Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whence the mediocrity?

Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus opened in London in 1979 and was eventually turned into a motion picture that was amusing, but not nearly as provocative and disturbing as the play. Ostensibly about the possibly mysterious death of Mozart, what made the play as powerful as it was was the exploration of the theme of mediocrity. In the play, the Venetian composer Antonio Salieri (1750‑1825) is portrayed as a man tormented by the fact that he has piously dedicated his career to composing music to glorify God and has always been morally upright and of good conduct, and yet he was never able to compose anything as magnificent as the childish and irreverent clown Mozart. Surely, exclaims Salieri, God is mocking me!

The theme of divine justice (theodicy) is as old as the notion of a supreme god who makes moral demands on his or her creatures. The pious and righteous often suffer defeat and humiliation, while the scoundrels often enjoy all the pleasures and comforts that their ill-gotten gain can buy. If God expects righteousness of his creatures, how just can it be that God's well-behaved creatures must endure hardships while the ill-behaved skate relatively effortlessly through life? How can a just god reward a buffoon with arguably the greatest musical genius in the history of Europe and visit nothing but musical mediocrity on a God-fearing servant? That is the question posed in Shaffer's play. (Leave aside the fact that the real Salieri was anything but mediocre as a composer and conductor. It is the character of Shaffer's play, not the real musician, who concerns us here.)

I am happy enough to let better philosophers than I struggle with the issue of theodicy and the relationship between piety and mediocrity. The theme that is intiguing me now is to do with another aspect of mediocrity, namely, how it comes about that a nation can become so addicted to substandard goods and services that it despises all those who try to raise the standards to a higher level.

The question comes to my mind after spending several days in Paris. Like most people who have spent time in Paris, I could not help spending quite a bit of time wondering how even apparently humble and seemingly unpromising restaurants manage to serve such well-prepared meals. It is obvious that they must do so, or else quickly go out of business, because the French will not settle for substandard food. That is not so surprising. What issurprising is that Americans do, for the most part, settle for inferior cooking. They settle for huge servings of mediocre fare, food with little nutritional value despite its overload of calories, food that lacks subtle tastes, food that is heaped upon over-sized plates with no regard to appearance, food that fosters obesity and all the illnesses that go with it. Why?

During our stay in Paris, my wife and I went to museums, took long walks and read. Every evening we watched a little bit of television. We happened to see CNN and were struck again, as we have been before while traveling in Europe, at how much better CNN is in Europe than in the United States. It actually carries news in Europe. It carries stories about Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas (north, south and central). It is possible to learn what is going on in the world by watching CNN in Europe. Why do Americans settle for such substandard news broadcasting, and news commentary representing such a narrow range of opinions and perspectives?

On returning to the Netherlands, where I'll be spending some time, I got caught up on news stories that I had not paid much attention to in France. I read the New York Times on line and was taken aback by how much the American public seems to have turned against Barack Obama's proposed health-care reforms. All across the country there seem to be masses of people protesting against a series of proposals that would go at least some of the way toward beginning to lift the United States out of the mediocrity that they have settled for in health care. It would be difficult to design a worse system than the one that now exists. It delivers substandard health-care at outrageous prices to those who can afford it and leaves the rest of the population to remain sick and injured and eventually to die. No one benefits from the system but a handful of overpaid physicians and directors of for-profit insurance companies. It is worse than mediocre. And yet more than a handful of Americans, the very ones who stand to benefit from an improved system, are loudly insisting that government not tamper with the status quo. To settle for mediocrity is bad enough. To insist on it is nothing short of tragic.

The demand for substandard health care is, of course, intimately related to the substandard access to information that Americans settle for. America has become a nation of political zombies who will follow only the loudest demagogues and most ill-mannered purveyors of vituperation and character assassination. Americans will settle for bad food that makes them sick, substandard health care that fails to heal them, repugnant forms of entertainment that lets them remain savages, and politicians who drive them into deprivation for the simple reason that they do not know any better. They do not know any better because they have no easy access to good news reporting and analysis; to become informed in America takes a lot of work, and the culture of making an effort died with my grandfathers' generation.

The combination of various forms of mediocrity that have become standard in the United States have a kind of synergy that creates a vicious cycle, a downward spiral, a kind of cultural black hole from which no light can escape.

Can the trends be reversed? Events of the past six or seven decades are not promising. All the same, history is full of surprises. The universe is complex beyond our wildest imaginations, so it never unfolds as one would expect. Suffice it to say that if dramatic cultural improvements are visited upon Americans, despite all their efforts to resist them, it will have been a fluke, a series of accidents that will no doubt look to some like divine grace, to others like blind luck. Is there a difference?