Friday, October 31, 2008


Today's hails us from the United Kingdom with an article, an Editor's pick (George Bush Culture vulture?) about Bush's cultural legacy. Twelve prominent Americans give their verdict on our lame duck President's impact on the artistic life of our country. It makes a sad read: the only positive point made is the rise of political satire as an art form. True: Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have all had a heyday at the expense of Dubya and his Dick. The Guardian story pretty well tells what the rest of the world thinks of us. Yes, there are many Americans who feel that only we and our opinions matter, but in an increasingly global society nothing could be farther from the truth. Before his death, Albania's dictator Enver Hoxha also told his people that the rest of the world was evil and filled the isolated small country with enough nuclear-attack-proof bunkers for everyone. Today's North Korea is similar. The only radios available are permanently tuned to a government station frequency. Officially South Korea is a poor and backward country. It isn't until recently that smuggled receivers from China have enabled people to tune in to South Korean stations. Also, as the southern neighbors dumped their VCRs for new DVD players, the old machines have found their way to the north, along with music videos and such which show the "chosen" people a very different picture of the outside world.

Yesterday's web news reminded us about a near-death experience of Ronald Reagan in 1976. He was campaigning, unsuccessfully, for his party's presidential nomination when a peanut got stuck in his airway while on board of his plane. Only a quick reaction by his aide saved his life with the Heimlich maneuver. History might have unfolded very differently without Reaganomics. One could argue that there wouldn't have been the present economic crisis as the craze for deregulation wouldn't have taken place. Who knows, perhaps this country would still be considered great in the eyes of "the others". Never underestimate the power of the little peanut: the same year a peanut farmer Jimmy Carter won the presidential election. Although later unpopular as president, mainly for reasons beyond his control, Carter went on to become a great humanitarian and statesman, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He is rightfully considered one of our most successful ex-presidents. A similar story comes from my native Finland where Matti Ahtisaari received this year's Nobel Peace Prize for decades of successful diplomacy for the United Nations, being responsible for the independence of Namibia and negotiating peace treaties in Indonesia and Kosovo, among other places. Yet, as a Finnish President, Mr. Ahtisaari was not particularly well liked.

Many people still think of the Reagan years with nostalgia. However, have we forgotten that already by the time the former actor took office, Alzheimer's must have already started to manifest its terrifying symptoms? It is said that during much of his second term his wife, the First Lady Nancy Reagan was running the show. True to her California lifestyle, astrologers and other fortune tellers were employed in the decision making progress. Having a real senior citizen in charge of a country is a gamble: on one hand the person may have more wisdom than someone younger but on the other, physical and mental health issues are going to pop up. John F Kennedy was only in his forties in 1960 but was wise beyond his years. He also had the ability to look into the future and care about it, something that is not often in the mind of a person with one foot already in the grave.

A public figure's legacy often depends on when he or she has the foresight to step down. Nobody forces a sitting President to run for a second term. A positive legacy can quickly turn to a very negative one. Same is true in every area of life. Perhaps Bill Gates will be remembered as a great philanthropist rather than the co-founder of Microsoft. His foundation has already done remarkable humanitarian work all over the globe. Such deeds will not be forgotten but the software company might well be history in years to come. A director of an arts organization could be remembered with fondness for his/her accomplishment, or with bitterness and hatred. At least with presidency we have term limits. How welcomed they would be in other positions of leadership!

We have an interesting election ahead of us. If Mr. Obama were white, the outcome would be clear and even the Supreme Court could do nothing about it. But the Klan is still alive, even if less well than in the past, and racism will no doubt play a part. Interestingly Mr. Obama is not embraced by all African-Americans, the reason being that he doesn't decent from slaves, and thus mainly West African tribes, but is half East African having his father's roots in Kenya. To the white supremacists none of this of course matters. It is amazing how many of us have a little Hitler, Stalin or Klansman in our souls. A miracle took place 48 years ago when we elected a Catholic as our President. Perhaps it is time for another miracle now, and who knows, one day we might even elect a Jewish person to the Oval Office.

It is time to choose between Gloom and Bloom. One might say Doom and Boom, but domestically the latter will take time, and presently can only be heard in explosions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dictators and Art

Josef Stalin, everyone's favorite Georgian, as a teenager studied in a seminary in order to become a priest. He was also busy writing romantic poetry, an image not usually associated with someone better known as a brutal dictator and a mass murderer. The following is from "Morning", published in Kvali, an intellectual magazine:

The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.

The young Yoseb Dzughashvili was a rising star as a poet but then switched his focus to revolutionary Marxism. He still continued to write essays and prose, never letting a ghost writer touch his texts. A supporter of Maxim Gorki, Stalin was well educated in literature, in spite of a lack of formal university education. The fact that he wasn't of the same intellectual background made Leon Trotsky mistrust the Georgian. This feeling was obviously mutual as Trotsky quickly learned and later paid for it with his life in Mexico.

Adolf Hitler
, another bloody dictator, also wanted to be an artist, painting with water colors. His literary accomplishments didn't quite match Stalin's, but Uncle Adolf didn't need help with spelling when he wrote Mein Kampf during his time in prison. To Hitler's credit we must admit that his range of interest in the arts was quite extensive and included architecture and music. Every Richard Wagner lover must have a bit of Hitler in him or her as the composer's music was made the official sound of the Third Reich. Without that support Wagner's ever-so-long operas might have remained in the curiosity closet. Yes, the Nazi regime also had Richard Strauss, but his fame and position paled in comparison to the great Aryan hero. Hitler made sure that all of Josef Joachim's editions of Mozart and other composers also disappeared from the vast empire of the Reich. The father of serious violin playing was born and raised as a Christian but he had Jewish ancestry in his background. I have seen some quite amazing cadenzas replacing those of Joachim's for Mozart's violin concertos, published in Nazi Germany. The person put in charge of this editing was no other than Hans Joachim Moser, the son of Joachim's student and best friend Andreas Moser.

Vladimir Lenin didn't care for the arts. It is said that he visited a theater only a few times and even then because he had to. However, he was responsible for saving the Bolshoi Ballet. Not that Lenin loved ballet and the art form, but he understood what a tremendous propaganda asset he and the Communist Party had in the company. After his death, the same way of thinking continued in the Soviet Union, with an added twist. Whenever a high ranking party official was in the audience and fancied a particular ballerina, there was a little wink after the performance and the young lady with long legs knew what her duties were. When the German army was closing in on Moscow, the entire Bolshoi was put on a big river boat and off they sailed to safety on the Moskva and Volga rivers.

I haven't read enough about another henchman, Mao Zedong, to know of his connection to the arts. However, with the Communist revolution anything Western became a sin against the system. This of course reached its climax during the Cultural Revolution which was orchestrated in part by Mao's last wife Jian Qing. For example, a splendid Chinese pianist of international statute whom I heard in my childhood, related by marriage to Menuhin, committed suicide after his fingers were systematically broken by the Red Guards, with well-aimed hammer blows. A bizarre historical fact is that Beijing had a functioning symphony orchestra during this madness, obviously for the same reason the Soviet Union had its Bolshoi: propaganda. The musicians even wore tails, the only ones in China, when everyone else had to dress in their grey uniforms. Anything is acceptable in the name of a good show.

Not every budding artist can become a powerful political leader but many try to reach a position of dictatorship in their little world. As a rule of thumb, the less talented such a person is, the greater the urge to be in charge. Of course this is true as well in other fields than the arts. Incompetent people become our leaders while the capable and smart ones hide in the background. The propaganda machinery works hard to make these individuals look like something special, be it a politician or a musician. Usually truth is of no value and can't be seen from the jungle of lies. History will eventually tell us the true state of affairs, but by then it is too late. A little miserable newspaper reporter or critic in the media with a soul of a scorpion can pretend to run a town's public opinion, to the benefit of others like him, his soul brothers and sisters. With this help a truly inferior baton wielder or "soloist" can broadcast that he/she is in high demand and sought after worldwide. Cucamonga is not London or even Liverpool, but to these people it is the center of the world and they like to make the townspeople believe just that.

Yes, Stalin and Hitler have had many secret admirers who have wanted to emulate them, living among us. Destroying other people's lives is fun after all, isn't it? What separates the wannabe dictators from the real ones? It seems like the successful ones were much better orators and could actually write coherent sentences, without the help of others. One thing these little monsters have in common with the big ones: they all expect their protégés to be available to fulfill their fantasies, just like the Bolshoi ballerinas did. Perhaps the willing ones see this as the only way to be promoted, be it a dancer, writer, musician, or just an intern. Wink, wink.

"Ghost of Stalin writing" collage by Ilkka Talvi

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Honey, What Happened To Our Money?

Greed and gambling go hand in hand. Money in the form of profit-making has long been de facto god for Americans and denizens of most market economies. Of course this is nothing new: a century or so ago a German sociologist, Georg Simmel, warned about this and criticized banks for being more powerful than the church, already back then. A couple decades later we had a global collapse and the Great Depression. Lessons from that seem to have been forgotten as people don't like to learn from past mistakes, such as wars. Once we were back on our feet, we came up with the American Dream and expected the world to follow in this ideology. We have promoted our value system heavily around the globe and now that we have ended up with the American Nightmare, everyone is suffering.

Gambling is said to be very addictive. I don't take part in it so my knowledge comes only from observing others. The higher the stakes, the more thrilling it becomes, ultimately leading to a catastrophe. Karl Marx wrote: Capital is as terrified of the absence of profit or a very small profit as nature is of a vacuum. With suitable profits, capital is awakened; with 10 percent, it can be used anywhere; with 20 percent, it becomes lively; with 50 percent, positively daring; with 100 percent, it will crush all human laws under its feet; and with 300 percent, there is no crime it is not willing to dare, even at the risk of the gallows. This is true except that in this society of ours the greedy CEOs and others behind this mess are forgiven, even applauded for their efforts. Only in China would they perhaps be executed, as the Chinese tend to do that with people in power who fail.

This administration will no doubt be remembered for its failures as one of the worst ever. People can only blame themselves for naively believing in lies during the past elections and voting the way they did, or for not voting at all. From having a surplus, our balance sheet is now so much in the red that our grandchildren will still be paying for the debt, unless they all are in a poorhouse. The next president will have an almost impossible task of trying to normalize life in America, a job not to be envied. It is not very reassuring that one of the candidates is a lifelong gambler who is still known to frequent casinos for his favorite pastime. We've already had eight years of gambling which has bankrupted the nation. We are horrified by the thought of socialized health care, yet at the same time we are ready to socialize Wall Street and the financial sector for the benefit of the really-well-to-do. Something is thoroughly wrong with this picture. Much good did the almost-a-trillion-dollar bailout do: the market has taken a turn for the worse in the days after, and not just here but globally. Today we learned that after the insurance giant AIG secured their $85 billion bailout package, the company's executives went on a $443,000 retreat in California. Another uplifting news item: our country's retirement plans have lost $2 trillion in value.

Nowhere has imitating the American financial model backfired worse than in Iceland. Just a year ago, the country with a population of only three hundred thousand was often mentioned as a bright star of global economy, and even promoted as the "best" country to live in. Mainly American-trained young financial "geniuses" decided more than a decade ago that time had come to make Iceland an important financial center. The small nation's banks and investment firms opened branches in many other countries, expanding with the help of borrowed capital. In my native Finland these banks promised a higher interest rate for savings than national banks and lured a great number of people to become their customers. Although they never were a major player in the U.S., Icelandic banks took a much bigger role in the United Kingdom. 200,000 people in that country have to fight for their money after the collapse of Icesave, an extension of Landsbanki which has gone into receivership. Icesave also has Dutch customers. Of the Icelandic banks, only the largest, Kaupthing, might be able to survive. Interestingly the western powers decided not to help their tiny ally in the North Atlantic, close to Greenland, and Iceland's government had to turn to Russia for help, in form of an emergency loan. Knowing that the nation has weathered difficult times in the past, often caused by natural disasters, they have always managed to survive and will do so again, even if life for some years will suddenly be much harder. We would have a much more difficult time in coping with a disaster of that magnitude. Katrina's ripples are still being felt and yet the hurricane destroyed only one city, not an entire country.

No doubt, the non-profits will suffer a great deal from the mess in the United States. It is hard to imagine people willing to donate to any such cause at this time. Food banks are running low and shelters have to turn many needy away. Those organizations that exist in order to entertain audiences better be prepared for a long winter. There are stories of empty auditoriums all around, and I don't see why going to an opera or ballet performance, or a concert, would get priority today in people's lives. Perhaps that part of American life has also come to an end as we have known it, or it will take enormous sacrifices from the part of people working for such enterprises or leading them. It is time for people to come down from their ivory towers. The sense of entitlement they have is as real as the housing bubble, after all. I feel sympathy for the hard-working person who has lost or is in danger of losing his or her home, rather than for a self-glorified snob.

Before you go to the polls, watch the video of a vice-presidential candidate playing the flute if you haven't already done so. The skill level shown should satisfy the spousal criteria for a right-wing orchestra conductor.