Policy made plain.
March 7 1999 3:30 AM

Gratuitous Meritocracy

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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.

Of course, more banal commercial considerations are also at work, as well as the Law of Award Entropy, which holds that awards tend to subdivide and multiply until they are worthless. The Oscars begat the Emmys, which begat the Cable Ace Awards, of which there are so many that any cable TV employee who actually attends the ceremony is entitled to leave in a snit if he or she doesn't win one. Meanwhile, on your television are the gala Bulgarian Press Association Syndicated Sitcom Excellence Awards, hosted by Florence Henderson ...

In principle, there is nothing tackier about an award given by the National Association of Right-Wing Radio Blowhards than one given by the Swedish Royal Academy. In practice, awards seem to gain legitimacy with the patina of age. Pulitzer Prizes, for example, go to books and newspapers but not to magazines. So, a couple of decades ago, the magazine industry created the National Magazine Awards ("the prestigious Enema," as occasional Slate writer Mickey Kaus calls them). A totally artificial and unnecessary addition to civilization. And yet by relentlessly treating them as a big deal over the years, magazine folks have succeeded in making them a reasonably big deal. Not as big a deal as the Pulitzers yet, but in the ballpark. (And yes, we'd like one, hypocrites that we are, thank you very much.)

Inevitably, come now the Webby Awards, given by something we are asked to believe is the " International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences." For a medium that prides itself on its insurgent spirit, this is a comically egregious exercise in faux-establishmentarianism. But like all such operations, this one traps its victims in a conspiracy of mutual hype. They hype you by giving you an award. You hype them by bragging about it.

The folks at L'académie Internationale des Arts et des Sciences Numériques have innovated a clever variant on this trick. They give a separate set of awards based on how many votes your site gets in a reader poll they're running on their site. As a result, the Web is now littered with links to the Webby "People's Voice" page. (Why, what a coincidence: Here's one right here.) Despite some press-release malarkey about democracy in action, the true spirit of the Web, and blah, blah, the connection between this and any valid expression or measurement of Web popularity is about as close as Die internationale Akademie digitaler Künste und Wissenschaften is to the National Academy of Sciences.

Small type at the bottom of the home page confesses that L'accademia Internazionale degli Arti e delle Scienze Digitali is "an affiliate of IDG Conference Management Company." Said company seems to have copyrighted all the materials, so I think it's clear what's going on. But everyone is pretending this is some sort of real industry honor. (The BBC is throwing a cocktail party to celebrate the fact that its Web site was nominated!) And in a few years it will probably be just as real as all the others. And just as pointless.

On behalf of all my colleagues at Slate, thank goodness we don't have the strength to resist.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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