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Black Culture, American Culture, Universal Values

Dear Friends,

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece (Opens in a new window) about Black history and Black classical music in which I noted that only recently had I come across the work of conductor Dean Dixon. In response, writes Ron Radosh:

But I must say I knew about him in 1947’, ’48 or ’49! I was in elementary school, PS 173 in Washington Heights, NYC, and for what was then Black History Week (yes, only one week), the progressive PTA leaders arranged to have Dixon come to the school to spend a few hours with our classes talking about and illustrating examples of classical music! I will never forget it. We were all mesmerized by his enthusiasm, his charm, and his ability to reach all our little souls with wonder. It was literally one of the highlights of my years at elementary school. My parents had told me of how he was unable to find conducting jobs because he was black.

The Harlem-born Dixon was compared early in his career to Toscanini. In 1942, he became the first Black conductor to lead the New York Philharmonic. But landing a full-time job was not easy. He built a career in Europe hoping to escape racism—and the insane, hectic life of New York City, he’d say. Dixon returned from his self-imposed exile, though. After 28 years and prominent stints abroad, he was back in his hometown in 1970, where he conducted the New York Philharmonic before an audience of 75,000 in Central Park.

James Baldwin was born Harlem in 1924. He died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in southern France on December 1, 1987. Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948 looking to finish his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Like Dixon, he also sought respite from segregation and, in Baldwin’s case, sexual discrimination as well. Azar Nafisi has spoken to me for some time about Baldwin’s relevance for civil rights, the struggle for freedom, and the challenges for liberal democracy today. “He needs to be far better known in Iran,” she says.

We’ll do an in-person program with our friend Azar on Baldwin on March 8. Azar—author of Reading Lolita in Tehran—spent teenage years as a pupil in England and Switzerland. She did her Ph.D. in English and American literature at the University of Oklahoma. Later, in 1982, she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear a veil. She would eventually teach at another Iranian university, until she tried to resign. But her resignation was rejected and she was expelled instead. Azar has lived in the United States since 1997.

Our partner for the March 8 program is the D.C. public library system; the time will be 6:30 pm and the venue will be the West End Neighborhood Library at 2301 L Street, NW. Participating in the discussion with Azar will be West End assistant librarian Nolan Harris. We’ve invited Princeton scholar Eddie Glaude as well (AEI researcher Sahar Soleimany will conduct an interview with Azar for publication in English and Farsi).

This is the start of a miniseries on politics and culture we’re undertaking with the D.C. public library system. Warmest thanks to Rob Schneider and his colleagues Mimi Lyons and Harris at the West End branch. Tip of hat to our arts and culture editor Sydnee Lipset for curating this program; Syd juggles more balls than I can count.

We do think there’s a good deal to be learned from history, biography, and culture. Read Sharon Skeel’s sharp and interesting review (Opens in a new window) of Rupert Christiansen’s new book, Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World. If you’re inclined then for more, Igor Stravinsky wrote (Opens in a new window) at length in 1953 about his friendship and collaboration with Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilevtwo exiles in Paris. Critic and impresario Diaghilev was a phenomenon: He knew Émile Zola, Charles Gounod, Giuseppe Verdi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nijinsky, Mussorgsky. He involved in his work Debussy, Kandinsky, Matisse, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel.

There are a number of other things to commend this week:

• On political reform in the United States and “final-five voting,” watch (Opens in a new window) our recent discussion with Katherine Gehl, Larry Diamond, and Jim Glassman.

• On depolarization and teaching history in America, read (Opens in a new window) Hans Zeiger and polling that might surprise you. On the need for a competent, efficient and effective, non-ideological administrative state, read Frank Fukuyama’s latest in a series. This time (Opens in a new window), Frank is discussing instances where he sees charges of bureaucratic overreach as entirely valid. On March 21, Frank will deliver the annual Donald Stone Lecture to the American Society for Public Administration. Not irrelevant to these issues: Watch (Opens in a new window) Michael Mandelbaum’s recent conversation with Beverly Gage on her new book on the consummate bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover.

• On the quintessentially American idea of perpetual self-invention, read (Opens in a new window) Matt Hanson on Greil Marcus’ new Bob Dylan biography. Read (Opens in a new window) Gary Schmitt on the new Lincoln biography by Michael Zuckert. Incidentally, our friend Allen Guelzo was in Washington earlier this month at Ford’s Theatre for the release of the anniversary edition of his Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.

• On cultural history, take time for Don Bishop’s essay (Opens in a new window) on four Norman Rockwell paintings 80 years later. Rockwell was taken by President Franklin Roosevelt’s four essential freedoms.

• On the fight for freedom in Ukraine, watch for our published symposium on the one-year anniversary of the war next week—and please consider joining our Zoom conversation (Opens in a new window) on Tuesday, February 21, at 9 am ET with Gen. Phil Breedlove, Gen. Ben Hodges, and Adm. Jamie Foggo; Iulia Joja will moderate. On Crimea—and the importance of a full defeat of Russian imperialism now—read (Opens in a new window) Fred Starr. Fred brings interesting history to bear, as you might imagine.

• On Germany and the Ukraine war, keep an eye out for the upcoming essay by Caroline Fetscher. Caroline links things to the Balkans and draws on her own experience reporting from the region.

• On Poland and the fight against Russian disinformation, read (Opens in a new window) Stanisław Żaryn. State Department friends keep telling me about our commitment gap in the information war. Moscow remains fully dedicated. Beijing, too.

• On global stakes and the Russian war against Ukraine, read the piece I’ve co-authored with Bill Kristol for the German daily Tagesspiegel. You can read the original German here (Opens in a new window), and an English version we’ve published here (Opens in a new window).

• On Japan’s evolving security outlook, read (Opens in a new window) Brad Glosserman. Writing from Tokyo, Brad cites evidence that change may be happening faster than one might think.

• On Iran, Ulrike Becker joins us by Zoom from Berlin on March 7 at 12 noon ET. Meanwhile, we’ve recently hosted two exceptionally interesting conversations. You can watch Roya Hakakian on history and fresh perspectives with former senior Iraqi official Samir Sumaida'ie here (Opens in a new window). Vera Mironova offered members of our Leaders’ Circle an inside look at growing Iranian-Russian defense cooperation.

• On Latin America, read Frank (Fukuyama) here (Opens in a new window). Frank writes from a recent trip to Colombia on a number of concerns he has about the region and the rise of a new Left.

Friends and Music

Michael Kimmage has written for us a number of times. Here’s (Opens in a new window) his review of Hal Brands’  book on American statecraft during the Cold War. Only recently did I learn that he started as a music student at Oberlin College and Conservatory. Read Michael’s marvelous essay (Opens in a new window) “The Missing Delight” in Liberties. Fans of Mozart and Mel Brooks would be pleased.

Follow Joe Horowitz on music in his Arts Journal blog here (Opens in a new window). I’ve been learning recently from Joe about 27-year-old conducting sensation from Finland Klaus Mäkelä. Of course, Joe is also a leading expert on Black classical music.

I’ve been watching performances led by my recent discovery, Dean Dixon. Here’s (Opens in a new window) Dixon with Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Listen here (Opens in a new window) to Dixon—with Antonio Janigro—in a rendering of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor. I love this (Opens in a new window): It’s Dixon with Schumann and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra in 1953.

Very best regards,


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