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Jazz 03/06/2019

A Note From Brad Mehldau On "The Prophet Is A Fool"

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New York, NY (Top40 Charts) Brad Mehldau has written this essay regarding his song "The Prophet Is a Fool," from his new album, Finding Gabriel, and the video for it featuring animation by Dima Drjuchin, to "explain a bit of the personal emotions and politics that went into it."

First, a hearty thanks to everyone who's checked out Finding Gabriel, and also thank the incredibly talented group of people who participated in the project: The musicians Ambrose Akinmusire; Sara Caswell; Chris Cheek; Kurt Elling; Joel Frahm; Mark Guiliana; Noah Hoffeld; Gabe Kahane; Snorts Malibu; Lois Martin; Charles Pillow; Becca Stevens; Michael Thomas; John Davis, who recorded and mixed the project; Alex Deturk, who mastered to CD and vinyl; Nolan Theis, who tracked as well and took the photos; Todd Carter, assistant engineer; Robert Edridge-Waks, who created the video for "O Ephraim"; and last but certainly not least, Dima Drjuchin, who did the animation for the cover and videos, and created the videos for "The Garden" and "The Prophet Is a Fool."

I'd like to say here: I am sorry if I don't respond to comments on this Facebook page. I'd be too self-conscious. I became a performing musician give or take 30 years ago, before there was as much opportunity to connect directly with people through social media on the web. I guess I'm kind of a Luddite, set in my ways. I have total respect for artists who can rock social media and carry on with their creative output, and don't think there's a right way or wrong way to be an musician/artist more generally in-the-world—it's just a matter of habit. Maybe I'll change down the road…

But I'd also like to say: I really enjoy reading the comments to get a vibe on how all everyone is responding to my music, both positive and negative. They give me a perspective, if not on how I should play music, then definitely how I can communicate it to an audience: how much context to give, how much to lead the listener or not lead the listener, and how what I imagined ahead of time might be that listener's response is different from the response I get. That's valuable for me. So: sincere thanks for that, to everyone who's shared comments.

I think I wanted to share that because this latest release, with Dima's video, is definitely more in the "I feel this way; don't you?" zone—more leading the listener. Caveat emptor.

Also on the gratitude tip—I really appreciate the posts on the other Facebook page. With the YouTube stuff that people post, it's gratifying and interesting to see what goes up and how others respond—both musicians and non-musicians alike. It's also fun to see pictures from the old days (and sometimes I'm like, "Oh man, I've really gotten older!").

The Prophet Is a Fool

When I saw the video of 12 year old Tamir Rice being shot dead by the police in 2014, I cried. I cried for his sister. The police wouldn't let her comfort her brother as he lay there dying. They pulled her away and threatened to arrest her mother. I cried when the children were murdered in their classroom in Sandy Hook, in 2012. I cried at the horror of it. I cried in grief for the parents and families. There's been so much of this violence, death and cruelty since then, and there will be more. I think about that all the time and I don't know what to do with it. It messes me up.

"The Prophet Is a Fool" is about guns, hatred and fear. Dima's video conveys that visually. Trump is a character in that story. He has endorsed and encouraged that hatred. He has done nothing legislatively to restrict the sale of military grade assault weapons to mentally deranged people like Adam Lanza, who killed those kids in Sandy Hook in broad daylight, or murderous racists like Dylan Roof, who walked into a church and killed nine African-American members of its congregation after they invited him to pray with them. Although these events happened before he was president, he has expressed no real compassion to the families of the victims. On the contrary, he has endorsed Alex Jones, who initiated conspiracy theories that the children in Sandyhook were not really murdered, and that high-school aged survivors of the Parkland shooting calling for stricter gun legislation were paid actors. Under his presidency, the largest mass shooting in the history of the United States took place in Las Vegas. When asked if it constituted an act of domestic terrorism, he would not answer.

As standing president, he has equivocated racist Neo-Nazis with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, only hours after one of them murdered Heather Heyer by driving his car into a crowd. He has stoked xenophobia through false propaganda about immigration. He fabricated a story about President Obama's citizenship. Racist, xenophobic hatred is crack cocaine for Trump. He sells it to his base and many of them smoke it with him. There is only one thing good for me about the Trump phenomenon: It has made me less ignorant of the racism in my country—in its institutions, and in its citizens.

For those who are put off with a one-sided portrayal of people who want a border wall, I'll just say: I'm not aiming for a discussion about border security in the music, because music and animation do not parse policy so well. They better convey direct emotion. The emotion I'm addressing is fear, expressed through xenophobia. Trump has encouraged that xenophobia. He is a xenophobe himself. His birther-obsession with President Obama began years before he got into the White House.

People have seen videos of the kind of Trump rally I used in the song. Trump whips up the audience into a frenzy by pouring his idiot hatred onto Central American immigrants and Middle Eastern refugees, implying that they are all freeloading criminals and terrorists. The audience eats it up, and screams back, "Build that wall, build that wall!" In several instances, Trump supporters have physically assaulted counter-protestors, as well as news crews.

It seems obvious, but just to be clear: Dima and I were not parodying all Trump voters in the video. We were focusing on a noxious group who have hijacked the discourse and turned it into a yelling match, or worse. Someone might say I'm stoking flames in the music with the voice-overs and animation. I'm not ridiculing that group though and neither is Dima in his animation. The way he drew them shows the unhappiness of their rage, in their faces and gestures. They're trapped in their own hatred and fear. I would hate to be one of them. That conviction is neither ridicule nor condescending pity.

I am also unsettled about the violence I've seen coming from some Antifa gatherings. I'm dismayed at the propensity for censorship I've seen from college students at Berkeley and other campuses, and the professors and administrators at those ostensibly liberal-learning institutions who are caving into their demands. Maybe a musician and animator should make a video about that. Bring it on. But I can't equivocate the two sides like Trump did when he said there were some "very fine" white supremacists marching in Charlottesville. There is no such thing as a very fine white supremacist.

The fear expressed in the music is from both sides. I'd like to stay equanimous, but I have fear as well. I'm scared of scared people with guns. That's what I mean on the track when I say that although Trump has weakened the most rageful individuals in his base, they are dangerous—they have the desperation of a wounded bear that will lash out its paws even stronger. They are scared/scary.

The music—with Joel's scared/scary tenor sax solo, Mark's frenetic drumming, and the short-circuited solace of Ambrose's trumpet solo when the wall-crowd returns—was meant to make everyone's fear palpable, mine as well. It conveys my own confusion, anger and fear but doesn't justify it. I don't say I'm "right", but it doesn't look good to me right now.

Conflating the "build-the-wall" crowd and gun violence may seem clunky for some, but the reason why I interpolated that chant into the music is because it is such a strong trope for fear. Fear builds walls and shuts down communication. Trump's useless border wall might never be built, but the wall of fear he has built will be his rancid legacy.

In the musical expression and the animation, I imagine confronting these people out in the open. It's not a happy place. It's divisive. I'm expressing that divisive fear in my music. I'm not endorsing it. A happy tune about building a wall and gun violence doesn't make sense.

In Dima's animation we see these birds. The birds are flying, and they keep getting shot. They have no defense. This is what's happening to African-Americans in wrongful arrests, and this is what's happening to young people, like in the Parkland shooting—they keep getting shot. In the case of Tamir Rice and others, like Terrence Crutcher or Stephon Clark, they are killed by the people who are supposed to protect them. They have no defense, just a bunch of lies. They are being written off. What did they die for?

I'm bearing witness as a musician. Some might say I should stay mute and leave the politics for the pundits. Keeping quiet implies humility, I guess—one knows one's place. I see it oppositely: a musician is then favored, never having to get his hands in the mud with everyone else.

I am a musician but my heroes are not just other musicians. They include writers like George Orwell—writers who have given me a picture of what it's like to be politically engaged yet still check my convictions, to make sure I'm still thinking for myself, and not getting strung along by someone else's language, from either side of the wall.

If an artist in any discipline elects to stays above the fray, privileging aesthetics, what's to say she won't aestheticize real suffering? Orwell made this point.

You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from; you cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat. In a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides….This period of ten years or so in which literature, even poetry, was mixed up with pamphleteering, did a great service….because it destroyed the illusion of pure aestheticism….It debunked art for art's sake. - George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell

It might seem alarmist to invoke the last century's struggle between Fascism and Socialism. Trump has proclaimed the press an "enemy of the people" in the language of Fascism, though. He has not demonstrated a respect for the rule of law, and feels no need to tell the truth, factually. He has courted and fawned over authoritarian leaders, reaching out to them instead of American allies. We know that his campaign was aided by a foreign power. If he had only one of these characteristics—aversion to a free press, mendaciousness, traitorous criminality—we would be rightfully concerned. Taken altogether, they are alarming, absolutely. We need to speak out, as artists. We need to not be complacent.

Criticizing someone's politics because they are the normative ones of a large group of people, not edgy enough, is to aestheticize politics and divorce them from any substantive explanation of how policy affects real people. This is what Tucker Carlson and the like do on Fox News, snorting at the majority who voted for Hilary Clinton in the last election. Fox would have its viewership believe that they're onto something grand. They are the apostles, and Sean Hannity is a noble voice in the wilderness, talking directly to God. (His net worth is currently $200 million.) Fox News is not news, though. It is an aesthetic phenomenon. It provides entertainment and distraction for its viewers, masking as a channel of information.

Faux-edginess is also the domain of internet trolls. The troll bitches rabidly at anything that smacks of neo-liberalism, without acknowledging that neo-liberalism has given him his platform. He vaguely advocates something much darker. Neo-liberalism has failed a large group of people, but don't forget what it's brought: Google, Facebook, YouTube—all tools for the troll as much as for anyone else.

It's not that I don't listen to the troll. I listen to him, but I'm more convinced by someone I'm certain has suffered; not someone who has decided to break bad out of boredom, fear, or to sell dietary supplements like Alex Jones (net worth, $10 million). I'll listen to Jones as much as I can stomach, but my sympathy is for the families of the Sandy Hook victims. The most abominably irrevocable act is murder, and the greatest suffering is in the ones who go on living with their loss.

The consequence of judging political sentiments aesthetically, based on their gritty appeal, is that we get shunned when we express a benign sentiment like, "That's cruel." This is backhanded censorship. It is made possible by free-speech, but only permits anti-social speech. It's a crappy aesthetic that poses as punk. Real punk pokes holes in censorship; fake punks like Milo Yiannopoulos reinforce it. If you equate black people with monkeys, as his followers do, you're expressing your freedom of speech. If you call for limiting racist hate speech in a social media platform, you are a "totalitarian."

We are afraid of faceless trolls. We have made them our moral arbiters. In a repeated ritual, the troll is judge, jury and executioner in the various shame-games that play out on the net, and politics is no exception. Why do we give a troll an audience? How is it that we give credence to someone who is too cowardly to identify himself, someone who is not a someone, but a series of sock-puppets on YouTube?

The only explanation is that we sympathize the troll; we get him. We want to be that voice in the wilderness—the one with the real scoop, who will set everyone else straight and show them their blindness. Acquiring a personal politics, though, isn't a fast-track gnosis like in The Matrix. It doesn't sound flashy; it doesn't make for snappy comments on 4chan. It is a process of self-evaluation. It's not posting the first thing that comes in your head.

Endlessly ironizing your opponent's convictions by saying she is caught in another "narrative" is not a political position. It is the beginning of one. You're seeing the holes in your own story. The next step is that you realize you and those around you are in complicity with actions that go against your moral code, perhaps unwittingly, or covertly, by the leader you all support. You want to rush to tell everyone. But wait—they'll call you on it, saying that you benefit as well from the status quo.

Your idealism chips away, replaced by self-protection. You don't want to sound like a hypocrite. You think, "Maybe my idealism was nothing but trying to sound good to myself. I've always been a hypocrite." And you were right. You were—along with everyone else. So you become world-weary and ironic: "We're all complicit." You might get stuck there, vaguely.

You shouldn't get stuck there. You need to push through. You need to find the position you can live with, with all its contingencies—not the untethered contingencies themselves. For me, that is the liberal position. To be a liberal means: I base my politics on the apprehension of everyone's common suffering. I may fail at my task, but I don't give up trying.

When I speak with someone who has come to a conservative position through honest self-evaluation, I respect that person. I welcome conservative critique of my own views and often see my own wrongheadedness. To be a conservative, as I understand it, is to not orient oneself toward collective suffering, but rather toward collective sin. Liberals tend to blame someone's suffering on society, sympathizing with the individual. Conservatives tend to blame someone's suffering on himself, holding him accountable. Liberals become hypocritical when they start to talk about sin, conservatively—when they start scolding everybody. Conservatives become hypocritical when they start to talk about suffering too much, liberally—whining about their own entitlements.

Liberals, with their imaginative empathy, win peace. Conservatives, with their moral resolve, win wars. I'm glad of both. The notion that we've somehow moved beyond the liberal/conservative schism is wishful thinking. It's defeatism and confusion trying to sound clearheaded. It doesn't play out in reality. Say what you want about the two-party system in America, but parliamentary democracies, with their multitude of parties—Green, Christian Democratic, Socialist, pro-market, Euroskeptic, what have you—wind up with the same schism. They have to make coalitions and eventually you get a left-wing or right-wing majority, with some people happy about it, and others not. They get stuck in gridlock, and their governments shut down periodically, just like what happened under Trump for more than a month.

Trump is neither conservative nor liberal. He is an a apolitical opportunist. In the long run—if he is elected again—he is good for no one, because he is bad for democracy. Trump infuriates liberals so much, though, because he reminds them of liberal failure. At its worst, liberalism, with its constant ironizing and self-questioning, tip-toeing around any resolution, leads to inertia and moral relativism that permit the possibility of anything and accomplish nothing. That is Trump in a nutshell—promising something to everybody, delivering nothing.

Republicans in Washington relish Trump because he unwittingly exposes liberal hypocrisy—he is the biggest failure of liberalism they've ever been able to dangle in front of everyone. They don't even have to do anything. The more he lies, the better for them. That's why they line up behind him in formation like apparatchiks.

There's two-facedness on both sides—liberals conservatively shunning, and conservatives liberally whimpering. But those two sides are still there; they haven't just cancelled themselves out into some utopian hyperspace. I am not attacking the conservative viewpoint. I am calling out xenophobia, racism and hatred. If a self-proclaimed liberal wants to equate these abhorrent attributes with conservatism, he is disingenuous. If a self-proclaimed conservative ties his identity to racism and nativism, he is dangerous.

Both liberals and conservatives have an account for suffering and the ones who inflict the suffering; neither ignore those subjects. The desire to blot them out is anti-democratic. If you ignore the both suffering of others and personal accountability as they play out in the political framework of your society, you are flirting with true totalitarianism, where the individual has no voice, no power—not through the state, nor through her own resolve.

I've learned about other people's suffering though strong literature: fiction, political writing, scripture. Musicians are my guiding lights, like the African-American ones who gave me the music I play, who heroically surmounted their own suffering and made something beautiful and lasting. That surmounting was a personal achievement, but also a political one. The politically transformative power of great music and art is not only in its protest. It's in its victories. The creative victories of my musical heroes are also political victories that raise our society as a whole. Music and art are always political.

I don't want to make art for art's sake. No thinking artist believed in that after two World Wars and a Holocaust. "Art for art's sake", when Nabokov or Thomas Mann make it a subject, is not a dictum. It is an admission of provisional defeat from a great writer, an expression of inconsolable irony. It is born out of consternation, not glibness. It means: "If I wanted my art to be only for art's sake, I couldn't." At the same time, it signals: "If I wanted my art to matter, I couldn't."

An earlier aesthete like Oscar Wilde put the second of those admissions succinctly when he said, "All art is perfectly useless." It's funny, but we don't really think he wants art to be useless. He's just having a shrug about it, motoring through with his humor. Every artist wants her art to matter, no matter how they might self-defensively posture. So art for art's sake is never something to which we aspire. It's something we resign to when we truthfully admit the limitations of art, when we say: "My art did not affect political change this time the way I wanted." Or, more troublingly: "That art, looking back now, was used for wrong kind of political change." We don't abandon hope in art though any more than we abandon hope in democratic discourse; we keep trying.

A troll tries to be creative, even artistic, when he attacks someone. It's bad art though. He has no vision. His expression is unoriginal. This troll culture is the only one that Trump knows. His tweets are miniature, shitty artworks, with no accountability. They are disposable by design; they replace each other continuously. Here one might say: I am contradicting myself; I am aestheticizing politics. Yet trolling, whether from Trump or anonymously, is not political—it is cruelty, nothing more. This cruelty for the sake of cruelty is the sinister, final outcome of art for art's sake; it is what Orwell meant when he said, "The object of torture is torture."

To say that Trump acts "cynically" is to give him too much credit. Trump is not an intelligent animal. He does not self-reflect, nor does he apprehend humor. The only time he laughs is when someone else has been brought down. He may have learned that from his father Fred, as some surmise, but he's all grown up now and is accountable for his actions. The problem is he is still a child. We've grown fatigued of this absurdity and want to escape. That is the emotional sentiment of the track that immediately follows "The Prophet Is a Fool" on the record, "Make it All Go Away."

Trump's lies have fostered the defeatist belief that no one is thinking for himself anymore—whatever I'm thumping my chest about is just some fake news. The title of "The Prophet Is a Fool" comes from the Book of Hosea. I don't refer to Trump as a prophetic fool; the biblical translation into English is misleading, but Hosea's poetry is strong: He meant that even if a real prophet came along, everyone would call him a fool—he'd get lost in all the noise. Trump keeps the noise constant—that is the only thing he is good at.

I'm not smug about Trump. Anyone who lived in New York City in the '80s and '90s knew Trump already then for what he was: A real-estate mogul who kept always kept his own money by exploiting bankruptcy laws. The fraud accusations already followed him back then. His strategy is no different now. He sells America short every time, exploiting the rule of law to grab his own share. There is nothing mysterious about him. He is driven by malevolent greed. The tax law he signed returns tens of millions of dollars to his own pocket. The presidency was attractive to Trump because he could tweak the system to serve his own family dynasty.

Trump was a misogynist long before he landed in the White House. We don't need CNN "mainstream liberal" media to tell us that. He's been a sexual braggart with a predatory streak for decades. You don't need to be a liberal to know that.

One thing I don't recall from Trump's earlier decades in NYC was him going to church. No one believes that Trump knew or cared about Mike Pence—also no bright light—until his bid at presidency became a possibility. The homophobe Pence is ineffectual except in keeping his credulous brethren in Trump's bullpen. The people who vetted Pence are smart enough. Oily figures like Mitch McConnell who actually do Trump's bidding are intelligent. They are also immeasurably cynical.

Mike Pence is dumb enough, but you can be dumb and kind. He is not kind. When I look at his glazed eyes and frozen smile, I see resolute, pernicious pride. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis identified spiritual Pride as the most lethal of the Seven Deadly Sins, far more deadly than the merely animal Lust that sets Pence aquiver:

How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people. - from Mere Christianity

I don't count myself out regarding the emotion of hatred any more than I do fear. I hate too. I'm not a practicing Christian, but a Christian like C.S. Lewis guides my hatred:

Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere he can be cured and made human again. - from Mere Christianity

So I try to hate the evil itself and not the individual, with the awareness of my own sin. It's probably why I'm not a Christian. It's just too damn hard. Loving your enemy—that's setting the bar high. It's too easy to get self-righteous about your "love" and find that it's collapsed back into pride. I loathe Pence with his zombie-eyed certainty and I hate racist xenophobes. I admit it. I don't give up on trying to orient my hate toward the pride and fear that drives them, and I don't lose sight of the irony that I am driven by prideful fear as well. A political viewpoint is governed by raw emotions as much as it is self-critical, measured formulations.

It is a truism now that criticizing people who voted for Trump is a form of condescension. It is uttered as much by professional blowhards like Rush Limbaugh as it is by soul-searching liberals, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. When Limbaugh does it, it's a diversion—more entertainment. He keeps himself from having to be accountable.

I see it differently. It's condescending to write someone off by saying they were so desperate they couldn't think straight anymore. I hold a Trump supporter as just as capable of reasoning as me or anyone else, and thus I say to many—not all—of them: You were smarter than that. You gave into anti-social impulses. Your vote was a fuck-you vote.

To boy scouts in brown shirts like Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes, to self-loathing inverted liberals like Milo Yiannopoulos: You are a farcical repeat of tragic history. You are a facsimile. You are intellectually lazy; you are narcissistic. You are self-pitying; you are far more entitled than the minority you target. You are the rotten afterbirth of something that stunk to begin with. You are forgettable.

The thing is: There is no red pill. There is no clear-eyed utopia we will wake up to, not a fascist one, not a mollifying benevolent one. There is only dissonant reality and temporary resolution. The song doesn't end. If it ends, we end with it. We are in the matrix. The prophet is among us but we don't hear. - Brad Mehldau, May 2019

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