How I Played Judge for #SchenkerGate
When Dr. Timothy Jackson contacted me after I made a video called “Music Theory and Free Speech,” in which I critiqued the #SchenkerGate scandal in general and Dr. Jackson in particular, I was embarrassed. I hadn’t known how small the internet was. I had meant to use Dr. Jackson as a mere prop in a larger argument about the overblown free speech debate in the United States.
Dr. Jackson sent me a slew of articles and screenshots supporting the points he made in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies Issue 12, the publication that launched #SchenkerGate. It seemed as if he were laying out before me evidence for his case so that I, having crowned myself judge of this scandal via a sparsely-watched YouTube video, could make my verdict (it seemed Dr. Jackson has been contacting many people besides me, to be fair). Because he contacted me to plead innocence, I can’t help but think of him as the defendant, here, though in the end the structure of this particular imaginary trial was more like that of a messy divorce proceeding. I’m going to use terms like “motion dismissed” and “retrial” very loosely, here.*
This summer, Dr. Jackson was “cancelled” for using the Journal of Schenkerian Studies to dismiss “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame,” a talk (and later paper) by Dr. Phillip Ewell, presented at a November 2019 plenary session of the Society of Music Theory. This is the short version of what happened. If you want to know roughly how things unfolded up until September and what views Dr. Jackson expressed in the Journal of Schenkerian studies I recommend watching the aforementioned video (mainly the sections “So…what happened?” and “Reading the Source”).
I first heard about #SchenkerGate peripherally from Norman Lebrecht’s broadly-read classical music gossip publication Slipped Disc (one of the relatively few in which Dr. Ewell was downright dismissed – though my instinct was to immediately question that dismissal, since my tendency will always be to believe that reform is good) and then through fairly big-time YouTuber Adam Neely’s video titled “Music Theory is Racist” (later re-titled “Music Theory and White Supremacy.”) I didn’t plan to make my own video. I simply started reading the Journal of Schenkerian Studies Issue 12 out of curiosity, to find out whether the condemnation of “bigotry” leveled against Dr. Jackson by the graduate students of the University of North Texas, where Dr. Jackson teaches, were fair. My verdict was that they were accurate, in the sense that Dr. Jackson seemed keen to present critiques of the entire Black American community. That in and of itself is easily called racist in general and anti-Black in particular.
Here’s the twist: The main accusation Dr. Jackson leveled, in one breath, against Dr. Ewell in particular and Black Americans in general, was that of antisemitism. Dr. Jackson is convinced that Dr. Ewell’s “scapegoating” of Heinrich Schenker “occurs in the much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the United States.” I had dismissed this claim already in my video but Dr. Jackson was convinced, it seemed, that if he showed me just how real and well-documented these “attacks” were I would change my mind.
Here’s the twist on the twist: Dr. Ewell has expressed the opinion, both on Facebook and at an online lecture he was kind enough to invite me to, that Dr. Jackson is, in fact, engaging in a “vailed” form of antisemitism in which “Jews are lionized and exempted from criticism on account of their historical persecution and slaughter during the Holocaust” (quoted from Dr. Ewell’s colleague who first made this claim on Facebook.)
The fact that antisemitism has become a prop to be casually thrown around as a self-righteous counterargument from both sides of this debate is disturbing to me in and of itself. Let me explain why everyone here is wrong about this accusation.
Even if we agree with leveling accusations of prejudice against an entire identity group (we shouldn't, but that's another matter), Dr. Jackson is simply wrong to use claims of higher levels of anti-Semitism among Black Americans (a critique he supported very poorly in his article in the JSS) as an attack on a single Black professor. That is the definition of prejudice and in this case, more specifically, racism and anti-Blackness. Dr. Jackson sent me numerous articles about antisemitism among Black Americans (some written by Jewish authors and/or Black authors, and some by authors who seemed to be neither). He sent me antisemitic quotes from the writings of Amiri Baraka. Here’s the problem: None of these pieces of “evidence” are relevant. Any generalization one makes about the presence of animosity towards a particular identity group within a whole other identity group is not a valid argument against one particular intellectual, who identifies as part of the latter group, and his critique of one particular historical figure, who happens to be part of the former group. This is so clear to me as to warrant a mathematical equation.
The group of theorists/musicologists, including Dr. Ewell, who decided (via a public Facebook conversation and later repeated at least once by Dr. Ewell at a semi-public lecture) that Dr. Jackson is engaging in “vailed antisemitism” are also wrong. Dr. Jackson’s critique is not simply that Schenker should not be criticized, or that he should be “lionized,” because he is Jewish. And, honestly, if that were his argument – wouldn’t that be pro-Semitic? Why should words mean opposite things?
The bulk of Dr. Jackson’s argument against Dr. Ewell has to do with historical accuracy. He could have made this argument without ever accusing Dr. Ewell of antisemitism and certainly without ever bringing up “Black antisemitism,” as he often refers to it, into the discussion at all. By making his argument primarily an accusation of antisemitism, whether against an individual or a group, he forced any reasonable person not to engage with any other part of his argument. And in fact, within this trial of my own making, I could reasonably throw out all evidence presented by Dr. Jackson in support of this “academic foul” of a defense (one, which, moreover, doesn’t really dispute Dr. Ewell’s central point, since Schenker as a mere example within that point). In fact, I did gloss over the historical-accuracy critique in my video. But Dr. Jackson asked for a retrial. Well, here it is.
Dr. Jackson feels that Dr. Ewell erases Schenker’s Jewishness from his argument and that that is an act of antisemitism. Since “erasure” of women and people of color is a critique so often leveled against the white male frame, it is an interesting claim to consider. Indeed, Dr. Ewell does not mention Schenker’s Jewishness in his talk or his paper, though he does offer a quote on anti-Semitism by philosopher Laurie Shrage as an analogue for his point about racism.
One major, though very specific, argument, which Dr. Jackson made to me via his colleague Dr. Barry Wiener who spoke about Ewell’s work at an ANS NY roundtable, is that Dr. Ewell makes a historically-inaccurate conflations of Schenker’s German-Jewish followers in the United States in the 30s and 40s with the American Nazi Bunt. Now, the quote from Dr. Ewell’s paper in which he makes this connection (most of it happens in a footnote) seeks simply to illustrate the prevalence of Nazi, or white supremacist, thinking in the United States at the time Schenkerians were arriving in the United States and Schenkeriansim taking off in academe. The fact that Dr. Ewell fails to explicitly mention the fact that, since Schenker’s followers were Jewish, they were in the US in order to flee the Nazis is, well, an oversight.
There is a reason for this oversight. Dr. Ewell is operating within a framework in which it is easy to conflate American Nazis and Jewish theorists fleeing from Nazism to the US. This is where it gets even more difficult.
It has come to my attention that there is concern among anti-woke-ideology thinkers (many of whom consider themselves to be on the Left) that the woke Left “has a Jewish problem.” One major argument seems to be that by arguing that, within the American context, most Jews benefit from white privilege, the Woke left engages in an age-old impulse to blame Jews for being part of a ruling elite class responsible for the world’s problems. When talking to Dr. Jackson about this, I mentioned Nell Irvin Painter’s A History of White People. Painter argues that the idea of a single white identity didn’t emerge until after World War II. Emerge it did, however, and has become so engrained that Painter has lamented the fact that readers have a hard time grasping how, for most of the history of “whiteness,” there were “white races” not a single “white race" (which is interesting because Schenker does refer to "the white race" though perhaps he thought of it as an umbrella term more than we would today.) From what I understand from Painter, it wasn’t until after World War II that American Jews from Europe were fully invited into whiteness, along with other white peoples. To say that European Jews were “invited into whiteness” in the United States is not in and of itself antisemitic, I think. Given Nell Irvin Painter’s research, it may be seen as a historical fact. We could go so far as to claim that part of the toxicity of the concept of whiteness is how it erases individual cultural identity and the power play between various white cultures. Then again, the idea of Blackness might be said to do so something similar. Interestingly, Painter also predicts “who gets to be white” will continue to expand. It is interesting to ponder the idea that whiteness will continue to invite people in as a kind of survival strategy. But I digress.
On the count of erasure of Jewish experience and Jewish identity from his critique of Schenker and Schenkerians, I will have to pronounce Dr. Ewell guilty. I will not go so far as to say this was an act of antisemitism on Dr. Ewell’s part. His approach was acceptable within the view that Jewish American identity has functioned fairly complacently within American white identity. It was however, a-historical, because it didn't take into account the development of whiteness. Given that the very subject of Dr. Ewell's research is the white racial frame, it is jarring to allow such an oversight and when a Jewish person points this oversight out to him, he should try to make emends on that particular count (though, given the nature of Dr. Jackson's critique, I assume he never will and that's kind of Dr. Jackson's fault).
Another critique which Dr. Jackson made was that Dr. Ewell selects examples from Schenker’s writing which do not reflect the evolution of Schenker’s thinking. Schenker softened his views on race partially, perhaps, because, though he didn’t live to experience the Holocaust, he witness the rising currents of antisemitism within his country. But how Schenker experienced antisemitism is less important than how it may or may not have changed his views. In his response to Dr. Ewell in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Dr. Jackson quotes the "older, wiser" Schenker when he says classical music is “an elitism of the hearing of the spirit, not of race.” This quote is very much in dialogue with the online lecture Dr. Ewell invited me to during which he spoke on assimilationism, a step between racism and anti-racism (i.e. when biological racism is no longer acceptable, cultural racism replaces it.) Within Dr. Ewell’s framework, Dr. Jackson’s argument wouldn’t work, because Schenker’s evolution is merely from one form of racism to another. That said, I do believe Dr. Ewell should have addressed this evolution in a talk/paper which drew so heavily on a critique of Schenker. I’m not sure why he didn’t, given that he could have fit it into his argument.
I dismiss Dr. Jackson’s accusation of antisemitism against Dr. Ewell.
I dismiss Dr. Ewell’s accusation of antisemitism against Dr. Jackson.
I pronounce Dr. Ewell guilty of erasure of Jewish identity and history in his critique of Schenker.
I pronounce Dr. Jackson guilty of assimilationism and add further penalty for managing to make his accusations of antisemitism anti-Black
Community work: Learn to absorb other points of view without shielding yourself from them with holier-than-thou ad hominem attacks. I have spoken to, even debated with, both Dr. Jackson and Dr. Ewell and have come to the conclusion that they agree more than they disagree. They both believe that some kind of change is warranted within the theory curriculum (yes, even Dr. Jackson, in an email and, no, he wasn’t talking about making it more “traditional.”) Neither thinks that any particular kind of music should be automatically, and without debate, suppressed from the curriculum. That is what I have ascertained from talking to both of them.
That said, I will add to Dr. Jackson's sentence to do some work trying to better understand his own discomfort with Blackness. His fear of "Black antisemitism" may come from a much deeper sense of threat. I hasted to add that hatred or even desire to exclude are not motivations for Dr. Jackson. His discomfort is with his warped conception of Black culture - that is what makes him assimilationist. There is no remedy for that except to read, listen, converse broadly outside of one's cultural comfort zone. It is understandably hard to do so for people who have a tendency to get absorbed in very narrow subjects, a trait which theorists seems to have and which, actually, makes them good at theory. That is why this whole debate around the white racial frame of music theory has been so hard even for theorists who don't fundamentally disagree with the premise.
Now, I should say that putting Dr. Ewell and Dr. Jackson on equal footing, here, is not entirely realistic. Dr. Ewell is, in a sense, above this whole debate with Dr. Jackson. His calendar has filled up with speaking gigs, partially thanks to the publicity brought to him by #SchenkerGate and therefore, ironically, by Dr. Jackson. American colleges are eager to consult with Dr. Ewell on how to dismantle their curriculum’s white racial frame. I believe the reform will, indeed, happen and Dr. Ewell likely will be central to it. He therefore has no reason, really, to debate anyone who dismisses him, certainly not Dr. Jackson. He is the victor of this particular battle.
I don’t subscribe to the fundamentally unempathetic idea of “himpathy” (against which Dr. Ewell cautioned me when we spoke) but, in case you are prone to feeling a little sorry for Dr. Jackson note that, despite all the “canceling” noise, Dr. Jackson will not suffer any major professional consequences, it seems, just like I predicted. A panel organized by UNT published a report on Issue 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (here). The journal will not be dissolved. There is only a vague "recommendation" to "restructure" the editorial board in such a way that, from what I can tell, could even give Dr. Jackson the same amount of power as before, if not more. I'm not saying that will happen, but it leaves room wide open for it to happen. The report also doesn't mention anything about Dr. Jackson being punished in any way, let alone losing his job, because - guess what! - that was never on the table it the first place. The mysterious, spooky panel, whose members we didn't know until the report was published, it seems, was actually only evaluating the the editorial process of Issue 12 of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, just like it was said to be doing from the start, not secretly evaluating Dr. Jackson himself (are you listening, Dr. Jackson's lawyer?) I don't want to be too self-praising, here, (and things aren't actually over, yet) but I predicted roughly this outcome. That is what these "cancel campaigns" seem to be - more noise than actual results. The fear of the imagined results, on the other hand, fuels an unhealthy refusal to communicate, an unhealthy view of the "the other side" as monstrous. That is where the actual damage of cancelling comes from, and it serves neither the canceller nor the cancelled (oh, and it also causes psychological damage to individuals - but I'm too cynical to think that argument would deter anyone).
Dr. Jackson will be able to continue to focus on Schenker and Western classical music theory for the rest of his career. Of course, there was never any real question about that. Still, the fear of those who see what Dr. Ewell is proposing as a call to “take away their music” is hard to dispel (but that’s a whole new subject about which I made a video called "Should We Cancel Classical Music?," continuing my first video on #SchenkerGate.)
Update: Jackson was, in fact, removed from the JJS and is now suing the University of North Texas for defamation
*I have a need to make clear that, as the descendant of the First Lady of Czech processual law (as my grandmother is called among her colleagues), I am keenly aware of my ignorance of actual court proceedings.