Policy made plain.
March 7 1999 3:30 AM

Gratuitous Meritocracy


It seemed too much to hope for that the list of the 20th century's 100 greatest pieces of journalism--produced this week by the New York University journalism department, at no one's urgent request--would actually include The Fate of the Earth. But there it was at No. 59. Jonathan Schell's 1982 argument against having a nuclear war may be the silliest book ever taken seriously by serious people. (Rival claimants? See "RSVP" for readers' suggestions.) Schell set out, first, to prove that nuclear war really would be a really, really bad thing that should be avoided if at all possible. He succeeded, declaring at every stage that vast resources of courage and imagination were required to make this point. He went on to argue that virtually all aspects of life as we know it--including "say, liberty"--"have become inimical to life and must be swept away" as the only hope of avoiding nuclear cataclysm. At this he was less successful.

You won't believe, children, what a literary-intellectual event this overheated stew of the obvious and the idiotic became. Many New Yorker readers actually took up Schell's recommendation of nuclear monomania. As long as nuclear weapons existed, he declared, to even think about anything else was deeply immoral. And many people agreed. For a few weeks.

Schell's manifesto is even sillier in hindsight. Not so much because of the end of the Cold War (which Schell was not alone in failing to predict), but because even Jonathan Schell, it turns out, cannot panic full time about nuclear war. Lately he's been expressing alarm about the office of the independent prosecutor. Threat to liberty or something like that.

The Fuss Over The Fate of the Earth was the last gasp of the old New Yorker buzz machine of the William Shawn era. The Shawn buzz machine was just as powerful as the much-criticized Tina Brown model that came after, and hypocritical to boot, since it denied its own existence. Literary devices did most of the work. There was the bullying portentous tone, which said, "This is unbelievably important--so you, shut up." Then there was the pretense of simply presenting the facts, which put the author on a pedestal beyond the reach of quarrel and made his or her conclusion seem inexorable.

Actually, the last gasp of the old New Yorker may be this NYU list, which is laughably heavy on New Yorker golden oldies. (In truth, the current New Yorker is a much better publication.) How could anyone think that the pointless pointillism of John McPhee, at No. 54, should rank higher than No. 67, a great book that happens to be by my best friend in journalism?

But quarreling with an exercise like this, while enjoyable, misses the point. Such quarreling buys into the premise that there is something socially useful about inventing reasons to decide that some people are better than others. Call it gratuitous meritocracy. I wouldn't say that the ever-growing profusion of prizes and awards and lists of the best this or that are "inimical to life" or anything, but they are a minor blot on our democracy.

What's wrong with them? Well, of course they're pseudoscientific or, to put it another way, dishonest. There's no objective measure, and no hope of broad general agreement, that No. 34 is superior to No. 35 (though any sane person can see that No. 67 should be much, much higher). This is generally true of gratuitous meritocracy, whether it takes the form of a glossy magazine's "best-dressed" list, or a glitzy prize like the Oscar or the Pulitzer, or the employee ratings of a large corporation, or the endless variety of hierarchical opportunities held out to children and college students. All of these pretend to a precision that doesn't exist. But that's not the real problem. Even if it were possible to determine scientifically whose performance as a supporting actress last year was better than anyone else's, why should you want to do that?

Human inequality is both part of the condition of our species and a specific necessity of the free-market economic system, which relies on incentives and differential rewards to motivate people. Some inequality is inevitable, in other words, and more of it is a price worth paying for a prosperity that benefits all, to one degree or another. Looking back on the experience of the 20th century, most people have concluded that attempts to eliminate inequality wholesale end in tears. But we still argue about the relationship between greater equality and greater prosperity within a capitalist economy. Will a tax cut have a huge productivity payoff or just line the pockets of the already well-to-do? Will a government benefit program lift people up or just sap the poor and sock the rich? And so on.

But a list of who's better than other people in some aspect or another is not inevitable and does not make the economy any more prosperous or society any richer in other ways. I suppose you could argue that a best-dressed list encourages women to dress more beautifully or that a list of the greatest works of journalism of the 20th century will motivate those who didn't make it to try a bit harder during the next 100 years. It's a hard sell, though. What actually inspires such lists is a love of distinction-making for its own sake, which sits oddly with our alleged democratic principles.