Sunday, September 23, 2007

93. The Double Standard -- continued

Please don't misunderstand. I am not advocating for the maintenance of the status quo in our own society. On the contrary, I firmly believe we in the "west" ought to pay more attention to what our children have to say regarding their education -- and show more respect for their tastes in music, dance, literature, etc. I wouldn't want to toss math, science, Shakespeare, etc. into the dustbin just because the great majority of our children have no interest in them, but I do believe our educational system could be improved if we were willing to listen more carefully to what our children have to say, and take their opinions and feelings more seriously -- at least as seriously as so many of our anthropologists and ethnomusicologists are taking the opinions of indigenous young people with respect to their education and their future.

The point I'm trying to make here is not that one way of dealing with children is necessarily better or more "equitable" than any other, but that there is a double standard at work in our attitude toward our own traditions vs. those of the "Third World." Indigenous traditions are being allowed to fall by the wayside because indigenous young people are perceived as having "lost interest" in them; yet the traditions of the "west" are being preserved, protected, and in fact lavishly promoted regardless of the indifference or even active opposition of the great majority of our own young people -- and in fact our population as a whole.

In the present context, perhaps the most useful tradition to focus on would be western "classical" music. If you were to conduct a poll, you'd probably find that 90% or more of our school children regard it as boring, pointless and irrelevant, a vestigial remnant of the past that has no meaning whatsoever for them. Yet enormous resources are poured into the perpetuation of this tradition in literally every "First World" country. As of February 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal, conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim was paid almost $2,000,000 by the Chicago Symphony alone (not counting income from guest and solo appearances); Lorin Maazel was paid $1,900,000 by the New York Philharmonic; James Levine was paid roughly the same amount by the Metropolitan Opera Company. According to Playbill, the Philadelphia Orchestra recently reached an agreement with the union whereby "the minimum annual salary for a Philadelphia Orchestra musician . . . is now $119,600." Base salaries for musicians in the nine major US orchestras are at least $94,000 with most well above $100,000.

Again, please do not misunderstand. I am not advocating for the reduction of anyone's salary, especially when so many of our musicians, classical and otherwise, are severely underpaid. Classical music plays an important role in my life, so I am certainly not suggesting that we ought not support it. But it's important to see the double standard at work here. This tradition, like so many others in our society, is supported so strongly because it is valued, and justly so, as a vital part of our culture. Despite the fact that so many in our society have no interest in it, those who do value it, value it so highly that they are willing to expend considerable resources in maintaining it.

Should we be bothered by the fact that, this tradition was originally associated with a "cultural context" involving the rule of kings and queens -- and the snobbish and indeed elitist attitudes and tastes of a privileged aristocracy, aped by an often ruthless and vulgar middle class? As social scientists we certainly do need to take all of that into consideration. Art can never be completely separated from politics. But no tradition of any real vitality and meaning need be bound forever to the cultural context in which it first arose -- and the importance of classical music in the context of modern democracy is a perfect example of that.

What is the lesson here? 1. We need, first of all, to understand and appreciate the value of indigenous traditions, not only to the indigenous people themselves, but to us -- because these traditions pertain to us as well (see my earlier posts). 2. We need to realize that it is not necessary to completely embrace the culture that gave rise to any particular tradition in order to support it -- any more than we embrace the aristocratic culture that gave rise to classical music. Thus it is unreasonable to insist that such traditions must continue to go hand in hand with certain related practices that we might now find abhorrent, such as human (or animal) sacrifice, the circumcision of females (or males), etc. This notion, that all aspects of culture must be regarded as parts of an indissoluble whole, is one of the most destructive (and demonstrably wrong-headed) dogmas of modern anthropology.

To be continued.

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