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Jewish World Review
June 11, 2012/ 21 Sivan, 5772
The Age of Mediocrity
"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 the United States present this year's Medals of Freedom -- does anyone remember last year's, let alone any from the years before? -- the only striking aspect of the ceremony was the absence of anything striking.
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:
There was Jan Karski, the Polish patriot and resistance fighter who became an eloquent teacher in his long exile from his native land. His nobility shone through a life of both action and thought. Gallant and elegant to the end, his grand contempt for both great totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism, that rolled over his country and the world in his time was evident in every word of his lectures at Georgetown. It fit right in with his own tragic sense of life that he would receive this honor only posthumously.
John Doar was a lawyer for the Justice Department who actually sought justice. And the peace only justice can bring. The martyrs of the civil-rights movement of the last century are regularly invoked; the country should also remember the massacres that were prevented by the likes of John Doar, assistant attorney general for civil rights and profile in courage.
And then there was the incomparable Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee's already legendary women's basketball coach, the Iron Lady of college sport.
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.
The Hon. Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States, mastered these ceremonies. A president's schedule must be crammed with such events from early morning till late at night; it goes with being head of state, or at least head of a mass democracy.
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 East Room to applaud the medalists as "a testament to how cool this group is. Everybody wanted to check 'em out."
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) Toni Morrison. Which explains a lot about the president's literary style. And the style of the age. Sentiment was replaced by sentimentality some time ago.
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 Joe Biden. He really ought to keep it caged.
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.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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