When politicians dictate how the music should sound: Lessons from Shostakovich

shost7_1_mThere was a saying popular among anti-war protestors of the 1960s. Just because you’re paranoid, don’t think they’re not out to get you.

We have even more reason to wonder about who is spying on our personal conversations today because technology can practically read our minds. For those of us exposed to the futuristic novels of the 1970’s and 80’s, the model is already in our heads. We just have to change the names and characters.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is because I happened to hear a segment on NPR recently about the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich. He wrote a symphony during the Stalin era that mightily displeased those with the power to dictate what music should sound like. They preferred something rousing and militaristic. Dmitry was condemned and almost sent to a gulag.

So, very cleverly, he wrote another symphony more to the liking of the militarists in power but with a subtext recognizable as satire by lovers of great music. Saved from the gulag, he went on to greatness.

Do you believe in odd coincidences? They seem to jump out at me constantly. The day after I heard the story on NPR about Shostakovich, James Risen was on Jon Stewart’s show. Risen writes for the New York Times and has been researching topics that the militarists in our country would rather he didn’t. For that, he and other journalists have been harassed, forced to pay thousands of dollars in attorney fees, and might possibly end up in jail. Yes, there are people in power in our country who dictate how the music should sound.

Risen was on The Daily Show to talk about his new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.

One reviewer sums the book’s intent this way:
Still, his core message resonates. “We have scared the hell out of ourselves,” he quotes an expert on terrorism as saying. That conclusion is a fitting epitaph for the first decade of the current century. Mr. Risen certainly makes the case in this book that America has lost much in its lashing out against terrorism, and that Congress and the people need to wake up and ask more questions about the political, financial, moral and cultural costs of that campaign.

In another odd coincidence this past week, I happened to find in a pile of articles a review of Risen’s earlier work on how America was lied into war in 2003. He wrote in 2006 that there was plenty of evidence that Iraq had closed down its program to develop nuclear weapons, but the people who tried to get that information to the top level of decision-makers were silenced. None of that testimony was included in the National Intelligence Estimate that was used to convince Congress to vote for war in 2002. The demonstration of “evidence” by Secretary State Colin Powell at the UN in February 2003 was manufactured to fit a plan already written by Bush administration militarists.

We all know the expression “stretching the truth.” In Greek mythology, there is a character named Procrustes who offers travelers a meal and a bed for the night. If the wayfarer doesn’t fit the bed, Procrustes makes him fit by either stretching him on the rack or chopping his legs off. Hold that thought.

In a Fox News interview during the early days of the 2nd Iraq War, Vice President Cheney said that we would look back “ten years hence” and see that we had fundamentally changed the course of history in the Middle East. I think we can all agree that that life has changed for millions of families in Iraq as well as many other countries in that region. Most of us do not think the situation is much of an improvement for the vast majority of citizens in those war torn countries.

But, if the goal was to replace communism as the enemy which served the military so well during the Cold War with a new, equally difficult to define enemy, the opening of the tinder box in the Middle East has served its purpose.

President Obama inherited multiple foreign policy disasters. He has tried to wind down American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that doesn’t serve the purposes of the national security state and the war profiteers. Sen. Mitch McConnell set out to make Obama a one-term president. He couldn’t pull that off, so he set in motion the next best thing. Destroy the credibility of the man in the White House who wants to keep Americans out of other people’s wars.

Our democratic process has turned into what one writer for Salon calls kabuki theatre, a “pantomime: the fading shadow of a system that in essence, if not in law, has nearly reached a complete stop.” The writer concludes that the self-proclaimed oldest democracy in the world lacks the basics of real self-government: unfettered access to the polls, accountability to the voters by politicians, competition among candidates to discern the people’s will and real options for those who feel they are not being heard. (Salon, 11/4/14, Elias Isquith)

Examples abound of politicians ignoring the will of the people. Whether it’s raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, making it easier for bright young people to afford post-secondary education, or facing the racial disparities in our culture, our appeals fall on deaf ears.

Power is so concentrated at the top and the oligarchy is doing such a good job of fencing off anyone who objects, we, the people, don’t stand a chance. When the 99% rose up in 2011-12, what happened? They were tolerated briefly until it became apparent that they might actually build an influential constituency. Their big mistake was to take on Wall Street. That had to be nipped in the bud, and so the “occupiers” were ridiculed in the media, made to look like bums and fools in the evening news, and eventually saw their encampments destroyed by the police. That wasn’t just in NYC’s Zuccotti Park either. Some of us attended events held at Kiener Plaza in St. Louis and brought food and blankets to the protesters camped out there. Under the guise of concern for the health and safety of the citizens, the City of St. Louis decision-makers ordered the encampment destroyed.

Two things are happening right now that deserve our attention. President Obama is insisting that Congress authorize spending billions more on the “war on terror” which will include sending a few thousand more Americans into harm’s way in Iraq. Nowhere in the discussion do we hear how we were misled into opening that Pandora’s box in 2003. Is the media forbidden to do historical analysis? Or do they choose to turn a blind eye to what a disaster our policies have been in that region? If people like James Risen are being harassed for documenting the lies that we were sold in 2003, how is that different from the kind of pressure applied to Russian dissidents during the Stalin era?

Locally the story to watch is a plan to eliminate Kiener Plaza as an amphitheater for rallies, protests and public meetings. The powers-that-be want to fill in the area below ground, cover it over with grass and, in truth, bury it. The “reasons” given are a real stretching of the truth. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of us who have been watching the takeover of our democratic system by people as ruthless as Procrustes. Sadly, the majority of citizens prefer to ignore what is happening right under their noses. So Mitch McConnell, the man who vowed to destroy the Obama presidency and any hope we might have for some semblance of economic and social justice, will control the most important deliberative body in the world. Here in Missouri, we will be entertained by the puppets in Jefferson City who work for what a cartoonist in the Gilded Age called “malefactors of great wealth.”

A few of us will continue our attempts to explain to voters what is happening while they are not paying attention. It’s the least we can do for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But it’s much more complicated than that.