24 August 2008

On "... music as politics ...": Arguing by Analogy

Two Russian flags and a South Ossetian one fly at a patriotic concert
in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. A Russian
led by renowned Ossetian Russian conductor Valery
performed. “We are here today to express our
admiration for you,
to tell the whole world that we want it to
know the truth about
the horrible events in Tskhinvali,” Gergiyev
Photograph © Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times
(21 August 2008)


It seems to me that there are more than enough bad guys in the recent war in Georgia-South Ossetia (e.g., [0] [1] [2] [3] ...). It is clear that the Russians have been tacitly fueling this conflict for years. It also is clear that, at least in this latest open conflict, the Georgians 'started it.' They rose to the bait and have paid a big price for doing so. It is clear that the Russian response was disproportionate. And it is furthermore clear that "the West" has been encouraging the Georgians and (in various ways) no-so-tacitly antagonizing the Russians. The result is that there are scores of dead and wounded, along with ruined towns and cities. All for not very much. Senseless is what I call it.

Here are a pair of stories from The Guardian about the role of music in the aftermath. On Thursday night, Valery Gergiev conducted a concert in memory of the dead on the Ossetian side. According to The Guardian, "no other conductor in recent years has made so naked a political gesture, in the middle of an ongoing conflict, as Gergiev did last night." He did so by conducting Shostakovich's Seventh "Leningrad" Symphony amidst the ruins of the parliament building in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

So here is a concert of classical music that has attracted incredible media coverage (see this especially helpful report in The Washington Post). The analogy is obvious, Shostokovitch wrote this symphony during the German siege of Leningrad during WWII. Gergiev is seeking to make the current conflict into a set piece - suffering victims best by unambiguous villains, liberated by equally unambiguous heroes.

It is ironic, then, that the concert took place on 21 August, a date whose significance I recently noted. For many in Prague, it seems, the current conflict between Russia and Georgia brings to mind a quite different analogy [*] replete with the same actors differently cast in the roles of victim and villain. (Playwright and, now, private citizen Vaclav Havel has denounced the Russian military response, insisting that it reveals "imperial ambitions.") The point is not the simple one that this is the proper analogy - in fact neither is especially useful - but that it has force. Even those who contest it are obliged to address it.

Those pushing analogies - to the siege of Leningrad or to the Prague Spring - are seeking to shape public discourse. And their analogies are unlikely to be of much use in any efforts to resolve the conflict in a productive way.

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