Got a letter from Corona, Calif., the home of Centennial High School. My correspondent began, “I thought you might be interested in hearing this, because it will remind you of Ann Arbor” — Ann Arbor, Mich., my hometown. “Friday night,” said the correspondent, “was our homecoming game. At halftime, we usually get parade floats, made by the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes.” But not this year. “We were treated to marchers from United Latino Students, the Filipino Student Union, the Black Student Union . . . It was amazing how the students were segregating themselves at an event where everyone comes to cheer on a team with blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Asians, all of whom care about the team colors and no others.”
A sad letter, really. This was one of the things that most repulsed me when I was growing up: the constant identification by race, the constant dwelling on race, the constant dividing up by race. This was all done by “liberals,” of course — but, in a way, George Wallace, Orval Faubus, Lester Maddox, and all them ol’ “segs” would have heartily approved. This was a big reason for my rejection of “liberalism” as I found it. I liked the old ideal, and the old motto: E pluribus unum, or Out of many, one. I thought that Balkanization was causing much unnecessary upset and pain.
But you know all this, having heard it — having lived it — over and over . . .
I think of the old liberals, like those who set up Americans for Democratic Action. Could they have imagined that, one day, “liberalism” would come to mean speech codes on college campuses and parades-by-tribe at high-school halftimes? Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was one old liberal who did not like this new day: which is why, to me, his most gratifying book is The Disuniting of America. (Schlesinger, for the record, was not in favor of this disuniting.)
For years and years, liberal-minded Americans struggled for all Americans to be Americans, without regard to race or ethnicity. The evanescence of race and ethnicity into an Americanism, or a humanity, was the consummation devoutly to be wished. But then, everything . . . changed. And skin or blood became the be-all, end-all. What a disgusting turns of events, don’t you think?
I guess, if it were up to me, I would ban race- and ethnicity-based clubs in schools, certainly public ones. But this is an outlook that is weirdly, surprisingly un-modern.
‐I appreciate the candor of left-wing congressmen from Massachusetts. The other day, Barney Frank said, “We are trying on every front to increase the role of government.” Well, of course — and thank you for the frank (Frank?) acknowledgement! Frank was also the guy who said that a “public option” plan in health care was “the best way to reach single-payer.” He proceeded to say it was not only the best way but “the only way.” Again, of course — and thank you.
Then there is Rep. Ed Markey. Referring to “cap and trade” legislation, he said, “This is revolutionary” — and it is. Though not, sad to say, in a positive — in a 1776 — way.
‐Some days ago, there was an interesting moment on MSNBC. I wrote about it on the Corner, here. Contessa Brewer, an anchorwoman, was introducing Jesse Jackson — but she introduced him as Al Sharpton. Jackson, staring into the camera, said, “I’m Rev. Jesse Jackson.” Oh, is he — and Sharpton must have loved it.
One of my points was, Brewer is lucky she works for a network known as left-wing. What if an anchorman at Fox had made that mistake? Can you imagine the outcry? “Those right-wing racists can’t even tell two black men apart! Typical.”
And this leads me to a note I received from a reader:
When I clerked at the Supreme Court, advocates got the two female justices mixed up on three separate occasions. Must have been some dirtbaggy good ol’ boys, right? Nope. The vaunted liberal Larry Tribe, once, and another vaunted liberal — acting solicitor general Walter Dellinger — twice. There was no such thing as the blogosphere then, but the number of outraged stories that appeared at the time was exactly the number that would appear now (i.e., 1 trillion fewer than if some conservative had done the same thing).
‐Have you had a chance to peruse the new issue of National Review? You can find it in digital form here. My particular contribution is a piece on an interesting, maddening case: Nurre v. Whitehead. What is this? Well, in Washington State, there is a high school named for Scoop Jackson — Henry M. Jackson High School, in Mill Creek, outside of Everett. The school had had a little tradition, whereby the wind ensemble got to play a piece of its choice at graduation. But in 2006, there was a problem: The ensemble wanted to play Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria. And the superintendent of schools said no: because playing this piece — even in a strictly instrumental version, no words — would constitute an “endorsement” of religion.
If you think this is bizarre, you are not alone.
A student in the ensemble, Kathryn Nurre, sued. And the case went to the federal district court in Seattle and then to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The student lost, and the school superintendent won, in each court. The student’s backers are hoping that the Supreme Court will hear the case and rebuke the lower courts, providing clear and sane guidelines. The Ninth Circuit has a happy tradition of being overturned. And they are a little funny when it comes to religion — these are the people, remember, who banned the Pledge of Allegiance, for a time (because of “under God”).
I will not rehash the Nurre case in Impromptus — you can read about it in NR — but I’d like to say a few additional words. Biebl’s Ave Maria is less known than Schubert’s, or the one Gounod made from the Bach prelude. But it is an extraordinary, beautiful, transcendent piece. In 1964, Biebl wrote it for a choir of firemen in Munich. (Fire departments were different, long ago and far away.) It eventually made its way to our shores, picked up and spread by Chanticleer, the a cappella group from San Francisco. It is their signature encore. Audiences wait for it and do not want to leave without it. Robert Shaw also recorded it, with his Chamber Singers.
If you don’t know this piece, you’ll want to treat yourself to it.
I also want to highlight the dissent by Milan Smith. He was on the three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit, and that vote was 2 against 1 — with Smith being the 1, of course. Just listen for a second:
I am concerned that, if the majority’s reasoning on this issue becomes widely adopted, the practical effect will be for public school administrators to chill — or even kill — musical and artistic presentations by their students . . . where those presentations contain any trace of religious inspiration, for fear of criticism by a member of the public, however extreme that person’s views may be.
The First Amendment neither requires nor condones such a result. The taking of such unnecessary measures by school administrators will only foster the increasingly sterile and hypersensitive way in which students may express themselves . . . and hasten the retrogression of our young into a nation of Philistines, who have little or no understanding of our civic and cultural heritage.
In my NR piece, I talk a little about the nature of music. The school superintendent admitted that she didn’t know what the words “Ave Maria” meant. (They have to do with a football pass.) But she knew they related to religion, and that’s why she felt she needed to block the piece. She did not want the title printed in the graduation program. In my article, I ask, What if the wind ensemble had said the piece was called something else — not “Ave Maria,” but “Against the Despoliation of the Earth,” or “The Peace of Islam,” or “Ode to Obama”? Would that have been all right? And I was reminded of something that Ned Rorem told me, years ago. He is the famed American composer, of course, and I interviewed him around the time of his 80th birthday. I wrote it up for NRO, here. An excerpt:
Nordlinger: Is music ever “about” anything? Could John Corigliano’s AIDS Symphony possibly be about AIDS?
Rorem: No. A composer will go to some lengths to tell you that something is about something. Take La Mer. If the audience were unalerted, you could tell them that the first part was about slaughterhouses in Paris, the second part about having coffee at La Flore, and the third part about bordellos: They’d believe it, if you told them that. If you play a piece an audience has never heard before and say, “Will everyone in the room please write down what he thinks the piece is about?” you’ll have as many interpretations as there are people.
A piece without a text, without a vocal line, can’t mean detailed things like Tuesday, butter, or yellow, and it can’t even mean general things like death or love or the weather, although a timpani roll can sound like thunder, and certain conventions about love come out of Wagner. And things change. The minor mode didn’t even mean sad 200 years ago.
Nordlinger: Give me an example.
Rorem: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
School officials in Washington did not want “Ave Maria” on the program because they figured it would put people in mind of God or religion — and that is impermissible at a graduation. I believe that, here, we are in the vicinity of “thought-crime.”
At the end of my piece in NR, I tell a little story — a strange, vexing story. A singer I know was asked to sing at a Christmas-tree lighting in a prominent plaza — major American city. The organizers did not call the tree a “Christmas tree,” of course. They called it a “holiday tree.” But it was a Christmas tree. They asked the singer to sing “O Christmas Tree” and “Silent Night.” But they would not let her sing the carols in English. They made her sing them in German — because fewer people would know German, and words like “Christmas tree” and “Virgin” would not ring out over American ears.
Are these the end times we’re living in, or merely odd and wrong times?
Finally, want to share with you a note from a friend of mine: “At my kids’ school, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ was censored by the music teacher, with humming over the ‘offensive’ parts. So the carol came out, ‘Silent night, mmmm, mmm, mmm, mmmm / All is calm, all is bright / Mmmm mmm mmmmmmm . . . You get the point.” I do. And it is a revolting point. Besides which, said my friend, other songs are not censored: not Native American chants to the Great Spirit, not Kwanzaa songs, not Hanukah songs, not odes to the Norse gods — just the Christian ones.
Look, on Nurre v. Whitehead: I barely scratched the surface here. Even in my magazine piece, the surface is barely scratched. This is a rich, rich topic, legally, musically, culturally, and otherwise. It brings on Big Civilizational Thoughts. And let’s continue to think them . . .
‐Every once in a while, I have Fun with Bumper Stickers, or Un-fun with Bumper Stickers, as the case may be. Recently, I cited a particularly obnoxious one from Ann Arbor: “I think, therefore I don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh.” According to the reader who wrote to tell me about this, this sticker was on a hybrid SUV — and the very notion of a hybrid SUV is sort of funny in itself. I could just see the woman driving this vehicle, with the aid of my reader’s description. Know the type well. She might even be called Miss Ann Arbor.
Anyway, another reader from that town wrote me to say, “Yesterday, I saw one of the best bumper stickers ever: ‘Ann Arbor — where bumper stickers really matter.’” The reader continued, “I laughed myself silly until it occurred to me that maybe the guy wasn’t trying to be ironic . . .”
And a note from one more reader — not necessarily in Ann Arbor: “Jay, I saw a bumper sticker today that said, ‘Thank GOD!’ with the ‘O’ replaced by the Obama rising-sun design.” Of course. (I trust I am not alone in finding this at least mildly nauseating.)
‐Would like to mention a book by my friend Michael Walsh. It’s a novel called Hostile Intent, and I wrote a blurb for it, confiding that this book “kept me up most of the night. Hold on, is all I can tell you.” So, if you don’t mind staying up through the night . . .
P.S. Michael is also a music critic, and this leads me to mention a couple of other things — they came up when I spoke on Wednesday to a group of students at the Juilliard School. Harold C. Schonberg, the late music critic of the New York Times, reviewed mysteries and thrillers, sort of on the side: under the name Newgate Callendar. And Neville Cardus, the late English writer, wore two journalistic hats: He was a music critic and a cricket correspondent.
Just one subject or shtick, some of us have found, makes Jack a dull, or dullish, boy . . .
‐May I end with a headline? In this column over the years, we have sometimes had Fun with Headlines. Earlier this week, I spotted, “Danish film of neo-Nazi gay affair wins Rome fest.” Somehow, that seemed just about the perfect modern headline (or as Gilbert & Sullivan might put it, the very model of a modern headline).
See you, dearhearts, and thanks for joining me.