Listening and not looking away

There’s been a fair bit of mud slung my way from the US Sistema movement, which is hardly surprising. I’m challenging deeply held beliefs and, in a few cases, vested interests, so the ad hom attacks are par for the course. But there is one more serious point that emerged from that chorus of disapproval.

A Venezuelan musician (whom I don’t know) appeared in the Sistema Global LinkedIn discussion and wrote: “there are some part of the article from Baker that are nothing but the truth.” He went on: “I have in my record many cases, some recent, some aging, of El Sistema corruption and tyrany. That could not eclipse the great benefits it has offered to many children that eventually made his way to a better life, not always in music. But what about the people working in the Nucleos, specially those not in Caracas, that work for pennies a day? not to mention to be abused, humilliated on a dayly basis.”

Christopher Nicholls, the director of Sistema Australia, responded:

“There’s always another side of the story – and nunca es perfecto… But to come out with an article like this and follow it with a book to expose the ills of El Sistema… Es un otra cosa. What are his motives for doing this? Why attack El Sistema? There are a thousand more important things in this world which need our attention and should be getting our critical review.”

Now this is the most measured comment in the whole debate, and the tone is reasonable. But its message is disturbing.

A Venezuelan musician concurred, at least partially, with my criticisms, and mentioned cases of corruption and tyranny; a low-wage musical economy (within a financially well-endowed institution); and abuse and humiliation on a daily basis. And the response from a senior member of Sistema Global – an organization whose USP is social action through music – was “nothing’s perfect” and “there are a thousand more important things in this world.”

I’m sorry, but what could be more important for a social program than allegations from two unconnected sources about tyranny, abuse and humiliation within its parent organisation? What would you say to the young Venezuelans on the receiving end – “nothing’s perfect”?

At least Nicholls responded to the Venezuelan’s comments. The following posters either dismissed or ignored them, which was quite revealing.

Then another Venezuelan musician appeared, and also supported my position. This was somewhat inconvenient for the crowd baying for blood; the only two Venezuelan musicians on the forum broadly agreed with me.

Nicholls again was the only one to respond (at the time of writing): “This is the dangerous thing that Baker has released. It gives wings to those who are disaffected. And I am sure there are many – I certainly know a few, whom I’ve met over the past seven years.” Now even Nicholls acknowledges that there are many disaffected people in El Sistema, and yet he believes that their views should not be “given wings.” So is he saying that, with regard to a powerful institution that has both supporters and critics, only the supporters should be allowed to speak publicly? How wonderfully democratic. He ends with an old canard: “Let’s make it about the children – and not the institution or the program.” How is sweeping claims of serious institutional dysfunction under the carpet a defence of the children? Highlighting the faults of an education system is not an attack on its children – failing to speak out about those faults is an attack on its children.

As two leading authorities on music education and social justice, Allsup and Shieh (2012, 48), write: “At the heart of teaching others is the moral imperative to care. It is the imperative to perceive and act, and not look away.”

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