Sunday, September 05, 2010

The music goes 'round and 'round

I spent the afternoon listening to Verdi's Don Carlo ahead of the Metropolitan Opera's new production this season. The opera contains Verdi's clearest statement about self-determination and religious freedom, specifically dealing with the persecution of Dutch Protestants under Spanish rule. It must have been scheduled years ago, but it fits neatly into the current farcical "debate" about the construction of an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the hideous new Freedom Tower, formerly the merely unattractive World Trade Center. We can't even discuss religion in this country without becoming utterly unhinged, even in the context of a nineteenth-century opera about the sixteenth century.

Don Carlo was first given by the Met only 60 years ago, the inaugural production of the Rudolf Bing regime (1950-1972). Even before opening night, it was in the news. Boris Christoff was schedule to make his debut as King Philip II, but the State Department refused to grant him a work permit. Although Christoff had long been a resident of Italy and was not remotely political, he was a citizen of Bulgaria. In 1950, with Joe McCarthy waving a letter from a collection agency (probably) and claiming it was a list of Communists in the State Department, no one could take the risk that Christoff would insert subliminal Red propaganda into "Ella giammai m'amo." The Met engaged Cesare Siepi, who had a triumph and began a long relationship with the company. Although he eventually sang with other American companies, Christoff's anthracite bass was never heard at the Met.

After the opera opened, pickets appeared on 39th Street to complain that it was a slanderous attack on the Catholic Church. Only five years after World War II, and facing criticism over its lack of criticism for the Axis, the Church was anxious to change its public image in the US -- from Father Coughlin to Bishop Sheen, so to speak. Don Carlo's terrifying Grand Inquisitor and auto da fe was not the face it wanted to show to a country which had only recently begun to accept it, thanks to its impeccable anti-Communist credentials and the strenuous efforts of entertainers like Bing Crosby. Catholics had reason to be nervous: in 1928, Al Smith's presidential campaign was doomed, in part, because fundamentalist ministers convinced their congregations that if Smith gained the White House, he would rule as the pope's viceroy. The first Catholic president, elected by the narrowest of margins, was still a decade away. Verdi was definitely not a Good Catholic. The Church not only stood in the way of Italian nationhood but made life uncomfortable for him personally, and for his common-law wife Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi's dislike extended to all clerics: the priests of Isis in Aida come off no better than the Grand Inquisitor. Why this opera now? It must have looked like a plot.

The proposed Islamic center, Park51, will also be known as Cordoba House, after the capitol of Moorish Spain, where Muslims, Catholics and Jews lived a mainly peaceful, shared existence. (This was in contrast to Catholic Spain, which expelled all Muslims and Jews in the magical year of 1492 -- or worse, forced them to undergo baptism.) The imam is so conciliatory, he's practically an Episcopalian. He used to work for the FBI! It doesn't matter a rap to the Rightzis, who are determined to make this their Willie Horton issue and have, by dint of relentless repetition, convinced millions of morons that Obama is a Muslim. (But --- but --- Jeremiah Wright? The radical Christian pastor who hates America and has Obama in his toils? That is so 2008.) Sadly, many Catholics and Jews are happy to link arms with the Protestants who still despise them and march downtown to hate on the Muslims. Religion being by its nature intolerant, the religious minorities only want someone else for their enemies to hate. Once they control their own territories (Utah, Israel), the minority minorities had better run.

Almost from the beginning, the 9/11 attacks were misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately. The ruin was named "Ground Zero," a term from 1950s nuclear civil defense preparations. I remember the concentric circles around the spot where the A-bomb would fall -- these many would die instantly, these many would die in a week, these would die a hideous slow death from radiation -- and thus we grew up. ("Ground Zero" turned out to be all too accurate for the hundreds who believed Christine Todd Whitman when she said the air was safe to breathe, and are now dying their own hideous slow deaths.) Before the second tower fell, people who talk into microphones without thinking were comparing it to Pearl Harbor, as if one sovereign nation had attacked the military base of another. It was actually the greatest crime scene in the history of this country. A dozen individuals decided to hijack some planes and fly them into some buildings, acting for no government or state. A better comparison would be the actions of the Manson gang in Los Angeles in 1969.

There are a number of interesting parallels between Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson. Both are charismatic types who attract and mesmerize the weak-minded. Both offer idiosyncratic interpretations of well-known texts (the Koran, the White Album). Both were careful to be far away when the murders took place, and both could be described as delusional psychotics. Bin Laden imagines he can destroy Israel and restore the Caliphate; Manson evidently planned to ignite a race war which would somehow leave him in control of the United States. Beyond that, the difference is chiefly one of scale. To treat either of them as anything but a criminal demeans us all.

Their crimes were noticed in high places. Richard Nixon famously pronounced Manson guilty before his trial had ended, nearly causing a mistrial. At least he didn't cite the murder of Sharon Tate to justify invading Cambodia. George W. Bush was the first president to lose the popular vote since Rutherford B. Hayes, and needed something to shore up his shaky claim to the White House. And as Henry V knew, nothing unites a country like a foreign war, so Bush invaded Afghanistan, where bin Laden may have been in those days, and then decided to resume his family's vendetta against Saddam Hussein, who had no discernible connection to the murders. Retroactively, "Ground Zero" became the opening battle in a Clash of Civilizations, or a war on "Islamofascism," or anything except a huge crime scene. Now it's also "sacred ground," despite the gigantic commercial building going up there.

The 9/11 murderers were nominally Muslims. So what? Timothy McVeigh and his friends were nominally Christians. Who wants to tell the people of Oklahoma City they can't build a church near the site of the Murrah Building? Yes, I'm being disingenuous. Muslims are foreign, Other, scary -- like Catholics in 1928, like Mormons in the nineteenth century, like those heretics who burn in the second act of Don Carlo as the crowd rejoices. The real Pearl Harbor was followed by the roundup and detention of thousands of people whose only offense was Japanese ancestry, an event of which this country is now rightly ashamed. Are we going to learn to distinguish between the acts of individuals and their group identity? Do we learn from the past? Verdi says no.

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