What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?”
Here is a practice that is starting to chafe: the use of quickly-checked cultural reference points to signal a certain knowingness in regard to the moral deficiencies of historical figures. This practice has begun clotting our conversation with an incessant stream of cues and signals that are both unnecessary and unbelievably patronizing.
A case in point, albeit rather a special one, is the now-failed effort of LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich to force the Los Angeles Opera to remove the spotlight from composer Richard Wagner in planning its 2010 Ring festival (an event on which the opera company has already staked $32 million) because Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite. Not one of the other supervisors was willing to back Supervisor Mike’s campaign in a vote taken yesterday. Opposition to the Antonovich proposal was led by (former) board chair Zev Yaroslavsky.
What makes this case pungent and a little bit special is that Supervisor Antonovich is widely regarded as a boorish sort whose more boorish supporters would not attend an opera performance if their very lives depended on it. Antonovich had gamely suggested that the LA Opera might “add balance” by focusing on Puccini, Verdi, and Beethoven—none of whom has any known connection to Wagner’s original and stupendous four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Memo to Mike: Everyone with a modicum of education knows that Richard Wagner was anti-Semitic. Everyone, including maestros James Levine and Daniel Barenboim, who are among the Bayreuth maestro’s most able and ardent interpreters. And including noted LA philanthropist Eli Broad, who has committed $6 million toward the festival. And including opera board members Barry Sanders, former president of the American Jewish Committee in LA, and E. Randol Schoenberg, son of composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was forced to flee Vienna by the Nazis. Indeed, the festival’s planners fully intend to identify, explore, and challenge Wagner’s anti-Semitism by means of a number of seminars, panel conversations, and interpretive performances. Not good enough, apparently, for cultural gauleiter Antonovich.
Irruptions like this among the (normally) politically incorrect are atypical. More typical are experiences like the one I had when working as a senior minister in New York during the 9/11 period. I served an ultra-progressive Greenwich Village church that had offered some refuge for distraught NYU freshmen from around the country who had just moved into their dorms when the attack took place. For the first Sunday service following the towers’ collapse, I called for the great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” to open the service. Much consternation and rebuke from some congregational insiders following the service: Did I not know that Martin Luther, author of “Ein Feste Burg,” was an anti-Semite?
Another instance. When I came to California and to my current position, I was asked immediately by the ACLU to join in an effort to have a tiny, almost invisible, cross expunged from the seal of the County of Los Angeles. Why? Because contemporary people might not understand that the itty-bitty cross makes reference to the area’s Spanish Colonial history, not to any current public endorsement as Christianity as the official county religion (quite hilarious to think about in the context of LA’s religious demography).
Last week I took part in a university-based panel discussion for Fulbright scholars on the challenge of religious pluralism in US society. Along the way I mentioned, in a positive context, Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Almost on cue, another panelist immediately took it upon himself to point out that Jefferson was a major slaver who also declined to emancipate his slaves upon his death (as though I did not know this, and as though no one else present had this killer information.)
I see three big problems with all of this continuous extra-referencing (i.e., with any neutral or favorable first reference to an historical figure’s work being immediately trumped by the second-reference retort, “But she was a racist,” or “But he was an imperialist.”)
The problems are these:
1. The implication that the person wishing to perform Richard Wagner or cite Thomas Jefferson or (fill in the blank) without immediately offering the historical disclaimer is an ass. When, in point of fact, the person making the second reference in negative retort is more properly an ass for assuming that everyone else is already really dumb and getting still dumber.
2. The “where will it all end” issue: Really, have the semi-knowing people who invariably append the negative footnote in public conversation considered just how many cultural icons will eventually be found to have been products of their time—i.e., to have endorsed and perpetuated all manner of what we now consider barbaric customs and ideas? The mind reels in contemplation of the amount of dismissive footnoting that is about to be visited upon the world. We are kidding ourselves if we think that only DWEMs (Dead White European Males) will be judged and found wanting in this procedure; that no others can suffer posthumously from contempt for the blinders attaching to their time and tribe.
3. The theological problem, which is that as long as we keep pummeling historical figures’ positive or progressive ideas with the baggage and burden of their grave sins and errors, we will never acknowledge or do justice to either the “through a glass darkly” aspect of all human living, or to the crooked timber dimension of our very own lives. (Oops, I forgot: “crooked timber” > Immanuel Kant > Prussian > very bad.)
Like it our not, inasmuch as we participate in the common culture at all, we are constantly engaging with historical figures who function putatively as our intellectual and spiritual parents.
Exodus 20:12 (in the King James—God’s original language) reads: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”
A little generosity and humility are called for here. I predict that the rap on this generation, and on even the most progressive among us, will end up being homo sapiens “species-ism.” And how will we feel when our good works and thoughts are dismissed because we disdained the sensibilities of whales and dolphins and horses and frogs and (yes) even that little piglet who contributed to yesterday’s breakfast?
Let us by all means deal sternly and decisively with today’s anti-Semites, racists, misogynists, militarists, and homophobes. And in respect to historical figures, let us by all means distinguish between those who struggled their way out of contemporaneous troglodytic attitudes and those who might have and should have emancipated their thinking, but who nevertheless remained willfully troglodytic.
But let us not assume that everyone in ages past should have been fully capable of having the raffine sensibilities of, say, a Noam Chomsky or an Isabel Allende; or that because the ancients were not up to our speed we may therefore feel free to discredit everything they had to say.
If we keep doing this, we will raise up generations of ultra-ignorant narcissists who will be encouraged to assume that complete enlightenment came to humankind at about the same time they entered their freshman year of college—and that nearly all artists and thinkers whose work does not exhibit their very own particular social sensibilities must have been nasty bigots whose ideas can be dismissed out of hand on account of their benighted condition.
That way lies madness, both intellectual and moral.