Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War

Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War
by Penny M. Von Eschen

Penny Von Eschen raises the question as to whether music can be a universal language, transcending national boundaries and communicating with all people regardless of language or social barriers. Can music act as a “tool for global transformation?” She suggests that American jazz was such a universal language acting as a bridge to other cultures. The key ingredient appears to be the individualistic nature of jazz. Jazz carries a subtext of individualism, of personal expression, and of the possibility of freedom. There are serious claims that the Cold War was won largely by American blue jeans and music presenting an alternative societal vision to the Communist bloc.

As appealing as this view is, it appears na├»ve and romantic. Cultural influence is a form “soft” power as opposed to “hard” power which is economic and military. As Mao Tse Tung once observed, “all power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Countries with more hard power tend to have more soft power (i.e. cultural influence). Thus after the Second World War, British and French cultural hegemony in the Third World declined as American and Soviet cultural influence rose. As much as American culture may have influenced the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, forty five years of military containment and the collapse of the Soviet economy probably played more decisive roles.

Can the world be changed by song? Problematic. When the artist creates a song the meaning of the song passes to the audience. Thus a jazz listener in Africa during the Cold War might respond to jazz because, “to speak English as an American, put him in the vanguard”. In addition, “to be liberated (from French colonial rule) was to be exposed to R&B….” an alternative source of cultural capital. (Von Eschen, 178). How the audience receives the song and what meaning it fashions from the song may be totally removed from the artist’s original intent.

More problematic yet is that artists are in and of their culture and cannot necessarily transcend it. While an artist may oppose certain aspects of the culture, he/she is also a product of that culture. Thus, the same individualism, personal expression and possibility of freedom that is found appealing within Western culture may be totally anathema, for example, within the context of traditional Islamic culture. American music, as a product of a secular Western consumer society, may be perceived by both the elites and the masses in traditional religious non-consumer societies as part of overall American cultural imperialism, as opposed to something benign.

Since we do not have a universal world culture, and many political scientists posit that we are in an era characterized by the “clash of civilizations”, policy makers will assess the merits of using music as a “tool/weapon” in this struggle of competing civilizations. For example, Western societies embrace notions of gender equality. Islamic culture largely rejects this western value. Thus American policy makers might use American cultural products to target the aspirations of Islamic women for power/political purposes. However unwittingly, the artist becomes an agent of cultural imperialism in its broadest sense.

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Review: The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn.

The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn.

Goodwyn’s 1978 book, published in the post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era, is heavily laden with Marxist analysis and argues, “The agrarian revolt demonstrated how intimidated people could create for themselves the psychological space to dare to aspire grandly….” Consensus did not exist, the meaning of the agrarian revolt was its cultural assertion as a people’s movement of mass democratic aspiration against entrenched interests to which “the plain people” were diametrically opposed.(Goodwyn, 295) The Populists were attempting to bring the corporate state under democratic control.

Goodwyn argues that how money was created, and on what basis it circulated, defined in critical ways the relationships of farmers, urban workers, and commercial participants in the emerging industrial state. The government’s reliance on the gold standard meant deflation, which translated into the long postwar fall of farm prices. (Goodwyn, 24) High interest rates benefited only creditors and moneylenders. Furnishing merchants, for example, demanded that their debtors plant one certain cash crop, cotton. “No cotton, no credit”. If the farmer failed to “pay out” he still owed the merchant a remaining balance for the supplies furnished on credit during the year. Such was the crop lien system. The crop lien system became for millions of Southerners, little more than slavery. (Goodwyn 21-25) To the nation’s farmers, contraction of the money supply, caused by business’ insistence on “hard currency”, was a “mass tragedy”. Farmers had three choices, they could put their hopes on more efficient farming, they could concentrate their energies on economic cooperatives, or they could organize and secure changes in the regulations that governed the relations between different classes of citizens. (Goodwyn, 109) When economic cooperatives failed, farmers turned to politics. Goodwyn argues that business and financial entrepreneurs had achieved effective control of a restructured American party system in both the North and the South and farmers had little choice but to turn to politics if they were to “…(achieve) a civic culture grounded in generous social relations and in a celebration of the vitality of human cooperation and the diversity of human aspiration itself ” (Goodwyn, 292) The Populist Movement was the product of an insurgent culture that grew out of the gradual raising of class consciousness as farmers struggled against bankers and financiers. (Goodwyn, 61)

Goodwyn argues that Populism was a insurgent democratic movement who’s time had not yet come. “What could a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon Alliance organizer say to the largely Catholic, largely immigrant urban working classes of the North….In 1892, what (Populism) lacked was a social theory of sufficient breadth to appeal to all….”(Goodwyn, 177) The agrarian movement achieved the politicization of masses of people, however it was still unable to break the bonds of inherited political habits. Populist attempts to construct a national farmer-labor coalition came before the fledgling American labor movement was internally prepared for mass insurgent politics. (Goodwyn, 297) Goodwyn argues, “A consensus thus came to be silently ratified: reform politics need not concern itself with structural alteration of the economic customs of the society. This conclusion, of course, had the effect of removing from mainstream reform politics the idea of people in an industrial society gaining significant degrees of autonomy in the structure of their own lives.” (Goodwyn, 284)

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The Populists and the Progressives

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, New York: Random House, 1955

Richard Hofstadter examines the great American reform movements from 1890 - 1940 (the Populist Movement, Progressivism, and the New Deal) and asks: (1) What were the ideas of the participants? and (2) How did Populism and Progressivism differ from the New Deal?

The ideology of the Populist movement reflected the American agrarian myth (the virtues of the independent yeoman farmer). Urbanization and industrialization, coupled with a virtual “immigrant invasion” gave rise to the notion of an innocent and victimized rural population. Populism insisted that the federal government had some responsibility for the common welfare, “The people versus the interests, the public versus the plutocrats, the toiling multitude versus the money power….” (Hofstadter, 65) Failure at the ballot box (the defeat of the third party bid to capture the White House) led rural interests to pursue modern methods of pressure politics and lobbying within the framework of the existing party system where they were largely successful in accomplishing their economic goals. (Hofstadter, 95)

The Progressive movement was urban, middleclass and nationwide. Progressives (like the Populists) were native born Protestants. Corporations, labor unions, and political machines (which organized incoming immigrants) were aggregating and presenting unorganized citizens the prospect that they would be unable to resist the new forces. The Progressive movement was “the complaint of the unorganized against the consequences of organization.” (Hofstadter, 216) Progressivism tried to restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the great corporations and the corrupt political machines.(Hofstadter, 5)

Hofstadter argues that Populism and Progressivism were driven by moral absolutes arising from the Protestant evangelical tradition. He suggests that to some degree both the Populists and Progressives were deluded by these ideological motivations which did not align with either their true economic interests or the necessity for new organizational modes required by a more advanced technological society. He argues for example that, “The prosperity of the commercial farmers was achieved not only in spite of but in good part because of the rise of American industry and the American city”. (Hofstadter, 110) Hofstadter argues that Progressives were trying to keep the benefits of the emerging organization of life and yet to retain the scheme of individualistic values that this organization was destroying. (Hofstadter, 217) Hofstadter’s central argument is that modern organizational necessities trumped ideology, “In their search for mechanical guarantees of continued popular control the reformers were trying to do something altogether impossible…to institutionalize a mood.” (Hofstadter, 266) Neither the Populists nor the Progressives offered an effective countervailing organizational structure for the realization of their reform goals. The New Deal, which was above all else pragmatic and boldly experimental, offered such an alternative organizational structure, pro-active big government.

How effective is Hofstadter’s argument? His deconstruction of the “soft” and “hard” motives of the Reformers is illuminating. He basically suggests that there was no inherent conflict between the new emerging organizations and the Protestant farmers and middle class who made up the Reform movements. Farmers’ economic interest benefited from the advent of urbanization and industrialization. In absolute terms, the native middle class also enjoyed material benefits. Hofstadter’s view is perhaps too materialistic. Progressives at the time argued that the nation was enjoying prosperity but losing its soul. “Anything that makes the organization greater than the man…is against all the principles of progress.” (Hofstadter, 226) Hofstadter appears to have little patience with intangibles and projects a firm believe in the values of pragmatism. To dismiss intangibles, however, is to deny the importance of irrational motives in history. There are, however, numerous historical examples of people and nations acting in ways inconsistent with their apparent self interest (e.g. the continuation of the slaughter in World War I long after the point where any conceivable goal could justify the cost).

Hofstadter’s concentration on the “critical path” of history, determined by emergent technical and social forces, is a powerful analytical technique. Basically his argument runs: The growth of big organizations was inevitable in a more complex technical and social environment. “Soft motives”, like the myth of the yeoman farmer, always lag behind the emerging necessities of modernity. Such old myths may produce social anxieties but may also have uses in softening transitions between historical periods (e.g. reform movements). “The rise of big business may have been inevitable, but if so it was salutary that it should have taken place in a climate of opinion that threw it intermittently on the defensive”. (Hofstadter, 255)

Hofstadter’s book is a product of the 1950s and makes virtually no mention of either women or African Americans which will be jarring for the modern reader.

The Gilded Age and Revolution

Love, Sex and Marriage in Victorian America

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Saturday, March 14, 2009