Images of America

March 6, 2018

When the Metropolitan Opera came on with Madame Butterfly recently, I began to puzzle about why the opera is so strongly anti-American. In Butterfly, an American naval lieutenant trifles with the heart of a young Japanese woman ending with her ritual suicide, leaving their baby to him and his new American wife.

It turns out that the story originated with a French officer about his own experiences but Puccini, who wrote the opera, saw a rewritten version, the version that became the basis of the magnificent and tragic love story he was to immortalize in music.

My students never like to be confronted with dates but dates are telling. The original version of Madame Butterfly was finished and performed in 1904. That was shortly after the end of what we call the Spanish-American war, the war that left us with Puerto Rico and, until we gave them independence, the Philippines.

America has come to think of itself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt left it, decent and triumphant in the cause of freedom and democracy. The symbols of our battle were drawn by Norman Rockwell – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. It was a war for self-preservation – we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was also a moral crusade, for democracy, freedom and the welfare of mankind. Soon after the war, President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall sprang to the aid of refugees and impoverished people all over Europe with aid and redevelopment. America was a beacon of hope and decency for the world.

But more recently our military involvement in the Middle East and Asia has forced us to look back at our behavior, particularly in the Philippines. After World War II, some Philippinos told me they often thought of the U.S. like the cavalry in a western movie, massed on a ridge ready to save them from disaster. That may be a fair portrayal of our role there in World War II. But our part in the Spanish-American War is much less fondly remembered, in this country as well as abroad. American troops there pioneered methods of torture that we used later in Iraq. America’s great humorist, Mark Twain, wrote a searing short story about our part in the Spanish-American war – and, understanding how hard it would be for Americans to face that reality, dictated that it could not be published in his lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, we drove over to Mark Twain’s home town in Missouri and found that his War Prayer was his best selling work in the book store, but in the Mark Twain museum, The War Prayer was not to be found – it was still too upsetting for the townspeople.

The Founders of our country liked to refer to what they called the “genius of the people.” But the American people have stood for very different things at different times. Maybe it’s just that different people had more power or maybe it’s that the same people are driven by different motives. The Founders had a different thought – there’s evil in all of us.

But the wages of moral behavior are significant. The America that came off World War II leading the defense and reconstruction of the free world is not automatically the America that is closing itself off from the destinies of everyone we choose not to care about. And the international repercussions will be significant.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 2018.

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For Valentines Day 2016

February 9, 2016

It’s the time of year to think about love. I used to think that if you hadn’t heard Cho Cho San sing in Madame Butterfly about that fine day when Lieutenant Pinkerton would return to her, one had never heard a love song. Musically, I still think so. But what it really communicates is longing. Is that love?

Much of what we hear as popular music, or art songs or operatic love songs are songs of longing, loss or jealousy. Where’s the love?

Contrast that with Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy in Carousel where he starts thinking of the child he and Julie are expecting. First he thinks about the things he’ll do with “my boy Bill” until he realizes that the son he is dreaming about could be a she, and then realizes the ways that he will have to provide for her. Of course he is sexist in the ways that he thinks about his son or daughter, but he is also realizing and warming to the responsibilities of a loving husband and parent. Billy comes to understand that love is about the ways he can make his family’s lives better, not merely about his own pleasure.

Billy makes a big mistake and pays with his life. But the soliloquy that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote for him says a great deal about what love is about, the ways it transcends longing and jealousy, the joys of giving, the humanity of caring. I think that says a lot about the love that many of us experience. We seek the responsibility, the opportunity as well as pleasures of truly caring about others.

For me, that includes the satisfaction of taking seriously the needs of other Americans, of all origins, faiths and colors, and openness and respect toward visitors and immigrants. Respect and concern for others is part of asking the same for oneself. Ours is a very diverse country and it will be moreso in coming years. We can teach new generations of Americans that success is just a process of stomping on others to gain advantage or we can communicate the values of mutual concern and respect – toward others, and toward ourselves. Ultimately, peace depends on how well we treat each other, and how confident others are that they can live in peace and harmony with us.

The modern world has upended some ancient accommodations among peoples. Jews lived at peace in the Muslim world for a millenium and lived precariously in the Christian world for much of the same period. Colonialism played a part in changing that for the Muslim world. The racism and classism of colonialism stirred the Muslim soul and some of that has come out as anger. That illustrates the importance, as well as the morality, of the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated. For me it also points to the satisfaction of truly caring about others.

May I end with the words of the ancient Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 9, 2016.

 


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