An Ugly War Of Words

No, this isn’t about any of the current labor disputes. Instead, this is about an online feud between Greg Sandow and Heather Mac Donald. If you aren’t aware of what’s going on here’s the 10 second synopsis: Mac Donald wrote an article titled Classical Music’s New Golden Age (meaning now) but Sandow didn’t like what she had to say so he wrote 5,413 words (most of which were entirely unflattering) over five articles to explain why. Shortly thereafter, Mac Donald fired back with a scathing retort…

Literary carpet bombing from the prophets of doom?

In most online debates, the respective authors are polite and happy to examine differences in opinion but from Sandow’s initial volley, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a good-natured “agree to disagree” dispute. On a simplistic level the argument pits the “prophets of doom” (as coined by Sam Bergman) against those with more of a upbeat outlook, with Sandow spearheading the former and Mac Donald characterizing the latter.

To say that the tone of these exchanges is dreadful is probably an understatement, and that’s coming from a blogger who will readily admit to being frank (I’m not sure how else to describe recommending that orchestra musicians should consider leaving their union). The Sandow-Mac Donald exchange is a veritable smorgasbord of logical fallacies serving up copious helpings of ad hominem, tu quoque, hasty generalizations, appeal to authority, weak analogy, and false dichotomy. For dessert, they dumb it down a bit with some good old-fashioned name calling.

In short, this sort of behavior by two established professionals is distressing and although Mac Donald has far less to lose in this exchange as her career path isn’t located primarily within this field, Sandow is placing himself in certain jeopardy by coming across like some sort of Ahab-esque monomanical “prophet of doom.” As mentioned above, that moniker was coined by Sam Bergman who earlier this week singled out Sandow as a member of “chattering class” (again, Bergman’s sharp wit at play) who is “consistently, unceasingly, 100% wrong” in all of his dire predictions about the orchestra field.

But here’s the real curiosity within all of this: Sandow published five separate blog posts in response to Mac Donald’s initial article and I’m at a complete loss as to his motivation, not to mention thoroughly befuddled over why one entry wasn’t sufficient.

For starters, Mac Donald’s article wasn’t making any sort of terrific splash inside the field. It wasn’t as though players’ associations, orchestra boards, the NEA, philanthropic foundations, or service organizations were espousing it as the latest-greatest thinking inside the business. Moreover, it didn’t even mention or refer to Sandow so there’s no reason he should be offended on a personal or professional level.

Regardless, it clearly pushed one of his buttons (apparently, the one labeled “unleash the dogs of war”) and the result was vitriolic. In response, Mac Donald published her own equally heavy handed retort of mass destruction. If nothing else, she reaffirmed that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Ultimately, it is a shame that such willful and mutual character assassination exists within a field that has far better things to do besides argue about whether or not it’s in a death spiral. On the other hand, it’s worth taking the time to skim over all of the respective Sandow-Mac Donald content if for nothing else than to serve as a useful frame of reference on how not to go about engaging in an online dispute.

Fortunately, this sort of incident is an exception and not a rule throughout most of the cultural blogging community so don’t let this keep you from joining online discussions. In fact, I encourage everyone to jump right in now and post a comment here with your thoughts on all of this.

For reference, he’s a chronological list of the Sandow-Mac Donald fight as it has unfolded to date:

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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23 thoughts on “An Ugly War Of Words”

  1. Ahhhhh, hurling invective with my morning coffee! Skim it, (not referring to the milk in my latte) I did, because after sending a new music cd to Mr. Sandow, he couldn’t find the time to review it. Must be too busy predicting the demise of classical music. The narcissist rails against anything that they feel casts them in a poor light, which for a narcissist, is everything.

  2. Wow. Um, ah, wow.

    I’m happy to take a look at Mac Donald’s article in full, which I should have done a few weeks back, but….I think I will skip Sandow.

    Drew, you’re straightforward, but it is difficult to imagine you pulling out the Sledgehammer of Doom that Greg is evidently aiming at Mac Donald.

    • Thanks Lisa and in all fairness I think it is common for most bloggers to feel the urge to sledgehammer away as you put it but this is where being self-edited means you have to be on constant guard against blogging when you’re angry. The advice I give the other bloggers at Inside The Arts is exactly that and when in doubt, send something you’ve written to a colleague and ask for his/her feedback before clicking the publish button.

      Whether or not the Arts Journal editor will have anything to say or do anything about this is unknown; but if I were still a blogger there, I’d be concerned.

  3. Drew, I think it’s odd that you would think that Sandow’s directly addressing the ignorance and weakness of Mac Donald’s argument is “vitriolic”.

    Is it truly that shocking that a knowledgeable, long-time member of the classical music community would clearly speak the truth as he see’s it?

    If so, then shock is what we need, those of us who care passionately about classical music, to wake up to what’s happening to classical music and do something about it, so it can continue to live.

  4. «…who earlier this week singled out Sandow as a member of “chattering class”…who is “consistently, unceasingly, 100% wrong” in all of his dire predictions about the orchestra field.»

    To be fair, we can’t say (yet) which way Greg Sandow’s various predictions will fall, and Sam never claims as such. Here’s what he said:
    “…for exactly how many decades do we plan to allow the prophets of doom to continually shout from the mountaintop that orchestras are withering on the vine before pointing out that their dire predictions have been consistently, unceasingly, 100% wrong?”

    Yes it’s abundantly clear that Sam considers Greg to belong to the same group which, in the past, has made dire and unrealised predictions. And that he expects to see Greg’s predictions come to nothing also. But he doesn’t go further than that.

    Nitpicking aside, it certainly is a pity to see what could have been a genuinely fascinating argument marred.

    • Well, every now and then an underdog wins the Kentucky Derby 🙂 But my professional observations tend to agree with Sam that the dire predictions about the likelihood of the entire model of live orchestral music (system, program, or whatever you want to label it) is as unsustainable as the prophets of doom predict is overblown.

      Regardless, I wholeheartedly agree that this is a much needed conversation and it is a shame to see it marred in this way.

  5. Notwithstanding that I’m one who’s done nothing but slam Mr. Sandow on my blog right from Day One and slam him hard, I have to say that his, um, strong defense of his position and his slamming of Mac Donald is simply a measure of his passion for his cause and, not incidentally, for his planned book as well. Mr. Sandow is wrong — perversely and destructively wrong — in almost all respects in just about everything he has to say concerning that cause, but I do understand his passion. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I’m a HUGE fan of Mac Donald’s writings on the arts (her politics are another story), her thorough decimation last year of the pretenses and conceits of the opera Eurotrash vandals was an absolute masterpiece, and should be read and taken to heart by all lovers of opera.


  6. Drew:

    I’ve just read Mac Donald’s response to the Sandow posts, and I couldn’t disagree more with your characterization that what she wrote is “a veritable smorgasbord of logical fallacies serving up copious helpings of ad hominem, tu quoque, hasty generalizations, appeal to authority, weak analogy, and false dichotomy. [And] for dessert, [she] dumb[s] it down a bit with some good old-fashioned name calling.” That might be a fair characterization of Sandow’s posts (and to be fair to you, you did in fact apply the above characterization to both Sandow’s and Mac Donald’s articles), but as per usual, Mac Donald’s response was measured, brilliantly argued, and 100% on-target correct. Mac Donald’s argumentation is precisely the kind of argumentation that’s so sadly and depressingly lacking in today’s mainstream critical writings. As I’ve written previously on S&F (in a July 2005 entry):

    “The generally debased, PC-contaminated, ultra-‘civilized’ crowd which today constitutes much of the mainstream classical music critical fraternity relishes nothing so much as engaging in discussion of classical music in ways more appropriate to genteel luncheon and dinner parties where it’s considered the height of gauche to argue in any manner that might upset the digestion of those seated at table. Arguing in that ‘civilized,’ genteel way makes members of this critical crowd feel they’ve been winning, intellectually probing, stimulating, and ‘with it,’ when all they’ve managed to be is glib; nattering on about nothing of real substance or pertinence while at the same time keeping hands clean, hair un-mussed, and digestion undisturbed — theirs and their readers’.

    “Well, I’ve a bit of news for this critically ‘civilized’ bunch: Your brother mainstream classical music critics of prior eras would have none of such ‘civilized,’ genteel pap, even in proper and oh-so-civilized Victorian England. When they discussed or wrote on matters musical they were not in the least afraid of dirtying hands, mussing hair, and disturbing digestion. They carried on their dialogues red in tooth and claw if need be as in those culturally more concerned eras we had in the mainstream media that healthy and vital mass of informed classical music critical ferment…at the heart of which was a critical fraternity made up of courageous and erudite classical music critics who felt that anything in music or music related worth arguing about was worth getting bloodied for.”

    Oh, to see that sort of glorious critical ferment resurface in our own era!


  7. I am not sure what this fight is really all about. Sandow says that classical music is in many respects in decline. Mac Donald says everything is fine and we’ve never had it so good. On the face of it, a disagreement about facts and their interpretation. Not something about which blood should be spilt, it seems to me.
    Sandow does not believe that music is facing inevitable extinction. That is pretty close to Lebrecht’s view but Sandow is using his diagnosis as a foundation for discussion about how music and its performance could be changed. That should be a very constructive discussion.
    Some, A C Douglas is one, reject pretty well any change. Our traditions must be conserved and protected they say.
    Now that is an old fight. The shock produced by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 and Dylan’s decision to go electric in 1965 are two examples of some music lovers’ resistance to change.
    Is that what the Sandow/Mac Donald battle is all about – whether music should change at all?
    That is a good thing to discuss – in a civilised manner. Whether things are in decline or wonderful is a pretty sterile argument, most commonly seen in election campaigns.

  8. Enjoyed your summary of the conflict. The button pushing quip got my first laugh of the day. I too think Mr. Sandow is compelled by his passions…and I too think his fears unfounded, and his usage of analogy terrible, as I commented on his recent ‘gone fishing’ post (a comment as yet unapproved) where he relates what he feels is a decline in sport fishing to the need for music education, to which I asked ‘how come it’s so crowded even on a weekday on my local waters?’ and ‘So hopefully classical music is the same…measure the numbers in some ways, and you find a constant erosion…and yet there’s a lot of quiet fisherman constantly trolling for something fresh.’

  9. I think, in short, that Mac Donald is arguing from the viewpoint of performances, whereas Sandow is arguing from the standpoint of audiences.

    Mac Donald argues that the product is experiencing a golden age, Sandow argues that the audience for the product is declining. These two are mutually exclusive if you take a snapshot in time: one is an observation in a specific moment in time; the other is a trend over time and a prediction for the future. So it’s only when you start looking into the future, you see that the two will affect each other.

    This qualitative and quantitative golden age of classical music cannot be sustained if the audience keeps declining.

    That’s the gist of a longer article I wrote on the debate:

  10. “This qualitative and quantitative golden age of classical music cannot be sustained if the audience keeps declining.”

    Paradoxically, it probably can…Sandow is measuring the ‘health’ of ‘classical’ music (or ‘the industry’, as his pomo mind construes it) by audience numbers, but audiences (traditionally understood) can in fact dwindle to zero without even remotely threatening the future of art music.

    How? Simply because recordings and digital libraries (whether private or public) can continue to expand whether or not concert halls exist any longer. There’s a huge number of private listeners who will continue to buy quality, affordable recordings (think Naxos) whatever else happens to the ‘industry’ – many who would never, or could never, visit a concert hall.

    Many halls may go, many orchestras too. But excellent composers, musicians and technicians will survive and, though it may be quite different, a ‘Golden Age’ may continue long after a ‘Golden Age’ has crumbled.

    • You contradict yourself here. You say the audiences can dwindle to zero, yet there’s a huge number of private listeners who will continue to buy. Those buyers are not an audience?

      I suppose you’re making the distinction between live attendance and recording purchases. But recordings don’t make orchestras any/much money. How do you suppose they pay the musicians if half of the revenue (50% ticket sales/50% donations) disappears?

      Without money you revert back to amateurism. No, we won’t see classical music disappear, but let’s not define Golden Age so loosely as to say that mere survival by excellent composer, musicians and technicians is deemed worthy of the Golden Age label.

  11. I have to agree with AC Douglas here, your rundown smacks a bit of pox-on-both-your-houses-ism. Mac Donald’s original article was written in perfectly good faith while Sandow’s hysterical response was totally out of proportion, starting with his desperate attempt to turn her casual mention of total orchestra growth in a magazine article into scientific malpractice. His whole response is like that: trying to discredit her arguments by insinuating that her way of making them is illegitimate. MacDonald’s response, while perhaps a bit peeved in tone, was focused on Sandow’s critique and challenging his characterizations of what she wrote. This is not a post written hastily in anger and shouldn’t be tarred as one.

    And just to be clear: I find virtually all of Mac Donald’s political and policy “analysis” to be aggravating and wrongheaded.

    • All things being equal, I would agree that stepping back and declaring everyone is wrong and there should be some sort of middle ground is, in and of itself, a cop-out. But in this case, I believe it applies.

      Granted, not Mac Donald’s first piece but her reply to Sandow which stopped right down to the the lowest common denominator he initiated his attacks.

      It would have been better for Mac Donald to take the high road, but it’s all hindsight now anyway.

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