Friday, September 8, 2017

In the Aftermath of Charlottesville

By Bonnie Gordon

The "Unite the Right" Rally on UVa Campus.  Photo Courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch.
As the church service in Charlottesville ended on the night of August 11, cell phones vibrated. A local friend with whom I went to synagogue as a child texted: “Holy shit are you at the Lawn [UVa’s central grounds]? You have to get out of there, huge marches, torches as far as you can see, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ ‘Fuck off commies this is our town now,’ and ‘Blood and Soil.’” She included pictures she’d gotten off of Facebook.

By now you have probably seen images of the torch march on the University of Virginia’s campus or of students guarding a statue of Thomas Jefferson. The march began in front of Old Cabell Hall, which houses the music department. Marchers stormed across the green space where music classes sometimes meet outside, where student groups perform, and where the summer camp of the one synagogue in town takes the kids, including mine, to play. My family’s car was parked on the other side of those screaming Nazis and by the time we figured out what to do the church was on lockdown. The Pastor said, “We’re going to need y’all to sit and prepare to duck and take cover.” My ten-year-old son held my hand tightly and said, “I knew it was a bad idea to go to church on Shabbat.”

We live in Charlottesville in part because of the Music Department at the University of Virginia. The department takes great pride in being home to a relatively new PhD program where students interested in non-traditional approaches to the study of sound can thrive and where our composers relish new medias and sonorities. Our programs are Critical and Comparative Studies of Music and Compositional and Computer Technologies. The undergraduate major is equally progressive, maybe even a model for departments thinking about diversifying their music major curriculum. Surreally, Richard Spencer, perhaps the most recognized music major in the country, is a 2001 graduate of the University of Virginia. And how did he use his majors in Music and English? He coined the term “alt-right” and served as an impresario for the sick operatic rally staged here in Charlottesville.

I want to dwell on Richard Spencer because he reminds me that a progressive curriculum alone does not defend against white supremacy. And his story signifies that white supremacists are staging a culture war that raises questions about transporting toxic, violent imaginings of western culture, especially opera, to the former slave-holding South. This Charlottesville event digs into the dissonances in an academic field that, in this country, was founded largely by central European and German refugees but which nonetheless often tacitly endorses the white supremacy that got us into what feels like the middle of a dystopian novel.

It’s no accident that Spencer used a college campus as the stage for the prologue to his Unite the Right rally. This past November, he made it clear that he would target college campuses and he has made good on his word. A March, 2017 report from the Anti-Defamation League identified 107 incidents of white supremacist activity on college campuses in the 2016-17 year. This targeting comes at precisely the moment that the Trump administration is doing its best to dismantle affirmative action and Title IX. 

A musical civic engagement event, held several years ago, on the same lawn where the "Unite the Right" rally occurred this past August.  Photo Courtesy of Bonnie Gordon.
Charlottesville was a major battle in this culture war. Despite what Spencer said and what the national news reported, this “Unite the Right” invasion was never about two statues of Confederate generals. Beneath the Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and loud cries of white nationalism, music scholars of any period and place should find familiar the refrains, rhythms, and narrative arcs of our discipline. The power of linking apocalyptic narratives to racialized nationalism is not news to anyone who studies music or history. Spencer, of course, learned that linkage as both powerful and dangerous. But he knew exactly what he was deploying when he used the chant “Blood and Soil.” Although he might pretend that, in the South, this phrase could translate as “‘heritage and the land of the Confederacy,” it originated and rose in popularity just before the Nazis came to power and its racist xenophobia fueled many of their most heinous laws. When my high school friend texted me that Spencer’s torch-bearing marchers were chanting those words, they rang through my ears in German, “Blut und Boden.” I heard in them the nineteenth-century ideologies that bound German land to German blood, ideologies that I first learned about when studying Wagner in music class.

Moreover, anyone caught unaware by the attack on the lawn did not listen. It’s not just that by 3:00 pm on August 11 the interweb buzzed with the impending torch rally. Spencer’s musical and theatrical experience rendered the torchlight rally as predictable as a Rossini opera. In college, Richard Spencer created stage sets for Shakespeare on the Lawn. He took classes in the Music Department — one of the first music departments in the country to attempt to de-center the western canon. He went on to write a Master’s thesis on Wagner, Adorno, opera and anti-Semitism at the University of Chicago. Recall that in Trump Tower on election day last November, Spencer said if he couldn’t be Secretary of State he wanted to be Minister of Culture and “spend millions of dollars on Wagner.” Spencer’s words should speak volumes to those of us trained in contemporary cultural analysis. His words align with the cultural backdrop put into place by Hitler’s minions, who knew that musical overtures to fascism could fuel political overtures.

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.

Here at the University of Virginia, as with many other institutions, such self-examination grows twisted quickly. This is a campus built by the hands of the enslaved and founded by Jefferson, who among other things truly believed that blacks were subhuman and thus not fit for citizenship or personhood. UVa and the Music Department have deep ties to eugenics through the composer John Powell. Among other things, Powell founded the Virginia Anglo-Saxon club. In 1934, a UVa student of eugenics wrote, “In Germany Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the racial deficient.” Eugenics as a key part of the Biology and Medical School curricula lasted at UVa into the 1950’s, and UVa scientists shared eugenics practices with the Nazis. Not surprisingly, almost none of those central European academics who came to the United States to flee Hitler’s racism chose to come to UVa. That’s a lacuna the natural sciences here may never recover from.
Memorial to Heather Heyer.  Photo Courtesy of Bonnie Gordon.

The Morning After
Music departments face a special challenge in the aftermath of these events. There is a collective fantasy that making music necessarily heals and unifies, but that’s simply not the case. Even setting aside examples of music-making that directly fuel fascism, collective sound isn’t the same as collective action. As the Reverend William Barber said to a packed church the week after August 12, “you can’t heal by singing ‘We Are the World.’” Healing and social progress don’t come until you understand the causes and structures of the problems. There has been a lot of “We shall overcome” at UVa in the aftermath of August 12. Too little, too late. “We shall overcome” says we shall overcome someday. For those central European refugees who came to America and helped to build the discipline of musicology, I’m quite certain that they thought 2017 was past “someday.” We have not put our songs into action. I’ve spent a good deal of time with the Kerman/Lowinsky debates, published in the 1960s, in which nationalism rose to the fore. Many in that generation fought against segregation. I’m glad most of them did not live to see young white men wielding torches and screaming Nazi slogans. 

Everyone is quoting James Baldwin these days, but it’s worth doing again here because he isolates the variable that spells the difference between a healing song and a fascist chorus: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty... the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.” To cultivate our students’ and citizens’ capacities for human decency, we need to remain vigilant about both the potential and limits of music-making and of critical reading. It is crucial to continue making creative work and to keep thinking and writing, though the regimes of violence and terror are crashing through the gates. But it’s not enough. And the faux-harmonizing language of diversity won’t be enough either. The only choice is to fight back. As Music scholars and practitioners the language and history of our discipline is a massive weapon in this culture war, but we really have to stay awake for it to work. We should know firsthand the good and the bad work music can do, we should be able to hear between the lines, and we should know about the pitfalls of nationalism.

I want to close with the two songs that comprise the soundtrack of my August 11 memory and that offer singing as a weapon in the current cultural war. As cell phones exploded with news of the alt-right torch parade, the Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou — who had trained locals in non-violent direct action in preparation for the August 12 rally — led the entire congregation singing and stomping “This Little Light of Mine.” It made the building shake. “We have some company,” he called to us, as we were singing. “Let’s show them love conquers hate.” In that moment, the song became a weapon and training: it fueled the courage that would become our armor in the hard phase ahead. Non-violent protest and staring down the face of evil are not peaceful or easy. There’s a powerful myth out there about the 60’s and it comes with a common time, consonant and diatonic musical backdrop. King warned against moderates who worked to avert tension. If you went to Reverend Sekou’s training you got trained in having your ass kicked sonically and physically just by sitting or standing there as a witness to hate.

The other song I remember so clearly from that Friday night church service was sung by the two rabbis from the synagogue which the next morning was surrounded by rifle-wielding right-wingers and was not protected by police, state troopers, or national guard. They led the congregation in “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” which translates as “the world is built through love,” although the translation that’s used as a refrain in the song is more of a proclamation, a call to action: “We will build this world with love.” The song’s folksy sound feels familiar to Jews and non-Jews alike. Our rabbis have beautiful voices, every Jewish kid who goes to religious school in this town knows it, and anyone can catch the tune. The interfaith crowd rocked it. It’s melodious, but not sweet. 

“Olam Chesed Yibaneh” has been embraced by the activist group IfNotNow, a Jewish anti-racist group that opposes the Israeli occupation. The song’s words come from David—the same David who slew the evil giant Goliath in the age-old story. Earlier that night at the church, the nationally renowned political organizer and spiritual leader Reverend Traci Blackmon had told the congregation that the small, young David did not just kill the enormous Goliath—who she equated to the poison of white supremacy—with a small pebble from his slingshot. He didn’t stop with the pebble. After David killed Goliath, he cut off his head and held it up for all to see. Now is the time, she reminded us, “Let’s show them love conquers hate.” She said, with a sound that crashed through the microphone, that, it was time to take off the head of the white supremacy giant. David’s refrain sung to the chorus of Olam Chesed Yibaneh became a conviction and fierce weapon. 

The response to hate cannot be just performing smooth, perfectly-in-tune versions of folk tunes and it can’t be just saying we stand against white Supremacy. We will have to admit that we can graduate not only the Richard Spencers, but his followers. Those of us with tenure have a special obligation to be brave in our efforts. It might mean some really uncomfortable conversations, and it might mean saying things that go against chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents; making them sit with dissonance. When real live white supremacists come to your school, implicit bias training, inclusive syllabi, and safe space statements don’t do any good without a willingness to use the musical and musicological toolkit to hear the current situation and speak or sing out against it. 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.

Bonnie Gordon’s primary interests center on the experiences of sound in Early Modern music making and the affective potential of the human voice. Her first book, Monteverdi’s Unruly Women (Cambridge University Press, 2004), frames the composer’s madrigals and music dramas written between 1600 and 1640 as windows into contemporary notions of sound, body, voice, and sense. She uses vocal music written for sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian singers to illuminate our understanding of the music, science, and culture of that period. She co-edited an interdisciplinary and cross cultural volume of essays about courtesans entitled The Courtesan’s Arts, (Oxford University Press, 2006).

1 comment:

  1. The hateful white supremacists are a tiny set of the American population, not representative of most of us and not representative of our society. To use their pathetic rally as a prop in support of the post-modern self-hatred of western civilization by so many of our fellow citizens, especially students and academics and the journalists who they become, as seen in this closing phrase of the article: "the white supremacist traditions that undergird all of our disciplines and schools," is in many ways is more worrisome by its present dominance of campus and media thought than the hateful antics of a tiny and ridiculous set of white supremacists who have zero relevance to the actual trajectory of historical development into the future. In many ways the left, having abandoned classic economic class politics and instead adopting identity politics, is a bigger perpetuator of the anti-scientific idea of race than the anachronistic tiny group of overt racists. It is the left who insist race is real, that everyone has a racial identity, that such "identities" define us and therefore permanently separate us...while disparaging the nationalism we as Americans need to UNITE us with a common national identity and a common national interest based on our shared institutions, infrastructure and self-governance in a shared republic. The latter has been rendered fraudulent as globalized corporations buy both parties and move more and more of our governance and sovereignty offshore into institutions of global governance lke the WTO and other treaty-based supranational bodies immune to any democratic pressures and controlled by the same globalized corporate elite who find ideological allies in the "we are the world" cultural left that despises patriotism and thereby ends up supporting the globalization that dismantles and offshores our productive economy and our sovereignty, all the while pushing identity politics to the fore while our republic and our prosperity are offshored.