Jazz & the State

Mark S. Weiner was our guest on the March 7, 2014, episode of Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. Mark’s most recent book, The Rule of the Clan, is a really smart read; insightful, and filled with the intellectual provocations suggested by his title via the word “clan” and the idea that its ability to “rule” itself (and perhaps us?) is something we should think about carefully.

The idea is that in the presence of a weak State, extended kinship groups (clans) provide necessary protections, resources, and assistance for its people. The role of the State, then, is to integrate into these groups — via laws, enforcement, myriad resources, opportunities, and assistance — in such a way as to present an attractive alternative to clan rule. In liberal societies, the goal is to “liberate” or remove barriers to individual self-expression. So, the laws, resources, etc., are ideally intended to facilitate the process by which individuality is realized, actualized.

This is what jazz does. What you see on the bandstand, what you hear when you listen to jazz, is the process of granting individual self-expression via improvisation within a group. So, liberal society requires diverse voices and structures that enable the freedom of self-expression.

The agreement amongst musicians, the social contract, if you will, is that each person has decided to enable the freedom of self-expression — “we will help each other and won’t get in each other’s way” — is the unstated mantra of the jazz band.

During the Cold War, jazz was viewed as a stealth weapon precisely because if its ability to entice people with the possibilities inherent in the freedom of self-expression. Jazz music represented democracy, literally and metaphorically; and during the ideological standoff between communism and its foe, jazz musicians and their fans were considered threats to a more orderly way of life. Makes sense, jazz and democracy are messy. When everyone has a voice that is deemed valid for meaningful participation on the bandstand and/or in civic, judicial, political, and executive processes; then, decision-making is complicated and can be slow, tedious, and costly. Authoritarian regimes can seem utopian by contrast.

Jazz is Hard. Democracy is hard. Integration is hard.
Clans offer comfort and security, until they don’t. Deep loyalties can mask abuses of every kind, limit or obscure opportunities, and otherwise veil potential. When the State is weak, corruption reigns, and abuses of every kind are rampant. Deregulation is a great idea, until it isn’t. Sure, liberating markets is great but when the effort feeds on itself; we can easily revert to closeted activities — nepotism, sexism, racism, etc., — that erode progress and undermine not only the economy but the strength of liberal society. Integration encourages transparency, revealing activities that might otherwise remain hidden. This inherent checks & balances system makes democracy hard all over again. A strong State promotes and protects individuality. Dr. Wes said it best on Friday’s show, [Duke Ellington would], “enable members of his band to be their best selves—and as a result, by the way, very few people wanted to leave his band.” Where jazz goes; so, too, goes democracy. Let’s swing.


Can Cultural Diplomacy Work in Ukraine?

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many scholars argued that the age of ideological conflict had ended and that liberal democracy had emerged as the sole legitimate model. What was the point of maintaining the ability to wage a struggle that we had won?” (http://www.democracyjournal.org/8/6594.php)

A combination of arrogance and myopia has plagued US foreign policy and although the Obama administration has employed a more strategic approach to diplomacy by increasing the use of people-to-people programs, there is more to be done.

Steven Pifer testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb 1. (http://www.brookings.edu/testimony/2012/0201_ukraine_pifer.aspx) He surmises that Mr. Yanukovych may “calculate that the European Union and the United States will overlook his democratic regression and accept Ukraine without his having to adjust his domestic policies, believing that the West does not want to see Ukraine drift closer to Moscow’s orbit. That would reflect a fair measure of wishful thinking and overestimate the geopolitical importance that the West currently attaches to Ukraine.”

My emphasis  on the end there but, wow — just wow. Yet, there are nuggets of truth in this. First, the US should not want Ukraine to drift closer to Moscow. However, the idea of the US overlooking Ukraine’s current democratic regression is indeed, “wishful thinking.”  The idea of “overestimating the geopolitical importance” the West attaches to Ukraine is troublesome because from a US domestic perspective, this notion runs rampant in Republican politics that are so acutely focused internally that the world beyond US shores only exists as a pernicious and intimidating threat. Pifer’s view and the breath of his experience undoubtedly and thankfully make his view broader. He assures the Foreign Relations committee, “US interest has not changed” but “circumstances within Ukraine have…” His recommendations for addressing this reality forthrightly are threefold: (1) the US  should express its concerns about Ukraine’s apparent drift from democracy and  make clear that internal problems in Kyiv have a negative impact on relations with the West; (2) the West should “keep the door open” for amicable relations should Kyiv revise its current trajectory; and (3) the US and EU should coordinate efforts to maximize the impact of Western policy on decisions made by Ukraine and concedes the EU may be in the best position to influence thinking in Kyiv.

The discussion of cultural diplomacy is limited to “assistance programs” that Pifer suggests should be limited to “US assistance in supporting civil society” and “exchange programs that bring Ukrainians to the US and Europe.”

The recommendations resonate with the sentiments of the immediate post-Cold War era. Reminding Kyiv of its “democratic regression” and that its internal practices and policies are problematic for the US and the West in general seem less effective than demonstrating democracy in practice by increasing the number and types of in-country cultural presentation and associated educational programs. The notion of keeping the “door open” for receiving Kyiv warmly should it revise its current course, seems insulting; it assumes a position of superiority as if a parent is speaking to a wayward child who will come back home as soon as s/he learns what’s good for him. There is also a tinge of isolationist thinking inherent in this statement, a suggestion that the West will not tolerate or engage a disobedient Ukraine. Cultural diplomacy requires mutual respect and engagement; it provides a forum for conversation and interaction amongst cultural equals even when (especially when?) policies distort the playing field. Pifer’s support for the recent coordination between the US and EU in a letter expressing opposition to Ukraine is a bold diplomatic move that could entice Ukraine to become a player on the West’s team. However, limiting “assistance programs” is a mistake. If the goal is in sustaining “civil society”; then, increasing cultural and people-to-people programs seems the most effective strategy because these have broad appeal and can rally the masses to active participation and thoughtful engagement by planting “seeds” that can grow long after the initial presentations or investments of time end. Finally, and again, cultural diplomacy requires mutual respect and runs both ways. Exchange programs should be reciprocal between the US, EU, and Ukraine.

One last thing, is there any chance that Ukraine is trying to assert its sovereign identity as being neither East or West but a country of its own choosing? Perhaps this is not the “black or white” scenario the US imagines. This dichotomy has deep roots in US culture that has often obscured shades of gray. If this is the case, and I suspect it is, cultural diplomacy as an endeavor led by practitioners trained in the arts might be most effective in influencing policy decisions. Pifer’s suggestion that the EU and not the US might be most successful in managing relations with Ukraine on behalf of the West seems instructive. A successful strategy during the Cold War, cultural diplomacy is more necessary today than ever as yesterday’s bilateral dialogues have given way to multilateral conversations amongst disparate nations and regions.