03 September 2010

The Music of Power

It’s been a discouraging summer for those of us who look for signs of leadership among politicians. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has made another of his periodic attempts to attract hard-right nationalists, namely by cracking down on illegal immigration: rounding up and deporting Roma. This is particularly distressing behavior, coming from a man who’s the son of one immigrant and the husband of another, and whose heritage is in part Jewish. And rounding up minorities this way looks especially bad in France.* But Sarkozy has long been consumed with the idea of stealing votes away from the Front National, and my guess is, he hoped that, by moving swiftly in the month of August, when most French people are preoccupied with their vacations, he wouldn’t alienate moderate voters too much.

Besides, in politics, one’s personal background does not translate automatically into sympathy for others in the same boat, as Ken Mehlman and Barack Obama have proved, in different ways. As chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2004, Mehlman was the principal foot soldier in an aggressively homophobic campaign — even though he’s gay.** Obama, whose own parents’ marriage was illegal in many U.S. states at the time of his birth, nevertheless clings to the “traditional” concept of marriage, even after Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision in the Prop 8 case left him no rational basis for his position — something the President, as a former professor of Constitutional law, surely realizes.

Yes, We Can (forget where we came from)

In the American “debates” over immigration and the Islamic cultural center this summer, we’ve seen less leadership than a sort of herd mentality, in which the mob charges off in one direction, and the politicians chase after them, hoping to arrive at the head of the pack. The former maverick, Senator McCain, is but one disheartening example. But the most curious display of dubious leadership this summer came from Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It’s nothing new for a totalitarian regime to censor the arts. Art does not often speak its mind directly; it communicates by offering its messages to interpretation by its audience. It’s frequently subversive to the prevailing order, and it can be a good deal more effective than garden-variety propaganda and speechmaking. Even in free societies, there’s an impulse to control it: witness Tipper Gore, who worried about the negative influence of rap music (and who handily earned herself a national platform by speaking out); or J. Edgar Hoover, who for much of his career seemed unaware that he wasn’t living under a totalitarian regime, and who obsessed over the influence of Left-wingers in Hollywood.

Censorship Lite

The Nazis used censorship of the arts not only to squelch dissent but also to target the communities of whom they made enemies or scapegoats. Art by political opponents or “inferior races” was declared “decadent”: entartete Kunst. This signaled that anyone who read a banned book, or listened to unapproved music, was challenging the state and might expect reprisals.

The policy didn’t work, exactly. It seldom does. When the Nazis put on a display of entartete Kunst in a museum, they set aside one room where recordings of music by Kurt Weill were played. It turned out to be the most popular room in the exhibition, crowded to capacity, and the curators had to shut it down. Later, Weill’s song, “J’attends un navire” (I wait for a ship), became a coded greeting in the French Resistance. The Nazis didn’t recognize it as Weill’s work (and the Resistance may not have, either), but that’s the thing about those tricky Jew composers: they’re always sneaking around and writing music that sounds as if it was written by normal people.

What the Nazis didn’t attempt was to ban all music — but this seems to be the direction that Khamenei is heading. Already, when he was president, he followed the time-worn totalitarian tradition by banning Western music, forcing many artists to flee the country. Last month, however, according to the Fars news agency, Iran’s supreme leader went further, telling a young follower that, “Although music is halal [lawful], promoting and teaching it is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic.”

In other words, while it’s permissible to play music, you can’t tell anybody you’re doing it, and if you don’t already know how to play, you’re out of luck. Khamenei’s word is considered law in Iran today.

“It's better that our dear youth spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music,” Khamenei is reported to have said.

If he enforces his policy, it will be almost breathtaking in its audacity. And yet we know from close reading of history that, ultimately, these policies never work. Khamenei isn’t known for pragmatism, but what on earth is he thinking?

I suspect that this is one more sign that the regime is absolutely terrified of losing power. We had plenty of evidence of this last year, in the trumped-up election results and the violent crackdown on protest and opposition. Even Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is a sign of fear and weakness. For one thing, the regime saw how easily the United States invaded next-door Iraq, but didn’t touch North Korea. The message was clear: members of the “Axis of Evil” who possess nuclear capability are safe.

So banning music is just one more piece in a puzzle-portrait of totalitarian anxiety. That which cannot be controlled must be suppressed. And this is the best plan that the Supreme Leader could think of. Talk about leadership: we may count ourselves lucky if Sarah Palin is the worst we have to contend with.

The Persian culture has a proud tradition of music; indeed, the illustrations of classical musicians here are taken from an Iranian website. It will take more than a peevish mullah to put an end to that tradition. Unfortunately, however unsteady it may be, the regime has been successful so far in tightening its grip on the people. For now, I don’t see how the opposition can prevail. But I’m pretty sure that they’ll be singing when they do it.

*NOTE: Sarkozy’s partisans indignantly denied that the roundups resembled the “Rafle” of French Jews during the Occupation. This only served to confirm the resemblance.

**Now, of course, Mehlman has come out and is throwing a fundraiser for marriage equality. While I hope for a Damascus-style conversion on his part, and I’d rather have him on our side than continuing to oppose us, he’s got a lot to atone for, and a single event won’t suffice. By your actions, we will know you, Brother Mehlman.


Michael Leddy said...

My son Ben the ethnomusicology student has taught our family about the importance of music in the green movement in Iran (protest songs, with roots in Persian poetry). I'm passing your post on to him, Bill.

Anonymous said...

You make some interesting points here, as usual, but I would be a little careful with some of these historical analogies. Is Sarkozy "rounding up" the Roma in France because of their ethnic identity or because of their immigration status? Does his policy really resemble the internment of Jews in the Velodrome d'Hiver simply because they were Jewish? There is a legal and ethical basis for a reasonably strict immigration policy, without which the rule of law might well be impossible.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

@ Michael -- Thanks! I look forward to Ben's perspective.

@ Rick -- I believe I stated in the second sentence of this essay that Sarkozy was cracking down on illegal immigration. However, at the moment, he is focusing exclusively on the Roma, with what appears to be political motivation. As one French pundit observed, "He can't go after the kids in the banlieue [who are also a frequent target of diatribes from the Front National], because they're third-generation French citizens, so he's going after the Roma."

Ben said...

Hi Bill,

The new ban on music is certainly a sign of despair on the part of the regime in Iran, though music has been banned at various degrees in Iran over the past 30 years. I did a project on Iranian protest music this past semester. While researching Iranian music and interviewing Iranians living at home and abroad, I've come to view music (and even moreso poetry) as an incredibly powerful mode of expression (and resistance) in Persian culture.

I think you would enjoy the following website I compiled for the project:


Video #13, "My Schoolmate Friend," is the most popular protest song among young people in Iran.
More information: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/11/my-grade-school-friend.html

Video #19 shows a recent song by the rapper Hichkas; many of the symbols in his lyrics have been used in songs of protest since the early 20th century in Iran. Lyrics: http://josefmusic.webs.com/Hichkas%20-%20Ye%20Rooze%20Khoob%20Miad%20Lyric%20English.htm

And in video #6, Shajarian, perhaps the most famous living Iranian classical musician, sings "Hamrah sho Aziz" in Amsterdam. Read the lyrics, and note the 'V's being thrown up by the crowd members.

Lyrics: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1512

If you would like to learn more, feel free to email me. Great post!

William V. Madison said...

Thank you, Ben! You've provided us with such a wealth of material; I know we're going to get a lot out of this.

William V. Madison said...

Following up on Rick's comment and my remarks -- a leaked document has confirmed this week that the Sarkozy administration's crackdown focused on the Rom as an ethnic minority. That the real purpose of the crackdown had little to do with curbing illegal immigration can be seen in several ways: most significantly, perhaps, is the fact that the Minister for Immigration, Eric Besson, wasn't consulted in the planning. Moreover, as the government admitted early on, nothing at all prevents those Rom who are indeed Romanian citizens from returning to France 3 months after expulsion, not least because Romania is part of the European Union. (Though some have claimed that the 3-month rule is discriminatory against the Roma, it's not: for example, as a U.S. citizen, if I didn't have a French residency card, I, too, would be obliged to remain in France no more than 3 months in any 6-month period.)

Basically, Sarkozy and his Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeu, busted up the Roma campsites, handed the people a plane ticket and 300 Euros, and sent them on holiday. In no way is this a reasoned response to the need for orderly immigration.

We're left wondering what the policy is, then, and I've already posited my theory here.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering whether you can cite any passages in the leaked documents proving that the ethnic identity of the Roma, rather than an ethnically neutral immigration law, is behind the crackdown. Allusions to the Third Reich should never be made lightly (don't make me dust off my copy of George Orwell's essay on politics and the English language: "Fascism today has no meaning other than 'something not desirable.'").
Yes, they may have busted up the Roma campsites, but I'm not convinced, based on the evidence you've provided so far, that crowds of Englishmen or Italians who had violated French immigration law for a sustained period would have received different treatment.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Dear Rick -- Please consider the following:

1. In the immortal words of Anna Russell, "I'm not making this up, you know." In this essay and my subsequent comments, I have offered a summary of information that's been widely reported in the French press. If my summary is unconvincing to you, I apologize, and I urge you to eliminate me as a middle-man, by reading Libération and other French newspapers, and by watching French television.

2. I repeat that the Sarkozy policy is ineffective and does nothing to address the real problem of illegal immigration; it's barely even a Band-Aid, and it represents (back to my original point -- and yes, I did have one) poor leadership.

3. As one who is himself Down and Out in Paris, I thank you for sharing Mr. Orwell's words. But your admonition is out of place: I didn't call anybody a Fascist, and indeed I seldom have. I merely suggest that the French government (and the Ayatollah, for that matter) might benefit from recalling that chapter of history; their failure to do so makes them look bad (at best). You're free to make your own judgments.

Finally, while I'm gratified by your continuing interest in this blog, and while I often enjoy your provocateur perspectives (which is why I publish them), I confess I'm taken aback by your repeated defense of hegemony at the expense of minority groups with limited political power. (Maybe you haven't noticed this "blame the victim" pattern in your writing, but other readers have.) So let's chill out, shall we?

All best ---

Anonymous said...

I'm flattered that someone would refer to the remarks I've left from time to time in your comments section as "my writing." It's always good to see someone stand up for minority groups with limited political power. But it would be a shame to chill out now, without having written anything at the expense of alcoholic Ojibwe or immigrant Mexican window-washers.

Seriously, the issue of hegemony versus the voiceless and disenfranchised is one that vexes me a great deal. It would be wonderful to see a blog post some day concerning the faceless people whose lives were torn apart by the riots in Paris a few years ago -- exploring what those white victims' lives are like today. Or maybe you will write a post about the families of minimum-wage convenience store clerks shot dead by thugs whose codified "civil rights" include the right to walk into any store, any time, anywhere, regardless of the risk.

-- Rick