Tom Diaz

Posts Tagged ‘Western culture’

Lee Daniels, Robert Schumann, and Thomas Westfall: An Intriguing Cultural Bank Shot in the Soundtrack of The Butler

In bad manners, Cultural assassination, Ethics in Washington, Geezer Rants, Ignorance of History, Mass Incarceration, Movies, politics, The Great Stupid, Tired Old Republicans on August 31, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Clara and Robert Schuman, Two Eminent Members of the Nobility of Western Culture

 One of the most elegant examples of director Lee Daniels’ powerful artistic sense comes in an early scene of his Oscar-bound film, The Butler.

As the movie opens, protagonist Cecil Gaines, the gray-haired White House butler, reminisces about his childhood.

Gaines’ thoughts drift to a deep south cotton field in the year 1926. Like other black “field hands,” young Cecil is picking cotton alongside his family.

The camera sets up the scene, pans the field, and eventually works its way in close to the eight-year Gaines. His father teaches him how to know when a boll is ready for picking. One can feel the heat, the humidity and the palpable oppression of the plantation owned by Thomas Westfall and his grandmother Annabeth.

Cotton plantattion

Way Down South in the Land of Cotton, Old Times There Are Not Forgotten…

Clearly, things in this cotton field have changed little since slave days.

But as this scene develops, it is what one does not hear that is so beautiful, so subtle.

One doesn’t hear the default music that 99 out of 100 directors would have plugged into the sound track here. There is no sorrowful blues guitar. No moaning spiritual.  No chorus of an unrepentant South.

Neither River Jordan nor Dixie echo in this “Land of Cotton.”

Rather, can you dig Robert Schuman’s Piano Concerto in A Minor?

Say what?

Schuman’s only piano concerto is one of the most beautiful examples of the serious music of the Romantic era. Dark, brooding, an always lovely interplay between piano and orchestra, it grips soul and heart.

What is it doing here?

Clearly, serious thought is given to such a choice. It is simply impossible that the finger of mere chance landed on this composer and this piece of music for this horrible moment.

One more or less obvious reason for the use of any such “cultured” music here is that the very contrast between the elegant music and the sordid cotton field paints in harsh strokes the gulf between the gentility embodied in the White House and the sweat and dirt of the cotton field. The famous Godfather christening scene raised (or, more properly, lowered) to cliché such contrast between action and music.


The Klan Marches in Washington, 1926, Upholding Western Values

In 1926, Calvin Coolidge sat in the White House. Some 35,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. In much of America the life of a black man (or a “Mexican” or an “Indian”) was worth just what the temper of a randomly encountered white man would bear.

But there is, I suggest, a deeper point, a more profound moral and historical scoring.

Consider first the evil plantation owner’s very family name: Westfall.

Then consider that Schuman and his piano concerto embodied what many consider to be the best of Western high culture: nobility of thought, an enlightened and idealistic view of humanity, and a reverence for beauty for beauty’s sake. These are indeed vauable artifacts of Western culture. They might even be the ones that white supremacists have in mind when they congratulate themselves for belonging to the factually non-existent category of the “white race.”

Yet all of these ideals have been precisely savaged—at best ignored—throughout the brutal centuries within which people of any color have had the fell misfortune of being visited by Western culture.

Schuman wrote his beautiful piece in 1845.  Let us examine a few signal events of the same year for some instructive contrasts

In May, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published by the Boston Anti-Slavery Society.


Powdered, Perfumed, and Ready for Elegance

The powdered and perfumed elite who would later thrill to Clara Schuman’s performances of her mentally ill (and eventually institutionalized) husband were for the most part perfectly okay with—or at best indifferent to—the enslavement of other human beings, the treatment of others supposedly made in the image of God, as no better than and often worse than the lowest and dumbest of animals.

The horror of it is stunning.

There is more.

In the July-August issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review editor John L. O’Sullivan opined that foreign powers were trying to prevent American annexation of Texas in order to impede “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” (O’Sullivan need not have worried so much. In December, Texas entered the Union…as a “slave state.”)

O’Sullivan’s was the first known use of the powerful phrase “manifest destiny.”

This odious concept taught that Western (the historically non-existent “Anglo-Saxon”) culture had been selected and, indeed, divinely charged with the duty to expand itself to the West (and anywhere else that it could ooze).

Human Trafficking

A Benefit of High Western Culture: Becoming the Subject of Human Trafficking

Manifest Destiny was the “white man’s” imperialist burden to violently conquer the hapless “little brown people” of the world. The generous conquerors would bestow upon these inferiors some few of the wonders of high Western culture (a patronage that usually amounted to little more than forced religious conversion, a mandatory change in dress, and a peonage equivalent in all but name to slavery).

Where in hell, my child, do you think America’s imperial holdings in Puerto Rico, Texas and the Great American Southwest, Panama, Hawaii, the Philippine Islands, and other hapless nooks and crannies came from?

klansmenIt is the outstanding warrant for this savage and violent betrayal of its own values that the West in general and the United States in particular have yet to fully account. Many seek to evade this ineluctable accounting in the smug cant of the Tea Party and the lies of the thinly disguised racist plutocracy that now controls the right wing in America.

It is this fall from the grace of noble ideas to the putrescence of racism and slavery that is embodied in the name of Thomas Westfall. Just another plantation owner, enjoying centuries of violent subsidization.

The shame.  The horror.


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on February 5, 2009 at 8:32 pm
The School of Athens, Raphael

The School of Athens, Raphael

If one assumes the Western culture that we more or less enjoy today in the United States began in earnest in Classical Greece, we are standing on the shoulders of some 2,500 years of deep thought about how to govern ourselves well and wisely.  Getting from there to here sometimes required violent action and always required courage.  However deeply divided we remain about the details, the hallmark of Western society is our fierce commitment to a secular political space where decisions affecting the common good are made democratically and without violence.

The core of our political deal is that we value freedom and the worth of the individual.  We have reluctantly invested our government with the exclusive right to use force — to maintain order and keep us from each others’ throats and our nation secure from foreign enemies — because history taught us in the West the hard lesson that both the discipline of divine right and the anarchy of every-man-for-himself lead eventually to a bloody mess.  The details, every other political decision, is decoration to be contested in the common nonviolent, secular political space — the more fiercely the better.  As annoying as it is, politics is good.

For an excellent explication of a different way things are organized in places that never enjoyed the transformational experiences  of Western culture — i.e.,  the ancient tribal governance common to much of the world with which we are in conflict today — read The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones.  The book is not actually only about the Arabs, and the author’s terminology has been criticized in that regard.  No matter, read  The Closed Circle and you will more easily grasp the logic of governing among “tribal” leaders from Yasser Arafat, Hassan Nasrallah, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden to the surviving-boss-0f-the-week in Hamas.  The values of these societies are considerably different from ours.

!8th Street Gangsters -- Misguided Homeboys?

18th Street Gangsters -- Misguided Homeboys?

Gangster values are also different from and fundamentally hostile to everything Western culture stands for. One of the first people I interviewed in researching my book on Latino gangs was a “gang culture” expert in the FBI.  When I asked him to describe the gang culture, he turned the question around on me.  The conversation went something like this:

Expert:  Do you have children?

Me:  Yes.

Expert:  Do you try to teach them values?

Me (wondering where this was going):  Well, yes.

Expert:  Well, just turn those values upside down and you will begin to understand gang culture.  Everything you think is good, they think is bad.  Everything you think is bad, they think is good.

In his monograph A Contemporary Challenge To State Sovereignty: Gangs And Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations In Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, And Brazil, Max Manwaring describes the values of the gangster culture that he writes has overrun the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Sinaloa:

This corrupt environment affects everyone and everything, and has been described as feudal or medieval. Local gangs and their TCO [transnational criminal organization] allies have a safe haven from which to operate; enjoy immunity within that safe haven from any illicit actions; “tax” residents, travelers, and businesses at will; and maintain their own self-determined system of law and order. Actors in that world are known to derive their values from norms based on slave holding, sexual activity with minors and their exploitation in prostitution, the “farming” of humans for body parts, and the killing and torture of innocents for political gain and personal gratification (as sport). Notions such as due process of law, right to jury trial, individual privacy, and human and women’s rights may exist as concepts among some, but do not appear to be practiced. Thus, in Quintana Roo and Sinaloa, people live in a feudal environment defined by patronage, bribes, kickbacks, cronyism, ethnic exclusion, and personal whim.

If you think such violence is a phenomenon peculiar to geography south of the border, think again.  One need not go to Quintana Roo or Sinaloa to find the real-life, on the street, acting out of this ruthless “self-determined system of law and order.”  Examples abound in the United States.

What is ultimately at stake is not how many drug addicts there are more or less.  Or how many misguided youth might be saved by  secular or sectarian healing.

What is at stake is which value system will prevail in our society.


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