one European spirit (embodied, according to the historian Francis Parker Yockey, by Adolf Hitler) is ahistorical.


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