The third step to reforming America, with music

Summary: Listen to our music for evidence that the steam has gone from America’s engines of reform. The Sixties were the last great age of reform. It two major themes, the civil rights movement (a historic success) and the anti-war movement (a partial success), were partially powered by popular and vital music. What do we have today? How can we conjure up citizen energy when our artists remain bystanders? Or is it our apathy which leads to artists’ disinterest? These things are beyond my ken, so we consult an expert to explain the political power of music.

“Was there a time when you could say that music could change the world and be serious?”
Comment by Cathryn Mataga, who posted this video:

“If I Had A Hammer” by Peter, Paul, and Mary as broadcast on 6 April 1963 at ABC’s “Hootenanny”. See the lyrics.

Reply by Coises

It was perhaps better understood in the sixties that our social institutions derive most of their power from shared beliefs. Change what you believe, and you experience the world differently; change what a critical mass of people believe, and surely the world itself must change. Much of the counterculture was a grand experiment to see what would happen if a large number of people simply stopped believing in some things and began believing in others.

I think the results of that experiment are in, and they indicate that in practice just trying to change beliefs is usually a failing strategy—the critical mass is a much larger fraction than one might imagine. Social systems (and the beliefs that allow them to exist) are incredibly resilient: half a century after the victory of the civil rights movement, it still sucks to be black in America.

… Music can help to change the world, but it has never been enough all by itself.

I believe that reform of America will only come by breaking the box around our thinking, and offering a new way to see America and our politics. For reasons explained below, we’ll know we have hit the mother lode, the foundational love of liberty on which America was founded, when we get musical accompaniment. It can be sought, but not forced (as the Soviet Union attempted with “socialist realism” art).

Recommendation: work to recruit artists to the movement. There is more politics than “interests”, facts, and logic.

The power of music

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
—  William Shakespeare by Victor Hugo (1864), Part I, Book II, Chapter IV

To better understand the power of music, we turn to one of the great sources of insight about modern America: Allan Bloom’s  Closing of the American Mind (1987). This is an excerpt from Part One, chapter 3. Red emphasis added on the vitally important section at the end.

Though students do not have books {as an active force in their lives}, they most emphatically do have music. Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music. This is the age of music and the states of soul that accompany it. To find a rival to this enthusiasm, one would have to go back at least a century to Germany and the passion for Wagner’s operas. They had the religious sense that Wagner was creating the meaning of life and that they were not merely listening to his works but experiencing that meaning.

Today, a very large proportion of young people live for music. It is their passion; nothing else excites them as it does … The enthusiasm for Wagner was limited to a small class. The music of the new votaries knows neither class nor nation.

… The power of music in the soul — described to Jessica marvelously by Lorenzo in the Merchant of Venice — has been recovered after a long period of desuetude. And it is rock music alone that has effected this restoration. Classical music is dead among the young. … Classical music is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand.

Power of Music
By Fun98 at DeviantArt

… Symptomatic of this change is how seriously students now take the famous passages on musical education in Plato’s Republic.

In the past, students, good liberals that they always are, were indignant at the {proposed} censorship of poetry, as a threat to free inquiry. But they were really thinking of science and politics. They hardly paid attention to the discussion of music itself and, to the extent that they even thought about it, were really puzzled by Plato’s devoting time to rhythm and melody in a serious treatise on political philosophy. Their experience of music was as an entertainment, a matter of indifference to political and moral life.

Students today, on the contrary, know exactly why Plato takes music so seriously. They know it affects life very profoundly and are indignant because Plato seems to want to rob them of their most intimate pleasure. They are drawn into argument with Plato about the experience of music,

… The very fact of their fury shows how much Plato threatens what is dear and intimate to them. They are little able to defend their experience, which had seemed unquestionable until questioned, and it is most resistant to cool analysis.

Yet if a student can — and this is most difficult and unusual — draw back, get a critical distance on what he clings to, come to doubt the ultimate value of what he loves, he has taken the first and most difficult step toward the philosophic conversion. Indignation is the soul’s defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause. It justifies putting Socrates to death. Recognizing indignation for what it is constitutes knowledge of the soul, and is thus an experience more philosophic than the study of mathematics. It is Plato’s teaching that music, by its nature, encompasses all that is today most resistent to philosophy. So it may well be that through the thicket of our greatest corruption runs the path to awareness of the oldest truths.

Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses.

Power of Music
By Hardii at DeviantART

… To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul — to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness. Bach’s religious intentions and Beethoven’s revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.

Such cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity. A man whose noblest activities are accompanied by a music that expresses them while providing a pleasure extending from the lowest bodily to the highest spiritual, is whole, and there is no tension in him between the pleasant and the good. By contrast a man whose business life is prosaic and unmusical and whose leisure is made up of coarse, intense entertainments, is divided, and each side of his existence is undermined by the other.

Hence, for those who are interested in psychological health, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason. The centrality of such education was recognized by all the ancient educators. It is hardly noticed today that in Aristotle’s Politics the most important passages about the best regime concern musical education, or that the Poetics is an appendix to the Politics. Classical philosophy did not censor the singers. It persuaded them. And it gave them a goal, one that was understood by them, until only yesterday.

But those who do not notice the role of music in Aristotle and despise it in Plato went to school with Hobbes, Locke and Smith, where such considerations have become unnecessary. The triumphant Enlightenment rationalism thought that it had discovered other ways to deal with the irrational part of the soul, and that reason needed less support from it.

Only in those great critics of Enlightenment and rationalism, Rousseau and Nietzsche, does music return, and they were the most musical of philosophers. Both thought that the passions — and along with them their ministerial arts — had become thin under the rule of reason and that, therefore, man himself and what he sees in the world have become correspondingly thin. They wanted to cultivate the enthusiastic states of the soul and to re-experience the Corybantic possession deemed a pathology by Plato. Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it.

The Power of Music
By CaCaDoo at diviantART.

Other posts about Reforming America,

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about reforming America, the steps to political change., the most requested subject on the FM website. Also see these posts about music and revitalizing America:

  1. A great artist died today. We can gain inspiration from his words., 26 June 2009 — About the Man in the Mirror
  2. The New America needs a new national anthem! Here’s my nomination., 24 November 2012
  3. Listen to hear the state of America (and its cure) explained in song, 8 February 2013

A closing note

Please post in the comments your favorite songs on the theme of reforming America.

Peter Paul and Mary’s “Blowing in the Wind” (1963). See the lyrics.

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13 thoughts on “The third step to reforming America, with music

  1. But how the new generations are supposed to get the message from the music if they’re thinking is outside of the paradigm? How to understand what means “Blowing in the wind” if you never tried to change the world alone and they tell you “You are blowing in the wind”?

    There is the music today that you ask for but kids are out of paradigm, they chase girls or boys, or both, that is what is on their mind now. Such music is not in since majority of people are not in the mood, and corporations are not seeing a market for it so it is not pushed out to be seen.

    When the times come i.e. when people start thinking in such terms, such music will pop out.

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  2. But there is another paradigm that is much larger at historic timeline- globalisation, as in United World without national borders.
    Most of all inspirational music is considered within a nation, raising patriotism which is a dam to uniting the world that is underway now. This GFC will reduce movement that is underway toward uniting but it will come back.
    If you consider the history of Europe after Roman Empire, Europe have been uniting from small cities as states in medieval times to countries and to EU at the present. Most of the uniting in the history came through wars to cover linguistic bonds teritory. EU is an attempt to unite without war and in multiple language area. Probably will not succede, but general trend in the world is Globalisation/ uniting powered by corporations first. Money is great motivator.

    Present youth in EU is already taking EU without borders as granted. they will not give it up easy.

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  3. Bruce Springsteen: “The ghost of Tom Joad” (From the tonight show)
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    Jackson Browne: “Casino Nation”
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    Sheryl Crow: “Out Of Our Heads”
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    Sheryl Crow: “Love Is Free”
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    Asylum Street Spankers: “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV”
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    And this one, because it’s mine — Randy Fellmy (aka Coises): “Rising Up to Shut You Down”

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  4. Bugger the Bankers is great. Like the Peter, Paul and Mary tunes, it is naturally participatory. That is something almost entirely lost in music after 1970. Contemporary music is meant to be consumed, not invoked.

    I think congregations still sing in churches, but that’s about it; and over the past couple decades something else has happened: we do more and more of our listening with ear buds. An important part of the power of music is shared experience, and there is much less of that now.

    I was about to share “Bugger the Bankers” on my Facebook timeline, when I remembered that I had just been involved in a discussion about Swiss banks and the United States. (Sorry the link only works for Facebook users, but it’s far too long to copy here.) That set me to thinking.

    Yeats words are a cliché by now, but we surely live in his world:

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    — William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

    No simply rational movement survives long; pondering the limitless host of details and ambiguities that beset any serious consideration of anything in the modern world, all strength is spent before anything is achieved. Yet, seek “to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources,” and soon Yeats’ rough beast arises, in the form of a mindless horde which knows nothing except what it wants (see: Tea Party).

    What can create motivation and engagement that are robust in the face of adversity without fanning the fires of tribalism and ignorance, which already are the greatest impediments to reform?

    I do not know.

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  5. Yeah, so as the master aesthetician Benedetto Croce, who restated the Romantic aesthetic in 20th century terms, pointed out, Plato was limited in that he only recognized certain limited forms of knowledge. Plato’s exclusion of the arts from the well regulated polis was, in a very direct sense, a denial of the human experience itself. This is not to say, as Bloom advised, that Rousseau or Nietzsche had the answer, either, as they characterized what they didn’t like as dry, stilted and emotionally detached. I don’t think it was any of those three–they just didn’t like the fact that people weren’t doing what they wanted them to do–and that was, for sure, a good thing, as each of them was misguided.

    There’s a lot of music the underpins the lives of most people, from the latest youth rock to the global affinity for jazz, to the over million hits for Artur Rubinstein on YouTube, to the bumper stickers in my hometown of Cleveland for its marvelous orchestra. But, the music, like people’s thoughts, is as diverse as can be, which is why you’re not going to get people to act the way you want, even though your goals are admirable.

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  6. Lately I’ve been thinking that Aesop Rock is an amazing translator and critic of American culture.

    Wikipedia:
    He has tattoos on each forearm. His left arm says the words “Must Not Sleep…”, and the right says “…Must Warn Others”, which are quotes inspired by the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

    Aesop Rock- Basic Cable

    Many American artists say that jazz is the greatest contribution that America has made to world culture. Jazz and hip-hop are both based on musical quotations and audio samples: this unites jazz and hip-hop.

    I hope more people contribute to this thread in the future (even if presently it seemingly takes an infinite time to load).

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