Maazel Is No Fleisher

by Fitzroy on February 14, 2008

Scott Spiegelberg at Musical Perceptions points approvingly to pianist Leon Fleisher’s aversion to going to a White House occupied by George Bush and to conductor Lorin Maazel’s eagerness to perform for Kim Jong-il in North Korea.

It’s easy to find approval these days shunning the supposed dictator Bush while cozying up to real dictators elsewhere.

In a Washington Post column, Fleisher expressed dismay at being “required to attend” a White House reception as part of the Kennedy Center honors bestowed on him and not being able to opt out of this event and still claim his prize. Fleisher gave the usual litany of reasons for avoiding the White House: “systematic shredding of the constitution,” illegal war, torture, Bush’s defense of the “rights” of embryos, and the “flagrant dismantling of environmental protections.” Ultimately, Fleisher opted to go to the White House wearing a peace symbol and purple ribbon.

Without the slightest acknowledgment of contradiction, Spiegelberg lauds Maazel’s decision to take the New York Philharmonic to North Korea. Spiegelberg links to an “excellent interpretation” of Maazel’s response to “conservative criticism” of the tour by the blogger and violist Charles Noble. Noble characterizes Maazel’s remarks as “not the most eloquent statement,” but Noble claims to be baffled by criticism of Maazel in his post “maazel talks, right wing mocks.” The thrust of Noble’s analysis is that the tour will promote understanding of the “culture” of North Korea and counteract the fear that hobbles the right wing, fear being what is “truly insidious and poisonous.” Maazel’s remarks, however, were perfectly lucid, if misguided, and Noble’s “excellent interpretation” only muddles the issue. Noble says:

“The critical mistake is that understanding and context do not equal condoning or endorsing. Just because I might understand why someone might undertake to do a despicable act of terror doesn’t mean that I in any way think that it is right.”

What can this possibly mean? Does Noble understand why Kim Jong-il might undertake despicable acts of terror? Is this the understanding that we should aspire to? Noble continues:

“On the other hand, if I have a better understanding of what motivated this person or persons, then I can implement policies that might prevent further such acts.”

So, if we could only understand what motivates Kim Jong-il, then we could implement policies to change the situation? Just what understanding we will gain from having the New York Philharmonic play for North Korean apparatchiks, what policies that new-found understanding might inspire, and how new policies implemented by us will prevent further terror and alleviate the deplorable conditions of North Korea — well, Noble doesn’t say.

As usual, the problem is all about us: We lack understanding; we need new policies. The North Korean populace meanwhile can continue to starve and live in a police state. Nothing will be required of Kim Jong-il.

Shunning the accommodation of dictators, Fleisher states:

“Turning a blind eye to the political undercurrents of the event dismantles the very force of art in this country that the [Kennedy Center] honors celebrate: the freedom, nay, the obligation to express oneself honestly and without fear. Ultimately, there is no greater honor than that freedom.”

That honor, that freedom, is nowhere in shorter supply than in Kim Jong-il’s Korea. We search in vain for the force of art emanating from the intellectual desert so carefully constructed and maintained by the Dear Leader.

We might have hoped that Maazel would at least profess the same kind of tepid principles as Fleisher and wear a ribbon in his lapel. But no, Maazel will not accept the dictator’s hospitality and then criticize him later from a safe distance. Maazel will accept the dictator’s hospitality and criticize only the U.S.

And therein lies the secret to reconciling Fleisher’s sense of moral taint from visiting the White House with Maazel’s enlightened superiority in going to North Korea. Both present an opportunity to criticize Bush and U.S. policy.

Fleisher expressed the hope that his small gesture of wearing a lapel pin and publishing an op-ed in one of the nation’s premier newspapers would somehow “neutralize the sense of regret that came with having agreed to follow protocol.” He hopes it will “loosen the ties that bind future honorees . . . from the code of silence that has pervaded this pinnacle of artistic recognition.”

Who will publish an op-ed in the North Korean newspaper, or indeed even wear a lapel pin, protesting the code of silence that truly pervades North Korea, or the smug, easy pretension of moral superiority that pervades the artistic community here?


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