The problem with “indigeneity,” a history of the Hundred Years War, Henry Pleasants’s jazz criticism, a life of philosopher and war hero J. L. Austin, and more.
Good morning! We’ve all seen them or heard them read at the beginning of a conference—those land acknowledgement statements that this meeting is taking place on land that was once inhabited by this or that (or several) indigenous tribes. A few years ago in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood wrote that such statements are blatantly self-serving:
Long common in Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment is catching on in the United States and already de rigueur in certain circles. If you have seen enough of these—I have now watched dozens, sometimes more than one at the same event—you learn to spot them before the speaker even begins acknowledging. In many cases the tone turns solemn and moralizing, and the speaker’s posture stiff, as if preparing to read a confession at gunpoint. One might declare before, say, a corporate sales retreat: We would like to respectfully acknowledge that the land on which we gather to discuss the new line of sprinkler systems is in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq. The acknowledgment is almost always a prepared statement, read verbatim, because like all spells it must be spoken precisely for its magic to work. The magic in this case is self-absolution: The acknowledgment relieves the speaker and the audience of the responsibility to think about Indigenous peoples, at least until the next public event . . . It is difficult to exaggerate the superficiality of these statements. What do members of the acknowledged group hold sacred? What makes them unique and identifies them to one another? Who are they, where did they come from, and where are they going? The evasion of these fundamental questions is typical. The speaker demonstrates no knowledge of the people whose names he reads carefully off the sheet of paper. Nor does he make any but the most general connection between the event and those people, other than an ancient one, not too different from the speaker’s relationship with the local geology or flora.
In this week’s Washington Examiner, Avi Woolf also skewers the hypocrisy of these statements. It’s “an odd sort of virtue-signaling,” he writes, “to acknowledge one’s own complicity in an atrocity while in the same breath promising to continue participating in it.” But the bigger problem is that the concept of “indigeneity” is “deeply flawed”:
Alongside the “noble savage” and other romantic ideas about non-European peoples, many think that whoever was where they were when Europeans arrived were always there, from time immemorial, almost as though they were grown from the soil in a new spin on the biblical creation story.
This is rarely the case. The history of humanity, both civilized and nomadic, is one of conquest and movement, dispossession and replacement, acculturation and assimilation. The happy accident of any given people having won the game of territorial musical chairs just as European explorers or traders or settlers showing up and being considered native since eternity generally does not mesh with what we know from the historical and archaeological evidence.
In The Hedgehog Review, Martha Bayles revisits the work of Henry Pleasants—the Cold War intelligence officer and music critic: “When Pleasants died in January 2000 at the age of ninety, the New York Times ran three successive obituaries. In the first, Allan Kozinn noted that Pleasants served in US military intelligence during World War II and was ‘involved in the de-Nazification proceedings against several musicians who were prominently involved with the Third Reich.’ In the second, David Stevens of the International Herald Tribune added that Pleasants was ‘an intelligence officer in Munich, Bern, and Bonn.’ In the third, Douglas Martin of the Times described Pleasants as ‘a top American spy in postwar Germany,’ whose duties included working closely with General Reinhard Gehlen, the former head of the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front intelligence operation.” But it was music that was his real passion: “Pleasants wrote seven books, four on vocal music and three making the argument for which he is justly famous. In brief, Pleasants’s argument was that the highest musical achievement of the twentieth century was not the ‘serious’ oeuvre of the Viennese modernists Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern, whose atonal and serialist compositions dispensed with traditional melody, harmony, rhythm, and recognizable structure in favor of radically new arrangements of sound, and which, despite the expressive power of some of these works, notably Berg’s, never attracted a general audience, even in sophisticated Vienna. Rather, music’s greatest twentieth-century attainment could be located in the ‘popular’ body of jazz, whose roots reached back to the arrival of the first Africans on American soil. To clarify, Pleasants averred that the serious versus popular division was not one of quality (there is good and bad in both modern classical music and jazz, he said) but of musical language, or idiom.”
Chris Given-Wilson reviews the final volume of Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War: “‘I love France’, wrote Jonathan Sumption in the preface to his first book, Pilgrimage, published in 1975. Four years later, he began work on a history of the conflict that helped shape modern France, the Hundred Years War. Now, forty-four years and five volumes on, he has brought his 1.5-million-word study to a triumphant conclusion. For a full-time academic with a generous allowance of research leave, this would be a huge achievement. For a professional lawyer (latterly a justice of the UK Supreme Court), it is truly prodigious. Those who are familiar with the previous volumes in this series will know what to expect from this one, which deals with the final stages of the war. This is relentless, narrative-driven history, written with clarity, passion and, above all, self-confidence.”
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