Thursday, February 28, 2013

Artie Shaw on Anti-Semitism

Among jazz clarinet autobiographies, there are two which I consider indispensable. The first, Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle, has already been reviewed here. In it are some of the most important observations concerning the history of jazz, performance, and even the nature of music itself. The second, Artie Shaw's The Trouble with Cinderella, is an altogether different kind of book. Rambling, autobiographical and discursive, it is a text that yields its content by wrestling. Shaw was not the natural writer he'd hoped to be, but he was undoubtedly a real intellectual, which can make him seem strange in a culture so often dominated by pseudo-intellectualism.

To analyze this book would be almost as difficult as to analyze Shaw himself, which was a task too difficult for anyone who ever knew him. So for this post, I've decided to quote from Artie's thoughts on anti-Semitism: a topic which unfortunately never seems to become as culturally irrelevant as it ought to be. For those who have not thought in depth on the subject, or haven't felt the direct results of it, Shaw's autobiography gives us a window into not only its effects on a musical genius, but the era he lived in, which bore the immediate seeds of our own.

[...] I had never given much thought to such matters as being "different" from other kids I knew. As far as I was concerned, kids were kids, some were bigger than others, some were boys, and some were girls. [After moving to New Haven], I suddenly had to unlearn any previous notions I may have had about myself and other kids. Because there was this one thing about myself, this "difference" that set me apart.

I learned what it means to be a Jew...


No Jewish child, no matter how carefully protected, can avoid at least a few head-on collisions with this thing called anti-Semitism; and as to how any individual child will react, or how hard it throws him and how weird a character-malformation he may develop as a result of his first contact with this particular type of stupidity--well, your guess is as good as any. All I can do is explain how it worked in my own case.


All I could figure out was that there must be something about me that was different, alien, strange, and (worst of all) undesirable--that is, from other kids' point of view. I'm sure I wouldn't have recognized the word anti-Semitism if I'd tripped over it. I had no idea what the words "kike" or "sheeny" meant, for I had never heard them before. As for being called "Christ-killer"--all I can tell you is that up to that time the word Christ had never been used in my presence except as a something I vaguely recognized as a "swear-word." 


I drew into a little shell, a coat of armor of outer toughness, inside which I tried to conceal my feelings. In other words, from the moment I realized that my being Jewish was something to be jeered at for, called names for, or hated and excluded for--from that moment I was no longer the same kid I had been before. And not only not the same kid, but changed in a certain, specific way, and in a way that I don't believe could possibly have occurred otherwise.

To put it as bluntly as I can, I believe in all honesty and with as much awareness as I can bring to bear on it from where I stand right now, that this one lesson had more to do with shaping the course and direction of my entire life than any other single thing that has happened to me, before or since. (...) I had to resign myself to what even at that age I knew to be the plain truth: that for no reason I could understand, and certainly through no choice of my own (for how could there have been a choice when I had not even been aware of an issue?)--there I was, a Jew, whatever that meant, and, whether I liked it or not, a Jew I would remain for the rest of my life until the day I died. [pp.23-26.]

I've been told a number of times that there has been great progress made. But somehow I find it difficult to believe. Maybe it's just naivete on my part. But it seems to me that when a disease like [anti-Semitism] can reach such proportions as we've seen it reach within the past two decades--when some six million human beings, men, women, and children, are murdered, raped, tortured, experimented on like guinea pigs, herded together like cattle (but not treated like cattle because cattle is valuable property), gassed, burnt in charnel ovens, thrown like dead dogs into lime pits, branded and made into hideous skeletonlike caricatures of human beings, before finally being "mercifully" permitted to die and put an end to the whole miserable sport--when all this can take place before our eyes  and you can still to this very moment find any number of well-fed, prosperous citizens going around thinking to themselves, and quite often saying right out loud (for it's a free country, isn't it?) that after all Hitler was right about one thing anyway--that same old puke-making one thing--well, I ask you, what is a guy supposed to think and feel? I don't believe you'll have any great deal of difficulty in understanding a very small amount of mild bitterness. To say nothing of a slight disgust at the idea of having to be a member of a species which can behave the way it quite often does and continues to call itself "human"!

I am not deluding myself with any notion of making any Great Contribution in this matter of minority persecution. Bitterness and anger, justifiable or otherwise, cannot help much, practically speaking. Certainly there is good and sufficient reason for both bitterness and anger. I have had my share of both these emotions. But I know they're of no use. In fact, I have seen them work to the detriment of those who use them in the fight against this disease; particularly where they lead victims of discrimination into their own measures of discrimination against those who discriminate--an even more subtle form of discrimination, a kind of counter persecution, inevitably doomed to failure as a method of dealing with the evil. Minorities cannot afford to blind themselves in their fight against persecution. No man can last long as a fighter if he's kidding himself that he can afford anger--and if you don't believe that, ask any professional.   [pp.34-35]

These words are as sadly relevant now as they were in 1952. That Shaw had the courage to share these specific wounds and reflections is a very rare thing in the history of jazz. The last paragraph quoted seems to me, in fact, a Great Contribution in its own way, reminding us of a principle not often enough detailed in our public discourse and obsessive social planning: hate cannot be snuffed out by hate. Shaw continues: seems to me only natural that if we think about it at all we have to hold ourselves, each one of us, at least partially accountable for the mess. For it is, after all, our own mess. We, collectively, as a species, made it."

We might as well each start cleaning it up now, in whatever small ways we can, wherever we find ourselves.  

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