New Year, Old Problems: Rolex Man in Vienna

[03/01/2017]

As Gustavo Dudamel ushered in the New Year with the Vienna Phil, an increasingly familiar scenario unfurled. On the one hand, the music critics and fans in the global North debated the finer points of the Dude’s conducting style and his capacity to capture the distinctive lilt of the Viennese waltz, perhaps opening out (below the line) to the wider question of whether he really is the most exciting talent of his generation or rather the most hyped and heavily marketed. Although opinions were divided, as ever, the sheer quantity of exposure meant it was a good day for the brands of Dudamel and Rolex in the northern hemisphere.

On the other hand, in Venezuela and its diaspora, many Venezuelans were more interested in the big picture, and paid more attention to Dudamel’s major eve-of-concert interview (in Spanish here and English here) in which, once again, he refused to take a position on his country’s political crisis. On social media, The Face of Rolex took another hammering, as dozens or hundreds of his fellow countrymen abused him on every available platform, continuing the wave of negative reactions that has been slowly building since 2014 and grew notably towards the end of last year with each new evasion and equivocation (see for example here and here).

It’s tempting to wonder whether we should really be talking about Dudamel and El Sistema when Venezuela is going through such an acute crisis (in particular, the shortage of food). Yet the quantity and nature of the comments beneath all the articles that I saw online demonstrated that many Venezuelans think it’s an important topic, and one that is intimately linked to the wider crisis. So talk I shall – about Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 international word of the year, “post-truth.”

Post-truth

Not for the first time, I’m struck by the gulf between responses to Dudamel in the international press and Venezuelan social media. Most journalists in the global North (and their readers) seem completely oblivious to, or uninterested in, the strength of negative feeling towards Dudamel among a large proportion of Venezuelans. Or, to put it rather more bluntly, they seem little aware of or concerned with the truth.

Like many people, I have found the idea of post-truth intriguing and useful. And like quite a few, I have also questioned some of the formulations. Is it really so new? And who is responsible?

To generalize considerably, accusations of post-truth tend to be made by educated liberals (such as journalists and, yes, academics) towards lying politicians and the great unwashed/under-educated who believe them. But a few journalists and academics have pointed the finger back at their own professions, arguing that neither could be characterized as blameless or simply devoted to the pursuit of truth. And El Sistema provides a useful case in point.

The dominant narrative of El Sistema is a post-truth creation in the sense that it is not just flawed but also created and bolstered by individuals – liberal, educated individuals – who either have failed to do even the most basic research, or know that it is flawed and simply don’t care. The public story is to a significant degree a media construction, and as more information has become available in the last couple of years, many journalists have opted to ignore it, preferring to maintain their line rather than reassess their position in the light of new evidence. Journalists such as Mark Swed of the LA Times seem to regard their role as more akin to publicist than investigator.

The back-story to the big New Year Dudamel interview provides an illuminating example. Five days before the interview appeared in El País, the Spanish newspaper and other members of the Leading European Newspapers Alliance (LENA) announced that they had done a deal with Dudamel to disseminate classical music via the newspapers’ digital platforms. Coincidentally, the first activity would be the distribution – at a special price for readers of LENA – of the complete Beethoven symphonies, recorded by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, who will be touring them around Europe in March 2017. The article also includes plugs for El Sistema and Dudamel’s Los Angeles project YOLA.

Of course, the article is full of fine words about the conductor’s commitment to classical music education and the newspapers’ commitment to quality journalism and social justice, but behind lies a much simpler reality: this collective of major newspapers has agreed to promote Brand Dudamel (and his recording, and his tour) rather than investigate the complex story behind it. So Javier Moreno’s interview in El País, despite coming at a critical time for both Dudamel and his country, is inevitably a soft-soap affair that is little more than a plug for Rolex Man. Moreno touches gently on politics, yet misses all the information that’s been circulating publicly for the last couple of months about how the Venezuelan government regards and funds El Sistema as an arm of the Bolivarian Revolution, meaning that Dudamel is a government representative whether he admits it or not. This kind of fundamental omission is why social media is the place to go if you want to know what’s really going on within this field. Let’s hope a good journalist or two changes that in 2017.

In the advocacy sphere, meanwhile, Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth have created a monument to post-truth: a North American Sistema cottage industry that systematically sidelines the most relevant research and deliberately ignores key information. In this respect, they are good students of El Sistema, which has long adopted the post-truth approach that statements don’t need to be demonstrably true – they just need to sound good.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, post-truth is an adjective “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” This is El Sistema in a nutshell: as the program’s former head of Institutional Development and International Relations, Bolivia Bottome, once put it,

we don’t show numbers—we do a lot of large showcase demonstrations to fundraise. We sit people down and make them listen to a huge orchestra of children playing Mahler 2 and then they fund us.

El Sistema embraced post-truth long before 2016, then.

This panorama presents a contradictory picture for a researcher. On the one hand, the flaws of the post-truth Sistema narrative are there for anyone to see, as long as they have internet access, a mouse, and a reasonable command of Spanish. On the other hand, few people seem to care that much whether the official stories are true or not – it’s all about the feelings of goodness they generate. It’s hard to know what to do as a researcher in a post-truth world: digging up new information may be relatively pointless if ignoring inconvenient truths is the new normal.