Commentary Magazine


The Philharmonic’s “Glass House”

The New York Philharmonic will be playing in Pyongyang next Tuesday. Lorin Maazel, its music director, notes in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that the decision to take the Philharmonic to Communist North Korea has been greeted in some quarters with shock and dismay. Presumably, among those whom Mazaal is answering is Terry Teachout, who wrote this trenchant column, also for the Wall Street Journal

Mazaal lays out the case that, pace Teachout and others, the visit will do some good:

bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold. If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve U.S.-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long.

I lived in Russia for a spell back when it was Communist country and am willing, by extrapolating from that experience, to grant Maazel a point on behalf of the concert that he could have made but does not. North Koreans, completely isolated from the outside world, are presented with a ubiquitous stream of propaganda that portrays the United States as a country full of avaricious militarists bent upon provoking a new war on the Korean peninsula. A concert in Pyongyang performed by American musicians, the very idea of which runs counter to the officially generated images of the past, is likely to evoke extreme curiosity in the North Korean populace, both about the visiting Americans and about what their visit portends for the future of their society.

But beyond that minimal effect of generating curiousity, let’s not get carried away by illusions and other political maladies, which is precisely what has happened to Maazel. “Human rights are an issue of profound relevance to us all,” he writes, noting that “[a]ny citizen, anywhere, can be deprived of them — brutally under tyrannical regimes, subtly in more open societies . . . . If we are to be effective in bringing succor to the oppressed, many languishing in foreign gulags, the U.S. must claim an authority based on an immaculate ethical record.”

Is that really so? What Maazel has done here is create the impression that when it comes to human rights, a country like North Korea and the United States are on the same continuum, the major difference between the two being that Pyongyang operates “brutally” while democratic societies like our own oppress “subtly.” “Woe to the people we are trying to help if we end up in a glass house,” he writes.

This is disgraceful. What does this “glass house” metaphor mean other than that we should be wary of criticizing North Korea because our own human-transgressions are on a par in some way with the most oppressive society on earth? Artists in the public arena, writes Maazel in the same op-ed, “must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas.” If only he would follow his own advice. 

Maazel recounts that in negotiating arrangements for the Philharmonic’s visit, “[w]e requested that the concert in Pyongyang be open to the average citizen.” The average citizen? The naivete on display here is record-setting. One thing is utterly certain: the average North Korean citizen will not be attending the Philharmonic’s concert next week. Maazel’s op-ed leaves the impression that he is completely incapable of imagining the nature of the society he will be visiting, a place where the lot of the average citizen is constant exposure to terror, lawlessness, a cradle-to-grave system of political indoctrination, and starvation.

The grim reality of Communist North Korea is that the average citizen is not a citizen at all but a slave.