Response to Carlos M. Añez

So far I’ve managed to keep my New Year’s resolution of not responding to low-grade social media commentary on my book. So if I’m going to respond here to a lengthy review by Carlos M. Añez, it’s because it has piqued my interest.

Añez is not, as far as I can tell, a musician or a music scholar, but rather a classical music lover, so in one sense his review is an amateur’s view of a professional work of scholarship. But as a Venezuelan with a PhD from a UK university, he combines a “local’s view” of El Sistema with skills in critical thinking and writing in English, which makes him an interesting person to bring into the English-language debate. I also have to admire someone who can combine a fierce (if highly idealized) love of classical music in general and El Sistema in particular with a denunciation of the Abreu-Dudamel-Gehry vanity project in Barquisimeto – describing Abreu’s behaviour as tyrannical – and a dismissal of El Sistema’s social claims as a “populist fraud” to get more subsidy.

There are two aspects of his review that really grabbed my attention: (1) its author has publicly changed his opinion about my work; (2) despite being a firm Sistema supporter, he says some things that are unmentionable in Sistema circles.

(1) When my Guardian articles appeared, Añez wrote a scathing response for the Venezuelan media. However, now he has read my book, and while he still has plenty of criticisms, he compliments me on having “done a thorough academic job” and describes it as “an important book” and “a useful academic study for future research and action in Venezuela and elsewhere.” I’m intrigued by someone who is willing to read a book that challenges their deeply held beliefs and change their tune as a result.

(2) One of Añez’s (less serious) objections is that I make too much of rather obvious points. Yet these points are obvious to him because he is Venezuelan. My book is aimed primarily at the English-speaking world, to people with little or no familiarity with Venezuela, so they need spelling out.

So what does he find obvious? He metaphorically yawns at my detailing of Abreu’s colourful career, since “all that is presented is well known to any well-informed Venezuelan.” I can assure him that the information presented was not widely known overseas, even to so-called Sistema experts, and will have raised more than a few eyebrows.

What else? The disorganization, the shortages, the poor distribution of resources, the late and low pay of teachers, and so on – in essence, the institutional dysfunction. Again, I’ll wager this is not at all obvious to anyone whose knowledge of El Sistema comes from English-language newspaper articles and documentaries. Here, we’re told it’s a model institution. For Añez, though, it’s just a typical Venezuelan organization – no better or worse than others. That’s hardly a glowing endorsement, and it misses the crucial point: El Sistema is supposed to be better than others, not just in Venezuela but globally, rescuing the deprived and turning them into model citizens.

Talking of rescuing the deprived, the biggest eye-opener is this:

“Half the book is dedicated to dismantle Abreu’s claim of social action without acknowledging that such claim was just an indispensable fundraising stratagem to keep El Sistema growing in chavista times.  There was no philosophy, no music teaching theory, no social development thinking behind Abreu’s approach and later strategy. It was just political, as well as Chavez’s response. Baker is (‘wasting his gunpowder on vultures’ / gastando pólvora en zamuros) wasting his time demonstrating El Sistema´s failure to have a significant social impact on ‘inclusion’ of poor children. At least in Venezuela, that is not the point. Perhaps, Baker´s arguments are useful to open the eyes of people in other countries but in Venezuela nobody is expecting that poor children will improve their lives because of the actions of El Sistema.”

Note that this paragraph comes from a staunch defender of El Sistema. It’s well worth rereading.

And he’s right – it’s useful to open the eyes of people in other countries, because in other countries people have very much believed the story about social inclusion. That’s why they’ve adopted it (that and also because it seems to offer a lifeline to the classical music industry). Añez not only doesn’t believe it, he claims that no one believes it in Venezuela. Such is his skepticism that he even berates me for bothering to discuss the issue.

Why then do people support El Sistema in Venezuela, he asks, if they don’t believe the social inclusion line? “First of all, because it has given us good classical, European and Latin-American, old and contemporary orchestral music of the kind we love and also because it has increased the social appreciation of classical music in Venezuela and elsewhere.” By stating the obvious himself here, Añez shows that, once again, he hasn’t been reading the official script, which says that El Sistema definitely isn’t a classical music program, but rather a social program.

Both a strength and a weakness of Añez’s review is that he doesn’t know enough about how Europeans and North Americans – my primary readership – view El Sistema. It’s a strength because it allows the kinds of unusual bursts of illumination seen above. But it’s a weakness because he doesn’t have a good feel for what we do and don’t know (and therefore need to hear). For example, he writes: “I suppose we have to wait for perhaps a second book that hopefully will present the arguments of the other observers and member of the Sistema community that are missing this time.” He seems unaware that there was already a hagiographical book in print prior to mine, Tricia Tunstall’s Changing Lives. This rather significant lacuna in his knowledge somewhat undermines this part of his review. He also fails to ask a key question for non-Venezuelans that emerges from his arguments: if El Sistema is really about spreading classical music, not social inclusion, is its enthusiastic adoption in parts of the world where classical music is already widespread not misguided?

There are certainly some fairly significant differences of opinion between Añez and myself, which can usually be traced back to our different ideological stances. He’s quite happy with El Sistema’s development model, its capitalist ideology, its “business as usual” approach, its perpetuation of inequality, its “monkey business” between teachers and pupils; I find them retrograde or reprehensible in a program sold to the world as a social project and a revolutionary wind of change. My position is supported by a wealth of scholarship; perhaps his is too. I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on much of this.

However, there are some points that need correction.

It’s unfortunate that someone of his level of education indulges in the popular sport of guessing my true thoughts and intentions (and, like everyone else, getting them wrong). Of course I arrived in Venezuela after a long education and with a lot of experience under my belt; but the critical apparatus of my book was developed largely as a response to what I found in Venezuela, not a precursor. There is no conspiracy; the answer I give in the book is the real answer. I’m surprised that someone with such strong scientific credentials would opt for this kind of second-rate mind reading.

His criticism of my methods is also simplistic: “The problem is that ethnography researchers are supposed to interact with members of the community they are studying without discrimination of pre-determined categories or groups. It seems that Baker had ears only for critics, skeptics, disgruntled musicians and political adversaries of Abreu and El Sistema.” Venezuelan musicians don’t go around wearing red T-shirts if they like El Sistema and blue ones if they don’t. Very often, I had little if any idea what someone thought about the program when I interviewed them, since almost no one criticizes it publicly. As I say in my book, some of the strongest criticisms came from people who, in public, were figureheads of the program; I was therefore quite surprised to learn their real opinions. Also, Añez doesn’t seem to contemplate the possibility that people may have both enjoyed participating and had strong criticisms to make, or that their criticisms may have outweighed their enjoyment. My book reflects my experience of mixing with Venezuelans of all stripes and viewpoints and hearing extraordinary criticisms of El Sistema from both friends and foes of the program.

He’s not the first to try and belittle my research with terms like “hearsay.” I’ve written enough about this topic already in other posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I find it interesting how a self-professed lover of classical music and supporter of its expansion in his country is so ready to play down the opinions of Venezuelan musicians on which it has depended, who have spent years or decades inside El Sistema. Añez has spent a similar amount of time in other Venezuelan corporations; what would he think if he gave a long interview about his experiences as a civil engineer, and a musician came along and dismissed the whole thing as “hearsay”? (I also find it interesting that if a musician reports a positive experience, everyone applauds and waxes about the power of music; if another musician reports a negative experience, there’s a chorus of “Slander! Gossip! Where’s your evidence?”)

Finally, another problematic statement: “He doesn’t seem to understand the historical period Venezuela is currently going through. There is not even one sentence mentioning the terrible destruction that the 15 years of the chavista dictatorship has brought to the country.”

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of spaces to go and debate politics. What doesn’t exist right now is a space for open, critical debate on El Sistema. I’m doing my best to open one up. That’s where my knowledge and skills are of most use. Don’t think that failing to understand Venezuela has anything to do with it.

There are other points I could go into, but overall I’m glad that Añez has engaged with my book rather than going down the fingers-in-ears route that some other Sistema supporters have preferred. I look forward to seeing how his thoughts develop on the Sala Dudamel saga – which takes the leaders’ self-idolization to ridiculous new heights – and the long-term consequences for El Sistema of Abreu’s ever-closer ties to President Maduro.

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