Censorship and self-censorship in the Sistema sphere

[15/05/2015] One of the most troubling dynamics in the Sistema sphere is an urge to censor or restrict the flow of ideas. Jonathan Govias tackled the issue head-on in a recent blog post. He reported that he had received a lot of criticism recently. His crime? Having attended the recent conference “El Sistema and the Alternatives” in London and presented a paper there. That’s it. Not the content of the paper, but the simple fact of having taken part in the conference. In his words: “Many of my colleagues in the Sistema sector view my participation as a betrayal of my loyalties and values, and as an outright endorsement of [Baker’s] book and his ongoing research.”

Not at all, said Jonathan: “I went to learn something. I went to hear and consider different voices in the academic and scientific community – not just different, but dissenting voices, dissonant voices, complementary voices, and alternative voices. Hearing and including them in the discourse is an integral part of the dialectic and democratic processes, especially if they are minority voices.”

I admire Jonathan for saying this, but it is extraordinary – and extraordinarily revealing – that it has to be said at all. Yet it does, because he is operating in a field in which ordinary intellectual activity may be regarded as betrayal, and urging people not to read research may be considered a positive act. For there is, he reveals, a “movement afoot to suppress Baker’s book.” He condemns this movement in no uncertain terms, and not because he agrees with my book (his criticisms and my responses are on record), but because he disagrees with censorship.

So here we have a movement that is supposed to be about connecting music education and social justice, yet wishes to suppress or chastise scholarly activity and critical thinking, and to discourage people from reading the only full-length academic study to date. A particularly interesting angle is that in some cases, censorship is directed not only at others but even at the censors themselves. As Larry Scripp of NEC put it recently in a brief report on my book: “It appears now that earlier critics of the book were either completely unable to accept any critical discussion of El Sistema practices in Venezuela, or they simply did not read the book.” The final words are no rhetorical flourish, I have come to realize. A couple of colleagues have found themselves listening to criticisms of my book from people who, when challenged, admitted that they had not actually read it. Some refuse to read it out of principle (what principle?). Alongside an urge to censor can therefore be found an urge to self-censor, but not in the usual sense of the word: rather, this form of self-censorship entails not allowing oneself to read a book, so pernicious is its content imagined to be.

None of this reflects very well on the international Sistema sphere, as Jonathan points out. So far this Sistema characteristic is little known in the outside world, thanks to the free pass that most of the media has provided, but many people out there would be appalled if they were aware of it, since it is reminiscent of fascists and fundamentalists, not social justice educators and critical thinkers.

“We are open to criticism”

To anyone remotely familiar with the reality of El Sistema in Venezuela, however, this will not actually be a surprising picture. Like father, like son. Censorship and self-censorship have long been rife there, as I discussed in my book. Anyone who has regular and honest dealings with Venezuelan classical musicians will know that little of what is discussed in private makes it into the public realm. In Venezuela, there has been little need for censorship of scholarly critiques of El Sistema since, in such a climate, virtually no scholars even contemplate engaging in such critiques. (One of the things I found interesting upon arriving in Venezuela was just how uninterested most professional music researchers were in El Sistema, which they regarded as remarkable only for its size and power.) However, inspired by the recent London conference on El Sistema, Professor Emilio Mendoza organized a one-day event at his institution in Caracas, the Universidad Simón Bolívar. This was the first Venezuelan conference devoted to critical thinking about El Sistema, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the last.

According to the reports of three people present, the event was a circus. El Sistema sent representatives in force, and they proceeded to claim that critical scrutiny of the program was unnecessary and the university should not hold this kind of event; they made speeches from the floor praising Abreu at every opportunity; they attempted to curtail one critical paper before the end; and they heckled, insulted, mocked, and shouted down those who had the temerity to adopt critical positions. Some of the behavior sounded more appropriate to the stands of a football stadium than an academic conference. Critics were accused of being spiteful, jealous, gossips, even “the enemy.” It was claimed that the conference was biased against El Sistema, despite the fact that there were more pro-Sistema papers than critiques. So it went on: an Englishman had no right to write about Venezuela; Venezuelan critics and I had no idea about research; the Venezuelan critics were paid by me, etc. One prominent attendee proposed that the entire audience get up and leave halfway through. The icing on the cake was the group of Sistema children sent to serenade the participants on their way out at the end (without permission from the conference organizers or the university) – a classic slice of Sistema emotional arm-twisting to finish off the day, illustrating one of the subtler yet most effective tools that the program uses to bypass rational thought.

A more eloquent demonstration of El Sistema’s intolerance of thinking differently is hard to imagine. When my book was published, Eduardo Méndez (El Sistema’s executive director) came out and told the press that his organization was “open to criticism.” Like so many Sistema statements, it bears little relation to the truth and simply does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. As long as censorship, self-censorship, and resistance to critical thinking are so prominent, talk of El Sistema in terms of social justice is simply – in a technical sense that I will explore in my next post – bullshit.