Thursday, October 10, 2013

Operatic Justice

To my surprise and pleasure, our local public radio affiliate reversed its decision to remove the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts that have aired every Saturday afternoon for many years.  It turned out there was more support for the Met than had at first appeared, and station management had to back down.  Not too surprisingly, they weren't happy at having lost this battle, and I'm sure it was totally coincidental that an IU Music School alum and former music director and "director of new media," whatever that means, for the local station, wrote a letter to the editors of an online magazine "for people in public media" to denounce the reversal.
The reversal may have been a victory for classical-music lovers of Bloomington, but I see it as a serious setback to the station and new evidence that WFIU is being held captive by a small group of listeners who put their own interests over the station’s public-service mission ...

Bloomington is a well-educated, mostly affluent, highly connected college town. But WFIU broadcasts to a large swath of southern Indiana, with translators extending its reach to largely rural communities such as French Lick. Many of these communities are, or are in the process of becoming, news deserts, with limited local news coverage, lower broadband penetration and less access to online news. Over-the-air broadcast still really matters to these communities.

Even if we ignore the metrics-based, hard-business case that calls for WFIU to introduce more news coverage to its broadcast service and focus solely on its public-service mission, the station management’s decision to devote more of the weekend schedule to news and information was the right one.
In principle this sounded reasonable enough, until I remembered that the programming changes had little or nothing to do with "news and information": rather, they involved replacing the opera with mostly game-show programming -- middle-brow game-show programming, to be sure, but still hardly the noble mission the writer tried to make it seem to be.  If the station management wanted to go by a "metrics-based, hard business" criterion, why not add some sports programming?  Why not a hip-hop program?  (That would probably have caused strokes among the largely geriatric Met fans, creating some openings on the Community Advisory Board.)  I'm sure there was no ventriloquism from the Bloomington affiliate's management to the Director of Technology of the Investigative News Network in Columbus Ohio; this is just a matter of number-crunching technocrats thinking alike, and control-obsessed managers outraged that the rabble dared to challenge their decisions, and won.  The divide between his pious pretensions and the actual new programming was a giveaway of the extent of management's distance from the ethos of public media.

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number One, one of the classical-music mavens who led the opposition the change, was furious.  He linked to the letter on Facebook, and fumed:
This is outrageous. If the Saturday programming had actually been "news" instead of the pop cultural swill that it was, it would not have been so bad. Dinner Party Download? Really?!!! How in the world does that suport [sic] the educational mission of Indiana University?
The link set off some discussion in comments, and in answer to one of his friends who hadn't bothered to look for the letter-writer's biographical information -- listed not only as a note but in the body of the letter -- RWA1 wrote that the writer
was once a music student and WFIU techno person who has gone full time into a variety of media consulting. I think he has been seduced by the dark side of IT and techno people and forgotten his roots. That clown posse seems to be determined to dismantle western civilization brick by brick until all we have left is ragged shreds of "light classics" barely covering an emaciated torso of half-educated "wits" and chattering news mavens. Public radio forsooth! For this we are to be paying taxes when there are hundreds of channels of half-wit entertainment and political chatter? Fie!
That's a mind running on autopilot.  I called RWA1 out a week or so ago for this kind of frothing, quoting one of his own rants back at him: "Apocalyptic hysteria is always cropping up, but the conspiracy fantasies are really getting out of hand with the internet."  As you can see, RWA1 is fine with apocalyptic hysteria and conspiracy theorizing when he's the one doing it.  (But who isn't?)  So we have a "clown posse" on the "dark side" seducing innocent music-school graduates into "dismant[ing] western civilization brick by brick," etc.  I considered posting an allusion to authentic frontier gibberish to the comments, perhaps modifying it to something like "authentic right-wing gibberish," but I realized that such sniping, while fun, wasn't really what I wanted to do.  This time.

As I ruminated on this while out for a walk, though, I tried to figure out where the gap between reality and fantasy lay here.  In general, the kind of people RWA1 was attacking don't see themselves as trying (or wanting) to dismantle western civilization.  The letter writer began his polemic, predictably enough, by professing his love for classical music, and I believe him.  He probably doesn't see Western art music as RWA1 does; when he attended the Jacobs School, it was probably as a performer -- and classically trained musicians see their music very differently than their audiences do.

But then I remembered that many people on the American political right do hate "Western civilization."  If they profess allegiance to it, they're generally coming from a position of profound historical and cultural ignorance, preferring edifying myths about both history and culture.  Remember the Right's ebullient contempt for "old Europe" when European governments didn't fall eagerly into line with Bush/Cheney's war on terror?  Lawrence W. Levine showed in The Opening of the American Mind (Beacon, 1996) that educated, elite Americans have always been ambivalent about Western civilization, and often tried to cast America as a new, independent cultural force in the world.  And there's always been a strong streak of philistinism in American society, combined with a vague feeling that art is good for you, like sunshine.  You don't have to understand it, or think about it -- thinking is dangerous, and probably leftist -- but just being exposed to it builds strong bones.  (But hey, it can also cause cancer.)

In particular I thought of the Right's campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Though its public-relations arms focused on scandalous avant-garde work like Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ" (whose title alone could cause the veins in Republican foreheads to throb painfully) or exhibits of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography, a lot of public support for the arts goes to local-level arts education.  Shakespeare, for example.  Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation in 1996 that
The Bard's popularity is not entirely due to his own fabulousness, after all: A rather elaborate network of educational and community resources has ensured that hundreds of thousands of students in secondary school are introduced to the plays in an exciting, intelligent way.  Around the country, though these programs -- the teacher-training projects of Massachusetts's Shakespeare & Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library, which also runs a celebrated monthlong summer Teaching Shakespeare Institute; the school performances of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre -- are struggling under federal and state cutbacks, including major slashings at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education.

These federal agencies are held in horror, of course, by canon defenders, who fought long and hard and apparently successfully to delegitimize them in the public eye.  Defund the left -- remember that slogan -- by defunding education?  Talk about destroying the village in order to save it!  But who points out that Lynne Cheney and other canon conservatives are depriving students of the ability to appreciate the very literature they claim to care about?  [reprinted in Katha Pollitt, Subject to Debate (The Modern Library, 2001), 101].
But the ginned-up hysteria (NSFW!) over Mapplethorpe's "Man in Polyester Suit" (ditto!) was really just cover (see, I've got my own conspiracy theories, but this one is a fairly open one) for a general attack on the Commons, on public institutions and services generally.  The Right doesn't care whether American public schools are failing: they oppose public education altogether.  The Right doesn't care if public broadcasting is too "liberal": it opposes public broadcasting altogether, though right-wingers have been happy to use PBS when it gave them a podium.  (Much as RWA1 is willing to put up with NPR's fantasized liberalism in order to get his taxpayer-subsidized opera fix.)  Ratings-obsessed managers and consultants would probably have gained a foothold in public radio stations in any case, but the Right's successful campaign to cut support for public broadcasting -- thus throwing it on the mercy of corporate "donors" -- helped them to legitimize their perspective.

So RWA1 is experiencing the backwash of his party's war on the Commons, much as the Tea Party's corporate sugar daddies are worrying now about their beneficiaries' shutdown of the US government: they are perfectly happy to attack the government, as long as it doesn't hurt their business.  Since they are inextricably tied to and dependent on government services in myriad ways, there is no way a failure of the government could fail to hurt them; but it never occurred to them that their creatures would ungratefully injure the Libertarian billionaires who helped them get started.  Attacking public broadcasting was bound to affect the cultural products that people like RWA1 value, but No One Could Have Foreseen that.  Elitists always imagine that they'll be taken care of, and usually they are.  They enjoy siccing the mob on competing elitists, because it never occurs to them that the pitchforks and torches might someday appear outside their doors.