I’ve had a few different ideas for a post running through my head for a while now, so let’s see if I can pull them together into something coherent. No promises, I’m afraid.
First, about a week ago I attended a lovely concert by the New Jersey Symphony. At least I thought it was lovely, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, two composers from my favorite musical tradition. Unfortunately, the concert was marred by some very inconsiderate behavior on the part of my fellow concert goers. The Rachmaninov Piano Concerto number 3 went fine and the audience seemed to love it. But after intermission, when the Tchaikovsky Symphony number 4 began, the misbehavior started. First, the Tchaikovsky starts out with a very loud fanfare, then suddenly stops and goes silent for a few seconds. During this period of “silence” I could hear a woman several rows behind me yacking away. Then as the piece progressed one person got up and left the theater. A few minutes later another couple got up and walked out. This continued pretty much every few minutes throughout the remainder of the concert.
Now the NJSO may not exactly be the New York Philharmonic or the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, but neither are they the Fergus County High School band. They are a professional orchestra with a good reputation and they were performing quite well. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 is also not some avant garde piece that compels blue-haired classical-music lovers to shriek and reach for their earplugs. I can only assume that those who chose to leave the concert did so because they were concerned about missing their reservations at Sebastian’s Steak House or had planes to catch or some such thing. All in all, I found their behavior rude, inconsiderate to not only the orchestra, but their fellow patrons as well.
And that brings me to my second thread. I’ve been reading the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. I’m only part way into the book, and will probably comment on it further in future blog posts. But I was taken by a series of passages in the first part of the book. Mr. Diamond speaks at length about Montana, his adopted part-time home state, listing the various economic and ecological challenges facing the state and its inhabitants. Then he quotes at length stories by four of his “neighbors”, describing their own thoughts and feelings about these challenges. What struck me was the way all four neighbors statements were entirely self centered. It was not about the community, the county, my neighbors and me, their statements were all completely about themselves and how the community was or wasn’t providing for what they needed. The most other directed of all the statements was from a dairy farmer who managed to include his family in the picture, the rest were completely self absorbed.
I haven’t read far enough into Diamond’s book to see if such self absorption is one of the traits he attributes to failing societies, but I would tend to believe it is. As I’ve written before, I see the failure of United States citizens to see even other citizens as “us” as one of the reasons New Orleans suffered so terribly after Katrina. But when I see a significant number of patrons of the symphony, people who presumably live nearby and share some of the values, treating the orchestra and their “fellow patrons” with such disrespect, I find it easy to imagine them as Easter Island natives, chopping down the last tree on the island because it suited their needs at the time, paying no mind to the devastation it would bring to not only their fellow islanders, but eventually to themselves as well.
What makes people treat others with such disrespect? I suppose if I knew the answer to that I could be rich or famous or powerful, or all three. I do know that when I was in Haiti, the thing that impressed me most was the way people were so appreciative of everything that was given to them or done for them. And I know that some places I’ve visited in Canada, Japan and Europe I have not seen the degree of self-absorption and disregard for others that I’ve experienced here. I’ve been profoundly embarrassed by the behavior of American service men and women in Japan that I’ve witnessed. At times I’ve been tempted to believe that wealth and comfort breed contempt, but I doubt that it is as simple as that. Something in the American experience makes us exceptionally prone to this behavior. I suspect it is the same thing that makes most Americans severely allergic to “socialism” in any form. And I suspect it will eventually be the country’s undoing.
Until the revolution, yours,