The Power to Persuade. The Responsibility to Question.

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Music can inspire great achievements and launch a personal journey of discovery.  Unfortunately, it can also be used to incite violence and promote an agenda of hatred.  Like most people, I was shocked and saddened to hear of the recent shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.  As a musician, I am disturbed that the alleged gunman used music to further his extremist views.  While upsetting, it also provides opportunity for focus and reflection.

Evidently the gunman was in a band that promoted white supremacy and racial bigotry.  While it is baffling that there is a market for such music, it’s even more troubling that some people blindly follow and assume the message is true.  I do not listen to this type of music and certainly do not seek it out.  That said, I’ve stumbled upon some rather alarming music videos by simply clicking a link or two.  It’s not as far a journey as one might think.  Music based on hatred has but one purpose. That intended message most likely cancels out any decency left in the actual notes, rhythms or beat.

Music can be used for a multitude of purposes, from good to nefarious.  This speaks to the power of music as symbol.  Sound can be emblematic.  Unfortunately, those who use music to support their disturbing views understand this clearly.  The Nazis used the music of Wagner and Strauss in this way.  And while Wagner certainly held unsavory political and racial views, it would be difficult to prove that his music led to Nazi extremism.  Rather, since he dealt in the world of symbol and myth from a Germanic perspective, his music was more easily bent to their radical views.  When music, great or otherwise, is presented this way the deeper message, the power of music’s greater potential, can be lost.

But it is not only about music.  I was disturbed to learn that the Celtic cross has been adopted as a symbol for certain hate groups.  This beautiful cultural relic has no place in the culture of hatred.  Rather, it belongs to the heritage of the entire world.  Derived from the concept of axis mundi (world center), it represents a grounding valued by many cultures and faiths.   Its decorative motifs can be seen in variations from Tibet to Ireland to the American Southwest.  Today it represents a valid image for peaceful meditation regardless of religion.

I have long admired Wagner’s music for the mythological images and personal message.  I have also been fascinated by designs on Celtic crosses.  I’ve read books on both Wagnerian and Celtic motifs from psychological, sociological, spiritual and cultural perspectives.  When used for deep reflection, both teach me something about myself. While I am not part of either culture, the sounds and images instruct me nonetheless.

For me, I choose to keep my Celtic pendant as well as my Wagner recordings.  I continue to search and find meaning in that which inspires me—for the good.  And I steadfastly refuse to allow uneducated extremists to hijack that which belongs to all humankind.  I choose the side of music that has the power to lift us to the gods.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

Illustrations are images of a Sikh Khanda and Celtic Cross.  Both have something to reveal.

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50 thoughts on “The Power to Persuade. The Responsibility to Question.

    • My evangelical father (1896-1984) said that the Celtic cross was adopted from sun-worshippers. But I figure that, once the upright wooden pole (with a horizontal bar for a name to be inscribed on it) was copied in stone, bits kept breaking off. So the craftsmen added curves to provide stength.

      Sad folk took Yeshoshua for the Messciach. In fact, Science, and rule of the people by the people (not by gangsters calling themselves nobles), is the only saviour. As to the aforementioned fisherman’s friend, healer, and guru, with his simple message of Love and Peace, the fish symbol is just fine.

      The savage, loathesome judicial-murder device named the crucifix, is associated with the perverse redemption-thru-sacrifice message of the fool Peter and the madman Paul. Nasty thing!

  1. I agree; music shouldn’t be used for hateful means, and neither should symbols originally meant for peace. At least the Celtic Cross is already well-known for its original purpose; the swastika wasn’t and now every time I see one I find myself wondering if there’s a skinhead somewhere.

      • I thought it was more a celebration of the life to come … but perhaps I’m wrong … religion was originally created to help us understand the next life and the mysterious principles that underpin this world … but somehow it’s become a kind of ‘feel-good’ therapy to help us ‘be more happy’ in this materialist world … does that sound right? Come to http:darklogics.wordpress.com/ and I’ll explain more … regards, Peter G

  2. Music has such power to touch and move people–it’s devastating to learn and/or have to accept that it can be used to instill hatred or spread a message of violence.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to this — I hadn’t heard about the connection to the Sikh temple shooting. It’s important we’re all aware, though — especially those of us who have children, as kids tend to absorb so much more than we as adults even do.

  3. We can’t (at least not in the United States) tell extremists not to create their own music, to write their own literature or to march in protest. We can, as you point out, use our numbers to rally on the side of reason and acceptance to silence the hateful factions from which killers like Page emerge.

    Well done.

  4. Reblogged this on The Martial Arts University and commented:
    A beautifully written and highly valid set of observations – as a Catholic of mixed Scots/Irish/Italian cultural background, I’ve experienced the consequences of such misinterpretations of symbologies. This is likewise a problem in martial arts, with some groups highjacking the coincidence of religion/worldview and culture from which particular arts originate at the serious end, to the more trivial, yet nonetheless intense and destructive rivalries between systems and styles.

    A thought provoking read – I’d recommend it highly to any thoughtful or mindful artist.

  5. Rock, rap, blues, even country music, commonly advocate disrespect, hate, and even outright violence against women. Women are murdered daily by people that supposedly love them. In fact, songs advocate loving a woman as a reason to kill her. Mass murder gets more press.

    • I agree, and it is unfortunate that this is the case. Sadly, the side effect is that hate-filled music also gets a bump in attention. It is my sincere hope that the shock/reaction can lead to positive change. But there will always be those who use music, imagery and words to express intolerance. Education and awareness is the best policy, in my opinion.

  6. Culturally, we in the US take our music too lightly. Popular music helps shape our attitudes about many subjects. Attitudes gradually become convictions, and we act on our convictions. If we took the history of popular music more seriously, we would learn how to assess the impact of what the nation listens to at the moment.

    One of my interests is how popular music of the Fifties and early Sixties encouraged white youth to examine American racism. As the music of Black artists “crossed over” to young whites, we could not continue ignoring the pain and daily indignities the people performing for us endured.

    We need to take the history of American popular music seriously. I wrote about this in my blog, Jackie Wilson Lovers, just yesterday, questioning whether an author’s account of his own role in creating a video of Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke was accurate. When we treat music history as “infotainment,” we fail to appreciate the serious impact it has on our society.

    • Agreed. I am also fascinated by your interest in the social influence of the music of the 60s and 70s. The Beatles, in particular, come to mind as a reflection of the move towards equality and individual expression. I’ll swing over and check out your post!

      • Actually, those “British Invasion Bands” offered a chance to look away from race in America, and of course, they were a disaster to the livelihood of American musicians.

        My concern is in getting the history of what happened to the African American entertainers of the Fifties and Sixties accurately recorded. These are the individuals who did so much to shape the consciousness of young Americans in the Civil Rights era. The attitude of historians (and everyone else) has been that any old myths about these R and B and R and R stars are okay to substitute for facts, while fawning over the details of every Beatle or Stone hiccup is somehow important history.

        The deaths of Jesse Belvin, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson have never been satisfactorily explained, for example, and each has a major role in the history of how racism and the Mob shaped the lives and deaths of these major talents, who in turn shaped the attitudes of American youth.

        But thanks for looking at my blog. I have enjoyed your post and the comments here.

  7. Although it’s mentioned above, the Nazi’s usurped a Buddhist symbol for their “swastika” – which I find hearbreaking, as Buddhism’s recognition of the value of all beings represents the opposite of facism. All discrimination is based on fear. White “supremacists” are insecure. I wish they understood there is nothing to fear; no one is out to destroy them. Unfortunately their music is highly energetic and appeals to alienated youth. As a fan of true Punk rock, it pains me to see that corrupted as well. Thanks for tackling a serious subject in an intelligent way.

    • Agreed. Good points. That symbol can also be found in other places. I’ve seen it as a Native American symbol (although usually reversed). It is also very similar (and related, I think) to Celtic designs know as the triskeles, seen on the back of Manx coins.

  8. An absolutely beautiful piece. It truly is sad the way some take great pieces of work and use them for horrendous acts. I love facts about history and was not aware about the connections of the Nazi’s, Wagner, and Strauss. Thank you for the informative post.

    • You are most welcome. Thanks for your comments. The connections between Wagner and Nazis are well documented and there are several good books out there. One that comes to mind is “The Devil’s Music Master” which is about the conductor Willhelm Furtwangler and the Nazi propaganda machine. Lots on Wagner in that book.

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  10. As a classical singer, I so appreciate this perspective on the Sikh temple shootings. I wouldn’t have thought of it this way, and it allows us to consider the same incident from a perspective we haven’t been exhausted by – therefore keeping alive the concerns we have about the growing tendency for abject hatred. Thank you – well-done.

    • Thanks. I think musicians, and artists in general, respond to these tragedies in different ways. It is my hope that we can have a dialog about it, rather than the sensational news coverage that dominates these events. As artists, we can respond with expressions that are beyond words, reaching deeper into the shared consciousness of groups.

  11. Good history and life lesson to be learned from your post. Too often, many people are quick to place blame on something or someone and often times, blame is placed on the wrong thing/person. Blaming music or a design for mass murder and ignorance is easier than taking the time to find the root cause of a problem and addressing it. Why? Because of reacting to emotional trauma and poor instinct instead of harnessing the emotions long enough to understand what’s really going on, who’s responsible and how to fix it.

  12. This is such a nice piece. Im so glad you came forward and wrote this because it gives people something positive to think about and do. While we cant stop all the bad happening around us, we can sure as hell not exaggerate it and support it by conforming. Being a Muslim, I see all the people around me suffering from some sort of racial injustice just because a group of men have decided to take it upon themselves on what Islam is in their point of view and being fascist in nature. Islam is not what it is being projected as, and so arnt Muslims.
    And same as that, even blacks, whites and other asians suffer from hatred coming from each other and its just so wrong and unnecessary! Just dont get how people give in to it.

    • Thanks for your comments. I, too, am baffled at how anyone to go so far into the realm of intolerance and hatred. It is my hope that enough people remain open enough that it will never happen again on a large scale, but I’m afraid there will always be a fringe element.

      • Yes, as long as our societies support such people to exist we will have problems like these. But we have it in our hands to control the possibility but unfortunately greedy people in the world make money through chaos.

        All we can do is try 🙂

  13. It has been known since Roman times that music can prompt people to extremes. In the Olympic opening ceremony even Mr Bean was driven to fantasies of victory by Chariots of Fir, and Neil Brand analysed how this piece of music does what it does on The Film Programme a couple of weeks ago,
    [audio src="http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/film/film_20120719-1730a.mp3" /]
    Brand’s piece starts at 13.42 (but as usual it’s all worth listening to).

  14. In the Vedic dharma (that is Hindu dharma of which Sikhism is an offshoot) it is said that everything has to be used for spiritual advancement. Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita, which is 700-verse short summary of 20,000-verse Vedas, “Whatever you do, do it for Me.”
    So therefore, art and music has to be used to please God. Any other use cannot please God, or cannot give spiritual advancement. So, no use, no benefit.

    jai sri krishna!
    skanda987@gmail.com

  15. Great insights. Those who hate can and will use ANYTHING to their own purpose. Using children as instruments of war (terrorism) comes to mind. The has been made better in the other comments here, but it’s so perplexing to me. I guess it comes down to: Love conquers all – hate slaughters all. Don’t give me heck for that. By conquer I mean makes good out of bad.

  16. Music is such a beautiful thing that it is quite sad when it’s used for the wrong purposes. It also goes to show how powerful music is and how much it can bring up people’s emotions from within. I know music definitely brings out both good and bad emotions for me, but for the most part it’s like therapy 🙂

  17. For Christians, the cross – Celtic or not – is not merely an image for peaceful meditation, it is an unequivocally religious symbol recalling the most brutal form of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire. I appreciate the cross has a cultural value that extends beyond people of the Christian faith, but it behooves folk who want to get a vague “spiritual” feeling from crosses to remember its origin. It s an odd thing to make a cross pretty; no one (even Maddona, I think) would wear a bejeweled electric chair around their neck.

    Thank you for the reminder that wonderful music, much like religious symbols (and religion itself), can easily be used for good or ill, for destruction or life. The poor use of some should not lead to banishment for all.

  18. Once I saw you’d been Freshly Pressed, I dallied a bit in responding so I could read the comments as well. They’ve been very interesting, and in some cases informative. I certainly had no idea the Celtic cross had developed a following among white supremacists. Now that I’ve read the explanation for that on a few sites, it makes no more sense to me than when I first heard about it. It’s a strange world.

    Your repeated use of the word “choose” seems critical. Those of us who deplore the hatreds and violence of the world have very real choices to make. What will we allow into our own lives? What will we do when we see the good being used for evil ends? How will we combat the misappropriation of symbols, or the denigration of a heritage?

    There aren’t any easy answers. Still, violence and hatred can be transformed, even in their most extreme forms. It’s a difficult process. There will be times when confrontation and honest opposition are necessary. But this is our world, and we have to deal with it. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that these terrible events will lead us to take our heads out of the sand, see what’s happening around us on a daily basis, and work to change things where we can.

    After my stroll through the internet’s nether regions, I thought a different sort of Celtic tribute would be nice. You surely know Arvo Pärt’s “The Deer’s Cry”, but it was lovely to listen to it again.

    • Well said. And thanks for this link to the Arvo Part piece. It is a gorgeous reminder of a shared heritage whose beauty speaks across cultures and beyond stereotypes.

  19. Not sure if you saw the PBS broadcast of the Met’s Wagner Ring Cycle this past week. A very interesting production. Bryn Terfel as Wotan was quite amazing. And I can say with pride that I know a Rhinemaiden! Erin Morley was one of the Rhinemaidens in Gotterdammerung. We were lucky enough to have her sing with the Salt Lake Symphony a few years ago. Her Mom is our concertmaster, so maybe that helped seal the deal! I had not seen the Ring in about 12 years, but was struck once again at how universal the themes of the story remain, 150+ years after it’s composition. Almost all of human behavior (and failings) can be seen in the story. The grandeur of the human experience.

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