Saturday, February 4, 2017

Truth Trumped: NPR vs. the Parrot on Presidential Prevarications

A little philosophy, a bit of controversy, a smidgeon of memoir... in short, another one of my 3000-word essays passing itself off as a blog post, and no more up-to-the-minute than the others. But while one might uncharitably call this blog "The Untimely Wisdom of H.A. Monk" - or perhaps "The Tardy Parrot's Soapbox" ("Anton's Antiquated Articles" seems a bit hypercritical) I do at least insist that the issues we deal with are of more enduring interest, and therefore addressed in more depth, than the average bit of 140-character fluff that even serves as "news" for major media these days.

It may have reached your innocent ears that President Donald Trump, has – prepare yourself – been accused of stating things that are not true. Naturally, one would infer that either the man has been misinformed at times, or else he would not register as an object of interest in front of Diogenes lantern.

Some news organizations, including the NY Times, have taken to using the word "lies" to characterize some of Trump's statements. This, mind you, is the same staid news organization that refuses to print the word [expletive], even as a direct quote, when hundreds or thousands of other media outlets do so. If the Times can refer to the man's "lies", you would think, so could any other news outlet that is not some mainstream conservative rag.

Not so fast. Recently, the illustrious National [semi-]Public Radio, refuge of liberals across the nation from the superficial chatter of commercial radio, was embroiled in controversy over an instruction from news chief Michael Oreskes not to use the word "lie" to characterize Trump's, er, "alternative facts", because we lack the ability to known if Trump had an "intent to deceive" when he uttered them.

Here comes the memoir... It has been my great fortune to occasionally be able to share with my devoted readers some personal experiences with people in the news, and here once again I note such a glorious opportunity. I went to school with Mike Oreskes for six years, through junior high and then high school. He was in my circle of friends, but to call him a "friend" unequivocally would be way more open to question than calling Trump a "liar" unequivocally.

Among other things, Mike at some point became close friends with someone who I and others regarded as the class bully, a diminutive but pugnacious individual named Louis Nathanson. I vaguely recollect having written about this before, so I won't go into every detail, just the relevant ones, as I recall them. (Fact-checkers please note: a memoir is a memoir, not a research project; its guiding ethical principle is to state the facts as you truly remember them. I aver that what I have to say passes that test.)

One day I was sitting at a table in the lunchroom with a group of people I knew. To my right, perhaps not my immediate right but nearby, was Michael. Further to the right was Louis Nathanson. There was some movement back and forth as people got up for one reason or another. Now, Louis had taken to harassing me some time before this, but the harassment up to that point was too petty and stupid for me to recall any of the details. But as I sat there that day I suddenly found myself eating a piece of frosted cake that I did not order. I was not only eating but breathing it, for someone had passed behind me and jammed it into my face. I looked around to see Louis Nathanson taking a seat at the far right end of the table.

How is any of this relevant to Donald Trump and his prevarications? (Is that word okay with all you J-school graduates?) Well, after wiping the butter cream and crumbs off my face as best I could, after some consideration I got up with a container of milk in my hand and headed toward the right to return the compliment. Before I could get to Louis I had to pass Mike. As I said, I'm not going to give every detail, just the relevant ones. Oreskes saw me about to pass and asked me a question: "Did you see who did that to you?" I was taken aback. Did I "see" something as it happened behind me, through the eyes in the back of my head, as it were? What was the point of this rhetorical question, when there was literally only one person in the entire school, to say nothing of the table, who would commit such an unprovoked act of hostility against me? I can't recall my exact answer, but Mike's next question was, roughly: "Well, if you didn't see it, where are you going with that milk?"

Like I said, I'm leaving out details, but I did not end up confronting Louis, and went to the Vice Principal instead. Apparently my cleanup job had been far from complete, for he looked at me and asked, "Who did this to you?" Louis was called to his office, lied (with intent to deceive, indeed!) and was given nothing more than a warning, though he was a known quantity to the administration by that point.

Perhaps between the ages of 13 (roughly) and 62 people don't change in certain ways. No, I'm not suggesting that Mike would have any sympathy with bullies today; hopefully a few decades of consciousness-raising about that issue has generated at least a moderate sense of contrition about his relationship with Louis Nathanson, which went far beyond the lunch table. But his demand for an impossible, and under the circumstances unnecessary, verifying observation on my part seems to match point for point the demand for an impossible, and unnecessary, verifying view into Trump's intentional states. In both cases, an unfortunate dodge is being made to protect something, at the expense of raw honesty.

Now, I have done my due diligence and listened to a variety of recent statements and interviews with Oreskes, and I have to say that overall he does not sound like someone who is trying to whitewash Trump's bullshit (more on that word later). He sounds like someone caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to protect the objectivity, such as it is, of a (partially) publicly funded media organization that is at maximum risk of losing its public funding under the current administration. He made a telling comment about the use of the word "liar" when he suggested that it turns people off: "I think the minute you start branding things with a word like 'lie,' you push people away from you." As the Daily Kos commented, "Oreskes appears to confuse truth telling with maintaining audience share and/or White House access". Circle the wagons, try to avoid the inevitable. Trump has been quite clear about wanting to defund everything from NPR to the NEA. Put a boor in the White House and a bunch of rightwing zealots just about everywhere else in D.C. and culture is on the chopping block for sure. Finding watered-down substitutes for "lie" ("untruth" etc.) will not change that, though you have to kind of sympathize with the last-ditch effort.

But that does not settle the philosophical question, does it? What is with this "intent to deceive" condition? Some people have become irate at the very suggestion of this criterion, alleging that it makes "lying" an empty concept, since intentions are by nature private. This is a misunderstanding.

First, the "intent to deceive" clause is a necessary component of the definition of lying. Why? Consider a weaker definition: "Making a statement that is in fact false, and which you know to be false." That sounds like a lie, right? And it dispenses with intent entirely. But is it sound? Of course not; otherwise every author of a fictional work, and every actor as well, would be a liar. "Well," you want to say, "these are secondary uses of language; if you limit the definition to ordinary communications it's fine." But there are various uses of language in which adherence to factual truth is not a norm, but which we don't characterize as lying. True, sometimes you are just playing a role. But you may be trying something out without committing to it. You might say something false because you want the other party to deny it. There might be a prior understanding between two parties that some falsehoods will be uttered. (Think, for example, of the possible verbal communications during certain kinds of consensual sex acts.) A metaphor is a literally false statement that is intended to convey something true. None of these uses of language involve the intent to deceive, and they are not lying.

Lying is a moral category. Under the right circumstances you can state falsehoods without crossing any moral lines. This is why the "intent to deceive" condition is necessary. There are, to my knowledge, just two extended philosophical works on lying:
one is called Subjects of Deceit: A phenomenology of Lying. Though the book seems to do without a definition of lying, you can already tell from the title that it takes lying to involve an intent to deceive. The other, more standard work is Sissela Bok's Lying, in which you find on page 13: "I shall define as a lie any intentionally deceptive message which is stated." The same requirement (re: lying) is offered, in passing, in Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit". Thus there appears to be no philosophical source on lying that fails to find "intent to deceive" to be a necessary part of the definition.

It is true that you could avoid it by coming up with ad hoc exceptions for every instance of false utterance (or inscription) that is not normally called "lying"; or with a global rule like "we will call every use of language that involves stating falsehoods without the intent to deceive 'role-playing'". The former method loses any force in the definition due to the need for ad hoc exceptions, and the latter of course begs the question against the intent condition.

So does this mean that after all is said and done, the wingèd blogger agrees with his old pal of sorts? (I mean, we did spend many a better moment playing touch football, and participating in protests against the war in Vietnam, among other things.) Not just yet. What most of the critics have overlooked so far is that determining "intent" is not, in our normal use of language, a matter of peering into someone's brain, having them submit to psychological testing, or the like. It is a social judgment that is made on a variety of grounds, based on the circumstances. Let NPR have the OED definition with its "intent to deceive". Who says we can't be certain, within reasonable parameters, of Trump's intent?

Let's consider the circumstances: he certainly has access to the facts; and while no intelligent life form would accuse him of being a genius, he is certainly capable of understanding the basis of the facts and reasoning involved in, say, the crowd estimates at his inauguration or why illegal voters could not alter an election result by nearly 3 million votes. Furthermore, he has an interest in stating the facts to be other than they are. Rational understanding plus self-interest: that sounds very much like evidence of an intent to deceive, don't you think?

Ah, but what if he actually believes his own false statements? For you have to disbelieve your own statement in order for it to be a lie. Recall the inadequate definition we began with: it included the condition that you know that your claim is false. This is not sufficient for a definition, but it is a necessary component of it. But if you know it is false, then you also believe it is false. (Statements of the form "I know that P but I don't believe it" are characterized as "Moore's Paradox", after the early 20th century philosopher G.E. Moore.) So if you believe it is true then it can only be an error, not a lie.

People who truly believe what is generally known to be false, or disbelieve what is known to be true, and have no special basis or unique insights that account for their atypical viewpoints, are generally called either stupid or delusional. Again, I don't number Trump among the MENSA crowd. But, on the other hand, it is a frightening thought that our President is delusional. It is more frightening than the thought that our President is a liar, or our President is a hypocrite, or our President is a bullshit artist. For if he is truly delusional he cannot be any of those things, since he does not have the grasp of reality that is required to be confounding it in these ways.

So is he delusional? He is certainly an unbelievably narcissistic individual, who will grasp at any opportunity whatsoever to promote himself and build himself up. The photos show that no one came to your party? They're doctored. The results show that you lost the popular vote badly? The voters were illegal immigrants. Scientists all agree that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases? It's a Chinese hoax to gain energy dominance over us. Your statements about the security agencies have damaged your relationship with them? The press made it all up! Does Trump actually believe this nonsense? It does, at times, sound very much like he is delusional.

I am inclined to say that Donald Trump has a set of core beliefs about himself and the world and that not only does he continue to believe them in the face of massive contrary evidence, but he is susceptible to almost any argument in support of them, however absurd, making all the ancillary facts connected with this worldview highly resistant to contrary evidence. If not completely delusional on every count, he is open to being deluded, and in fact solicits self-deluding input from his inner circle, who graciously comply with "alternative facts".

So here is the challenge for Michael Oreskes and NPR, and for every other news organization as well: if Trump is not lying he is surely delusional, and that is what you should be writing. You don't want to say he "lied' about the election (and so many other things... we have all lost count) - so then say he is "deluded" about it. You don't want to say he is a "liar"? Then say he is "delusional". In doing so, you are making a judgment that in fact he does not exhibit an "intent to deceive" and in fact believes the utter garbage that he spews forth. If you think it is more likely that he does not believe it, then what do you think he is doing other than trying to deceive people? Come up with a more credible hypothesis than the one that says he is lying to deceive people so he can continue his self-aggrandizing trip through history.

Now let me address one last issue. I suggested that my childhood incident with Mike Oreskes demonstrated a willingness on his part to back up some closely held position with a demand for contrary evidence that is necessarily not available, and that this same trait is shown in his recent policy decision not to call Trump a liar. But then I also said that there actually is reasonable evidence that Trump had "intent to decieve" in many of his false claims. So is the problem simply that Mike doesn't realize the evidence is available? Unfortunately, he later "clarified" NPR's position by suggesting that evidence of Trump's intent would be made clear if a falsehood was repeated often enough. But Trump has every bit of information he needs in the first place to see that his statements are false. Repetition does not have anything at all to do with intent here. So rather than adopt the straightforward position that Trump already had available all the relevant facts and arguments at the outset and is therefore simply a liar, he has put up yet another illogical demand, in the alleged service of journalistic integrity. Trump stated the birther garbage about Obama over and over again in the face of direct contrary evidence; is he a liar or isn't he? The rest of his bullshit is equally suited to an Orwellian world where black is white; do we have to wait a few years to say so?

Let me close with one more bit of philosophical linguistics. Harry Frankfurt, whose essay "On Bullshit" I cited above, is a philosopher for whose philosophy in general I am not overburdened with sympathy, and his philosophical analysis of the term "bullshit" is one of several reasons for that. But while his bullshit project is flawed, it does have at least the merit of courageously plunging into the obscure world of deceitful discourse. Since I have used the term "bullshit" more than once here to describe Trump's statements, one question we might ask is whether anything more or less than this is needed to accurately portray the ethical qualities of his utterances.

Frankfurt's definition of "bullshit" turns on the idea that the bullshitter's discourse displays a lack of concern for the truth – not that he necessarily lies, or necessarily intends to deceive us about reality, but he intends to deceive us about the fact that he accepts no responsibility to accurately reflect reality. Now I am not convinced that there is a univocal use of "bullshit", nor even that the particular use that Frankfurt discusses is a paradigmatic one. But insofar as there is a type of utterance that is simply unconcerned with accuracy, is this the term we should be using to describe Trumpspeak (or Trumptweet)? Is he neither an outright liar nor a deluded  ignoramus but a bullshitter who will say what is true or what is not so long as it serves his purpose? 

Here I would say we meet one of those crossroads in language where we can have no clear indication that one way is better than the other. For given that what serves Trump's purposes is almost always at odds with reality, if we accept that Trump is willing to deceive us when it is in his interest to do so, it seems largely an academic matter whether we say that he is unconcerned with the truth – that he bullshits us, in Frankfurt's restricted sense - or that he lies to us. For it is by nature impossible to determine whether someone whose worldview is so utterly divergent from scientific, historical and social fact intends to deceive us about the facts or is unconcerned with them. Frankfurt's bullshitter must be a person whose concept of the real diverges only in part from socially acceptable knowledge claims. But Trump time and time again conveys as information about the world what most rational people take to be clear falsehoods. This, as I said above, suggests a man who is either a sadly deluded mental incompetent, or a garden variety liar.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bruckner Rocks Carnegie

As those who have endured my opinionated rants on rock music have known for a long time, I maintain a slightly fanatical loyalty to artists, groups and albums that I considered underappreciated by mainstream opinion. Near the top of my list of all time favorites come rock bands that may be nearly unheard of (e.g., Nektar), or well-known for a few pop singles but unrecognized as the top notch artists I think they are (The Fixx, 10cc). The same goes for my take on individual albums, singer-songwriters, etc.

It is not much different when it comes to classical music. For example, being a violinist, I keep a mental list of violin concerti that I know well and often play recordings of, but which are all but completely neglected by touring violinists. It saddens and sometimes infuriates me to see the repertoire of concert pieces narrowed to a handful of big name composers (the canon would be Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Bruch and Sibelius) with maybe another small handful occasionally thrown in to be "adventurous" (every once in a while someone decides to haul out a concerto by Elgar, Shostakovich or Bartok). It's not the place for it, but I could probably name 20 other concerti that are fully worthy of frequent concert performance. At least in New York - and outside Europe there are few better places from which to observe - not one of them is played even once a decade.

The feeling of great historical-aesthetic injustice extends to other parts of the classical music canon as well. In particular, since my teens I have felt such a deep connection to the music of Anton Bruckner that it seems we must have shared a soul at some point. (As well as a name.) I own multiple recordings of most of his symphonies, the Te Deum, other choral works and even some of his chamber music. Sadly, for whatever reason, the classical music world does not have the same affection for Bruckner that I do. Not that recordings of Bruckner's music are hard to come by; he has had his champions, for sure. But performances are rare. I have managed to catch a performance of the 3rd Symphony (Masur, NY Phil) and the 6th (can't recall who) and I believe, though I can't remember the exact occasion, that I have heard his two most popular symphonies, the 4th and the 7th, at some point or other. But entire seasons of most major U.S. orchestras can go by without a single Bruckner performance.

The worst of the situation is that two of his greatest symphonies, the 1st and the 9th, are hardly ever played; and of these, the 1st is the more sorely neglected. It has been said that Bruckner was the first composer to take up the challenge of Beethoven's 9th. Perhaps that is an exaggeration - there were many romantic composers before him who helped expand the vocabulary of romanticism. More apt would be the statement that he was the first to take up in symphonic form what Wagner and Liszt had created through the opera and the tone poem. In any case, in his first symphony (completed in 1866) you hear for the first time the new vocabulary of high romanticism melded with the formal structure of the romantic symphony.

For me it is like the sounds come directly from the earth itself: deep, awe-inspiring, complex, hauntingly beautiful - in a word, sublime. Once, travelling by car through the hills of Austria, I felt like I was surrounded by a Bruckner score. If nature could speak, it seemed, it would be singing Bruckner.

There have been few greater advocates of Bruckner than Daniel Barenboim, and last night he began the first (almost) complete Bruckner symphony cycle in my lifetime, at Carnegie Hall. Each of the symphonies except the 8th is to be preceded by a performance of a Mozart piano concerto, played and conducted by Barenboim. I will not tell you what I spent on the ticket, but having no love for that hall with its extreme ticket prices, I will mention that I spent about an extra $30 for a "keyboard side" seat on the left, only to find that the keyboard was placed parallel to the stage. Shameful bilking of music lovers in that place. But back to the concert.

Barenboim paired the first "official" Bruckner symphony with the last Mozart piano concerto. The latter, unlike the last Mozart Symphony (for example) is a quieter and more subtle piece than many of the earlier ones. Barenboim was entirely equal to its silky textures and delicate phrasing, giving a performance that was as masterful and nuanced as it was understated. It is hard to imagine a better one, and the audience responded by calling him back for several bows.

How interesting, then, that he gave the Bruckner every bit of gusto and power that it deserved, pulling off, with the help of the top notch musicians of the Staatskapelle Berlin, a performance that did all it could to make amends for the years of neglect  this symphony has endured in New York. The opening of the first movement (which surely must have inspired the opening of Mahler's much more famous 6th Symphony) progresses from gracefulness to raw power in just a few bars. By the time we hear it again in the recapitulation an entire world of new sonorities has unfolded. The delicate second movement was brought off perfectly, no small task given the individual refined contributions needed from so many members of the orchestra. 

But the real fireworks in this piece come in the Scherzo, which all but lifts you out of your chair and makes you want to pump your fist in the air like some catapulting performance by a Seattle grunge band. This would be the first of numerous Bruckner Scherzos that follow a similar pattern, but it is clear that he has already perfected the form. It is tough for the last movement to live up to this level of energy, but Barenboim took no prisoners. While the rest of the performance seemed to be inspired by the early Jochum recording in sonority and tempo, here Barenboim led the orchestra on a frenzied chase that did as much as possible to keep the energy up right through the dramatic close.

The audience on its feet, conductor and orchestra were kept standing and bowing for quite some time, with individual kudos to the horns and the outstanding timpanist (the program lists two, Torsten Shönfeld and Dominic Oelze) until a no doubt exhausted Barenboim, age 74, smiled and waved what was clearly "goodbye".

The series continues tonight with the 2nd symphony, the only one I can't say I know very well. I am  bit disappointed they are not going to do the so called "nullified" symphony, known as Symphony #0; this excellent early symphony was officially withdrawn by Bruckner after harsh critical commentary, but the man was notoriously thin-skinned and obsessed with perfecting and revising what were already brilliant works, so there is no good reason to think withdrawing it was a good artistic decision. If harsh critical reviews were always to be respected we probably would not have a good chunk of today's standard repertoire.

I hope I can find a way to get back for more of the series. Perhaps for the equally sublime 9th. But already a major gap in my listening experience has been filled.

It could be a great week, in spite of today's scheduled political event, which once again brings us from the sublime back to the ridiculous.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Approximately 10 Albums That Influenced Me Most

I would not bother naming the same 10 Beatles albums that influenced everyone I know as a teenager if those were the 10 albums that influenced me most as a teenager, but they are not, and since no one actually says how they were "influenced" by the 10 albums they say influenced them most as teenagers I will say how my 10 albums actually influenced me.

P.S. I turned 13 in November 1967.
P.P.S. Most of the albums that influenced me most as a teenager were not released when I was a teenager
P.P.P.S It is all but impossible to find listings of classical music releases by year. About 50% of my choices might be classical if I could do so.

1. Dylan - John Wesley Harding. Already wanted to be a folksinger and songwriter. This helped seal the deal.

2. Led Zep - Led Zeppelin. I think of summer camp. I think of my one year of slightly beserk glory as a kitchen aid. I think of lying on a bed of pillows, in an area enclosed by a bar in the counselor's porch, listening to this album on a reel-to-reel, with headphones. I think ecstasy with a small "e".

3. Grand Funk - Closer to Home. My first romance unfolded to this set of songs. Nuff said?

4. Traffic - Either John Barleycorn or Low Spark. They capture the plangent feeling of my sophomore year in college, to the point where merely thinking the first line of the first song in my head ignites an emotional spark that has its own, lifelong unique quality.

5. Joan Baez - One Day at a Time
Joni Mitchell - Chelsea Morning
Judy Collins - Colors of the Day
Laura Nyro - Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
That counts as one album, sorry. If you don't understand that then you certainly won't understand what a haunting female vocal can do to the heartstrings of a lonely teenager.

6. Grateful Dead - Live Dead. Instant Deadhead.

7. Pharoah Sanders - Karma. I discovered modern jazz when I heard this in a dorm room, and not to long afterward sat a few feet from him as he wailed away at a Chicago club. Life has never really been the same since.

8. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On. After years of diverging audiences and tastes, suddenly black music/white music became a meaningless distinction again, a fine thing for a white kid who grew up as a minority in a black neighborhood.

9. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King. This will have to stand in for a half dozen or so other progressive rock albums that more or less permanently changed my listening habits. The others being by the usual prog suspects, but put Nektar's Remember the Future near the top of the list.

10. David Bowie - Space Oddity. No matter how eloquent we may wax about our heroes (pun I guess intended) there are only a couple of life-changing artists out there. Rock star or Blackstar or movie star, here is a guy who I sunk my teeth into and never let go of, even seeing his performance in The Elephant Man on Broadway. Influenced me and a zillion others by clinging tenaciously to the proposition that rock is an art form. Stayed ahead of his time right to the end