Cancel Culture for Serious People
Today’s America is not a place for subtlety and nuance. Today’s youth seem especially incapable of handling fine distinctions. No interesting heterodox mix of positions will be tolerated; total conformity is required. Cleave to the party line in toto, lest ye be canceled.
“Cancel Culture” is the new regime whereby one can lose one’s livelihood, one’s reputation, and even one’s friends for not hewing to every last tenet of the reigning orthodoxy. The gay journalist Chadwick Moore learned about the intolerance of left-wing cancelers when he came out as a conservative (italics added):
I began to realize that maybe my opinions just didn’t fit in with the liberal status quo, which seems to mean that you must absolutely hate Trump, his supporters and everything they believe. If you dare not to protest or boycott Trump, you are a traitor.
If you dare to question liberal stances or make an effort toward understanding why conservatives think the way they do, you are a traitor.
You must kneel before Rome, you must grovel at her feet. For wokesters, it’ll never do to be just “99 and 44/100% pure,” like the old Ivory Soap ads claimed. No, my fair cousin, one needs to be 100% pure. Otherwise, you might just be an anti-social deviant, or maybe even an adherent of deviationism.
When it comes to the big important issues, like whether one can choose one’s sex, there are no shades of gray, just black and white. Reality, however, is more interesting than the woke would have us believe. Some things (and people) are mixed, they can be both bad and good, both sacred and profane.
The woke can’t wrap their little minds around that. So let’s consider the dilemmas of serious people.
In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, musicians wondered if they should perform the works of Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer. The dilemma was especially vexing for Jewish artists because Wagner was an anti-Semite, and had written ugly screeds on Jewish music. Even so, some of the world’s greatest Jewish artists chose to perform and even record Wagner’s operas.
The reason Jews didn’t “cancel” Herr Wagner and chose to perform his works is because they understood that an awful man with vile repellent views can also create beautiful music. (A word to the woke: Sometimes one needs to be able to hold seemingly contradictory things in one’s head at the same time.)
So Wagner (whom the French call vaughn-YAY) got a reprieve, and didn’t get thrown on the ash heap of history. And, get this, some of the finest interpreters of his work are Jews.
This was brought home to me when I happened on a video of the Jewish conductor Georg Solti in a recording session. And who do we see sitting in the trumpet section but Helmut Wobisch, who as a youth had been a Nazi. (You may get a kick out of watching Solti in the video; he was quite energetic.)
Solti wrote the Jewish American conductor Leonard Bernstein about Wobisch. The letter is too long to quote in its entirety, but it’s conveniently located at the very bottom of a review at The Wagnerian, where one reads “Georg Solti to Leonard Bernstein. 19 May 1967”; a taste of Solti’s letter:
I am aware of Wobisch's political past (Ed: He was an active member of the Nazi Party during the war), as surely you were before you went to Vienna. However, working with him and knowing him for the past ten years, I have come to the conviction that despite everything he is probably one of the few trustworthy members of that orchestra.
Wobisch worked very hard to bring you to Vienna and to prepare your appearances and successes there; I even heard from Mr. Rosengarten of Decca that Wobisch went as far as threatening to change the orchestra's contract from Decca to Deutsche Grammophon unless they were released to make Rosenkavalier with you.
So, here we have a Nazi helping a Jew with his career. Our woke youngsters might try to understand such twists, for it allows for the possibility of the “good Nazi,” like Claus von Stauffenberg. There was a good Nazi in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist based on the real-life Wilm Hosenfeld, whom the Israelis recognized at Yad Vashem. Sadly, the woke don’t seem to be able to handle ambiguity any better than subtlety.
In “The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner,” Jamie Katz quoted Bernstein’s misgivings:
“How can so great an artist -- so prophetic, so profoundly understanding of the human condition, of human strengths and flaws, so Shakespearean in the simultaneous vastness and specific detail of his perceptions, to say nothing of his mind-boggling musical mastery -- how can this first-class genius have been such a third-rate man?”
His answer did not resolve matters.
“I come out with two, and only two clear, unarguable truths,” Bernstein said. “One, that he was a sublime genius of incomparable creative power, and two, that he was a disagreeable, even intolerable megalomaniac. Everything else about Wagner is debatable, or at least, interpretable.”
If conservatives practiced Cancel Culture, Mr. Bernstein might be subject to it himself, as he flirted with radical politics, and even threw a party for the Black Panthers. In 1970, New York magazine ran “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” by Tom Wolfe, who chronicled the event. (If you want to read this very lengthy article, immediately save it or you’ll be required to subscribe if you leave and come back later to finish reading.)
Real conservatives wouldn’t dream of kicking Lenny to the curb for his disappointing political views or other failings. And that’s because Lenny gave us so much wonderful music. We’re not gonna throw the baby out with the bath water just so we can feel good about ourselves.
On May 2, National Review ran “When Politics Invades Art” by Jay Nordlinger who touches on the “Wagner question” and other such questions about many other artists. I highly recommend it. The intro is: “Some thoughts on cancellation, boycotts, and the like.” Those who approve of Cancel Culture are the most in need of Nordlinger’s nuanced exploration of moral ambiguities, and the least likely to grasp it.
(FOR THE UNCONVINCED: Click here, position the video at the 49:16 point, and watch for a minute. It’s from A Dangerous Method, and features a piano transcription of Siegfried Idyll. It may help one understand why we still listen to Wagner.)
Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.