Mark Twain may have once quipped that Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds. And maybe that’s so. The visuals can be distracting – very large women with the metal breastplates and the iron bullet hats with the horns. And the damned operas are long, even if they are seriously heroic. But they are harmonically interesting. You just have to get past the implicit master-race stuff.
Yes, Hitler was a big fan. And Wagner, when he wasn’t writing music, was writing anti-Semitic tracts. See Das Judenthum in der Musik from 1850 – Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and all such Jews brought a harmful and alien element in German culture and they all should just go away. And the problem was the usual. Jewish musicians were only capable of producing shallow and artificial music, because they had the wrong motivation. They composed music to achieve popularity and thus financial success – you know how Jews are about money – so they just weren’t creating genuine works of art. There was a lot of this and you could consider all the details – fascinating stuff, but not nice stuff.
And obviously Wagner doesn’t get much play in Israel – his operas have never been staged there, and the few instrumental performances that began ten years ago caused no end of trouble. The only place you’d hear Wagner was now and then on government-owned radio and television stations – only for classical music aficionados in their homes. Nothing was public. The whole business was too painful. In 1981 Zubin Mehta cancelled a planned performance that was to include parts of Tristan und Isolde – folks screamed bloody murder. In 1992 Daniel Barenboim programmed works by Wagner at a concert of the Israel Philharmonic, but that had to be cancelled. Folks would have none of that – although a rehearsal was open to the public. You had to be brave to drop by and watch that. The first documented public Israeli Wagner performance were in 2000 and in 2001 – in that last one Daniel Barenboim, in Tel-Aviv, included, as an encore, an extract from Tristan und Isolde. It was only an extract. Some folks cheered. Some folks left in a huff.
The whole idea is that some things are too painful. For some of us it’s the lugubrious music, but for Holocaust survivors and the relatives of those who didn’t survive, hearing the tonal representation of that nineteenth century philosophy of racial superiority – that seems to have given Hitler an erection every time he heard it – was torture too. And of course no Israeli wedding includes the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin – “Here Comes the Bride” indeed. You just don’t give someone a pass on his virulent intolerance, no matter how amazing his music was. That man did real damage, even if indirectly.
And it is all about tolerance. Such things should never be allowed to happen again. That’s why the Simon Wiesenthal Center operates its Museum of Tolerance here in Los Angeles and just opened its New York Tolerance Center in Manhattan, a multi-media training facility for educators, law enforcement officials and state and local government folks. One must be vigilant. They also have another Museum of Tolerance too. And Simon Wiesenthal was the famous Nazi-hunter – he found Adolf Eichmann and brought him back to Tel-Aviv for trail and execution. There must be consequences for intolerance, when it leads to exterminating six million people.
And that leads to the issue of what to do with the old Burlington Coat Factory building in Lower Manhattan, at 45 Park Place – just behind the Woolworth Building and next door to the Amish Market. That’s also two blocks north of Ground Zero, and the site of the proposed Cordova Center, otherwise known as the Ground Zero Mosque – even if what is proposed isn’t a mosque and just a community center that includes a room for prayer. Maybe that’s close enough.
And now the Simon Wiesenthal folks in Manhattan have joined Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and all of Fox News to say this must be stopped. Rabbi Meyer May, the Wiesenthal Center’s executive director, said “Religious freedom does not mean being insensitive… or an idiot.” He didn’t mention what he thought of the Wagner operas. He just said this – “Religion is supposed to be beautiful. Why create pain in the name of religion?”
The irony is delicious – as many have pointed out that the Wiesenthal Center caused massive uproar for building one of its Museums of Tolerance on top of an old Muslim burial ground in Jerusalem. The building of that museum has “resulted in digging up the remains of people who had been buried in a Muslim cemetery for generations” – that’s according to City University professor Marnia Lazreg. And in 2006 workers dug up the old bones, and an Arab group sued to stop the project from going forward – but the Wiesenthal Center won the day. In 2008 the Israeli Supreme Court declared that the center was allowed to build its museum on the land. The court argued that no one had objected years before when the city had paved over the land for a parking lot, so tough luck – go pound sand. There would be one more Museum of Tolerance, right there. Get over it. It’s just old bones, folks.
But the Wiesenthal folks are serious here. A new mosque at this spot is intolerable. In New York, Muslims could argue that they already hold daily prayers in the building and have for months – this is a continuation and not something new – and if you want to talk about sacred ground, the actual World Trade Center site will be an office tower and not a shrine – and it was just announced that Conde Nast will be its prime tenant. Do you want to talk about sacred ground? They are the publisher of Glamour, GQ and Vanity Fair. That might make someone feel bad too.
But see Newt Gingrich – he released a Newt Direct statement at Newt.org concerning the project, and he sees things historically:
The proposed “Cordoba House” overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks – is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites. For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term. It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. … In fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.
Yep, we know nothing of history, and Carl Pyrdum dismantles Gingrich:
Notice how carefully he’s phrased his claim to give the impression that during the medieval conquest of Spain the Muslims charged into Cordoba and declared it the capital of a new Muslim empire, and in order to add insult to injury seized control of a Christian church and built the biggest mosque they could, right there in front of the Christians they’d just conquered, a big Muslim middle finger in the heart of medieval Christendom. Essentially, they’ve done it before, they’ll do it again, right there at Ground Zero, if all good Christians don’t band together to stop them.
The problem is, in order to give that impression of immediacy, Newt elides three-hundred years of Christian and Muslim history. Three-hundred years. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712. The Christian church that was later transformed into the Great Mosque of Cordoba apparently continued hosting Christian worship for at least a generation after that. Work on the Mosque didn’t actually begin until seventy-odd years later in 784, and the mosque only became “the world’s third-largest” late in the tenth century, after a series of expansions by much later rulers, probably around 987 or so…
So what should modern Christians think when they hear a Muslim use the word “Cordoba”? Well, I know that Newt hasn’t been a Catholic for very long now, but maybe his priest ought to direct him to read a little thing called “The Catholic Encyclopedia”.
Allow me to quote from the 1917 edition (which has the virtue of being in the public domain and easily searchable) and its entry on Cordoba:
“In 786 the Arab caliph, Abd-er Rahman I, began the construction of the great mosque of Cordova, now the cathedral, and compelled many Christians to take part in the preparation of the site and foundations. Though they suffered many vexations, the Christians continued to enjoy freedom of worship, and this tolerant attitude of the ameers seduced not a few Christians from their original allegiance. Both Christians and Arabs co-operated at this time to make Cordova a flourishing city, the elegant refinement of which was unequalled in Europe…”
Pyrdum concludes with this:
It’s easy to see why a group of Muslims creating a community center in the heart of a majority Christian country in a city known for its large Jewish population might name it “The Cordoba House”. They’re not, as Gingrich hopes we would believe, discreetly laughing at us because “Cordoba” is some double-secret Islamist code for “conquest” – rather, they’re hoping to associate themselves with a particular time in medieval history when the largest library in Western Europe was to be found in Cordoba, a city in which scholars of all three major Abrahamic religions were free to study side-by-side.
Someone wants a holy war, or to be generous, wants the Republican nomination next time around. But Gingrich is right. Cordoba is a code word – for mutual tolerance. But had these folks called the place the Burlington Coat Factory Mosque, Gingrich would find a way to cover that. The Burlington Coat Factory Company started in Burlington Township, New Jersey – not up in Vermont. They’re hiding something. And this man is the leading intellectual in the Republican Party.
But he is right. Our historic ignorance is a problem. You can make stuff up and get away with it. Glenn Beck has made a career of it – you remember his art history lecture on the communist-socialist-fascist frescos at Rockefeller Center – proving that the whole Rockefeller family was secretly a cell of communist-socialist-fascist thugs. Gingrich was just trying to catch up.
But the Anti-Defamation League also chose to oppose the mosque proposed for Lower Manhattan – put it somewhere else:
Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.
In short, we’re not bigots, and stopping this is unfair and wrong, but it should be stopped, because you don’t want to hurt the feelings of ignorant, intolerant bigots, after all. They have feelings too. So do the wrong thing, folks, as doing the wrong thing is the right thing to do, or something like that.
That might have you scratching your head, and Newsweek columnist – and Newsweek International editor – and CNN host Fareed Zakaria announced he would return a prize from the Anti-Defamation League because he was upset by the group’s decision to oppose the community center and quasi-mosque on Park Place. Zakaria announced this on his CNN show – “I have to say I was personally and deeply saddened by the ADL’s stand because five years ago, the organization honored me with its Hubert Humphrey Award for First Amendment Freedoms. Given the position that they have taken on a core issue of religious freedom in America, I cannot in good conscience keep that award.”
But he’s not running for office:
Guess which one of these quotes is Newt Gingrich! A: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” Or B: “Religious liberty in America is under assault. The secular socialist left – who hates the idea of an authority higher than the government – has used its domination of academia, the courts, and the media to twist the meaning of the first amendment from a right that protects religious liberty to prohibition on religious expression in the public square.”
Trick question; they’re both by Gingrich, who’s just the latest Republican to pour kerosene on the Islamophobic mosque bonfire. Yesterday Gingrich weighed in on his website, concluding, “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization. Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could. No mosque. No self deception. No surrender. The time to take a stand is now – at this site on this issue.”
But Gingrich is not running in New York City, where the mayor sees it the other way. That’s why the right and Tea Party folks and Palin hate New York.
In any event, Zakaria elaborated in his Newsweek column and called the ADL’s decision to criticize the mosque’s location as “bizarre” at best:
The ADL’s mission statement says it seeks “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” But Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, explained that we must all respect the feelings of the 9/11 families, even if they are prejudiced feelings. “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” he said. First, the 9/11 families have mixed views on this mosque. There were, after all, dozens of Muslims killed at the World Trade Center. Do their feelings count? But more important, does Foxman believe that bigotry is okay if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?
Five years ago, the ADL honored me with its Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize. I was thrilled to get the award from an organization that I had long admired. But I cannot in good conscience keep it anymore. I have returned both the handsome plaque and the $10,000 honorarium that came with it. I urge the ADL to reverse its decision. Admitting an error is a small price to pay to regain a reputation.
The ADL’s Abraham Foxman responded in a letter posted on its website – “We did not oppose the right for an Islamic Center or a mosque to be built. What we did was to make an appeal based solely on the issues of location and sensitivity.” And Foxman early said this in the Wall Street Journal – “If you want to heal us, don’t do it in our cemetery.” Someone should have reminded him of the museum, to tolerance, the Wiesenthal folks built on the graves of the Palestinians.
But to be fair, Abraham Foxman and the folks at the Wiesenthal Center may be outliers here. There is the Daily Forward, the oldest Jewish newspaper in America, a venerable Jewish institution of sorts, and they know pernicious nonsense when they hear it. And they’re based in New York, not Palin’s Alaska or Gingrich’s Georgia. And they see it this way:
Before it became a cause célèbre for Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and other rank opportunists, before the Anti-Defamation League sullied a once-noble reputation by siding against religious liberty, before the tweets and satellite trucks spun this all out of control, the plan to turn an eyesore of an empty building two blocks from Ground Zero into a mosque and Islamic center was embraced as a sign of true healing.
The mayor’s office was supportive, as were local community boards, the “town halls” of New York civic life. Prominent rabbis spoke in favor of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, whose wife has been associated with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which also lent its public support. Rauf had skillfully positioned himself as a voice of moderate Islam; even the FBI called upon him to reach out to Muslims after the terrorist attacks.
Yes, this is all nonsense. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is on our side. And Wagner’s music isn’t all that bad, even if the man himself was a first-rate jerk.
Of course the odd thing is when you’re one of those indifferent to religion – not a militant atheist but just someone who doesn’t think that way and shrugs. But people take these things seriously, and you understand that. And when you see all this from the outside looking in, you begin to wonder about how people use language. Tolerance seems like a simple concept, but people use the word in odd ways now. And now the word has become a weapon. How did that happen?