Obama: The Atonal President

[Still busy as heck, but couldn’t resist blogging this:] James Taranto has a hilarious musical metaphor for the 0bama administration: The atonal president.

“Audiences Hate Modern Classical Music Because Their Brains Cannot Cope”: an arresting headline from London’s Sunday Telegraph. This is the argument of a new book, “The Music Instinct” by Philip Ball:

Mr Ball believes that many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain.
In the early twentieth century, however, composers led by [Arnold] Schoenberg began to rally against the traditional conventions of music to produce compositions which lack tonal centres, known as atonal music.
Under their vision, which has been adopted by many subsequent classical musicians, music no longer needed to be confined to a home note or chord.
But such atonal music has been badly received by audiences and critics who have found it difficult to follow.

These modern compositions “confuse listeners’ brains,” Ball argues, and thus put them off. The idea may have broader implications:

Dr Aniruddh Patel, a researcher at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California, said that tonal music such as traditional classical music uses some of the same mechanisms needed for processing language.
“This may be one reason such music is congenial to the human mind,” he said. “It may be a reason why atonal music is more difficult when first encountered.”

Hmm, does this remind you of anything? Here’s a hint:

Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people.

That, of course, is President Obama, in his State of the Union Address, on the failure of ObamaCare. His excuse so closely parallels Ball’s explanation of modern music that you could have written essentially the same headline: “Voters Hate ObamaCare Because Their Brains Cannot Cope.”

But what’s striking about the Telegraph piece is that Ball and others who study this stuff go out of their way to avoid making any qualitative judgments. After explaining that Schoenberg’s music is “fragmented,” making it “harder for the brain to find structure,” Ball adds this disclaimer: “That isn’t to say, of course, that it is impossible to listen to, it is just harder work. It would be wrong to dismiss such music as a racket.”

Yet David Huron of Ohio State University describes such music this way: “The result is an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction.”

So the modern compositions sound disorderly and give the listener no pleasure. Is this not the definition of a racket? Ball seems to be suggesting that while these pieces are aesthetically displeasing because they are defective in form, some sort of underlying substance makes them worthy. But this is bunk. The value of music consists only in its appeal to the human mind.

On this point, the analogy to politics and policy breaks down. It is possible for a good policy to be inartfully presented (or, for that matter, for a skilled politician to make a bad policy attractive). The claim that ObamaCare is a good idea but Obama presented it badly is not inherently absurd, as is the claim that a piece of music is good even though it sounds bad.

Or is it? Obama is asking voters to believe that ObamaCare is a good idea and that the reason they think it is a bad idea is that he isn’t good at persuasion. But if he can convince them of that, he can convince them of anything–which means that the claim that he is bad at persuasion is wildly false.

The result is an overwhelming feeling of confusion. It would be wrong not to dismiss ObamaCare as a racket.

In both senses of the word 😉

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