Friday, August 20, 2010

The poet's political correctness

Salman Masalha

The poet's political correctness

"Music from the Maghreb is poor, limited and unsophisticated," a Kurdish-Turkish musician whispered in my ear during a concert held in southern France last month, as part of the "Mediterranean Voices" festival. As I am not an expert on the secrets of music I tried, upon returning to Israel, to clarify the issue with a friend, who is a Palestinian musician.

"Indeed, that's the way it is," he resolutely confirmed, and went on to elaborate - comparing music of the Maghreb to work by a particular artist who numbers among the "national Palestinian poets," and whose writings he described as ornately hollow and devoid of content. Had such statements come from a critic of European origin, the foolish apostles of political correctness would, no doubt, have hastened to brand their spokesman a racist.

This brought to mind the "Mizrahi" storm that erupted in the wake of Natan Zach's remarks on Israeli culture, exposing the tension between backers of the East and upholders of the West. Epithets like "high culture," "low culture" and "racism" were immediately tossed around.

I have often found myself watching from the sidelines during such affairs, as though my role is to "let the Jews now arise, and play before us." Yet as it seems to me the topic does not belong to this region's "minority group" - that is, the Jews (both those from Arab and Western lands ) - it's time I cease being an amused, passive observer.

Human history, from its start to the present, has witnessed ups and downs in all spheres of life, including cultural affairs. People of all ethnicities, genders, colors and races created in the past, and continue to create today, both high and low culture. The fad of political correctness - which in recent decades has taken hold in cultural studies and public discourse - obstructs judgment seeking to distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, high and low.

This approach places anything presented as culture on the same normative scale, and even insists on paying respect to everything. But the obstruction of all criticism of what is exhibited publicly is actually responsible for the decline in human culture, not the opposite.

We can therefore say there is high culture and low culture; there is no need to avoid confronting such issues. Is it difficult, for example, to understand that racism and discrimination belong to low culture, while equality between all human beings falls under high culture? The fact that high culture is not the exclusive possession of the West, and low culture is not monopolized by the East, requires no elaboration: Both levels exist in all cultures.

The only parameter dividing between the two types of culture is the extent to which they refine the human soul. High culture refines the soul and sharpens wisdom, whereas low culture adds layers of insensitivity to the soul and mind.

More than anything, all of the cliches that have circulated following Zach's comments reflect a lack of any kind of serious discussion on the topic. The responses sound as if they've been ripped from a gut filled with sublimated cultural tensions that no one has the courage to expose, for fear they will be branded a racist.

The filth called political correctness - which gives cover to dark racism - should be uprooted. Not all criticism, not even criticism at its most blunt, stems from racism. It is permissible and even laudable for all subjects to be discussed. We have a duty to criticize, judge and even take clear positions, even when the views sound unpleasant.

Without being derided as a racist, one can say that the culture of ratings, Peeping Tomism and false expertise that is manufactured by the West belongs to the category of low culture.

One can also say, without being considered a racist, that much of what is deemed "Eastern" lyrics and song falls under low culture, both in terms of its music and its content.
Published: Opinion - Haaretz, August 20, 2010

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