Mar 07, 2013 - Issue 507

Privileging the Voices of the Threatened,

Marginalized, and Offended

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It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.


-Joseph Goebbels



It is the trained, living human soul, cultivated and strengthened by long study and thought, that breathes of life into boys and girls and makes them human, whether they be black or white, Greek, Russian or American.


-W.E.B. DuBois

I was learning how to tape record the music of Motown when an uncle introduced me to Ravel: Bolero, Pavane for A Dead Princess. “Sit down and listen!” A Korean War vet, his voice took on the tone of a drill sergeant. Over the years, I have been drawn to other composers, including Gustav Mahler. Only recently did I discover that the beautiful Adagietto in the 5th Symphony was a love song Mahler composed for his wife, Alma, and the dramatic final movement of the 9th Symphony was for Mahler a final farewell. In recent months, I finally decided to sit down and listen to Mahler.

Consequently, I came across a listing of books on Mahler (1860-1911) and his music, particularly one written by Norman Lebrecht titled, Why Mahler. Luckily, I did not purchase the book, but ordered it from the library. Lebrecht he has listened to and studied more of Mahler’s work than I have, and I appreciate his informed opinions and interpretation. I took what I felt was useful from Lebrecht’s study and certainly did not feel offended nor feel marginalized because I am not, as Mahler was, of German-Jewish origins. In fact, if anything, Mahler’s Jewishness added to my understanding of his work.

It was at this time that I also took note of the criticism from fellow conductors and critics surrounding the late conductor Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Mahler. Bernstein’s performances of Mahler were criticized for being highly emotional and, worse, Bernstein (also a Jew) put too much emphasis on Mahler’s ethnicity. Anyone can conduct Mahler! - even though most of Bernstein’s contemporaries did not include Mahler’s work in their repertoire before Bernstein.

Deja vu! I have been here and have heard the muttering, the rumbling from below the words. 

During the 1970s, while Bernstein works to promote Mahler, Black, Chicano, and Indigenous writers and poets are also busy producing work that reflecting the reality of life in the United States despite the Civil and Voting Rights legislation.

You need not be offended or feel marginalized if reading the story of the little girl, Pecola, in Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eyes, you saw through her eyes how the desire for blue eyes reflected more than the personal, mental scaring of one Black child, but also reflected a dysfunctional society in the U.S., one in which Black children are forced and highly encouraged and rewarded if they assimilate, by whatever means necessary, or suffer the consequences of racial difference.

You did not need to be Black - but Pecola is Black - in the United States!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the political and economic backlash from white America, collectively frowning on the overt racism of Bull Connors and the like but turning its back to Black America when it came to the question of equality. America took note of the new language of revolution in the U.S.

i used to dream militant

dreams of taking over america to show

these white folks how it should be


i used to dream radical dreams

of blowing everyone away with my perspective powers

of correct analysis

i even used to think i’d be the one

to stop the riot and negotiate the peace

then i awoke and dug

that it i dreamed natural

woman doing what a woman

does when she’s natural

i would have a revolution


-Nikki Giovanni, “Revolutionary Dreams” 

In many ways, the systemic and far-reaching neutralization of Black cultural productions was as covert as COINTELPRO was overt.

Talk this talk today!

The venues for talking back, for talking truth, for the historical exploration and cultural expression of the Black lived experience is dwindling while what is produced and sold as “Black” is mediated by corporate dollars and the appetite of white America for the good, as in well-behaved and silent, nigger. 

In Arizona, the recent banning of the Chicano experience in the classroom openly acknowledging the operation of neutralization that is already in effect throughout higher education. Students are not demanding to read poetry, history or philosophy. But under corporate guidance, new college students are not encouraged to do so either!

And as for Black, Chicano, and Indigenous studies - the budget, the budget, the budget! Diversity courses do the job! By the middle of the 90’s, white professors argue that you do not need to be Black, Chicano, or Indigenous to teach or to critique, for example, the Bluest Eyes - Pecola is any little girl, anywhere! Her experience is universal - that is, opens the market up to newly minted white teachers and professors of Black, Chicano, and Indigenous studies, producing critiques of Black, Chicano, and Indigenous history and culture. “Identity politics” came under attack when the centered “identity” was Black, Chicano or Indigenous. “Corporate Identity,” however, is growing in academia as well as in mainstream parlors. Assimilate!

Ethnic cleansing as good as brutal as COINTELPRO and as massive as the prison industrial complex!

The discourse re-emerging and claiming to represent Black, Chicano, and Indigenous creative work and scholarship is exemplary of the systemic re-tuning of young minds to adopt corporate think: pleasure first and profits above all else. These soldiers are quite willing to limit the Black experience to “street” life, sexual abuse, drugs, violence or to denounce the need to emphasize or proclaim yourself universal - half-African, or half-Asian, half-white American, born in Hawaii, or any place but Haiti or Mexico, in other words, be a little bit of everything to neutralize the Blackness. 

Was it yesterday

love we shifted the air and

made it blossom Black?


-Sonia Sanchez, “Haiku” 

Unabashedly Black or Chicano, well - that is “old school.” We are all Americans!

Where did they go

the Writers?



chests pulsing under kente cloth The

Word clenched in sweaty fists

They have gone to whiteland, sister

Am I correct?

O tell me, brother

Am I correct?


-Mari Evans, “The Writers” 

Leonard Bernstein did not argue that the relevance of Mahler’s Jewishness prohibits non-Jews from understanding his work. Bernstein was a teacher; he wanted a wider audience for Mahler but one informed. Mahler was a Jew in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire! Mahler converts to Catholicism in order to take over the directorship of the Vienna Philharmonica. During the Nazi regime, Wagner was in but Vienna was a Mahler-free city.

In a 1994 New York Times article, Alex Ross notes that,

Bernstein weighs the presence and absence of Jewishness in Mahler’s music, the difficult issue of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. He pinpoints the comparatively few moments at which Mahler’s music has an identifiable ethnic sound, with the ‘Jewish wedding music’ of the First Symphony’s third movement as an obvious point of departure. (“Critic’s Notebook: A Tangle of Conflicted Jewishness”)

Bernstein’s point: Consider the personal conflicts as they are directly linked to the public, social contradictions! Consider the historical references that encircle a Mahler in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire or a literary character such as Pecola in the United States. Bernstein further claims, Ross writes,

that all things in Mahler, all the funeral marches and funereal airs, are instances of Jewish agony and shame. This is a nearly intolerable conclusion implying that the consequent major-key triumphs in most of the symphonies are a Christian overcoming of Judaism. 

This is, nonetheless, Ross continues, “an honest assessment of the unhappy Mahler who was ashamed of what he perceives as his ‘Jewish traits’ and also troubled by the necessity of assimilation.”

The angst of the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Today, the angst expressed through Ellison’s narrator and maybe even that expressed by Mahler would not find a publisher or concert hall.

Bernstein offers a theory about why Mahler’s work received little attention.[i] Mahler was, Bernstein suggests, “telling something too dreadful to hear” (Harvard Lectures)[ii] Mahler had a “premonition” that included a vision of his own death, the death of tonality, and “the death of our society, our Faustian culture.” But, of course, the critics dismissed Bernstein’s claim, and, since his death in 1990, critics are still at work denouncing what they consider an over-the-top, Mahler, as Bernstein suggests, with a vision of the catastrophes to come in the 20th Century.

Mahler had “a vision of his world,” writes Bernstein,

crumbling in corruption beneath its smug surface, fulsome, hypocritical, prosperous, sure of its terrestrial immortality, yet bereft of its faith in spiritual immortality. The music is almost cruel in its revelations: it is like a camera that has caught Western society in the moment of its incipient decay.


-Leonard Bernstein, “Mahler: His Time Has Come”

I suspect this argument irritated some more than anything else. But was it not commonplace for most artists to look beyond themselves? Did not artists philosophize? Were they not Prophets before they could only envision the lines, plot, scenes, painting that would guarantee a major mainstream magazine spread? The world “crumbling in corruption” be damned!

“Some vague metaphysical catastrophes” does not cut it, for critic David Schiff. Bernstein’s efforts to “compile a catalog of horrors and atrocities as proof of Mahler’s prescience” (New York Times, November 4, 2001) fails to consider the effects of the “Fab Four” and popular music, the rise of other composers who came after Mahler. Bernstein! Bernstein! Bernstein! Anything but Bernstein’s assessment!

Layers and layers of the dead - so much “vague metaphysical catastrophes.”

The ultimate logic of racism, Dr. King once said, is genocide! 

Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler, writes another critic, Brenton Sanderson, takes up where Bernstein left off. For Lebrecht, as Sanderson summarizes, “Mahler is more than just a great artist. Music, in Mahler’s view, did not exist for pleasure. It had the potential for a ‘world-shaking effect’ in politics and public ethics.’ Moreover, the man and his music are said to be ‘central to our understanding of the course of civilisation and the nature of human relationships.’ His symphonies are prophesies of war, modern technology, and environmental degradation.”

We have never heard such an interpretation applied to the sacred artists of Western tradition. Music created to change politics and public ethics. An artist who can warn of the catastrophes to come as a result of “war, modern technology, and environmental degradation”! Sanderson continues: Lebrecht presents the “saintly victim of gentile injustice.” For Lebrecht, the reader is to understand Mahler’s achievements as “specifically and inseparably Jewish,” a reflection of Jewish intellectual brilliance.”

What “raging hypocrisy” because it denies “the reality of a collective White racial achievement, while stridently affirming the reality of a collective intergenerational guilt that must urgently be instilled in all White people.”

And furthermore, “the propagation of Mahler has been predominantly a Jewish affair.”

(I seem to have read a different book!).

Now this: Sanderson’s article, “Why Mahler? Norman Lebrecht and the Construction of Jewish Genius,” appears at the Occidental Observer: White Identity, Interests, and Culture, April 13, 2011, (the centenary year of Mahler’s death). Free country, as they say! The Internet is for all! You could argue that the views offered in this long article represent the extreme views of the anti-Semitic, the white supremacist ideology - as opposed, say, to the New York Times articles that mocked Leonard Bernstein’s interpretation of Mahler’s work. But the Occidental Observer’s editor is a professor of Psychology at California State University-Long Beach, Kevin Mac Donald.

Over the top? No! Extremists? Not so much! There are no hooded white sheets here or swastikas! The “battles” are not always so visible nor are the victims themselves necessarily situated in the cross hairs. In our post-modern world, the liberal’s conceal lingering hostilities behind banners proclaiming “fairness” and “freedom” while conservatives cry out for a “balanced” representation of their position.

The New York Times and the Occidental Observer are examples of how the liberal and conservative voices converge, casually on the Internet or formally at educational institutions, to proliferate the justification and legitimization of what ideas are to be included and what ideas to be excluded - in short, what is to be thought within a system that needs to protect its political, economic, cultural interests. Zionism and the repression of Palestinians and the “Black” president at the head of the American Empire notwithstanding - the interests of the economic system that is capitalism, benefits the few at the top, presenting themselves as friendly banking institutions, or as humanitarian aid to so-called “underdeveloped” nations, or as an example of the “victimization” of “free speech” and a “balanced” perspective, the modus operandi is as brutal as any repressive regime that surfaced in the previous century. 

“Where did they go, the Writers?” Why, they are foot soldiers marching among a confetti of bricks, mortar, drones, and blood, marching on, expecting the big victory they have been promised.

Fundamental change is as much in the interest of the sheep as it is in the interest of the targeted.

[i]“Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and, especially, Willem Mengelberg promoted Mahler's legacy, and Mahler's style had a profound, if quite divergent, influence on the two leading composers of theatrical music, Alban Berg and Kurt Weill” (David Schiff, “MUSIC; The Man Who Mainstreamed Mahler,” New York Times, November 4, 2001). But Bernstein's lectures on Mahler and recordings of the composer's work exposed Mahler to a wider audience in the late 1960s and early 1970's.

[ii]See You Tube: “The Unanswered Question 1973: The XXth Century Crisis Bernstein Norton” Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Click here to contact Dr. Daniels.