Jewish World Review June 11, 2012/ 21 Sivan, 5772
The Age of Mediocrity
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | "The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes on to impose itself where it can."
--José Ortega y Gasset
The Revolt of the Masses
Chapter 1, The Crowd Phenomenon
. . .
Future historians will surely call ours the Age of Mediocrity. That is, if they can recognize what mediocrity is by then, having been immersed in it so long they take it for excellence. Watching the president of
Everything about the presentation of the-nation's-highest-civilian-honor, as the news coverage inevitably called it, seemed ordinary, nothing special, poor-to-middlin', commonplace but showy. In a word, mediocre. Not indecent, certainly, just familiar. As in familiarity breeds . . .
It was like watching one of the many unmemorable sitcoms on the tube. Something to fill a room with background noise lest we risk thinking. This year's show had been dunked in the same patina of ordinary vulgarity that covers the rest of American life in our time, made all the more so by the obligatory pomp-and-circumstance that came with the presentation of the medals, like french fries.
Ours is an age of fast food, fast honors and fast commentary on same. Then it can all be fast forgotten. If only this year's ceremony had been truly awful, not just part of the awfulness we accept daily, it would have been memorable. Instead it was eminently forgettable. Indeed, it is already forgotten.
For the most part, this year's medalists were the usual, conventional choices. But here and there on the list were some shining exceptions to the mediocre rule. Let that much be said, it should be said, from the outset. Let us now praise, no, not famous men but a few of this year's honorees who should be famous:
And then there was the incomparable
However bright an exception here and there, in general this year's honorees were the usual pack of politic choices. It was as if a statistician had been assigned to come up with a random sample of politically correct heroes. One pop artist, one faux poet, one retired jurist still bent on arguing the cases he'd lost, one high public official whose chief distinction was length of time served ... in short, at least one mediocrity to please everybody's taste. Or at least our taste when we were young.
Our president set the tone of this year's event, or maybe its absence of tone, when he described the overflow crowd that had been drawn to the
The president's other remarks were in much the same (clotted) vein. Embarrassing, perhaps, but par for presidential remarks in an age of mediocrity.
At one point, the president said he had learned to write by reading one of this year's honorees. (Drum roll, please.) Namely, that romance novelist of current American intellectuals, the one and only (let us hope)
With almost Clintonian gusto, the president made it clear that the real importance of those being honored was the part they had played in shaping, informing and inspiring his own great life. On such occasions, Mr. Obama seems to release his inner
This year's honorees could have been scientifically chosen by some expert statistician to represent the collective taste. And why not? These are times when we no longer deplore the conventional wisdom but celebrate it, as in "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations" (2004).
Pity poor, always out-of-step H.L. Mencken, that holdover from the 1920s and the Jazz Age, who regularly deplored the taste of the great American public. Clearly he was wrong. At least by our lights in 2012. Our dim lights.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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