Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Beauty of the Blogosphere

This is going to be one of those rare posts that does not deal directly with music, so skip if you are of a mind. I am travelling right now and one thing I come in contact with when I travel is the mass media. At home I read the blogosphere and various sites on the Internet that do include a couple of examples of the mass media: the Wall Street Journal, the Globe and Mail and occasionally the New York Times. But as I haven't watched television for over a decade apart from a few select series I watch either on DVD or the Internet (Game of Thrones, House MD, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) when I do encounter television I probably see it from a different angle than most people.

Usually when I am in a hotel I am not even tempted to turn on the television. I know what it's like. But last night, after I got home from the opera, I was curious about that monster battle between Real Madrid and Atlético so I turned it on. Either television has gotten worse, or, more likely, my perceptions are keener.

Now let me utter a couple of caveats first: there are some excellent shows on television. I have admired some of the very fine writing and direction ever since I lived in Montréal and watched Homicide: Life on the Street set in a very gritty Baltimore. Then there was Buffy (I even gave a couple of academic papers on the show in England a few years ago) and House MD and now the remarkable Game of Thrones. Sure, I suspect it of being morally bankrupt, but what a remarkable production with some outstanding acting. But these shows are the exception. Most television consists of the horribly dreary and enervating yet constantly kinetic routine of sports, talk, advertising, station announcements, more talk, melodrama, news, weather, more talk, more sports and, god knows, more advertising. This is the television experience.

It is a bit like a poker game. If you are sitting at the table and don't know who the mark is, then you are the mark! If you are sitting in front of the television, which is free and you are wondering who is paying for it, then you are paying for it. Just scanning through the channels last night for fifteen or twenty minutes I was horrified at what is going on. First of all, the constant sparkling graphics and jump cuts short circuit any possibility of rational thought. That, I suspect, is their purpose. Second, what you see and hear seems to be of three varieties: about a third of it is, I suppose, information of some kind. What is the temperature in Budapest? Who won the game? Financial reports and prognostications. Another third is supposed to be amusement: very fit and attractive people dressed like evil clowns posturing in rhythmic ways to a mechanical soundtrack with caterwauling. Yes, that was either a music video or an ad for something. There are also the melodramatic telenovelas as they are called in Latin America. But the last third is the most dangerous and insidious.

These are the shows that are supposedly the most serious, the ones that really inform us, the ones that are a "public service." Take for example one I saw either on CNN or the BBC International, it doesn't matter which. It was a panel discussion about the refugee crisis in Europe. It was a frank and cordial discussion, very civilised, which meant that every single person on the panel had exactly the same views. There is a terrible problem and it stems from the difficult and unsettled domestic conditions in places like Libya and the Sudan and so on. Africa is facing some real challenges and we have to find a way to help them. Another chimed in saying how absurd it was to think that a gunboat or two could be of any help. And so on. We could imagine other discussions about access to bathrooms for transgendered people, how Bernie Sanders might wrest the nomination away from Hillary Clinton and so on. All sorts of important issues. And in each case, through television (and newspapers, but less blatantly) we are told exactly how and what to think about each issue. There is never any discussion of what the real issues or problems are or what feasible solutions might include. Every crisis is prepackaged to fulfil a certain purpose and generate a certain kind of public opinion. This has been known for decades, of course, but it has gotten worse and worse.

Let's take a non-political example: every time you look at the financial news you see the same thing: projections and prognostications that are often wrong. The financial industry, a lot of which is devoted to offering advice on investments to small and large investors, is always, always telling us what the prospects are for this or that stock or mutual fund or where bond yields are going or what developing countries are likely to see real gains and so on. But Warren Buffett revealed the true state of affairs the other day when he said, quoting very loosely, don't bother with the hedge funds or the mutual funds or the stock advisors or even individual stocks. Just buy index funds or exchange-traded funds in a broad selection of sectors and forget about them. 80% (or so) of these rock n roll fund managers don't beat the market but they charge you big fees anyway. He is absolutely right, of course. But 90% of everything you read and hear about the market and investment is designed to convince you that this is not not true.

Most of what you see and hear on television, when it is not simply entertainment, is wrong, incorrect, a lie. These lies are meant to serve particular purposes, which is to indoctrinate the viewer as to the correct opinions about the world, politics, business and so on. But they are, of course, lies.

The idea that the news media offer anything that is remotely neutral has been untrue for several decades now. When it comes to politics they always have a chosen candidate that they are going to try and drag across the finish line now matter how repulsive he or she is. To pick a Canadian example, you cannot read a single issue of the Globe and Mail without reading how nasty, horrible and awful Stephen Harper (the ex-Prime Minister) was as a person and a politician. And how wonderful, sweet and honest is his replacement Justin Trudeau. Stephen Harper managed the affairs of Canada for over a decade and delivered a strong, healthy economy with no deficit to his successor. Who immediately ran a deficit. And you can be sure that however good or bad Trudeau's administration is, the Globe and Mail will praise him every day and twice on Saturday.

Which brings me to the blogosphere. What is different now is that there is another place you can go to read the news and hear opinions. The blogosphere, while it has sectors representative of all the dysfunction of the mass media, also has vast sectors that express every hue of political and other opinion. You can read specialized discussion of classical music here or libertarian political philosophy over at Samizdata or constitutional law over there or, really, whatever interests you. And you can seek out sites that take what is, from your point of view, a neutral approach or ones as biased as you like. There is no monoculture on the Internet.

Mind you, there are forces to whom this is a horrible situation and they are doing what they can to "fix" it, but so far, no luck. So let's hope this continues.

Whew, sorry for all that, but I just had to share. Now for some music. One of my favorite divertimenti by Mozart. This is the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with the Divertimento in F major, K. 138 written when Mozart was sixteen:


Christine Lacroix said...

Wow Bryan, you really needed to get that off your chest!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Really? This might seem like a stupid question but are there really vampires involved? And did you really give a paper on it? I found myself wondering whether you were just testing us to be sure that we're paying attention. Not that I'm a snob or anything, I mean my tastes in tv series are pretty unsophisticated, but you're turning out to be a more complex person than I thought. So much for stereotypes about musicologists!

Bryan Townsend said...

Buffy was a great show, much appreciated by academics. There were several international conferences. I went to the one at the University of Huddersfield in Yorkshire, but there were ones in the US as well. At the one I was at, there were scholars from Turkey to California. You should have a gander sometime.

I got rather riled up because it is so unfair. Young people growing up have no idea how distorted the views they are presented with are. If all the voters in a democracy are strongly indoctrinated, then democracy no longer functions. Which is why we are where we are now.

Christine Lacroix said...

Maybe I'll give Buffy a try. I really suspected you of joking. I don't have a tv either but occasionally watch tv series on my computer. There are some excellent ones out there. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Six Feet Under (if you like black). The thing is, here in France I have to buy the dvds or watch on streaming if I want original versions.

I read a weekly newspaper called Courrier International which is a collection of articles from around the world translated into French. You'd think it would be objective, but someone is choosing those articles so of course it's not completely. It's just a better chance to see what other newspapers in other countries are writing on the same issues. You can see what the Swedes are writing about Palestine, what the Japanese newspapers wrote about Obama's visit to Hiroshima, and sometimes read the New York Times in French! I particularly enjoy articles that have been translated into French from Arabic newspapers. You can tell from the translation that they have a very different style. It's online so check it out.

Have good day.

Christine Lacroix said...

By the way, about 15 years ago I was teaching in the north of France and the subject of tv programming came up. There was a sociologist in the group and she mentioned that this controversial new show that had just come out in France called Loft Story was a gift for sociologists and academics. It was the very first reality show in France and of course sparked a strong reaction. The sociologist told us that there was no way she'd have the funding to set up such a complex 'experiment'. Of course I went back to my hotel room and watched an episode. I found it fascinating. I could really understand how people could get hooked.

Bryan Townsend said...

Joking, moi?

Buffy is rather like an allegory. Joss Whedon, who also created Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, is probably the most creative mind in Hollywood. One episode of Buffy is done with no speaking, another as a dream, another as a musical. You might have a look at season four or five? Or any season, really. I just could not watch Breaking Bad, I heard the Wire was great and I watched the first season of Six Feet Under but I disliked all the characters!

Thanks for the tip about Courrier International. I think that European papers might just be a bit more informative, but I haven't looked at them a lot. The real problems, I think, are television and even more, sadly, public education both grade school and university where the bulk of the really intense indoctrination goes on.

I'll bet "reality" tv is a whole lot less real since the Kardashians got ahold of it!

Marc Puckett said...

I very much enjoyed watching Justin Trudeau storm from one side of the House to the other knocking people about as he went: and, you know, after a decade of nonsense like that, the media will still be attaching the epithet 'evil' to Mr Harper and will still be pretending that Mr Trudeau is (what was the expression used of Mr Obama?) a 'lightworker'?

I moved on from Moses und Aron, for the time being, to Mitridate Re di Ponto, ahem, which is much more suitable on this sunny holiday. I only had the minimal translations provided on Spotify available listening to the Schoenberg (perhaps one can find the entire libretto online but my cursory search wasn't successful); but it seemed clear to me that Aaron's enabling of the people's 'freedom' (libertinage-as-Freudian salvation) was opposed to the sort of freedom ('you will set the people free') conceived by Moses's God, Unseen and Unknowable-- quite how Schoenberg himself answered the questions that dilemma poses, I don't know. Moses und Aron is as much an intellectual problem, perhaps, as it is an opera, particularly if one is expected to try to understand the process of composition unfolding from the four trichords &c.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Marc, I agree. Understanding both the libretto and the music of the Schoenberg opera is an intellectual problem of a high order. Which is why it is interesting! But I would most certainly have enjoyed a Mozart opera more. The only one I have seen is Don Giovanni and that was from the pit as I was playing the mandolin part.

We're certainly getting a fresh introduction to the "madness of crowds" these days. With the media egging them on.