|Maestro Nicolaus Harnoncourt
conducts the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra during
a dress rehearsal for the annual New Year's
Concert in Vienna, December 30, 2002.|
|A commentary on protest
against Vienna Philharmonic|
|By William Osborne|
||Jan.12 — This year the Vienna Philharmonic visits the United
States under unusual circumstances. The potential war with
Iraq overshadows most other issues, including the
Philharmonic’s employment practices, and anti-American feeling
in Europe is the strongest I have seen in the 23 years I have
lived here. This raises troubling questions.
||Many ask why we feel entitled to protest against the
Vienna Philharmonic’s chauvinistic employment policies.
WHAT SHALL PROTESTERS against the Vienna
Philharmonic make of this situation? Do protests against the
Vienna Philharmonic have any relevance in a world once again
being overcome with violence?
answer these questions it is helpful to begin with a look at
the European view. Much of the recent surge of
anti-Americanism stems from the the Bush administration’s
isolationism and its manifestations in unilateral militarism.
It is well known that isolationism is a historic part of the
American psyche that can create a myopic, self-interested
perspective Europeans consider
both naive and arrogant.
might be symbolized by Saul Steinberg’s famous cartoon image
of the New Yorker’s view of the world. It blurs somewhere in
the Bronx and has a couple of dots out West called Chicago and
San Francisco before the earth disappears into the Pacific
ocean. The image was one of the most famous covers ever for
The New Yorker magazine.
many Europeans, this affectionate cartoon jibe in the ribs of
Big Apple narcissism would seem to have a darker side. Many
know that for New Yorkers the city is the center of the world,
and that to step outside of it is to step into a netherland.
The city is attacked, 2,800 people are killed, and it seems an
apocalypse without measure. Americans have mourned for over a
year and continue to do so.
is more than understandable, but in the European view, its
one-sided focus seems to reveal a troubling ethnocentricity.
They would argue that in the retaliatory attacks in
Afghanistan or Iraq, thousands of innocent people have been or
will be killed, but that Americans seem to regard those
victims as little more than nameless bystanders, shadows
without identity in a netherworld of “collateral damage.” And
as Europeans look over the last 40 years of U.S. history, the
story goes on to approximately 1 million nameless Vietnamese,
tens of thousands of Arabic people, and tens of thousands of
forgotten souls who have died in Latin America, due to U.S.
These would not seem to be the same kind of humans as in
New York, but rather brown-skinned shadows whose violent
demise need not touch the American realm, even if their deaths
were caused or abetted by the U.S. government. In short, it’s
just massive suffering and death in a remote world, something
like images of video games beamed from the ethers.
WHY PROTEST CHAUVINISM?
Given this European perception of American moral
myopia, many ask why we feel entitled to protest against the
Vienna Philharmonic’s chauvinistic employment policies.
Doesn’t America often claim a moral high ground and then use
that as justification for being an utter bully? Aren’t
protests against the Vienna Philharmonic the worst form of
These questions are more than justified.
Without trying to minimize or
relativize the moral inconsistencies of American militarism,
one might respond that well-publicized protests against
cultural chauvinism help weaken its foundations everywhere —
including in the United States. Whether American, European,
Western, Arabic, Israeli or Palestinian, the forms of violence
that stem from chauvinism are underpinned and reinforced by
national orchestras whose employment policies are sexist,
ethnocentric and racist.
interesting to consider that it was only 300 miles south of
Vienna, in the Balkans, that Europeans were committing mass
rape as a form of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. The United
Nations estimates that at least 20,000 women were victims of
those horrific crimes.
we lived in a world with more respect for the dignity of
women, the Taliban might not have come into existence. And we
might not have had contemporary Europeans committing mass rape
five hours south of Vienna.
Since foreign events, even such as these, can
fade from the average American’s perspective, we might ask
ourselves how we would feel living in Boston if we knew 20,000
women had been systematically kidnapped and brutally raped in
the Philadelphia area only five hours away. That is about the
distance from Vienna to Kosovo. And how would we feel about
the symbolic meanings of a nearby national orchestra that
excludes women — especially when the opera formation of that
orchestra receives millions in public funding?
Is there something that connects those two
situations, something in our chauvinistic attitudes about the
dignity of women?
events provide a vivid example of how a firm stand for the
dignity of women not only increases their rights as artists,
but can help create cultural values that work to prevent
enormous crimes of violence. If we lived in a world with more
respect for the dignity of women, the Taliban might not have
come into existence. And we might not have had contemporary
Europeans committing mass rape five hours south of Vienna.
And we might not have American
enthocentricity that regards massive civilian casualties and
suffering as acceptable, as long as they are in some land
other than our own.
We see that
chauvinism, degradation and violence form a continuum. It is
the everyday slights against human dignity, sometimes hidden
in the very assumptions of high culture, that can be the
tell-tale harbingers of actual physical violence.
NOT SINCE THE THIRD REICH
If chauvinism is one of the common grounds
of violence, why do we celebrate the Vienna Philharmonic’s
sexism, ethnocentricity and racism in our major concert halls?
Shall we question the sources of violence that exist in
thought and cultural expression, or just bury our opponents in
a rain of bombs?
thoughts might be applied on both sides of the current
conflict. The Taliban’s treatment of women represented an
abuse of human rights whose systematic intensity and breadth
had not been seen since the Third Reich, and yet our
government did nothing, even allowing for considerable
business and military dealings with them. And after the
situation blew up in our face, we saw that there was something
distinctly macho in the type of John Wayne “dead-or-alive”
U.S. war mongering that evolved — which was especially
appalling to Europeans. Where was all that “manliness” when
far less violent international pressure might have really
helped the women of Afghanistan and brought their government
to its senses?
based on truth and dignity for women help protect all people
from violence no matter where they are.
||With the Vienna Phil performing in Washington during
their upcoming tour, we have an opportunity to take a stand
and make a valuable statement to the world.
The Vienna Philharmonic, which still excludes
women and covers it up through the use of tokenism, is an
affront to the noble ideals we assign to classical music.
History illustrates again and again that when we allow
violence against the dignity of women, it creates environments
that can also lead to their physical abuse. Why do we forget
that women’s rights and human rights are inseparably
With the Vienna
Philharmonic performing in Washington during their upcoming
tour, we have a rare opportunity to take an important stand
and make a valuable statement to the world that there is never
a reason to treat women as second-class humans who can be
rightfully excluded from national institutions of cultural
expression. Not in Kabul, and not in the Kennedy Center for
There has never been
a more important time for all people to realize that
chauvinism is a bottomless pit of hatred, violence and death.
Every time we protest violence against human dignity, whether
physical or cultural, we help make the world a better and more
peaceful place for everyone.
is an American composer, musicologist and arts activist who
lives in Germany. This article is printed here with his