The Corruption of Classical Music
with John McWhorter
In our most recent conversation, John and I spent part of the episode speaking with “Don Baton,” a professional orchestra conductor and the pseudonymous author of The Podium, a Substack newsletter that covers diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, among other topics, in the classical music world. Not being a classical music aficionado—that’s John’s department—I hadn’t been aware that many of the DEI initiatives that have taken hold in academia and business are also making their way into orchestras.
One of the most disturbing developments that Don recounted in our conversation is that some orchestras, in an attempt to achieve racial diversity, are doing away with blind auditions. This seems horribly misguided to me, and not only because race-conscious auditions could lead to a dip in the quality of orchestras. (I don’t say they definitely would, but you could easily imagine that they could.) The more profound error is in allowing superficial concerns about the race or ethnicity of a performer to worm their way into an art that, at its best, has the capacity to convey something essential about the human experience. There is a reason that music—be it classical, jazz, rock and roll, or whatever—more readily crosses boundaries of race, class, and nation than any other art form I can think of. Treating it as just another chit in the DEI game seems deeply, spiritually corrupt.
In the following excerpt, John and I reflect on our conversation with Don Baton. (If you want to hear the whole thing, check out the full episode here). We’re both aghast at the way that this attempt to achieve “equity” risks degrading what ought to be one of the highest realms of human achievement. If the DEI zealots get their way on this, they may be able to claim a victory for equity, but they will have destroyed something far more precious in the process.
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GLENN LOURY: This whole set of issues that we've been discussing with the anonymous Don Baton seems to hinge upon ideas about identity that a person might question right at their foundation. I mean, who are we? We're human. And we're capable of all manner of expression, creativity, sensitivity, feeling, power in our humanity that gets expressed in many different venues, and music is one of them. We're human. So when we allow the relatively superficial dimensions of identity, like our race, to have more sway than they should, we end up with the kind of degradation of art at the highest level that Don Baton was giving a report about, that he is giving at his [newsletter], The Podium, a report about. And we shouldn't settle for that.
John is back. John, I was just filling. We may or may not use my soliloquy. You were not implicated in it.
JOHN MCWHORTER: What did you say?
I simply said the diversity thing is off the hook. We're human here. We're not mainly black or Chinese or male or homosexual or whatever. We're human beings. And in the highest realm of art, it's our humanity, a refinement of our human spirit that gets expressed through, in this case, music. That's what we're talking about. And the road to mediocrity is gonna be paved with petty identitarianism. That is, with fixing on something like this: “Oh, I'm black. That kid's black. I'm playing the cello. That kid is now inspired to play the cello.” I mean, why make it about race?
When Don said classical music sweeps through the Orient—Japan, Korea, China—in decades from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, and we come up with all these amazing musicians, he said they didn't have to find Chineseness in the European composers who they were playing or whatever. They found a sublime expression of human excellence and creativity in those individuals, and they sought to mimic it. They sought to reproduce it in their own way. And that's what we should be doing across the board. That's what I said. I'm sorry it took me so long to repeat.
That's okay. And there's a kind of good white person who listens to you saying that and says it's not just about skin color. And what they're thinking is, roughly, it's about redlining and what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about, and it's about George Floyd. And so the black people that we're talking about are suffering from the legacy of having been held back by Jim Crow, such as redlining, which is what a lot of them are thinking because of Ta-Nehisi's article. And then look at how the police treat black people. George Floyd. So it's not only that people are brown, but people are set back, they're oppressed, they're not getting a certain boost, they don't have privilege. And so we need to adjust to that.
And so the question becomes, why? So okay, yes, redlining. Yes, George Floyd. Why does that mean that somebody should be placed or promoted beyond what a white person would? Explain your rationale. How is that good, and in particular—maybe you do it for a generation. What is your rationale for thinking that's the way it should go until the world is perfect or even close to it? That's where I think people get stuck.
So there's a certain kind of person who reads, you know, whatever, and thinks it's not just the color of the skin. The people in Korea and Japan, they didn't have the George Floyd problem. They weren't suffering from redlining. We, black Americans are different. But I get the feeling—well, I don't get the feeling. I know that people are not asked to truly justify their position. How is it different, ultimately? That's the way I think of it. Okay, yes, we've suffered great injustice. But does that mean that we have to be underestimated and given boosts and deprived of actually competing according to real standards forever? And would you do it to your own kids? That's what people don't get asked.
You know, this blind audition thing really disturbs me. I remember reading this classic paper in the economics literature by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, two economists—Cecilia at Princeton, Claudia at Harvard—where they got the numbers from all these symphony orchestras of the gendered composition of the musicians who were selected to play, and they tracked how they changed over time. And they took note of when blind audition as a practice was introduced into the selection of musicians in the orchestra. They found pretty definitively that the introduction of that technique of having people play behind the screen for the first or second or third round of the selection process causally induced a significant increase in the participation of women in those orchestras. It was the solution to the problem.
The problem was women were being discriminated against, without a question, of equal competency. When the conductor and selection committee could see that it's a woman, she was less likely to get the post. When they were unable to see, she became equally likely to get the post, and it was her talent that determined the outcome. How is this not a revolutionary good thing? Undoing that has very significant consequences, not only with respect to race. So it feels like a step back in the wrong direction, actually.
I have no beef with Anthony Tommasini. I read his criticism for years, I've got a book of his, et cetera. But quite frankly, his idea that we should not have blind auditions in order to increase the number of black people in orchestras is bat shit crazy. And it's a perfect example not of him having an individual problem, it's an example of how this business of race and equity has become something that people no longer actually use logic when they think about. And yes, I'm trying not to say “religious,” because I know that gets monotonous, but this is a religion! For him to make an argument that is that utterly incoherent, that makes that little sense, that is so unjust is clearly a white person who feels that making a certain kind of noise is more important even than making sense.
And he's representative. That's the thing. He's not an outlier, he's not eccentric. But it was that argument that was one of many things that made me write my book, Woke Racism, thinking that there's a certain kind of white person who feels that it's okay to not make any damned sense out of a sense that that's what it is to understand how systemic racism works. But no. You're telling truth here. And even he must know it on some level, but he thinks that when it comes to black people, it's okay not to make sense. I'm sorry, but that's not civil rights.
It's also not equality, it seems to me. I mean, people know. Don't they know? Maybe at the very, very, very highest level of achievement, the distinctions between people's mastery is difficult to discern. But if you're down below the 99th percentile to the 90th or to the 85th or to the 80th, the difference between the performative skills of one and the other person are gonna be discernible. So everybody knows that the person who gets in under this dispensation of treating blacks differently is good but maybe not as good as we could have done or whatever. And there's a kind of corrupt dishonesty, it seems to me, in that world, a kind of cynicism. It's creepy to me.
Just imagine what it would be like if you put the same practice in some different venues, like in professional sports, where everybody can see that Mr. A can run faster than Mr. B, but Mr. B gets the job and Mr. A doesn't because you need to have a certain outcome. It just sort of undermines a sense of the possibility of Mr. B ever getting a dignified equality of respect and appreciation within whatever that venue is. He's always gonna be being patronized, it seems to me.
Yeah. And we've talked about this before, but what it comes down to is that the good white person view is that any discrepancy must be because of racism of some kind and that maybe we can't quite identify it, but racism is the only possible answer. And that it couldn't be that there are cultural predilections, and if there are any cultural predilections, they're only there because of racism. It's because somebody feels shut out from something, not that people just might like something more than other people. And forget that it might be that Kenyans have some sort of thing going on with legs and muscles or something that means that they do tend to run faster, that there might be some biological differences. And no folks, I have made my views clear about race and intelligence too often. I'm not gonna spell it all out now. I'm not talking about that.
But yeah, we are all different peoples. There might be some differences of that kind in various realms, but especially cultural. And there's nothing wrong with that. But nevertheless, we have to have perfect equity. And of course it doesn't matter in basketball, but it matters in terms of school and people playing the bassoon, which is somehow different from basketball and jazz. But nobody's gonna specify why, because what we're really doing is posturing and showing that we're good people. It's disgusting. I am disgusted watching smart people pretend that this kind of reasoning is sophisticated. But we're stuck with it for now.