Dispatches from the Front

I correspond almost daily with a friend of 40 years: B. He initiates a lot of our exchanges by sending links to articles in The New York Times and comments that he has received from others about those articles. In the last few days, B and I have had three exchanges that are worth noting here.

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Another correspondent, D, sent this to B:

Obama has been pictured as having many negative qualities by the Right Wing.    Three things are especially repugnant to many on the right.  He’s black, he’s a Socialist or Communist and lately (including this latest one) he is thought to be like Hitler.  Do they see some inconsistency for Obama being thought of as both Fascist and a Communist?

B replied (with copy to me):

You could bend your mind like a pretzel trying to portray Obama as both a Fascist and a Communist.

My response to B:

There is a fairly easy way to reconcile Fascism and Communism. Both are (in practice) forms of statism, wherein the power of the state is marshaled to attain certain ends that are proclaimed to serve the “common interest.”

I think of political ideologies as compass points. Placing anarchism arbitrarily at 0, hard statism (whatever its label) is at 90, “social democracy” (including the U.S. variety) is at 180, and at 270 is libertarianism (the minimal state for defense of life, property, and liberty — close to the spirit of the Constitution).

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B forwarded some quotations culled by another friend, marking the 106th anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich. Two of the quotations:

The Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich always has been singularly irritating to this  chronicler… Whenever I hear one of his marches, my imagination fastens upon a picture of the parades in Red Square and the banners of Uncle Joe, and my irritation becomes powerful.

- Cyrus Durgin, The Boston Globe (25 October 1952)

The composer apparently does not set himself the task of listening to the desires and expectations of the Soviet public.  He scrambles sounds to make them interesting to formalist elements who have lost all taste…  The power of good music to affect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, “formalist” attempt to create originality through cheap clowning.  It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.*

- Pravda (on the Shostakovich opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,
“Muddle Instead of Music,” January 1936)

B called out Durgin’s commentary. I replied:

I like Durgin’s statement and share his irritation. In this case, I am also in sync with Pravda, which homes in on the truth about “modern” music: “scrambles sounds to make them interesting to formalist elements who have lost all taste.”

“Modern” music is an “inside” game, played by composers for their own benefit and for the benefit of effete critics and certain audiences who place a high value on being au courant. The latter are the kind of people who applaud Occupy from the safety of their Park Avenue penthouses (radical chic). The practitioners of radical chic are (I suspect) the major source of private funding for the “arts,” which would explain the otherwise inexplicable degree to which modernism permeates not only formal music but also formal dance and the visual arts.

I was a faithful listener of WETA-FM, in the days when it carried classical music in the morning, afternoon, and evening — before the intrusion of “relevant,” consciousness-raising news and blather (e.g., Fresh Air). There was (and probably still is) a 5-minute feature that ran in the afternoon, called Composers Datebook. Every segment closed with “reminding you that all music was once new.” Yes, it was all new (what a blindingly obvious statement) — just as a lot of formal dance and visual art was once new — but was it good?

The foregoing is adapted from a short post of mine: “The Arts: Where Regress Is Progress.”

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B often links to something written by David (faux conservative) Brooks. Today, he linked to a piece titled “The Conservative Mind,” wherein Brooks tries to drive a wedge between what he calls economic conservatives (i.e., free-marketeers) and traditional conservatives (i.e., Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and — in his later years — Friedrich Hayek):

There are very few willing to use government to actively intervene in chaotic neighborhoods, even when 40 percent of American kids are born out of wedlock.

Another of B’s correspondent’s said, quite sensibly:

I would suggest that it is because of government intervention in the neighborhood that we have 40% of American kids born out of wedlock.  If the government didn’t make it economically affordable and in some cases beneficial to have children out of wedlock, the rate would be much lower.

This was my reaction to Brooks’s muddled attempt to discredit economic conservatives:

The kind of social conservatism that Brooks rightly praises cannot flourish when government distorts social relationships, as it has done through various welfare schemes that created dependencies on government, and through ham-handed egalitarianism (e.g., affirmative action as I have seen it in action, first hand). All such efforts are divisive, not unifying, because they disrupt traditional social relationships and create suspicions, animosities, and rivalries (e.g., who gets to be first in line at the public trough).

Where Brooks goes badly wrong (as I read him) is to place economic and social conservatism in opposition to each other. Economic liberty, where it is allowed, requires and fosters mutual trust and respect. It is, in other words, a unifying instrument of social comity and law-abidingness. Economic liberty requires government, to be sure, but it is a government that is concerned with enforcing the rules of the game (no stealing or cheating), not with enforcing certain outcomes.

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