Rant: Yes, there is such a thing as having standards which are too high

Recently, I received a private message from a blogger imploring me to only link to and endorse the “best,” nothing less. The author himself had some interesting tastes, was a fairly credible artist himself, and had a pretty solid résumé. Still, the e-mail was so obnoxious and so toxic I decided never to speak to that person again. His argument boiled down to not giving any up-and-coming artist a chance. Since there were some trashy, stupid things on the web that people liked, all of the web was bad, except for what he thought good.

It’s easy to see the problems with certain attitudes when they are taken to extremes. But it could be the case things are a mess precisely because problematic attitudes aren’t revealing themselves as such until they are clearly an extreme. Case in point is the mounting debt the US has. Jay Cost has argued very nicely that Congress’ electoral calculus favors the local and factional. The debt is a matter of national interest. Why not try to pay off all the interest groups you can and win reelection that way? It’s not unreasonable until we don’t have the money, right? (Never mind that when we don’t have the money is precisely when people need the money, cf. the concept of a “social safety net.”)

You might argue I haven’t identified an extreme attitude among Congressmen, just a stupid one. But it is an extreme of sorts: what drove that logic is something like the idea that every job is the same. An executive is responsible to his employees. Similarly, a representative is responsible to his constituents solely, no? I’m prone to think that one of the extremes that caused the mess we’re in is our romanticizing success in business. We need to be competitive in math and science for jobs, not discovering the wonders the universe has to offer. And to hell with civics and the sort of education Jefferson and the other Founders had.

We’re holding a standard that’s way too high when we demand that success is more important than anything else, including living rightly. How else to explain reality tv celebrities? I don’t grudge “The Situation” his success, but seriously – admiring him is pretty stupid, and he’d be the first to tell people to get a life (I hope). But I have come across people swooning over him. Living rightly is something you can control, for the most part. Success was pretty much denied to people such as Franz Hals and Spinoza.

The main reason for this rant is that I want to start reviewing scholarly articles on the blog. More than the entries engaging primary sources, I want these entries to be accessible, summarizing a work’s relevance, stating an author’s thesis about it, and then going into some details about what might be worth chewing on. The main thing on my mind is why other efforts – some very well-financed, some with incredible scholars writing – have failed to win more attention. I get the distinct feeling that this effort of mine could be very successful, simply because people know I try hard at this “being a scholar” thing, even if I’m not always terribly good at it. Something is missing in a world where titles and prestige and a sense of refinement convey authority, and I think we sense it. The best teachers get the most joy from students who want to learn, not necessarily ones who find things easy or produce beautifully on a whim.

Leave a Comment