Friday, March 13, 2009

The Worst and the Dimmest

Judith Warner takes issue with society's labeling of bankers as our "best and brightest." She concludes with her hopes for "a much-needed rehabilitation of the very notion of the 'best and the brightest,'" suggesting nobly that for all we know, "some of the best and the brightest are already teaching third grade and providing low-paying, low-glory health care services."

But it's only at the very end that she gets down to what seems to be her true concern: "And maybe — if things work out for this book-writing president and his coterie of brilliant advisers — people might even start to see intellectuals as good, and bright, without irony."

Indeed, the piece is a classic case of a reading/writing type finding it inconceivable that those who make gobs of money are in that position due to superior brains, a greater work ethic, or (and I think this one's key) a willingness to put up with not-so-interesting work in order to guarantee a comfortable existence for one's self and one's family. (Hmm. I'm Ms. Humanities Anti-Defamation League here, and I don't find it at all hard to believe those who can afford dishwashers might, on the whole, have some positive quality I lack, be it intelligence, tolerance of Excel, or some combination.)

Warner is not ready to abandon the notion that some of us are, objectively, better and brighter than others, nor is she altogether content with "intellectuals" replacing "bankers" as "Best and Brightest," recognized by all. As she presents it, there must be some elusive, impossible-to-pin-down quality that makes some people better than others, since one would have to be crass to suggest that money, brains, or name-brand educations (and without those to go by, how are we assessing intelligence?) are the dividing lines. Yet to just say, anyone who works when they can and treats others with respect is Good and Bright enough, this would remove the select-few angle so key to the endeavor.

Warner is obviously looking for a narrow definition, but what? She sensibly agrees that the system that preceded money mattering - nobility, formal or informal, determining superiority - was also crap. And she doesn't seem totally convinced that those who, say, have high IQs or win science awards are those deserving of the phrase. But who, then, is?

Her suggestion, unfortunately, is something of a nebulous platitude: "Maybe the definition of the term will come to depend less on money and power, and more on service, ideals, even character." And maybe we will all stand in a circle and hold hands, brainstorming better ways to grow kale, but I'm still not sure swapping excellence for "character" is either doable (how but through money or the institution of titles of nobility would we encourage the 'best and brightest' to take low-level jobs in health professions?) or advisable (see also...).

This reminds me of what goes on at sites like Jezebel (sorry Belle), where it's a sin against humanity to say that all things equal, obesity is a problem, health-wise but also looks-wise, but where it's at the same time accepted that there is such a thing as 'beauty', possessed by some women but not all, certainly not all in equal measure. But if weight, along of course with natural-blond-Nordicness, is eliminated as a factor by which beauty might be judged, where does that leave women deemed not beautiful? If it isn't that you just happen to be under 5'10", overweight, and with ethnic features not typical of North or Eastern Europe, if beauty is open to all, and you're still unattractive, where are you left? I mean, I'm kind of OK with there being a number of objective reasons I, say, couldn't be a model (I'm their weight, give or take, at 5'2"; not an all-but-noseless blonde; and at 25 basically ancient), making it unnecessary for me to consider the possibility that theoretical a size- race- and age-neutral Judge of Beauty might well also go with 'no'.

It's also a bit like college admissions and the great 'holistic judgment' we all believe must be made about each applicant. As though it is somehow crueler to tell someone they're not in on account of their grades and test scores, than to explain to them, in gentle terms, that every facet of their character and intellect has been pored over by experts, and, um, we hear there's a wonderful air-conditioner-repair certificate program not far from you.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to send you to the Shorpy's Pretty Girl gallery - lots of cheesecake from the 20s and teens, some from the 40s, and to the Mona Lisa and to Rubens. The point I am trying to make is that 'pretty' varies a whole lot from decade to decade, and from century to century. Culture - I read an anecdote from Mauritania, where very obese, by USA lights, was the standard of beauty, and only recently has there been some shift because a Mauritanian woman won an international beauty contest and she was wildly thinner than Mauritanians had ever thought of as attractive before.
There seems to be a constant across human societies of valuing women for their looks and a within-culture consensus on which looks are desirable, but no constant whatsoever on what the desirable look is.
Warner I find generally tiresome, and I like your attempt to find something coherent in her 'best' ideas. dave.s.

Phoebe said...

"There seems to be a constant across human societies of valuing women for their looks and a within-culture consensus on which looks are desirable, but no constant whatsoever on what the desirable look is."

True enough, with the exception of symmetry and hip-waist ratio, but I'm not quite seeing how this relates to my post. I mean, obviously the only relevant time and place in terms of beauty or anything else is the one in which a given person lives. What matters is accepting that their are standards - of best-and-brightness, of beauty, of grades-and-scores-and-extracurriculars, etc., and that there's no way anyone will be judged 'holistically' by anyone other than, say, family and close friends, and that that's fine. And, that it's far worse to pretend holistic judgments are being made when all that's changed is a move from one set of criteria to another.