SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2021
The way we look to The Lesser Breed: Bright Sheng is an American composer. The record shows he was born long ago, though perhaps not so far away:
Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai, China on December 6, 1955. His mother had been his first piano teacher, having started learning at the age of four. When the Cultural Revolution began, his home's piano was taken away by the Red Guards. Sheng went back to playing a year later, using his school's since he didn't have one at home. Shortly thereafter, he decided to play piano for the rest of his life, although he didn't believe that he could become a musician since his family had no history of music.
Sheng was sent to Qinghai Province, China, which used to be a part of Tibet, and stayed there for seven years. He became a performer, playing the piano and percussion to not only perform, but to study and collect folk music. He also began to compose his own music.
After the end of the Cultural Revolution, he got admitted into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he learned both Chinese classical and traditional music. There, Sheng earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition.
Sheng left China in 1982 and joined his family in the United States, where he had to re-learn different elements of music to adjust to the Western style of music. In New York, he attended Queens College to earn his Master of Arts degree in 1984 and Columbia University to earn his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993...
Today, Sheng is an American citizen, but he grew up in China. He grew up many miles away—during the Cultural Revolution, no less.
In some ways, he grew up in a vastly different culture. In some ways, it's all the same.
We mention Cheng because of the featured editorial in today's Washington Post. Also, because the recent episode in question helps explain The Way We Looks to The Others—to the famously lesser breed.
The recent episode also helps explains why it's so hard for Democrats to get elected to the Senate and the House. Also, why it's so hard for liberals and progressives—at the present time, for President Biden—to get progressive policies passed.
What happened during the recent episode in question? At the start of their editorial, the editors offer this capsule account, headline included:
A blackface ‘Othello’ and the broken debate over cancel culture
Is it okay for a professor to show his students a movie involving blackface? This complicated question is roiling the University of Michigan—and as is often the case in campus speech debates, the answers from all quarters are too simple.
Composer and educator Bright Sheng began his fall composition seminar by playing the 1965 film of Shakespeare’s “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier in thickly applied dark face paint. What followed was unsurprising to those familiar with the racist history of minstrel entertainment, as well as the present-day tendency toward so-called wokeness in higher education: Upset students complained, including to the composition department. Eventually, though Mr. Sheng had delivered two apologies, the university announced that the professor would no longer teach the class to ensure a “positive learning environment.” A fellow faculty member described the screening as “a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions.”
The incident has inspired a fervor among two opposing camps that fits neatly into a national argument. One group believes this is an example of a discourse-destroying cancel culture that poses an existential threat to American academia; the other believes it is an example instead of the marginalized finally empowered to challenge an oppressive institution with a habit of ignoring minority perspectives.
The editorial continues from there.
For the record, why has Sheng "delivered two apologies" instead of the usual one? The answer is simple. The answer comes from the pile of behaviors sometimes described as "human, all too human."
Inevitably, Sheng had to issue the second apology to apologize for the shortcomings quickly denounced in the first! In such ways, the history of this child of Cultural Revolution has possibly come full circle.
Sheng is 65 years old. He was born and raised in a different country, in what was (on balance) a vastly different culture from our own.
In the recent episode, he showed a film to his class in which an actor performed in blackface. Apparently, he didn't realize how some students and some assistant, associate and adjunct professors were going to feel about this.
(This may not be totally shocking, given his personal background. This didn't seem to occur, or to matter, to our tribe's outraged savants.)
In the opinion of the Post, the incident has produced a fervor in which "the answers from all quarters are too simple." It has also created a dispute in which pro-Trump forces—in the state of Michigan, let's say—will almost surely be picking up votes.
(Though also, perhaps, in the state of Virginia. Could such a thing matter there?)
Have the forces demanding submission from Sheng really behaved in a way which is "too simple," thereby contributing to "a broken debate?" We'll suggest that you read this news report from The Michigan Daily, in which much of our tribe's progressive reaction is spectacularly lacking in what was once called perspective and nuance, or at least so it seems to us.
Or at least so it seems to us! There is no ultimate way to assess the behaviors involved in this matter, but of one thing there can be little doubt:
These numerous incidents help explain The Way We Look to The Others—to the admittedly lesser breed. Also, these incidents help explain why Biden can't get anything passed, and why he has only 48 votes in the United State Senate, even after four years of The Crazy from Trump.
We had planned to write today about Eric Levitz's heroic act of courtesy and self-restraint at New York magazine's Intelligencer site. In this lengthy essay, Levitz fact-checked an ugly, deeply unintelligent piece in The Nation—and he did so without passing judgment on its author's morals or motives.
The piece in question was truly ugly; it was also flatly stupid. (Full disclosure—the headline on the Levitz piece describes the essay in The Nation as having engaged in a "smear.")
The piece in The Nation does supply an anthropology lesson, or at least disconsolate major scholars have despondently said that it does.
It shows that members of one group of humans will behave exactly like members of other groups of humans when they finally become sufficiently privileged, spoiled, entitled. In the end, we human beings are all just alike, these despairing top experts have said
Levitz was heroic in his restraint. Of the essay at The Nation, we'll only say this:
It helps explain why liberals and progressives are increasingly unable to win seats in the Congress. Also, it helps explain why liberals and progressives are unable to win our nation's political debates.
It helps explain The Way We Look to Others. In fairness, it may feel good going down.
Back to the Michigan campus:
Our newspapers have been full of such episodes from the finest schools, endlessly including Yale Law. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our massively self-impressed tribe can match The Others dumbness for dumbness, though it will often be holders of advanced degrees who engineer our self-defeats.
Our tribe forced Sheng to apologize twice. Every time he agrees to do so, a Trump voter earns his wings!