Political correctness is a politically correct name for hypocrisy, but I have long noted that its practitioners share one peculiar characteristic: They don’t know what to call themselves. Political correctors? To put it somewhat allusively, theirs is an hypocrisy that dare not speak its name.
Since what seems like time immemorial, homosexuals have described themselves—and have prevailed in their insistence that they be so described by heterosexual others—as gay. Not as in “their ancient glittering eyes are gay,” but as in “Mom, I’m gay.” Jews, likewise, have succeeded in making their very name a naughty little taboo, with the odd result that asking if someone is “a Jew” is like asking a highly specific question about digestion at the dinner table, whereas asking whether a person is “Jewish” is perfectly comme il faut, like offering the dinner guest a digestive biscuit.
Similarly, those belonging to the red portion of the political spectrum style themselves as liberals, while those of the violet disposition go by the name of conservatives. This may not be as accurate as calling a spade a spade, but at least it’s a workmanlike starting point in the ongoing contest of opinion. Partisans of political correctness, meanwhile, do not call themselves anything. They are omnisciently mute, with only a Gioconda smile of the cat that swallowed a canary by way of self-definition. At times I envy them.
What’s in a name? Life and death, it seems. Public-relations strategies of all political and social groups hinge on the elemental quality of their names. It is as though the name were the primordial sound bite in some timeless propaganda war, in the course of which the artlessly named vanquished keep on perishing without a trace down the plughole of civilization.
The above somewhat farfetched preamble is occasioned by the recent release, by the cult Dutch label Challenge Records International (www.challenge.nl), of a recording of Vladimir Genin’s Seven Melodies for the Dial, a piano cycle inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 77, “Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear . . . ” Here I must disclose an interest, in that the work is dedicated to my wife, the pianist Olga Domnina, who performed its world premiere at the Moscow House of Music in October of last year.
I had been asked to write the liner notes for the disk, and the challenge was indeed daunting. The problem is that, like Jews, conservatives, and others mentioned in my preamble, artists generally—and composers in particular—have succeeded in manipulating public opinion in such a way that their collective appellation precedes them, superseding all data regarding their actual occupation. “And what do you do, Sir?”
“I’m a composer.”
“Ah, well, it’s all right then, you’re in the good books of the political-correctness directorate. Would you care for a foundation grant, a university lectureship, a fawning newspaper profile?”
Actually, the composer in question may well be imagined smearing a Steinway with excrement by way of public performance, or else—still more absurdly, perhaps—composing a tract to announce that music is a bourgeois atavism that merits violent extirpation. Yet even the products of the middle-of-the-road avant-garde—well-tempered in its approach to Western culture generally, if not to the clavier specifically—are for the most part unlistenable abracadabra, pretentious noise whose only purpose is to siphon taxpayers’ money into the pockets of its creators. So it is with all the arts today, of course, but music inflicts more misery upon the audience than painting or literature. You can turn your back on a picture or put a book back on the shelf, but once you’re in a concert hall, there’s no escaping the cacophony.
So how to describe a modern composer of distinction, such as Genin, when the very term “composer” has been virtually devalued out of existence, compromised by the propaganda war in which the spoils go to the toady, the charlatan, and the hypocrite? I decided to take a leaf out of the political correctors’ strategy manual and hardly mentioned the composer’s name in the article. I wrote about the awareness of timelessness, which characterized Stalin’s Russia and Shakespeare’s epoch in equal measure.
Well, all I can do now is invite you all to see if my clever dodge has worked. The truth is, Genin’s music speaks for itself, and my introduction enhances what it has to say more or less the way a Victorian frock-coat button would enhance a marble bust by Praxiteles. Still, at least I have managed to write nothing annoying, craven, or false, and this makes me glad.
Is it possible to learn from one’s ideological enemy? In this case, I think the political correctors’ trick of slipping under the radar of history by avoiding self-definition is something conservatives would do well to consider adopting.