Monday, December 29, 2008

Did He, or Didn't He?

In the 1980's some historians suggested that the Russian composer Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact. Some additionally suggested that a secret society ordered him, or blackmailed him, into committing suicide. What is the evidence?

Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, in 1893, in St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died.

Some musicologists believe that he consciously wrote his Sixth Symphony as his own Requiem. In the development section of the first movement, the rapidly progressing evolution of the transformed first theme suddenly “shifts into neutral” in the strings, and a rather quiet, harmonized chorale emerges in the trombones. The trombone theme bears absolutely no relation to the music that preceded it, and none to the music that follows it. It appears to be a musical “non sequitur”, an anomaly — but it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, in which it is sung to the words: “And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.” Tchaikovsky was buried in a graveyard in St Petersburg.

Until recent years it had been generally assumed that Tchaikovsky died of cholera after drinking contaminated water. However, a controversial theory published in 1980 and based only on oral history (i.e., without documentary evidence), explains Tchaikovsky’s death as a suicide.

In this account, Tchaikovsky committed suicide by consuming small doses of arsenic following an attempt to blackmail him over his homosexuality. His alleged death by cholera (whose symptoms have some similarity with arsenic poisoning) is supposed to have been a cover for this suicide. According to the theory, Tchaikovsky’s own brother, also homosexual, helped conspire to keep the secret. There are many circumstantial events that some say lend credence to the theory, such as wrong dates on the death certificate, conflicting testimony from the brother and the doctor about the timeline of his death, the fact that Tchaikovsky’s funeral was open casket, and that the sheets from his deathbed were merely laundered instead of being burned. There are also passages in Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography years later about how people at the funeral kissed Tchaikovsky on the face, even though he had died from cholera. These passages were deleted by Russian authorities from later editions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s book.

The suicide theory is hotly disputed by others, who argues that Tchaikovsky could easily have drunk tainted water because his class regarded cholera as a disease that afflicted only poor people, or because restaurants would mix boiled water with cool, unboiled water; that the circumstances of his death are entirely consistent with cholera; and that homosexuality (“gentlemanly games”) was widely tolerated among the upper classes of Tsarist Russia. To this day, no one knows how Tchaikovsky truly died.

Tchaikovsky’s childhood fits the out-dated stereotypical theory of homosexuality: hovering, emotionally high-strung mother, distant father. Tchaikovsky’s younger brother turned out gay, too. Only fourteen when his mother died, Pyotr was devastated by the loss.

After that, his closest female connection was with a rich widow he never met. For fourteen years, he carried on a devoted and remarkably intimate correspondence with her, who supported him financially but insisted on no personal contact. Early on, an apparently serious proposal to an opera singer was called off, and a midlife marriage to a love-struck student was brief and disastrous.

But two of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works were completed in the shadow of that spectacularly ill-starred marriage. It’s hard not to read autobiography into the opera, with its worldly-wise young nobleman spurning a lovesick girl. But one historian has gone so far as to read sexual conflict into the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The most hotly contentious issue, though, is Tchaikovsky’s death. For decades, the official story was that he had died of cholera after downing a glass of unboiled water. But in a 1979 article, one historian argued that the composer committed suicide when an unofficial “honor court” threatened to expose his advances toward a young man.

It was a fanciful scenario based on whisperings over the years, but there remains no hard evidence. “We don’t know what caused Tchaikovsky’s death,” a U of M historian in Ann Arbor says. “That is the bottom line.”

But he adds, “The suicide theory just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

To sum it all up, the theories of the 1980’s were this: Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact; he was discovered; he was blackmailed into committing suicide.

In order to accept those theories, it would be necessary to prove the following: (1) that Tchaikovsky engaged in those sexual activities; (2) that it was discovered; (3) that there was an organized conspiracy to blackmail him; and (4) that he complied.

One more thing would have to be proven: that it Tchaikovsky’s social circle, homosexuality was condemned to the point that it would entice a man to suicide. In fact, many of the more notorious artists of that era were “out” and flamboyant homosexuals. Why would Tchaikovsky have even cared, if he were a homosexual, and someone exposed that fact?

The unsatisfying conclusion we must draw is this: we have too little evidence to say conclusively whether or not Tchaikovsky engaged in same-sex genital contact. His private life will remain forever that: private.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Too Simple

We know that two factors are mainly responsible for slowing economic growth and causing poverty: taxes and government regulation.

If this is so, why not simply get rid of both?

This is clearly overly-simplistic, and not realistic. But this line of thought highlights the concept of a "necessary evil": we must have some amount of taxes, and some amount of government regulation, even though we know that they will cause harm. The best we can do is keep them to a minimum. To be practical, and not idealistic, we realize that we cannot create an economic utopia. There will be no perfect prosperity. But we can continually strive to make things better than they are. Although we won't arrive at perfection, we can persistently minimize taxes and government regulations, and thereby create the best chances for all citizens to enjoy a better income.

The Net Effect of Government

When we examine theories of government, starting perhaps with Plato and Aristotle, moving on to Polybius and Cicero, and then to Dante's essay on monarchy and the Magna Carta - and finally on to Hobbes, Bossuet, Locke, Rousseau, and still more modern thinkers, we remember the important law of unintended consequences. In the case of government, this takes the form of the general proposition many actions will attain the very opposite of their goal.

When the government declared a "war on poverty" in the 1960's, the only measurable result has been the increase in poverty, the creation of a permanent underclass, and designation of large inner-city areas as ghettos.

When the government wanted to reduce the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and other similar substances, the final outcome was the large-scale establishment of organized crime to import such drugs, or manufacture them domestically, and retail them.

History teaches us that, if there is an important situation or problem, society should address that problem directly; society should not ask the government to fix the situation. If society does request government intervention in an important concern, the result is most likely that the problem will not be fixed, but become only worse.

It is certainly tempting to ask the government to help us with our problems; but it is also usually a disaster when we do so.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Battle of Badr

Muhammad heard that a large Quraysh caravan, laden with money and goods, was coming from Syria. "This is the Quraysh caravan containing their property," he told his followers. "Go out and attack it, perhaps God will give it as a prey." He set out toward Mecca to lead the raid. But this time the Quraysh were ready for him, coming out to meet Muhammad's three hundred men with a force nearly a thousand strong. Muhammad seems not to have expected these numbers and cried out to Allah in anxiety, "O God, if this group perishes today, you will be worshipped no more."

Despite their superior numbers, the Quraysh were routed. Some Muslim traditions say that Muhammad himself participated in the fighting, others that he exhorted his followers from the sidelines. In any event, it was an occasion for him to see years of frustration, resentment, and hatred toward his own people, who had rejected him, avenged. One of his followers later recalled a curse Muhammad had pronounced on the leaders of the Quraysh: "The prophet said, 'O Allah! Destroy the chiefs of the Quraysh, O Allah!" and names the chiefs one by one.

All the men named were captured or killed during the battle of Badr. One Quraysh leader pleaded for his life, "but who will look after my children, O Muhammad?"

"Hell," responded the Prophet of Islam, and ordered this chief to be killed.

Another Quraysh chieftain was beheaded. The Muslim who severed the head proudly carried his trophy to Muhammad: "I cut off his head and brought it to the apostle, saying 'this is the head of the enemy of God.'"

Muhammad was delighted. "By God than Whom there is no other, is it?" he exclaimed, and gave thanks to Allah for the death of his enemy.

From being a tiny, despised community, the Muslims were now a force with which the pagans of Arabia had to reckon - and they began to strike terror in the hearts of their enemies. Muhammad's claim to be the last prophet of the One, True God appeared validated by a victory against enormous odds.

Islam grew and spread as various cities and tribes were defeated in battle; this encouraged the Muslims, and many of the non-Muslims in the area chose to convert to Islam rather than be killed in battle.

Muhammad the Raider

Muhammad already had experience as a warrior before he assumed the role of prophet. He had participated in two local wars between his Quraysh tribe and their neighboring rivals Ban Hawazin. But his unique role as a prophet-warrior would come later. After receiving revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel in 610, he began by just preaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as prophet. But he was not well received by his Quraysh brethren in Mecca, who reacted disdainfully to his prophetic call and refused to give up their gods. Muhammad's frustration and rage became evident. When even his uncle, Abu Lahab, rejected his message, Muhammad cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam: "May the hands of Abu Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with firewood, shall have a rope of fiber around her neck!" [111:1-5]

Ultimately, Muhammad would turn from violent words to violent deeds. In 622, he finally fled his native Mecca for a nearby town, Medina, where a band of tribal warriors had accepted him as a prophet and pledged loyalty to him. In Medina, these new Muslims began raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, with Muhammad personally leading many of these raids. These raids kept the nascent Muslim movement solvent and helped form Islamic theology - as in one notorious incident when a band of Muslims raided a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca. The raiders attacked the caravan during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden. When they returned to the Muslim camp laden with booty, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or have anything to do with them, saying only, "I did not order you to fight in the sacred month."

But then a new revelation came from Allah, explaining that the Quraysh's opposition to Muhammad was a worse transgression than the violation of the sacred month. In other words, the raid was justified. "They question you, O Muhammad, with regard to warfare in the sacred month. Say: warfare in it is a great transgression, but to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of Worship, and to expel His people from there, is a greater sin with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing" (2:214,217). Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed was overshadowed by the Quraysh's rejection of Muhammad.

The general principle which Muhammad took from this particular incident was this: to launch a military attack during the sacred month of ceasefire is OK, if you're killing people who have rejected Muhammad's ideas.