The #metoo movement is bringing down abusive power brokers in the arts. But what will we put in their place?
An editorial by Mark Sebastian Jordan
The titans are falling.
Let them fall.
But let’s not just raise up new monsters in their places.
The recent fallout generated by the #metoo movement has seen formerly untouchable celebrities finally receive their comeuppance. Victims of sexual harassment and assault, cowed into years of silence by the harsh court of public opinion, have turned the tables, publicly naming the perpetrators. That lawless court has just as harshly turned on such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and Kevin Spacey, finding them guilty without due process. Every person deserves due process, of course, but the urge to fulfill overdue justice has run ahead, for the moment, and careers are crumbling.
It hit the classical music world big time recently with the firestorm of accusations against long-time conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine, who has been accused of molesting young men (at least one of whom was under the age of consent at the time) for decades.
But a couple of Ohio connections have brought this major cultural shift home to me. One way is fairly impersonal: I am scheduled to cover a concert of the Cleveland Orchestra this winter that was originally slated to be conducted by the distinguished Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, 81. That was before a half-dozen accusations of sexual misconduct erupted this week, apparently rising up out of a stew of gossip brewing for decades around the musician. In the last few days, Dutoit’s international career has collapsed as orchestra after orchestra has announced his replacement for upcoming concerts, with some stating outright that they are severing ties with him. A replacement conductor has not yet been named for Dutoit’s Cleveland concert.
The local angle on this story is that the most prominent name accusing Dutoit of misconduct is Mansfield’s most famous musician: soprano Sylvia McNair. McNair, 61, has had a stellar, Grammy-winning international career, first as an operatic soprano, and more recently as a cabaret and musical theater singer. Born in Mansfield, McNair had catapulted to the top of the classical music business when she was still in her twenties, on the merit of her musical skill and silvery voice. But according to the story published on December 21 by the Associated Press, the conductor attempted to force himself on the singer in the hotel where they both were staying after a Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal in March of 1985, when McNair was 28 years old.
“As soon as it was just the two of us in the elevator, Charles Dutoit pushed me back against the elevator wall and pressed his knee way up between my legs and pressed himself all over me,” McNair said in the interview. “I managed to shove him off and right at that moment, the elevator door opened. I remember saying, ‘Stop it!’ And I made a dash for it.” McNair said that Dutoit’s prominence, fame, and power inhibited her, an aspiring star at the time, from filing charges.
Other musicians have come forward with similar tales, and worse. Soprano Paula Rasmussen accused Dutoit of forcing his tongue in her mouth and her hand down his pants in an incident from 1991. Other accusations date from as recently as 2010. More accusations have come forth since the publication of the AP story, and Dutoit, though publicly denying the charges, has withdrawn from numerous upcoming guest conducting engagements and has gone on hiatus from his position as music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.
I have overheard many, many conversations in recent weeks where people—both men and women—express skepticism at the recent late eruption of sexual misconduct accusations against long-beloved celebrities. “If that really happened, why didn’t they deal with it at the time?” is the comment I’ve heard over and over.
Is it really so hard to understand why people might keep silent? Are people so blind to the top-heavy power structure of our society and culture that they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes and relate to the feeling of being silenced? If the power brokers control the gates into a world you long to enter, whether it is the movies, theater, or music, what would you do? It’s easy to say, “deal with it.” But faced with the probability of abandoning one’s dreams, everything that one has worked for, it wouldn’t be so easy after all.
The cult of celebrity is rotten. That rot has crept all the way to the top of the United States government, where an accused molester currently holds office, at least in part simply because he was a TV star. Our cultural hierarchies seem riddled with abusers. Media and business figures are being named as molesters. The Catholic church has already been through the wave of scandal that revealed a pattern of protecting priests from allegations of sexual misconduct. The naming of names is not done yet.
In October 2009, in the midst of the economic collapse now known as The Great Recession, I wrote a poem about the futile cycles of society’s repetitions, “The History Waltz,” published in my chapbook The Book of Jobs (Pudding House Press, 2010). In it, I pictured a broken record repeatedly playing philosopher George Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As much as I loathe to say that a hate-monger like alt-right politico Steve Bannon is correct about anything, he is right that our world society is at a time of unrest and upheaval. But the kind of authoritarian stance that Bannon and the current U.S. administration represent would be the history waltz all over again. The structure is corrupt? Let’s tear it down and build a new, more powerful structure, they say.
Instantly, the rot would be enshrined again. What difference will it make if we only clean out the current crop of abusers in Hollywood and the concert halls, and everywhere else, only to install new people then saddle them with the inevitable warp of power? What if we looked beyond the broken record of iron-fisted rule? We have a moment here where we could replace rule by power with rule by value. Instead of a cult of celebrity, where the celebrities gather power and use that power to bully others, what if we created a society where people are seen in the light of their contributions instead of their dominations? What if we used merit instead of political connection? What if we agreed that every last person is simply human, with feet of clay? What if we stopped thinking of people as being godlike because of their beauty or their artistic skill or their athletic prowess, and just appreciated that every one of us has the potential to make the world a better place?
Is that just crazy talk? Or is it a way forward?
Is it just the ramblings of a small-time, small-town pretentious artist/social commentator? Or is it the true heart of what has driven every nascent religion in human history, before they were smothered by corporate hierarchy? Are we going to cover our eyes and start dancing in the dark to that broken record, broken record, broken record again? Or do we dare to dare?
My dance card’s in layaway
For some new year’s day,
And I’m told I’d best be
Damned well grateful
That I still have this
Well, here we are.
Well, here we are.
Brother, can you spare a dream?