The American cantus firmus

There is an abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents.

Source: The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear

In a beautiful piece in The New Yorker entitled “The Music Donald Trump Can’t Hear,” Adam Gopnik advises us to differentiate between the coming changes that we think are wrong but are reversible, through activism and electoral politics, and the changes that violate our fundamental values, which he claims are irreversible. Gopnik describes this second kind of change as follows:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

This paean to the enduring values of the republic feels necessary at this point – a life preserver when it seems like the word has gone topsy-turvy.

What do we do, then, with the fact that all of these things – intimidation and imprisonment of dissidents, conjured-up allegations, discrimination by religion and country of origin – are as much a part of our nation’s history as the values Gopnik says should stand against them? Does it mean that our republic is strong enough to endure periods where these tactics intensify, even if the victims of those tactics don’t endure, or that we’re likely to tolerate an intensification of these tactics to the point where we’ve gone too far to go back?

It seems that one way to resist these things that purportedly run counter to the ideals of the republic is to learn more about the conditions under which they have long been tolerated by large swaths of the American public. If we are to save what Gopnik calls “the beautiful music of American democracy,” we must reckon with the fact that much of the time, Americans have been more willing to tolerate dissonance than dissidents. These “best shared traditions” have rarely been shared equally, and there’s no time like the present to think about why that’s been (and continues to be) the case.

Sometimes in a piece of polyphony, the cantus firmus is stretched beyond recognition; you wouldn’t even be able to pick it out if the composition didn’t bear its name. The American cantus firmus has been remarkably pliable, and we’d be well advised to make a study of the ways it has been stretched, reshaped, and inverted if we want it to remain anything more than the title of the piece.

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