Saturday, November 11, 2017

Who is really clinging to the past?

Someone I was reading this morning linked to an old Atlantic article that complained, "Why Is a Music Genre Called 'Americana' So Overwhelmingly White and Male?"

The key thing to remember when confronted with this sort of argument is that the terms "white" and "male" here don't refer to race or sex. These terms stand for everything urban Democratic Party supporters detest, supporters who themselves are, ironically, very white and male.

This irony is lost/not-lost on people like Giovanni Russonello when they write pieces like this. He has to know what is going on but denial is a powerful emotion. So out come the clichés.
Before it became a term for a musical genre, "Americana" was slang for the comforting, middle-class ephemera at your average antique store -- things like needle-pointed pillows, Civil War daguerreotypes, and engraved silverware sets. 
What's so "comforting" about this stuff?  There is an argument hiding way in the background here and we can all fill it in. It goes something like the following: "This music, like nostalgia-inducing items purchased at an antique store, is like a security blanket that people cling to rather than acknowledge that America has changed."

I'll tell you the problem with that argument.  Giovanni Russonello doesn't believe it. For starters, does anyone really worry about people who nostalgically cling to a past that has been left behind? The threat here, the thing that Russonello can't be honest with himself above, is that this past is very much present. Americana is popular and that popularity indicates that the world is not changing in the ways he wants to believe it should be changing.

This is even more clear if we look at his conclusion:
... if an art form is going to name itself after this country, it should probably stop weatherproofing itself against America's present-day developments
If you click on the link he provides you get a story that begins, "There is a strange dichotomy occurring in 21st-century America: The country is becoming more diverse and less equal."  It backs this claim up,
Federal Reserve data and Bureau of Labor statistics show that although the nation is becoming less white, wealth is being disproportionately allocated into white hands. Wealth and income gaps continue to widen along racial lines, with whites earning $2 for every $1 earned by African Americans and Hispanics. That gap has remained consistent for 30 years -- despite affirmative action policies of the 1970s and early '80s. According to research by the Urban Institute, white households held four times the wealth of black households before the Great Recession, and that factor managed to increase to six times by 2010.
Meanwhile, the face of poverty, lack of opportunity and discrimination in employment and criminal justice remains overwhelmingly black and brown. The recent census data and court challenges to programs aimed at creating an egalitarian, racially integrated society force the question of whether America is prepared to reconcile the harsh realities of its tortured past with the potential progress of its multiracial future.
 I don't doubt that the actual facts in those two paragraphs are correct. What I would like you to be skeptical about is the way the language spins the facts to support an ideology. Notice, for example, "wealth is being disproportionately allocated into white hand" (emphasis added). "Allocated" says this is an intentional act. That implies that somebody, or a group of somebodies, is handing out the money and they are doing so in a  racist manner. That goes way beyond saying that the system is biased in a way that disfavors some racial groups. And then notice the "harsh realities of its tortured past". Okay, no one can dispute that there were harsh realities but the language here implies that that tortured past, and only that tortured past, explains growing inequality today.

There is a whole boatload of questions being suppressed here. The "programs aimed at creating an egalitarian, racially integrated society", that are supposedly in danger, for example. These statistics tell us that these programs have achieved the exact opposite of what they were supposed to do. Why then is it so important to save them?

It's reasonable to ask who is really clinging to the past here. I'd argue that we are seeing the children of baby boomers everywhere in the world are desperately clinging to the illusions their parents fed them. Russonello writes,
Five years later, Dylan had left folk behind. He was already being called "the voice of his generation," but to merit that title he couldn't just keep writing about revolt -- he had to make sizzling, mercurial music that actually sounded like mutiny.
The events he is describing here happened more than 50 years ago. Take a listen to a revolution in music that was as far in the past in 1967 as Dylan going electric is now.

Try to imagine someone coming along in 1967 and not only saying this is what real revolution sounds like but simultaneously claiming that people who liked rock music with electric guitars were clinging to the past. The level of self deception at work here is mind boggling.

Back to Russonello one more time:
By implying that bands like Dawes encompass some omni-American ideal, the Americana genre doesn't just reify the notion that a white male perspective defines the American experience. It runs the risk of confusing oldness with authenticity.
That was plausible in 1967.  Since then, we've seen a lot of revolutionary ideas come and nothing much has changed. Today, it is just as plausible to ask if maybe there are some things about the human condition that just don't change come what may. That we tend to struggle with pretty much the same challenges and, therefore, the wisdom of the past is still worth listening to. They didn't know how to change the human condition but they knew how to live with it.

Dawes uses some pretty newfangled jargon here but what he is talking about is as old as humanity.

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