Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reading With a Critical Eye: Manipulation of History and What's Trending

This was originally written as a reflection for my 20th C. Music class on Howard Zinn’s Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Chapter IV : The Use and Abuse of History. I expanded and modified it a little.

 In Chapter 4 of his book Declarations if Independence, Howard Zinn claims that it is impossible to write an unbiased account of historical persons and events due to the unconscious influences of preexisting goals, purposes, agendas, and beliefs. This lack of historical objectivity does not occur through deliberate lying but through occurs the omission or de-emphasis of significant data.  Zinn uses several examples from American history to demonstrate his point, including the omission of the Ludlow Massacre from most American history textbooks.  The Ludlow Massacre was the tragic climax of the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914 against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.  The massacre -- a fourteen hour face off between a tent colony of coal miners and their families vs. the state malitia during which the colony was pelted with machine gun fire and eventually torched -- resulted in the suffocation of two women and eleven children.

Ludlow Monument erected by UMWA.
Zinn also cites the one-sided historical account of Christopher Columbus told in most American education systems.  This account typically omits that the discoverer was also responsible for the mutilation, enslavement, and murder of the Indians on a genocide scale.  One is reminded of the line from the song "Wonderful" sung by the Wizard of Oz in the Broadway musical Wicked :

"Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It's all in which label is able to persist! ... There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don't exist!"

Zinn believes that these omissions are due to their in-congruence with the image of America that education systems wish to portray to its citizens: a government by the people for the people, a land of equal opportunity for the common man, where its leaders and founders are models to be emulated for their justice and encourage.

Similarly biased depictions are also found in the portrayal of the history of Western Music.  During the Romantic period, various strains of nationalism were appearing all over Europe. In Beethoven's day, this nationalism was part of an attempt to unite the German-speaking nations against the Napoleonic Empire.  During and after Beethoven's life, this German nationalist trend  led to the promotion of his music as well as the music of his German predecessors and successors as the model of Western music.  The focus of the average classical music education on the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner is in part due to the work of German music historians of the Romantic period who wished to create a context for the development of German music and the emergence of Beethoven.  This trend has and continues to be passed on to future classical musicians in many universities and conservatories, although it may not be consciously done.  While the music of these composers is indeed worthy of study, it is necessary to remember that the belief that their music is "the best" is due to this German nationalist trend, and must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

 A more important lesson to take away from these examples is the need to receive historical data with a critical eye. Just as German nationalism influenced the reception and promotion of Beethoven during the Romantic Period, one should be suspicious of modern trends that influence current perspectives on the composers of the past.  For example, it seems to be an amusing past-time for musicologists and historians to create caricatures of men such as Beethoven and Schubert by pushing our current sexual-cultural fixations upon them.  For example, it has been proposed that the ringing in Beethoven’s ears, known as tinnitus, was caused by syphilis. However, tinnitus is also a symptom of typhus and auto-immune disorders.  Another example : it has also been proposed by certain musicologists that there are homosexual undercurrents in Schubert's 'Unfinished' Ninth Symphony. Schubert's Unfinished Symphony is an example of absolute music -- music that is not based on or inspired by an outside source, story, poem, or theme (as opposed to Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, which is based on Mendelssohn's travels to Scotland and is an example of the opposite genre known as programmatic music). Because there is no preexisting theme, it is relatively easy for writers, musicologists, musicians, and even political groups to read too much into a piece of absolute music and interpret it to promote their own ends, even if they are interpreted in contradictory ways!  For example, both Nazis and socialists adopted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and interpreted it to suit their own agendas. However, in the words of a a friend and mentor, "Such allegations tend to be more revealing of the author than about the subject at hand!"

That being said, it is quite possible that Beethoven may have had syphilis.  It was a common illness in the 19th c. due to the rather loose morals of the era.  It is also possible that Schubert was a suppressed homosexual who gave vent to his sexual orientation through an unfinished symphony.  If these allegations are true, they should not be blotted out from our knowledge of these men as they further inform us of the personality, character, and historical context of these composers.  However, it is misleading to push such allegations onto their characters when we advertise them as true when -- in actuality -- we lack significant facts or data to verify such an allegation!  Likewise, it is equally wrong to omit the faults and failings of businesses, persons, and nations in order to promote a specific agenda. The Ludlow Massacre and the life of Christopher Columbus are prime examples of the deliberate skewing of American history so as to to paint its leading figures and corporations in a positive light.  If Beethoven had syphilis or Schubert same-sex attraction, then it would be wrong to try to hide it. But we don't know that for certain, and emphasizing/advertising these allegations as fact seems more of a projection of our trendy sexual-objectification/hookup culture onto our heroes of Western Music than a search for the truth! It may not be possible to teach history from an objective point of view, but this is no excuse for dishonesty through partial truths, ignoring facts, or disregarding a lack of sufficient data.

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