February 11, 2013

Believe Nothing

To this day there is no applause at the end of a Parsifal performance in Bayreuth.
You will find that statement in a NYT article about the Met's new production of Parsifal, which premieres this coming Friday night. It's new to the Met, that is; the production was first performed at Lyon in March of last year.

The Times includes the fact that "there is no applause at the end of a Parsifal performance" to underscore the article's point that Wagner intended the work to be "a festival for the consecration of the stage," and that Wagner wanted, in effect demanded, that the atmosphere during Parsifal performances be profoundly "worshipful."

There's just one problem with the contention that there isn't any applause. It is flatly untrue, including at Bayreuth. See the video of the conclusion of a recent Bayreuth performance included here; very loud applause begins immediately at the end of the opera. (There is a tradition of not applauding at the conclusion of Act I of Parsifal, a tradition which is often, but not always, observed. No such practice applies to the conclusions of Acts II and III.)

I think you will agree that this is a very simple, straightforward issue, one easily checked for accuracy. The Times story was published on February 7; it still does not have any correction notice. Many people in the opera world, including many people at the Met and the Times, read Parterre Box. Surely the NYT has been informed of the error. It appears we're to conclude that the Times simply doesn't give a damn.

Most of us know the argument that, when we see or hear a news story about a subject with which we are very familiar, we will be astonished at how much the "news" story gets wrong. This is especially true whenever we speak of a story in which we ourselves are involved. Just a month or two ago, I read a story in the NYT which had a correction notice at the end. I wish I'd saved the link, but I didn't. I remember it because the notice corrected two or three points in the article -- and those two or three points happened to be the most critical points of fact in the entirety of the piece. It was truly hilarious. ("On Friday, the Ritz Theater collapsed, killing three people." Oops: it wasn't Friday, the theater didn't collapse, and no one was even injured. It was kind of like that.)

I mention this (and not for the first time here) to emphasize yet another ludicrous aspect of our heated discussions about particular "news" stories, especially those involving the government -- and within that general category, especially those involving matters of "national security." A huge percentage of what we read and hear in all such stories is complete bullshit. A recent example I've discussed in detail is Petraeus's resignation, allegedly because of an affair (and follow the links to read my reasoning). Any story which relies almost entirely on statements from interested (and self-interested) government officials (including any governmental agency you care to name) is bound to contain lies and distortions from beginning to end. Add to that the inability and/or refusal of our leading news sources to check even the most basic of non-controversial "facts" for accuracy, and you have a recipe for an unceasing diet of illusory, fictitious, distorted, misleading, and distinctly unhealthy garbage.

Yet we continue to talk about these stories as if they represent the "truth" to some significant degree. In one sense, that's understandable; what else are we to go on? We can hardly investigate stories, especially those of the gravest significance, on our own. So we make do with what we're given.

But we need always to remember the nature of what it is we're provided. Particularly when the story deals with "sensitive" political matters -- the Obama administration's Murder Program, for example -- virtually nothing we're told is likely to be accurate. I hasten to add that what we are told is more than bad enough, and it's not simply bad: what we have been told about the Murder Program (as only one example) is horrifying, abominable, loathsome, and unforgivable. We can only imagine what the full truth might be. Since what we already "know" is awful enough, I wouldn't blame someone if he chose not to imagine what a fuller version of the actual truth might be (assuming he offers a strongly negative, condemnatory judgment about what we appear to "know").

I view every news story I read or hear as, at best, providing clues. (My reaction to The New Yorker story press release about the killing of Bin Laden captures my perspective with regard to what I regard as a particularly outrageous example. I summarized my view of the events in question this way: "I'm prepared to accept that something happened that night in Pakistan. Probably. Maybe. And absolutely nothing else at all.") To weigh and evaluate those clues, and in our effort to determine what they may indicate, we must bring to bear our knowledge and understanding of political theory and practice, culture, history, psychology, and still other elements, depending on the specifics. Our own intellectual honesty will be a major factor in determining how fruitful our analysis will be.

With regard to that last point: to the factors identified above concerning the extremely dubious quality of what passes for "news," we must add one more. And that is this, to state it plainly: the majority of people don't care if the "facts" they rely on are correct. They simply do not care. We encounter this all the time in discussions with acquaintances about every subject in the world; we see it every day in statements offered by those engaged in politics (either as politicians or as commentators). And if the Times doesn't give a damn about getting a numbingly simple matter such as Parsifal performance practice correct, how likely do you think it is that the Times or any of the "leading figures" they constantly rely on (in politics, or the arts, or science, or, or, or...) will acknowledge that the "facts" they use to justify their stance on unlimited assassination, or the next war, are not facts at all?

No, they're not going to tell you; in many cases, they won't admit the truth even to themselves. Even if they are aware of the errors that underlie their conclusions, they will never acknowledge them. So we're on our own, and we have to do the best we can with the material we have.

And much, probably most, of that material is pure, 100% bullshit.

So start here: Believe nothing. Carefully assemble those clues you can, and then proceed with the greatest caution of which you are capable. And do your best not to kill anyone while you're at it. How much better the world would be, if only everyone would adopt that approach. You would think that not killing people wouldn't be so difficult. But as we must forlornly acknowledge, you would be wrong to think that. Alas.