By Derek Strahan

Variations on
a racist theme


BA Cantab (Modern Languages), is a composer and writer. His work includes film and television scripts, libretti for his own songs, poetry, documentary and film scores, and concert music scores (many recorded on CD).

As published in THE AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST No. 43 Autumn/Winter 1997 Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia (click here for subscription details.)

Editor: Kenneth Davidson
Cartoon by Bruce Petty


The following musings and musical illustrations are offered in an attempt to contribute some rationality to the ongoing debate about racism, from the point of view of a composer who is also a writer and a language scholar. Many musicians, both composers and performers, find racism alien because it promotes division, whereas music invokes universality. Despite many different cultural variables, all music has evolved from a common vocabulary of tones which are as recognisable as the colours of the spectrum when displayed in a rainbow. The inner world of music is a quasi-telepathic one of shared thought-forms and emotions. Music celebrates what people have in common. Musical ability manifests in individuals of ail ethnic and racial groupings. Nature confers talent with impartiality. The divisive passions which inspire racists are thus bewildering to many musicians.

However, it is also true that music can be appropriated to serve a divisive cause, and there is something to be learned by how this is done. Music, like words, can acquire a connotation. By being linked to pride, pomp and majesty, music can become a demagogue, a banner, a placard. Yet this is always a deception, a trick of conjuration. The core emotion in music remains a constant. Social or political allegiance is always a mirage.

Consider the case of the British national anthem. Its core is a solemn, stately melody, somewhat in the mode of a chorale by the expatriate German composer, Handel, a composer much admired by the Flemish composer, Beethoven.


Beethoven was so fond of the British anthem, as pure music, that he wrote piano variations on it. Neither the work nor its dedication contains any plea to the deity to extend the life span of the British monarch. The music is high-spirited and humourous, rather than genuflective; and when this same melody migrated to the American colonies it was recruited to serve the rebel cause and, in the process, changed both its meaning and its political allegiance. It is now generally forgotten that, set to new words as America, the tune vied with The Star-Spangled Banner for one hundred years, from 1831, as the unofficial national anthem of the United States. In 1891, its core, the melody, was the subject of yet another set of variations composed by an American, Charles Ives, called the America variations.

A work by Joseph Haydn provides the most notorious example of an innocent melody being burdened with political 'meaning', and it is with this example that racism enters the scene. The theme from the slow movement of Haydn's Emperor String Quartet was so popular that it was appropriated not only as a Protestant hymn tune (Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken), but also as the (then) German national anthem whose opening words later echoed the racist policies of the Third Reich: Germany, Germany, above aII others. As a strident march tune, Haydn's melody still evokes the dream of Nordic supremacy, but in its core form, as the basis for lingeringly beautiful string variations, such connotations are forgotten.

Like music, words can be appropriated to serve a cause, they can acquire multiple meanings, through association and usage, to the point where all sense is lost. Few words have acquired more meanings than the word 'race'. If there is to be any rational debate about 'race', we must all reach a consensus about what the word is understood to mean. To do this we must find the core meaning, and also identify all the different connotations the word has acquired.

The core meaning of 'race' is 'a group of persons, animals or plants connected by common descent'. Clearly the group to which the word refers depends upon the identity of the common ancestor, so we can begin by affirming that if we talk about the 'human race', we are implying the existence of an Adamic ancestor from whom we are all descended. This figure, under different names, is ubiquitous in world mythologies. However, better words to use here are either 'genus' or 'species', meaning that all humans (having a common ancestor) have an identical biology and thus can (as we do) intermingle and breed.

The word 'race' is also used to identify each of the great divisions of humans which are distinguished by having certain physical characteristics in common - colour of skin, stature, shape of eyes, and so on. But it is inconsistent to refer to any of these divisions as a 'race' if they are all also spoken of as being of the same 'human race', in the sense of 'genus' or 'species'. A better word to use here is 'breed' or 'stock', since this can refer to a particular variety of the same genus, as in the case of the horse or the dog.

The word 'race' is also used to denote people of a particular ethnic origin, where ethnicity is defined by distinct language, dress, customs, social structure and belief system. Although this usage is acknowledged by dictionaries, it is even less consistent with the core meaning of 'race' since it suggests that groups of distinct ethnicity who are clearly of the same 'breed' or 'stock' are genetically and biologically different from each other, which is obviously false. Better words to use to indicate a distinct ethnic group are 'nation' or 'people'.

Reviewing these usages of the word 'race' we note a progressive narrowing of the terms of reference - from an entire species, to a breed within that species, to an ancestral grouping within a breed. Confusion becomes nonsense when one finds the word 'race" also used to denote a 'tribe' or 'group' existing within a 'people' or 'nation'. Whatever vestigial meaning the word may have is dissipated when, for example, the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi in Central Africa is described as 'black racism'. This is clearly a tribal conflict, as are those between Catholic and Protestant in a divided Ireland, between Israeli and Palestinian in a contested homeland, and between the warring parties in Bosnia.

Cartoon by Bruce Petty

What is evident from the above is that in every case where the word 'race' is used, another word would more precisely convey the meaning intended by the speaker. Yet, with pavlovian predictability, 'race' is the word we always hear. Why? A bizarre musical anecdote will point the way to understanding.

Emmerich Kalman was a composer of many successful Viennese operettas of the 1920s and early 1930s. Despite being Jewish, Kalman was encouraged by the Nazi regime to remain in Austria, an event mentioned in program notes provided by The Australian Opera to accompany their 1987 production of his best known work, Countess Maritza. As recalled by his daughter, Yvonne Kalman (a Sydney resident), a General of the Third Reich offered Kalman a 'strange privilege'. The offer was made under the personal direction of Hitler, who was 'an ardent lover of Emmerich Kalman's music'. Hitler wanted him to remain in Vienna as an 'honourary Aryan', his Jewish background forgotten. When Kalman asked how this could be guaranteed, the General replied: 'I guarantee it with my life' to which Kalman replied: 'But who can guarantee your life?' It does not surprise that in 1938 Kalman left Vienna to live in America.

Similar thinking by a racist regime was displayed by the South African Government of the Apartheid era. At the height of the international sanctions campaign directed against South Africa, a report surfaced that the Japanese Government had received a strange offer. In return for a trade agreement, the South Africans would class the Japanese as 'honourary whites'.

The use of the word 'honourary' in each of these instances reveals something about the nature of racism. 'Honourary' is a term used to define the status of a membership. This suggests that, although racism purports to be based on genetic factors, it in fact denotes an association which would be better described by the word 'club'. The fact that a 'race' of people may be counted in the millions does not effect the accuracy of the definition. In describing the nature of a club, the scale of membership is irrelevant (except as a measure of the club's popularity). It is the terms of membership which reveal the nature of the association.

The terms of membership of the Aryan Super-race Club are well documented. They were laid down in the 19th century by an arrogant aristocratic French diplomat, Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, and by a neurotic, teutophile Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, son of an English Admiral, who became a naturalised German citizen during the First World War, and was an early champion of Adolph Hitler. Between them, these two invented modern racism and launched it as a pseudo-science. 1855 saw the publication of Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Races. This was the first articulation of the doctrine of Aryan supremacy which the author, in an unguarded moment, admitted was written to aggrandise his family's aristocratic ancestry. This was followed in 1899 by Chamberlain's German language opus, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century.

Both authors exalted the Aryan 'race' as 'superior'. From these theories emerged a philosophy fuelled by social Darwinism, which was later embraced by Hitler and became an important part of Nazi ideology, enabling the Fuhrer to convince his own followers of their own inherent 'fitness to survive' -- a fatal assumption as it turned out.

In retrospect it can be seen that Nazism was, in essence, tribalism (or clubism) but not of a mono-cultural kind, that is, not inherited intact from any single tradition. It was a hybrid neo-tribalism, a synthesis of ancient mythology and recent science, and therein lay its apparent novelty and appeal. Inevitably, though, its functional philosophy was that of every atavistic tribe since the dawn of consciousness: it proclaimed that those who belong are superior, and must demonstrate superiority by arrogation of power and privilege. As a necessary corollary it proclaimed that all 'others' (who do not 'belong) are inferior; and that, being inferior, are subhuman, fit only to be exploited as slaves, or, lacking that utility (because too young, old, infirm or rebellious) are fit only to be eliminated. Alas, in the broad sweep of history, it can be seen that there was nothing novel about Nazi tribalism except its use of modern technology. This it deployed to achieve the enslavement of and massacre of tribal enemies on a scale which, being massive, was also the more horrifying and unique to this century. The Nazi regime also pioneered the use of modern media to advertise and romanticise its tribal totems and, in so doing, ensured that its influence would not die with the death of its leaders. The propaganda techniques pioneered by the Third Reich have been eagerly imitated ever since by every nation state. As a result, the subliminal legacy of the swastika has been to endow the word 'race' with connotations of power and privilege. Why else is it the preferred word to use when defining the ethnic or cultural club to which one professes allegiance? If anyone believes that the impulses which gave rise to Nazism were unique to the German people, a kind of genetic Aryan original sin, they are making a grave error. These impulses are inherent in the human condition, and are the reason for the popularity of the word 'race', in preference to any other word which would give the same meaning.

So must atavism reign? Is there no hope for the ideals of political and social equality, which we have inherited from the 18th century Enlightenment? Is there no hope for social democracy and the human rights movement? The behaviour of humans, collectively, over the past two centuries has not differed from our behaviour over the past six millenia. This behaviour suggests that concepts promoting social equity are alien to human nature, even though it is absurdly clear that the best hope for the survival of the human species lies in their successful application. The difficulty is that applying them involves subjecting tribal instinct to philosophic principle. For most humans this is a difficult discipline, one which is only accepted with reluctance, since it requires the dismantling of established structures of power and privilege, and long held beliefs about the reasons for existence. Without this discipline, humans quickly revert to aggressive tribalism, and this can only be because the tribe is the most natural form of human organisation. The tribe is both the glory and the disgrace of our species. It evolved from kinship and it inspires the virtue of loyalty; but its natural politics are those of the fascist state and the anarchic crime family,

'The tribe is both the glory

and the disgrace of our

species. It evolved from kinship

and it inspires the

virtue of loyalty; but its

natural politics are

those of the fascist state

and the anarchic crime family'

The only totally successful modern dress opera production I have seen was Jonathan Miller's version of Verdi's RigoIetto, transposed from a minor absolutist Italian State of the 16th century to New York of the 1950s. Miller simply swapped a feudal monarchy for a Mafia family. It worked perfectly because the social contexts were interchangeable. A crime family is a survival into the 20th century of an absolute monarchy.

In each the 'state' is lead by a ruler who exercises absolute power by decree. He is protected by a private army of trained thugs who collect tribute in the form of 'taxes' or 'protection money'. Acting on arbitrary decisions of the leader the thugs punish disloyalty by confiscation of property, violent retribution or death. Street gangs reflect this structure, as do boarding schools, as do fascist dictatorships. This structure is a function of the territorial instincts of human beings as inherited from mammalian herd behaviour. In this is embodied the tendency to regard one's own 'kin' as superior, and the impulse to prosper by territorial conquest, and to enslave the conquered.

It is easy to see how 'racist' ideas develop from 'herd' thinking. A group, clan, tribe, people or nation defines itself by physical and cultural characteristics. The physical traits of skin colour, stature, and facial features are given by nature. The more potent cultural traits are all constructs of the mind: manner of speech, dress, mating customs, religious belief, taboos of sexual and dietary practice. Although important in themselves, the main function of these customs is to differentiate the members of the tribe from outsiders. The word 'morals' derives from the Latin 'mores' which means, simply, 'customs'; thus what is 'moral' is simply what is 'customary'. That these 'customs' (along with the less important physical attributes) constitute the terms of membership, confirms what I suggested earlier, that a tribe operates essentially like a club or rather, that the tribe is the prototype of the club.

The problem for the human 'race' in this century is that although the 'club' social structure is 'natural', it is no longer useful in its atavistic form as a way of organising society. The main reason for this loss of utility is that scientific advance has made the traditional method of resolving tribal disputes, war, far too dangerous. It is not due to an excess of moral virtue, but due to the fear of extinction that humans are now, reluctantly, trying to invent and apply modified forms of tribal organisation.

The most useful of these is democratisation, where disagreements are resolved by debate and compromise rather than by violent aggression and the subjugation of opponents.

Australia is one of a minority of nations in which such debate can take place, but even here the process is not helped by the constant irritant of rows over what purport to be'racial' issues, rows in which the real issues are: cultural hegemony; the separation of religion and government; employment opportunities; population size; use of resources; distribution of wealth; social justice. The debate over 'race' is an irrelevant diversion, but one which cannot be ignored because of the harmful social effect that it has on disputatious and violent individuals.

Such people (they used to be called bullies) would 'gang up' on selected victims under any circumstances, but the so-called 'race debate' assists their antisocial cause by providing them with a vocabulary of insults which they would not otherwise have the wit to invent.

There are fringe organisations in Australia which are genuinely 'racist' in their quasi-religious, supremacist philosophies, but most Australians may be relieved to know that, semantically speaking, they are not 'racist' at all! The 'fair go' ethic is incompatible with 'racism' and the closest most Australians get to anything resembling prejudicial social behaviour is when they barrack for one football team against another.

'Race' has now become a four-letter word which, like those other words, should no longer be used in polite society. If we could ban its use we could perhaps, for a time, make it difficult for those who seek a short cut to self-aggrandisement through the denigration of others. They would have to think through their slanders a little more carefully. Perhaps, if indeed capable of thought, such people might end up realising that self-esteem which is achieved at the expense of others is not self-esteem at all. It is a self-abasement.


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