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Over the past weeks, my essays have focused on our new songbook (Hurrah and Hallelujah), the sessions we did for streaming performances from the Metropolitan Opera, and opera boot camp. I was happy to write those, and equally happy at the enthusiastic comments and emails you sent in response.
At the same time, I’ve written essays on quite different subjects. But I scrapped them all—not because they were poor topics or badly done, but because it is excruciatingly difficult to say anything right now without whipping up people’s passions in a manner far beyond a rational response to the expression of an observation or concern.
All you have to do is look at ordinarily neutral sites like nextdoor.com — designed for people to share useful information within a neighborhood like dates of bulky trash-pick, locations of road closings, and postings of lawn equipment for sale. Instead, the vitriol on our Nextdoor (and probably yours too) is astounding. Pity the poor guy who mentioned that a restaurant has reopened or the lady who expressed hope that the city’s swimming pools will be available for the kids. These folks have been viciously blasted as “not caring about other people’s lives” (I’m putting that mildly). The disconnect in such personal attacks would be laughable were they not indicative of the precarious dynamics affecting all of us.
Yes, we are living in dangerous times. Those words are no longer a cliché. The outward destruction and violence are but visible manifestations of a danger that goes deeper. That danger was seeded 50-plus years ago by the inferior academic, social, and moral education that has painted so many young people into a corner. It sprouted when it became normal to have a broken family or hear about a young gal proudly pregnant at 14. It has infiltrated so many avenues of our public, private, and spiritual lives that tens of thousands of words cannot begin to describe it.
I have spent most of my life as a historian—a music historian, to be specific. But, as this audience knows well, a music historian must engage in every aspect of culture in order to paint a meaningful picture of a composition’s rising, falling, and subsequent influence. Painting the broadest and deepest possible context of the past is what historians do, or should do. When they cease to do this, or work actively to erase the hard truths of the past, then history becomes weaponized.
My primary field of concentration has been “things Russian.” My first exposure to Russian culture came from a mesmerizing recording of Swan Lake given me as a child by one of my dad’s WWII Army buddies. What a long journey it was from that LP to sitting in the Lenin Library conducting doctoral research in the midst of Brezhnev’s Russia. And that was just Part One of the journey. Decades of researching and working in Russia would follow.
The destructive period of Russian history known as “the Bolshevik Revolution,” consequently, is not just an academic subject for me. Its dark tentacles still strangled the average Russian’s life when I first studied there in 1981. And it continued to do so until some sanity and honesty were restored in Russian society after the Fall of Communism. That was not an easy transition for anyone living there. It was unnerving for all and devastating for many raised in the Communist system. But finally, it became possible to say: “Ah yes, thus ends 70 years of destruction and laying waste in a truly evil attempt to erase and rewrite Russia’s history and try to make human beings into something that human nature will never tolerate (i.e. Communist automatons).”
History makes everything seem inevitable, both the glories and the disasters. Perhaps that is what I like most about history. Time clears the clouds. It ultimately (we have to wait) teaches us what really happened, as well as what should have happened.
Right now we are cloaked in, and choked by, dangerous clouds. Far too many people are strangled by historical ignorance and general ineptitude (just ask a random young person on the streets to multiply two numbers and see what happens). This ignorance and ineptitude are products of an educational system that, to say the least, did not have children’s best interest in its sights. Good and noble teachers have been helpless to save the system, and with few exceptions, it is broken beyond repair. The resulting ignorance has been sustained and watered by parents, relatives, and neighbors who, for a list of reasons, ceased being parents, relatives, and neighbors.
I’m already in murky waters, right? Already just stating the obvious (and believe me, this is obvious, particularly to the rest of the world watching us!) is enough to invoke invectives of an acerbity that would horrify our grandparents. Once, “sailor talk” was an ugly language limited to sailors’ mouths, spawned by rowdiness and drunkenness. Now we see it emblazoned on t-shirts and scrawled on the sides of monuments. How far in the downward spiral we’ve come.
I like to think I’m brave. Looking back, as historians do, I have done a few brave things in my life, although they did not seem so brave at the time. But I don’t feel brave now—not brave enough to enter into the fray on social media (although staying away from social media is more likely an act of wisdom). At the moment, I am being very quiet with family, because we, like many of you, have extended family members who are apologetic for the turmoil taking place around us.
When I sat down to write this article this morning, I intended to consider modern-day magazines, having long wanted to give a eulogy about the beautiful things magazines once offered their subscribers. Maybe I’ll write about magazines another week. Or maybe I don’t need to. For the decline in magazines is just another small manifestation of the void of substance, knowledge, and beauty that has brought us to where we are now.
May we quickly see restoration of moral rectitude and wisdom in people’s actions and restraint in their tongues. May those in the trenches who are throwing their passion, knowledge, and life-experience into the restoration of classical values in education be strengthened in their quest. And may those on the front line whose daily work makes them targets of bullets and bricks be spared. That is my prayer.Published in