Posts Tagged ‘American Idol’

Plato on Music Education: How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. v)

September 12, 2013

What is Plato’s remedy?  The ultimate cure is to take God, rather than man, as the measure of all things.[1]  Saying that does not help us very much today, however, because there is so little knowledge of God and maybe less shared opinion; anyone who claims to be following God can safely be assumed to be following his or her own fancy.  Plato’s God was a god who was rationally known and philosophically approached, not one who could be created out of literal readings of myths mixed copiously with political slogans and party loyalties.  Before God can be the measure of all things, we need to be the sort of people who can have a possibility of genuinely seeking God or recognizing God once we bump into him/her/it.

Suppose we take Plato’s prescription to heart.  In recent years I have noticed two trends in K-12 education:  an increased interest in “character education,” and a slashing of education in the arts.  But what would good, quality education in the arts, particularly music, give to our children?  They would learn that sometimes it takes time to achieve something.  It takes practice.  And it often takes cooperation with others; the first violinist or first trumpet or first soprano still needs the rest of us if the music is to be as full as possible.  They would learn to admire skill and talent more than auto-tune and YouTube fame, as their own efforts at making music revealed to them just how difficult good music is (and how easy and unimpressive the other sort is).  They would learn to accept the judgment of those who know.  They would be exposed to good music, the music of the ages.  By this I don’t only mean classical music, although this is often part of learning music for the simple reason that it is public domain.  When I was a child in public school, we learned folk songs.  These are simple tunes, easy for a child to understand; they are also part of our cultural heritage, the melodic thread connecting generations.  Now, children don’t know the songs children knew for years or centuries; their parents can instead buy “Kidz Bop” and teach their children to love the musical ephemera of the Top Forty list.[2]

Many children, of course, will not be able to fully participate in music of any sort.  Some are deaf, as I am becoming; some may just be tone-deaf.  Plato didn’t value the representational arts much, but perhaps we should.  Why is drawing in school only sanctioned for kindergarten?  What is gained by subjecting oneself to the discipline of working with hand and eye, learning in the process what is truly beautiful and truly difficult and impressive?  What Plato did value was dance.  Why is our physical education aimed at winnowing out the klutzes through the years, to produce a few star athletes for the high-school teams, instead of making all fit “to dance with head and limb”?[3]

Shows like American Idol are the esthetic versions of “Wikiality.”[4]  “Wikiality” is the idea that reality is whatever the rest of us agree is true.  If we all agree that Africa has more elephants than it did ten years ago, then it is true.  Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington owned slaves?  I have a right to say and believe whatever I want.    The problem is, however, that sometimes people die because of this attitude.  The whole “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida is based largely on a factual falsehood; it was intended to correct an injustice of a man arrested for killing a looter, except (1) the “looter” seems to have just been a random, lost, drunk construction worker, and (2) the man who killed him was never arrested; traditional “self-defense” law was all that was ever needed to resolve the case.[5]  As a result of this legislative exercise in Wikiality, Florida now has a law that is routinely used by violent criminals to avoid arrest.[6]  I will leave it to the reader to come up with more examples of laws passed and justified by factual untruths; whether you and I agree as to what are convenient lies and what are disputed truths, I don’t doubt that everyone agrees that politicians routinely reject reality and insert their own delusions.  And from the “Stand Your Ground” laws to the county commissioners who eliminated fluoride from the drinking water (apparently believing Dr. Strangelove was a documentary) to dozens of other cases, this sort of epistemological nihilism is not just an individual saying “I have a right to believe what I want;” repeatedly, people who believe what they want to believe rather than what can be shown to be true cause real harm to others, and impose their fantasies on the rest of us.[7] Think of it as the legislative equivalent of the Sanjaya Effect; instead of bad music being forced on viewers of American Idol while good singers are shunted off to obscurity, bad laws are forced on all of us while good policies are buried in partisanship and ideologically-driven relativism.

Did American Idol kill Trayvon Martin?  No, not really.  Did the disregard for any standards or truth beyond one’s own personal preferences, a disregard fostered by the social media/mass media melding of which American Idol is a prime example, lead to the creation of a bad law that ultimately contributed both to his death and to the circus that whirled around it?  Yes.


[1] Laws, book IV, 716 c-d

[2] “Toxic”?  Really?  That’s what you want on a kid’s album?  “Kidz Bop 6”

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 3, “On Old and New Tablets.”

[5] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but Story Has Been Distorted;”  Tampa Bay Times April 14, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/floridas-stand-your-ground-law-was-born-of-2004-case-but-story-has-been/1225164)

[6] Kameel Stanley and Connie Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free with Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Have History of Violence;” Tampa Bay Times July 21, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/criminal/many-killers-who-go-free-with-florida-stand-your-ground-law-have-history/1241378)

[7] Anna M. Phillips, “Pinellas County Commission Votes 6-1 to Return Fluoride to Drinking Water;” Tampa Bay Times November 27, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/pinellas-county-commission-votes-6-1-to-return-fluoride-to-drinking-water/1263426).

Plato on Music Education, pt. IV: “American Idol” and the corruption of America

September 6, 2013

     Is American Idol corrupting America, or it is revealing its corruption?  Which came first:  a corruption of esthetic standards that led to moral and epistemological nihilism, or an epistemological relativism that led to a collapse of first moral, and then esthetic standards?  Plato’s Laws suggests that the consumer-based, pleasure-driven culture is the root of all the problems.  People believe they are entitled to say, do and believe whatever they want.  And unlike Plato, I think that politically, they probably are so entitled; but morally, they are not.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous sermon against the dictatorship of relativism argues that anyone today who dares to suggest that there is such a thing as Truth risks the ire not only of the mob, but also of the cultured elite.[1]  We are supposed to be postmodern and pluralistic; the idea that some things are just plain true is seen as oppressive.  When I was in college, it was the Left that was generally heard denouncing “cultural oppression” and championing relativism; today, it is more often the Right that denounces the “liberal elite” with their charts and graphs and facts and fossils.  I don’t have to argue about the absurdity of allowing something like human-made climate change to morph from a scientific question to a political shibboleth.  Everything I would argue about the corruption of American society is illustrated in this one news story:  According to a recent political poll, Louisianan Republicans are uncertain whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush is more responsible for the poor federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.  In response to a 2013 poll:

Q2 Who do you think was more responsible for the
poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W.
Bush or Barack Obama?
George W. Bush ……………………………………… 28%
Barack Obama………………………………………… 29%
Not sure …………………………………………………. 44%[2]

So, is it just a matter of opinion which president was more to blame for the response to a natural disaster that occurred four years before Obama took office?  If anything is a matter of fact, shouldn’t it be something that occurred not only in the historical time/space continuum that we all inhabit, but even within the lifetime of most of us?  Yet, faced with the choice between factional, party-driven epistemology and agreeing with the obvious, the vast majority of Republicans are either unsure who was to blame for government actions that occurred in 2005, or are absolutely certain that they should blame someone who was nothing more than a powerless junior Senator at that time.  Sure, maybe they have a legal right to say something obviously false and stupid; but do they have a moral right?  If “morality” means anything more than “I like this,” then surely we have a moral duty to seek truth and to live according to that truth; even a consequentialist ethic must recognize that the likely results of choosing delusion over fact will be disastrous for everyone affected, eventually.

            Clearly, we are never going to adopt the legal system Plato advocates, where music is regulated by the state and only government approved tunes, rhythms and lyrics are allowed.  And I don’t think we would want to, either.  Plato was deeply suspicious of change, unless it was known ahead of time that it would be change for the good.  Like many Greeks, he admired Sparta’s unwavering adherence to the laws and customs of its founders.  But a few years after Plato’s death, Sparta and all the Greek poloi were conquered by the innovative, inventive, upstart Macedonians.  And a few years after that, Alexander the Great continued that innovative and ambitious spirit to sweep aside Egypt and Persia and more.  The paradox is that of course, as Plato said, all change is bad unless it is change from bad to good—-that is a tautology—-but prior to making the change, we cannot really know what will turn out for the best.

            But just because we embrace change and a more dynamic culture does not mean we need abandon all notion of truth and goodness.  And make no mistake, that is just what we have done.  We live in a world where so-called “conservatives,” the people who regard themselves (and are regarded) as defenders of “truth, justice and the American way,” freely and gladly wallow in relativism and nihilism.  There is simply no other explanation for why the vast majority of Republicans in Louisiana would deny that it was a Republican president who was in office in 2005 and therefore was responsible for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  They do not want it to be true; “man is the measure of all things;” therefore, it never happened.  But Plato would ask, how could it be otherwise?  How could any people who have practiced self-indulgence and thrown off first esthetic standards, then factual investigation ever do other than fall into full-blown epistemological and moral relativism?


[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, homily at the mass for the Papal Conclave, April 18, 2005 (http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html)

[2]In Louisiana, Clinton keeps up, Governor Falls”   August 21, 2013 (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/08/in-louisiana-clinton-keeps-up-governor-falls.html#more )

Plato on Music Education, pt. III: The Results

August 29, 2013

            If we accept the idea that pleasure is the only standard of goodness, where does this principle stop?  Plato says that if that is our standard in esthetics, it will become our standard in ethics as well.  One who becomes accustomed to enjoying bad music because it gives pleasure and rejects the notion that there might be standards will also come to reject the idea that there are standards of good or bad deeds, beyond the pleasure they give the doer.[1]  And conversely, one who learns that personal taste must be educated before one can judge beauty will also be prepared to learn that he or she must learn moral principles before he or she can judge virtue.

            And if subjectivism in esthetics leads thus to relativism in ethics, why should it stop there?  Plato argues that things may be valued because they have a “charm,” or for their rightness in some sense, or for their utility.[2]  For example, good food is tasty, but it is also nutritious.  To value food only for its pleasure-giving capacity would lead one to choose cake over fruit every time.  Sure, many of us do this; but do any of us really think this is wise?  We know that we must look to the objective truths of the world, and not merely to how we feel, if we are to judge correctly.  But the pleasure-driven person, by definition, does not do that.  He or she has thrown off all authority, and all self-control.  Without temperance, one becomes a fool as well as wicked, for one will reject unpleasant truths and unpleasing truth-tellers in favor of flatterers and comforting lies.  Moral subjectivism leads inevitably to epistemological relativism.  First beauty, then goodness, and finally truth all cease to have any meaning for the intemperate pleasure-seeker.

            I have no doubt that if Plato were alive today, he would be appalled by American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and all similar programs that allow (nay, encourage) the untutored mob to impose its tastes over the judgment of the knowledgeable.  No one meant any wrong in doing this.  It is just an inevitable result of market forces.  Television networks want to make money, and can do so with cheaply-made “reality” TV and contest programs more easily than with expensive, talent-intensive, quality programming.  They make money by selling commercial time; programs are just sugar-coating to get consumers to swallow the all-important commercials.  Making the programs more interactive is just another way to get people to tune in.  Furthermore, phone companies make money when people use their services to text their votes in.  But what is the effect?  In its extreme, we can call it the “Sanjaya Effect:”  a talentless, comically inept performer beat out many better artists based, allegedly, on votes cast ironically or out of pity or some other motive, rather than for any honest assessment of who was “best.”  Even the producers of American Idol were taken aback, and revamped the voting process to reduce audience input.  A show that was designed to elevate mob taste over expert judgment began to backpedal, as it discovered that not only does the mob not know what is good, it doesn’t even always care.

            Dancing With the Stars offers an even better illustration of the corruption of society.  In 2010, Bristol Palin advanced to third place, despite a manifest mediocrity.  Some voters directly stated that they voted for her out of pity or sympathy, saying things like, “Of course Erin’s a better dancer—she’s a professional.  But look at Bristol, just getting out there and trying her best.”  In Plato’s day, a judge who gave the prize to any but the best would be cursed by the gods; they swore before Zeus, but in today’s “competitions,” respect for standards or the spirit of sportsmanship has been replaced by self-appointed judges who vote whimsically—-or worse yet, factionally.  To Plato, the greatest danger to the state was factionalism; he had witnessed how party politics tore apart Athenian democracy, and his Laws warns repeatedly of the dangers of factionalism.  Party politics were no different than treason, in Plato’s view.  But many of the people who voted for Bristol Palin allegedly did so out of loyalty to her mother and the GOP, rather than to the rules of ballroom dancing (and yes, ballroom dancing is a competition and it has rules, just as much as ice dancing or gymnastics).  They would doubtless answer that, whatever their reasons, those reasons were theirs; they have a right to vote for whomever they wish, and besides, it’s all just a matter of taste and taste is personal:  “there’s no accounting for taste.”  Plato would reply that the rejection of true standards of artistic beauty in favor of politics or the sympathy of one mediocre soul for another is not “just taste;” it is a moral failure, a deliberate preference for the bad over the good.

To be continued….


[1] Laws book III, 699d-701c

[2] Laws, book II, 667-668