May 28, 2007
Harvard Square Observer

Bush, Gershwin, and Empire

Ernest Cassara

Editorial note: Ye Olde Observer is presently in London, the English London, enjoying the cultural activities - concerts, plays, etc. - of that great city.  Okay!  The cultural activities include sitting in his favorite pubs.  But, be that as it may, while he is away, the HSC will be featuring columns from the past.  He likes to think of them as “golden oldies.”  Whether you agree, of course, is another matter!

Published in the HSC edition for 21-28 November 2005

I remember as a child exploring the family atlas, and noting how many places on earth were colored red.  Ah, yes, in those days, it was called the British Empire, on which the sun never set, it was so far flung across the globe.  I don’t know who the wag was who first said that the sun never set on the British Empire because the Good Lord didn’t trust the Brits!

Of course, eventually, with the departure from the India  (“the jewel in the crown”), the British transformed the empire into a commonwealth.  One of the consequences of empire, however, was that many people from far flung places migrated to the United Kingdom.  This is particularly notable in places such as Bradford in Yorkshire, where one finds such a mix of people.  And, where violence had broken out from time to time as the local yobs went about “Paki bashing.”

On our many stays in London, my Better Half and I have always enjoyed the rich mix of folks from around the world.  Of course, some are merely tourists, but, many are permanent residents.  It truly is an international city.

Empire has its consequences, as the British learned on 7 July, with the Underground (that is, in American parlance, “subway”) and the bus bombings.  Disgruntled folks under extreme circumstances turn to what today we call terrorism.  Of course, in the days of the empire it was known as “twisting  the lion’s tail.”

Although the French empire was not as far flung as that of the British, it was extensive.  The terrible troubles that have developed in the suburbs of the grand city of Paris - which then spread to other parts of the country - are one of the consequences of empire.  Those young folk, who are  French by birth, and have never seen their parents' countries of origin, have suffered much discrimination.  “Liberté, egalité, fraternité” has not applied to them.  Under such conditions, sooner or later,  people who are looked down on, and suffer the consequences economically, will fight back.

Some of us probably remember the problems that President De Gaulle had disentangling France and rebellious Algeria.  Many Americans, I suspect, do not remember, however, that the U.S. willingly assumed the imperial burden from France in Vietnam.

Of course, the American excuse was that, with the departure of the French, there was danger that Vietnam would fall into the Soviet sphere of influence. (Remember the “domino theory”?) The Vietnamese, of course, were attempting to free themselves from their colonial masters.  I have noticed of late that some Americans are rewriting our humiliation in Vietnam, blaming our defeat on certain politicians of whom they do not approve.

Puerto Rico, which the U.S. seized in the Spanish American War, gave us a good taste of the consequences of empire, when some of the folks from their liberation front shot up the House of Representatives years ago.  We call Puerto Rico a “commonwealth,” a designation one will not find in our Constitution!

I have remarked before on how the U.S., having seized the Philippines from Spain - allegedly to free it - slaughtered thousands of the inhabitants of those islands who thought we were serious about freeing them.  Years later, when we finally freed them, we patted ourselves on the back!

Then, there was a different form of colonialism.  When my wife and I had Fulbright professorships in Germany - she in Berlin (still divided, before the wall fell) and I in Munich - we were very aware of the fact that there were many guest workers (gastarbeiter) in various parts of the country.  These folks had been invited from such places as Italy, the Balkans and Turkey, and, their labor contributed to the economic powerhouse that West Germany developed into following WWII.  But, then the question of citizenship arose, especially in regard to the children who were born in Germany.  The Germans had been used to considering “blood” as central to citizenship.  (Ideas such as this did not die out once the Nazis were no longer abroad in the land.)

The United States is presently involved in attempting to make the Middle East in our image.  But, of course, just as we would resent, and attempt to repel, efforts of another nation to make us over in its image, Iraq, and the Middle East generally, is having none of it.  President Bush likes to conflate the war of his choice in Iraq and the so-called war on terror.  They are not the same, of course.  Terrorism against the U.S. is the result of our trying to impose our will on others.  There will be no victory in the “war on terror,” for the simple reason that it is not a war in any sense of that term.  Furthermore, terrorism against the U.S. and Americans abroad will not cease until we begin to mind our own business.  This does not mean isolationism, but rather an  internationalism that seeks the good of other nations as well as our own.

Several weeks back, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of James Levine, performed, for the first time, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F.  The pianist was Jean-Yves Thibaudet of France.  When the BSO was to play the same program at Carnegie Hall in New York, a reviewer in the Boston Globe expressed surprise, for it was not usual for symphony orchestras, he thought, to play Gershwin.  Thibaudet answered that  he had been playing Gershwin since he was thirteen or fourteen.  True, the Boston Pops Orchestra, under Arthur Fiedler, had performed the work, but, until Levine conducted it with the parent Symphony, it had not been considered kosher for it to be performed in “serious” concerts.

Newly enthralled by the piece, I dug out my tape of it, performed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra, under Maurice Abravanel; Jerome Lowenthal, pianist.  The concerto was still running through my head when, some time later, we were in the university town of Bowling Green, Ohio, on a visit that I have mentioned before.  I went looking for a CD for our host.  Found it, performed by the San Francisco Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; Garrick Ohlsson, pianist.  I was interested to compare the S. F. performance with those of Boston and Salt Lake City. 

Before writing this section of commentary, I stopped into a Cambridge music emporium and found another performance, which I seized.  Performers: Philharmonia Slavonica.  Yes, you read right!  Philharmonia Slavonica.  Conductor: Henry Adolph; pianist: Dieter Goldman.  And, they really swing!

I suggest that George Gershwin is a better ambassador of American values than George W. Bush.  There was a time when the rest of the world looked to America with affection, not with contempt and fear, as is the case today.


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