The Right to be Free? Or the Right to be Safe?

Twice when I’ve gone to the grocery store, there is someone in front of me in line–a man–who refuses to wear his mask until he enters the store. I live in a region of the country that is a hotbed of Covid-19, and in my county now, the curve is still rising slightly and not yet flattened. My county requires by law that people wear a mask when they are anywhere in public, with the exception of when they are walking outdoors if there is adequate social distancing. I cannot comprehend why these individuals refuse to do that, even when I politely remind them that it is the law, and why Trader Joe’s takes a cavalier attitude to enforcing it outside. Even inside the store, I have seen women wearing a mask covering only their mouths, not their noses. Needless to say, it makes me livid.

The American ethos is all about freedom, a misguided notion of freedom at all costs. Conservatives and lawless right wing renegades react violently to any discussion of regulation of social behavior. Most of them probably have no idea that in most other parts of the world, people are more highly regulated and in the industrialized West, they are no less free than we are. These foolish, emotion-driven people jump to conclusions with their black-and-white thinking, assuming America will become a Stalinist regime if anyone does anything to curb their liberty. Just look at some of the incidents in the past couple of months: protesters storming the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan and other capitals, kids flocking to Florida beaches for spring break, people flaunting authority and holding parties.

But how about the right to be safe? Why do we never discuss this in America? I would argue that it is due to two things: the lack of a collective mentality/extreme individualism, and because less “aggressive” human rights or more “feminine” and well-being values are not supported in our country. Consider the following:

-During our Covid-19 pandemic/crisis, many governments have not taken strict enough measures for fear of retaliation by their constituents. Yes, there are economic concerns which are very grave. But the longer term dangers to our economy will be a pandemic that continues and/or surges. Also, many politicians have no scientific knowledge whatsoever or are poorly informed. Granted, a number of restrictions could indeed slowly be lifted if people were very diligent and responsible, good about obeying the laws. But I would even go so far as to argue that even during shelter in place, many people have not observed the rules. This kind of arrogant, short-sighted flaunting of the laws can be seen on both right and the left. Some of the educated wealthy people on the left law think does not apply to them, that they are educated and they know better. This is sheer arrogance and entitlement and a disservice to society as a whole.
-Our lack of gun control. Go ahead, cite the Second Amendment about the right to bear arms. Cite the fact that there is violence and we need to defend ourselves, our families, our spouses, our children. Tell me that you are a responsible gun owner, and that you only use your guns for hunting, in which case I would accept your argument as legitimate, though I personally condemn hunting as an animal-loving vegetarian.
But look at the statistics about gun violence in America, And consider the fact that we actually have MORE GUNS THAN PEOPLE in America. Our gun ownership far surpasses that of any other country, including countries that are three times larger than us: India and China. Why should I be concerned for my life just because you are an individual who lives in foolish fear and feels the need to bear arms? How do I know that, if I honk at you when you cut me off on the freeway, you aren’t going to shoot me? Why should I and millions of other educators and students have to read a plaque on the wall of our institutions that give us instructions on what to do if there is an active shooter, along with taking shelter for tornadoes? How many more innocent lives–many of them children–need to be taken by an angry, mentally unstable individual who has gotten a hold of assault weapons? As long as we have the NRA, and our shamelessly unethical politicians who are supported by them, we have no hope for gun control. and our daily lives continue to be potentially harmful instead of safe. And the recent protests have shown how a particular group of people has sadly borne the brunt of gun violence.
-Our lack of universal healthcare. Will we become North Korea if we provide some sort of government-sponsored healthcare for everyone? Does anyone enjoy paying thousands of dollars for procedures that are sometimes inflated due to high malpractice insurance? Or like being in debt for years? Or perhaps you prefer not seeing a doctor, though you are suffering from a serious ailment, and perhaps would rather die? As long as we have this mentality in America (that makes us the laughingstock of the industrialized world) that we need to have the freedom to choose who provides us healthcare, or whether or not we even must have healthcare, no one can live in safe health and freedom from worry about the exorbitant costs. and this impacts people of low socioeconomic status even harder.
-Our disparate educational system. I find it extremely perverse that the quality of a Public school is contingent upon on the wealth of the neighborhood. The fact that people can even vote on whether or not to give money to schools is beyond my comprehension. I understand their criticisms, that school boards may mismanage or mis-spend funds. that it is the efficacy of the funding, not the amount. These are important points, and I don’t deny that there is systemic mismanagement. But to leave education in the hands of people who have no consensus as to what is important, who hold a very Republican perspective on education that claims that other social institutions are more important is completely foolish. And it costs more us in the end.
Children have a right to quality, safe school environments where they are educated, fed properly, and assessed fairly. Teachers have a right to strong resources, supportive administrations and governments, and a classroom free from violence and misbehavior. The burden on our educators is too overwhelming–they must play the role of teacher, social worker, babysitter, psychologist, behavioral expert, parental figure, and more.

Our society favors individualism and freedom to a degree that is near-pathological. Look at countries where there is a high degree of social welfare and government assistance and regulation such as Iceland, Germany, France, South Korea, New Zealand. Even our culturally-similar neighbor, Canada. In none of those countries would you say people lack freedom, that they don’t have the right to protest, that they don’t have free speech, religion–any basic human rights we expect in the developed world. And they all have prosperous economies. We have got to put an end to our fear-based mentality in our culture that says, “If I can’t have everything be 100% free and how I want it, then we are all trapped in a totalitarian regime.” And then we must create social policies and laws with common sense. People overseas often regard Americans as “the teenagers of the world,” people who can’t bear to have any rules and will act out if any are imposed. And just like a parent might tell a teenager, I would conclude by saying, “Let’s leave a good impression of ourselves on other people and learn how to behave properly.”

Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.

American Optimism: Our Country’s Most Distinguishing Characteristic

There is much to criticize about America; have no doubt about that. I cannot solve all of society’s ills, nor even begin to comment on all of them. I cannot address them all in my lifetime. I cannot express everything that needs to be said about a nation that is part superpower, part developing country. America is indeed fraught with problems.

To name but a paltry few: the wrong industries are privatized (healthcare for one, and that will merit a separate post); lawyers have too much power and therefore create a culture of fear that affects our economics; middlemen, such as stockbrokers or any sort of financial agents feed off of necessary transactions and therefore charge exorbitant fees to customers; access to healthcare and quality education is still tragically unequal; the right wing controls religion, patriotism, and social issues; “family values” is a joke, for adequate maternity/paternity leave, affordable childcare, and child-friendly facilities are virtually nonexistent; civil liberties go to such extremes that our government and social institutions are often prevented from being able to care for people’s well-being; corporate culture dominates so much of the business world; developers have all too much power and get away with all sorts of environmental and urban atrocities; unions, though begun with noble goals, get out of hand and create unreasonable demands on any given financial system; ridiculous Puritanism coupled with excessive lechery prohibit a healthy expression and understanding of sensuality and sexuality in American culture; an obsession with money and work clashes with basic fundamentals of health (how many sick people or injured have to drag themselves to work out of fear?); racism still exists on subtle levels; the sexual revolution has been just that—-sexual—-and women still in many cases do not get equal rights or at least respect from men outside of the bedroom.

That take away all of these negatives in American society, strip all of these extremes and unethical behaviors away, and at the bottom of it, there exists a wonderful culture and people. Gloria Steinem once made a remark that America was the greatest living social experiment, or something to that effect, and one cannot help but feel that she had a good point. Ours is a country with an arguably unparalleled diversity, diversity that often shocks visitors from other countries and, inadvertently, biases our minds when we visit homogenous countries that seem “racist.” A Jew might live across the street from Hindus whose neighbors are Polish Catholics and whose friends down the block are a secular Turkish Muslim married to an atheist (my childhood). Those fortunate enough to live in urban areas might eat cereal for breakfast, pad thai for lunch, and gnocchi from the trattoria for dinner.

We have a genuine openness that stuns foreigners, trusting optimism that says “yes” rather than “no.” Our society is built on the premise that mobility and self-betterment are okay, that there is no shame in these things. (Recall the scorn heaped by the British upper classes on the self-made, enterprising Middletons). The American spirit is a can-do one, a spirit with a minimum of suspicion. Yes, in certain areas of the country—-usually regions with strong community ties in the interior, or in small towns—-there is a sense of jealousy against those who try to get ahead. But generally speaking, success is greeted positively in America, especially when compared with how it is viewed in other parts of the world.

Even romantically, as Americans, we want a happy ending. We want the guy to get the girl at the end of the movie. We women want to have the career *and* the husband. We want the nice wedding reception at the vineyard. We have a certain “teleology” (as a friend of mine put it) with romantic relationships. This is often in stark contrast to the very rationalistic, social welfare cultures of Northern and Western Europe where many couples don’t feel the impetus to have their relationship recognized by the state, and don’t need marriage as a means of economic fulfillment since one’s needs are taken care of by the government. “We are happy as we are” many of them might say, and there is no arguing with that. A number of Americans feel the same way as well. But romance is one of the oldest, and most fundamental human impulses and marriage one of the oldest institutions—-why shouldn’t it “lead somewhere”??

We want to move forward as a culture, we are always moving forward, and certainly sometimes this can be less than a positive. Look at the stress levels of Americans compared to those of people in other developed nations. Look at the waste we create in our highly consumerist society. Look at the shallowness of our popular media in the age of Kardashian Kulture. Again, we have to add these things to the list of our society’s ills. There are many countries that come out ahead of the United States on indices of quality of life, and it’s not often hard to see why.

But our optimism will always include awareness; there are always those who want things in our country to grow sustainably, so to speak. We don’t have stigmas against trying. Our educational system fosters an openness of thought even from an early age, and the older I get, the more I realize how special this is. Criticize what you will about the United States, but you cannot justifiably criticize her optimism. Those who don’t believe it can only be considered the worst kind of skeptics.

Happy 237th Birthday, America!

Is There Any American Classical Music?

In summer 2011, I had the privilege of attending a master class in voice at the Mozarteum music academy in Salzburg, Austria.  I was immersed in a different language, a different culture, and, more specifically, a different musical culture.  I had gone with a certain set of expectations as to what I would learn; little did I know that those expectations would be completely thwarted and that my perspectives shifted.

I had expected to absorb the great Austro-Germanic tradition, to be steeped in the city of Mozart, because after all, we in the United States do not have a Mozart.  Nor do we have such deep roots in classical music. The general public in Europe and Austria is arguably more interested in classical music than the American general public.  People might know the words to an opera aria even in a language not their own, or be willing to create radical opera productions because they have seen enough traditional ones to crave something new. Also, classical music in America is plagued with financial difficulties that music in Europe does not generally endure, given that their governments actively fund the arts.  Therefore, the volume and scope of classical music offerings is much greater and lavish than what one can find here in the United States, with the exception of New York city and a couple of other places. Traditionally, royalty and courts have supported classical music, even fostered its development.  So naturally, I assumed that the depth, history, and prominence of classical music in a country like Austria automatically trumped our fledgling American tradition.  After all, when you see Mozart on a chocolate wrapper, you’ve got to assume that these people care!  But my logic was proven only partially correct. After my experience at Salzburg, I came to understand that Austria does indeed have a rich tradition, but I recognized that we also have a distinct musical culture of our own.

Perhaps as Americans we have a complex that our classical music tradition isn’t “good enough” when we compare ourselves to Europeans.  We do not have as long or deep of non-popular or art music in our culture.  And rather than being something that is just a part of our background, classical music here is often an elite phenomenon that is enjoyed by people living more urban areas and/or who are more affluent.  But what is so uniquely American is that the ethnic diversity that is the hallmark of our country is reflected in our classical music. We have deep Italian roots, especially in opera, reaching back to colonial times and including genius librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (think Don Giovanni or Cosi’ Fan Tutte), who was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University; rich, German (choral) traditions so prominently found in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions that are imparted to children in schools from the time they are very young; African-American spirituals and blues traditions that have filtered into our sensibility through compositions and also through the performers, who are often known for their passion, elegance, depth of feeling, and (pardon the horrible cliche’) “soul”; refugee Jews who brought with them their rigorous training in technique, deep knowledge and scholarship, and emotion when they escaped various pogroms or wars and settled into various conservatories, universities, musical ensembles, solo careers, or even Hollywood film studios; and in more recent decades, the influx of Asian musicians who bring incredible discipline to their craft and an unparalleled enthusiasm for excellence, not to mention brilliant artistry (Sarah Chang, anyone?).  Various artists of classical musics from around the world have also inspired the American tradition when they have come here and collaborated with our performers and composers.  And of course, we cannot neglect our good old “Yankee ingenuity” with innovative individuals that have created unique forms and styles of their own.  We have Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and renowned women like Joan Tower and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.

These are, of course, but broadly painted generalizations of our various cultural strands, and I am indeed neglecting numerous others who have contributed to our classical music melting pot.  But the point remains:  America is indeed a powerhouse in terms of classical music.  Certainly in such a huge country there is a wide range of training for aspiring musicians, some of it downright shoddy.  But there is also plenty of world-class education too, preparing the future virtuosos and good, decent, working musicians of tomorrow.  American conservatories and music departments are full of international students and professors—-if this is not a sign of our musical prowess, I don’t know what is.  Our diversity has made our classical music heritage something remarkable, drawing on the strengths of various cultures.

I am now a wiser musician who can certainly appreciate a Mozart, or a Sibelius (visiting his home outside Helsinki and even being allowed to play his piano was a most heartwarming experience!)  But I have learned my lesson through experience, learned how wonderful a classical music tradition we have here in the United States.  And the exciting thing is, it’s only going to grow even more.  It really does take stepping away from your own country in order to appreciate it.