Steve Stajich, Mirror Contributing Writer
So what happened was… we were in the kitchen discussing the Toyota recall and that went to “Is anybody paying attention to quality these days?” and then that went to awards season because, especially living in and around LA, it’s impossible to ignore our inability to sustain a level of excellence when nominating films and TV shows for awards and then I wanted to know why the truly talented, nay gifted, man we elected for the job of President can’t appear in a public forum to discuss a reboot of American greatness without having some deeply self-involved person shout him down while holding up a “Jesus Loves Babies” placard… and then I ended my run-on sentence. And everybody needed another glass of wine, because, come on, man… it’s depressing.
Wherefore art thou, striving and excellent achievement? Anybody got a phone app that searches for excellence? (I mean, for real, not a video game.)
Voltaire once said, “The best is the enemy of the good.” His comment would have a new resonance if he shared a producer credit on The Hurt Locker and awoke to discover that his film was up against The Blind Side and Avatar in an award category bearing the arguably dubious title “Best Picture.” Or perhaps our modern day Voltaire is a studied and skillful musician with years of experience who sat at home watching Pink spin over the heads of the Grammy audience in a dripping wet circus sling. This after Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks had spit out bits of chewed, pitch-tortured boomer rock into the living rooms of a record 25 million TV viewers.
The observation that awards often fail to honor excellence but instead gather up those things which find popularity and crown them as “the best” is nothing new. However, is it just me and some contentious friends who sense an emerging collective despondency over the entire notion of excellence in the face of our tendency to simply like what we like a lot, and our seemingly equal tendency to reward with attention and money that which we claim to distain?
It seems to be a given now that once anybody has successfully planted the notion that something popular and intellectually unchallenging is in fact wholesome and even good for the culture, we must then heap awards upon it. That which we claim we find offensive (reality shows, infidelity, coarseness, substance abuse) is also rewarded with a vibrant life in our conversations and cable news dialogues, followed by the books and entertainment products based on the offensive behaviors. (To wit: Jackass: The Movie/ Tiger Woods: The Drama)
Consider these tendencies I’ve just described as tines on what we might call “The Fork of Mediocrity.” Pinned down by this giant piece of tableware of our own making, we’re helpless to communicate about excellence to our young people. When professional baseball dithers not for months but for years in dealing with steroids, the opportunity to use sports as a metaphor for anything other than the decay of honor… evaporates. When the Olympics are more important as a marketing hook for products and a window of opportunity for contractors and Olympic committee corruption, then the purer goal of competition between the best of all nations disappears. When the CD that sells the most copies wins the Grammy, we’re not surprised but we hurt for the real artists left in the dust.
Maybe none of this is new to the 21st century, but now there’s some coagulating amount of it that seems ready to suffocate us. First John Edwards, then the months of blather about it, then yeah okay it’s my baby, then a book about it… and we’re still gasping for air. An intelligent woman explained to me that what’s most offensive about the sequence of events we’ll call “John Edwards” is that Edwards was a person asking America to join him. “Join my righteous drive to be your leader. I deserve your support. I’ve earned it. I’m what we talk about when we talk about excellence.” No, you’re not.
But there have always been disappointing people who looked good at a distance. I’m talking about something else, where the appearance of excellence has fully replaced the actual item. And it’s not just our problem. When China had its Olympics chance to show the world it was striving for a better tomorrow, we saw that the water and air were polluted and that the people seeking freedoms had been rounded up and penned. Don’t get me going on the quality of their dairy products.
Nobody really wants to live in a world where awards are always self-promotion and bunk, especially kids who enjoy striving for and winning awards. But if we’re going to recognize excellence, we’re going to have to bring into play the same things involved in obtaining excellence itself: Discipline and honesty. Entertainment awards are festivals of self-aggrandizing stroking, but they don’t have to be and think of what we might gain if they weren’t. Now is the time to bridge the gap between touting excellence and actually achieving it, especially as American banks and automakers look to rebuild and re-brand. In 1979 Jimmy Carter famously talked about a “crisis of confidence” and called on Americans for discipline, sacrifice, and a “striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth.” I don’t think he meant adopting a Unibomber shack- level of self-sufficiency, but he certainly might have meant that our work, our personal lives and the output of our culture could be excellent and not just something shiny that goes over for money. Of course, he might also like Taylor Swift.
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