Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Western Music and Modernity 

This is a great article. Here's the beginning setup:
It is possible to modernize without Westernizing? This is the dream of despots around the world. Leaders as diverse as Mao on the Left and Khomeini on the Right seek a high-growth economy and a powerful military -- without the pesky distractions of democracy, the rule of law, and the whole notion of the pursuit of happiness. They welcome American medical and military technology but reject its political philosophy or popular culture. Technology shorn of cultural baggage is their ideal.

Sad for them, fully reaping the benefits of Western creativity requires an immersion into the Western culture that produced it. Modernity does not exist by itself, but is inextricably attached to its makers. High rates of economic growth depend not just on the right tax laws, but on a population versed in the basics of punctuality, the work ethic, and delayed gratification. The flight team for an advanced jet bomber cannot be plucked out of a village but needs to be steeped into an entire worldview. Political stability requires a sense of responsibility that only civil society can inculcate. And so forth.

Western music proves this point with special clarity, precisely because it is so irrelevant to modernization. Playing the Kreuzer Sonata adds nothing to one's GDP; enjoying an operetta does not enhance one's force projection. And yet, to be fully modern means mastering Western music; competence at Western music, in fact, closely parallels a country's wealth and power, as the experiences of two civilizations, Muslim and Japanese, show. Muslim reluctance to accept Western music foreshadows a general difficulty with modernity; Japanese mastery of every style from classical to jazz help explain everything from a strong yen to institutional stability.
The fact that I love classical music just makes the article even more fun to me.

Now, however, despite my biases, I think that it makes a lot of sense that western modernity was created in a certain cultural climate, and it can't exist without that cultural climate. That doesn't mean that a new form of modernity can't arise, but despots attempting to emulate the western mode without adopting western culture (artistic and political) are really just beating their heads futilly against the wall.

Oh, and if you were wondering if this article has current topicality--it does. Iran's President recently banned all Western music from the country.

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