Sunday, June 14, 2015

When a Change for the Better Makes Things Worse

Today's Al Jazeera English Web site has an article by Dinouk Colombage about the formation of an orchestra of Sinhalese and Tamil children recently formed in Sri Lanka. Since the participating children are poor, the Venezuelan "El Sistema" was cited as a precedent. However, the title of the article was "Can music lead to social harmony in Sri Lanka?," suggesting that trying to ease tensions between Sinhalese and Tamil cultures was also a major issue. In that respect a more appropriate precedent might be Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which was formed to provide an opportunity for musicians of both Arab and Israeli backgrounds to come together for the sake of making music. (It should be noted for the record that this ensemble is based in Seville, rather than anywhere in the Middle East.)

I have great admiration for Barenboim's project. However, it is somewhat interesting to think about what has happened on a global scale since its formation in 1999. Over the course of about fifteen years, the world has experienced a radical increase in acts of inter-cultural violence; and there is no sign of the trend reversing. (I have made it a point not to single out any particular cultures in making that observation.) This has led be to entertain the conjecture that social harmony is bad for politics. This conjecture may be approached from the opposite direction by taking Max Weber as a point of departure: Politics is all about legitimizing the exercise of power. Thus, it is only natural that it is driven by opposing blocs, each of which seeks to hold more power than the others. As a result, we can find social harmony in an orchestra because making music involves getting beyond the idea that life is all about having more power than those around you. The problem is that both the members of the orchestra and those in the audience have to go back to the real world after the concert has concluded; and we now live in a real world in which "social harmony" is treated as an impediment to political maneuvering rather than as asset for society as a whole.

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