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Maestro Nicolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra during a dress rehearsal for the annual New Year's Concert in Vienna, December 30, 2002.
and war
A commentary on protest against Vienna Philharmonic
By William Osborne
    Jan.12 —  This year the Vienna Philharmonic visits the United States under unusual circumstances. The potential war with Iraq overshadows most other issues, including the Philharmonic’s employment practices, and anti-American feeling in Europe is the strongest I have seen in the 23 years I have lived here. This raises troubling questions.  
Many ask why we feel entitled to protest against the Vienna Philharmonic’s chauvinistic employment policies.

       WHAT SHALL PROTESTERS against the Vienna Philharmonic make of this situation? Do protests against the Vienna Philharmonic have any relevance in a world once again being overcome with violence?
       To answer these questions it is helpful to begin with a look at the European view. Much of the recent surge of anti-Americanism stems from the the Bush administration’s isolationism and its manifestations in unilateral militarism. It is well known that isolationism is a historic part of the American psyche that can create a myopic, self-interested perspective Europeans consider both naive and arrogant.
William Osborne
        This myopia might be symbolized by Saul Steinberg’s famous cartoon image of the New Yorker’s view of the world. It blurs somewhere in the Bronx and has a couple of dots out West called Chicago and San Francisco before the earth disappears into the Pacific ocean. The image was one of the most famous covers ever for The New Yorker magazine.
       For many Europeans, this affectionate cartoon jibe in the ribs of Big Apple narcissism would seem to have a darker side. Many know that for New Yorkers the city is the center of the world, and that to step outside of it is to step into a netherland. The city is attacked, 2,800 people are killed, and it seems an apocalypse without measure. Americans have mourned for over a year and continue to do so.

       The grief is more than understandable, but in the European view, its one-sided focus seems to reveal a troubling ethnocentricity. They would argue that in the retaliatory attacks in Afghanistan or Iraq, thousands of innocent people have been or will be killed, but that Americans seem to regard those victims as little more than nameless bystanders, shadows without identity in a netherworld of “collateral damage.” And as Europeans look over the last 40 years of U.S. history, the story goes on to approximately 1 million nameless Vietnamese, tens of thousands of Arabic people, and tens of thousands of forgotten souls who have died in Latin America, due to U.S. policies.

    These would not seem to be the same kind of humans as in New York, but rather brown-skinned shadows whose violent demise need not touch the American realm, even if their deaths were caused or abetted by the U.S. government. In short, it’s just massive suffering and death in a remote world, something like images of video games beamed from the ethers.

       Given this European perception of American moral myopia, many ask why we feel entitled to protest against the Vienna Philharmonic’s chauvinistic employment policies. Doesn’t America often claim a moral high ground and then use that as justification for being an utter bully? Aren’t protests against the Vienna Philharmonic the worst form of hypocritical righteousness?

       These questions are more than justified.
       Without trying to minimize or relativize the moral inconsistencies of American militarism, one might respond that well-publicized protests against cultural chauvinism help weaken its foundations everywhere — including in the United States. Whether American, European, Western, Arabic, Israeli or Palestinian, the forms of violence that stem from chauvinism are underpinned and reinforced by national orchestras whose employment policies are sexist, ethnocentric and racist.
       It is interesting to consider that it was only 300 miles south of Vienna, in the Balkans, that Europeans were committing mass rape as a form of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. The United Nations estimates that at least 20,000 women were victims of those horrific crimes.
If we lived in a world with more respect for the dignity of women, the Taliban might not have come into existence. And we might not have had contemporary Europeans committing mass rape five hours south of Vienna.

       Since foreign events, even such as these, can fade from the average American’s perspective, we might ask ourselves how we would feel living in Boston if we knew 20,000 women had been systematically kidnapped and brutally raped in the Philadelphia area only five hours away. That is about the distance from Vienna to Kosovo. And how would we feel about the symbolic meanings of a nearby national orchestra that excludes women — especially when the opera formation of that orchestra receives millions in public funding?
       Is there something that connects those two situations, something in our chauvinistic attitudes about the dignity of women?
       Perhaps these events provide a vivid example of how a firm stand for the dignity of women not only increases their rights as artists, but can help create cultural values that work to prevent enormous crimes of violence. If we lived in a world with more respect for the dignity of women, the Taliban might not have come into existence. And we might not have had contemporary Europeans committing mass rape five hours south of Vienna.
       And we might not have American enthocentricity that regards massive civilian casualties and suffering as acceptable, as long as they are in some land other than our own.
       We see that chauvinism, degradation and violence form a continuum. It is the everyday slights against human dignity, sometimes hidden in the very assumptions of high culture, that can be the tell-tale harbingers of actual physical violence.

       If chauvinism is one of the common grounds of violence, why do we celebrate the Vienna Philharmonic’s sexism, ethnocentricity and racism in our major concert halls? Shall we question the sources of violence that exist in thought and cultural expression, or just bury our opponents in a rain of bombs?     

 These thoughts might be applied on both sides of the current conflict. The Taliban’s treatment of women represented an abuse of human rights whose systematic intensity and breadth had not been seen since the Third Reich, and yet our government did nothing, even allowing for considerable business and military dealings with them. And after the situation blew up in our face, we saw that there was something distinctly macho in the type of John Wayne “dead-or-alive” U.S. war mongering that evolved — which was especially appalling to Europeans. Where was all that “manliness” when far less violent international pressure might have really helped the women of Afghanistan and brought their government to its senses?
       Cultural values based on truth and dignity for women help protect all people from violence no matter where they are.

With the Vienna Phil performing in Washington during their upcoming tour, we have an opportunity to take a stand and make a valuable statement to the world.

       The Vienna Philharmonic, which still excludes women and covers it up through the use of tokenism, is an affront to the noble ideals we assign to classical music. History illustrates again and again that when we allow violence against the dignity of women, it creates environments that can also lead to their physical abuse. Why do we forget that women’s rights and human rights are inseparably intertwined?
       With the Vienna Philharmonic performing in Washington during their upcoming tour, we have a rare opportunity to take an important stand and make a valuable statement to the world that there is never a reason to treat women as second-class humans who can be rightfully excluded from national institutions of cultural expression. Not in Kabul, and not in the Kennedy Center for the Arts.
       There has never been a more important time for all people to realize that chauvinism is a bottomless pit of hatred, violence and death. Every time we protest violence against human dignity, whether physical or cultural, we help make the world a better and more peaceful place for everyone.
William Osborne is an American composer, musicologist and arts activist who lives in Germany. This article is printed here with his permission.