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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Affirming Individuality: Reflections on “Songs for a New World”

Legions of Americans have, rightly, written off the entertainment and academic industries (yes, the latter is a colossal industry) as the culture’s two largest bastions of leftist ideology.

Sometimes, however, and when we least expect it, the prevailing “Politically Correct” (PC) orthodoxy is challenged from within its sacred precincts.

The other night I attended a performance of Songs for a New World, an “abstract musical”by Jason Robert Brown that was originally an off-Broadway production back in the 1990’s.  While Pat Cohill, a professor of theater and one of my colleagues, is to be commended for her masterful adaption of Songs to the stage of Burlington County College, it isn’t only for aesthetic reasons that she deserves a tip of the hat.

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With one stroke, Pat (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) dropped two birds with one stone in reminding this college community that neither the world of academia nor that of entertainment need follow the same PC script, a template according to which human conduct is all too often reduced to being the plaything of “social structures,” “the system,” “society,” etc.

Songs, you see, is a resounding affirmation of what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “the morality ofindividuality,” the belief that human beings are first and foremost individuals distinguished on account of their capacity to make and to delight in making their own choices.  From this standpoint, Oakeshott informs us, “morality consists in the recognition of individual personality whenever it appears.”  He adds that “personality is so far sacrosanct that no man has either a right or a duty to promote the moral perfection of another,” for in promoting “their ‘good’” we inevitably destroy “their ‘freedom’ which is the condition of moral goodness.”

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Even though Songs has no overarching plot, its various scenes and characters are united by a common theme—“the moment of decision, the point at which you transition from the old to the new.”  Hence, the play’s title: Songs for a New World.

The first scene, “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” supplies both a frame of reference and a metaphor for the rest of the production. Though the turning point experienced by the pioneers of 1492 was multifaceted, the matrix of the changes they would inevitably undergo was geographical: those on board those Spanish sailing ships left the old world of Europe for the new world of the Americas.  However, the old and new worlds of the rest of the play’s characters—not unlike the old and new worlds of most us—are emotional and intellectual in character.

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Still, the significance of the use that Songs makes of those old Spanish sailing ships cannot be overstated.

First, for quite some time, leftist activists of various sorts—particularly those in Hollywood and academia—have been laboring long and hard to reduce Columbus and the explorers of 1492 to a one-dimensional, cartoonish caricature of evil. That Songs not only refuses to endorse this nonsense but actually holds up the voyagers as an emblem of individuality is remarkably refreshing.

It is true that some critics have speculated that those on board the Spanish sailing ships were Jewish refugees who had been expelled from Spain.  Yet there is no evidence for this. It was the Americas—not any of the lands of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe to which the Jews were forced to flee—that were first regarded by Columbus and the explorers as “the New World.”  That Columbus is mentioned by name in another of the numbers of Songs further weakens the Jewish refugee interpretation.

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Second, this opening number also shows the explorers praying to God! Though not explicitly invoked throughout all of the play’s numbers, the invocation of God at the outset of Songs sets a tone for all that follows.  God, even when not acknowledged, is a source of hope and strength in every “moment of decision.”

Finally, the use of the imagery of the Spanish sailing ships of 1492 underscores the point that every lover of liberty aches to see impressed upon the world: the exercise of individuality, the making of choices, is, or at least should be seen as, an epic moral adventure in character building.  Every individual is an explorer on board his or her own sailing ship.  The seas of life, its infinite possibilities, lay in wait of discovery.

When the arts—and academia—buck the PC tide and affirm the morality of individuality, as they did recently courtesy of my colleague, it should be recognized and celebrated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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