18 December 2007

Running hot

Friday, writing to a friend who has a very great talent as a poet and was having trouble bringing a project to a conclusion, trying to give him useful advice from my own marked lack of his talent, I coined the phrase "competent mediocrity" to describe people like myself in such a situation.

Saturday, Thinking Through My Fingers talked about the "must win" culture in Baseball as a mirror, where everyone has to win to be seen at that peak of excellence; the same theme is (perhaps unintentionally) echoed in Monday's TTMF post A Christmas Music Scrooge with the observation that "a child who is different must do something very special to be accepted by his peers".

Sunday morning (despite my recent comment that sports spectatorship holds no interest for me) found me watching an under 13 soccer match with a vested interest in the unlikely outcome of a Banwell win which didn't happen. Here again, I was in the "competently mediocre" slot. I could see why Banwell were losing and Portishead winning, even though any one of the Banwell youngsters could have run rings around me. The mathematician in me could see that Portishead were better at ensuring that the trajectory of a kick ended at one of their own players; the lover of dance in me could see that their choreography was tighter; all of this despite better individual players in the Banwell team.

In a nuclear reactor, fissile material is essential if anything is going to happen. Without it, or without sufficient quantity and concentration of it, there is no reaction and no power. Equally essential, however, is the moderator material which absorbs radiation and keeps the reaction within power generation limits rather than turning into a large slow bomb. This is not an analogy which can be pushed very far, but at that superficial level societies are a little like reactors. We absolutely need the high achievers, the talented poets, the superb footballers and baseball players and, of course, the high flying wealth generators. But we equally need large numbers of people who are not those things, who are competent at lower levels. A society without its exceptional members is inert and dead; but a society where they are not balanced by sufficient mass of mediocre moderators is heading for overheat and criticality.

The word "mediocre" is usually misused. It means average, middling, and there is nothing wrong with either of those: there must always be a middle, and a spread either side of it, in any range. The word mediocre is criminally twisted by a worldview in which anything short of the peak of excellence simply isn't good enough.

Most who are mediocre are competent, too - in fact, usually more than competent: good at some things, maybe even very good, maybe superb ... but not top of the world heap. Or, perhaps, they are good at something that the world has decided to recognise. Outside the US, the idea of a "world series" in baseball is a running joke, and baseball players are not honoured particularly; a soccer player who is lionised outside the US, conversely, will never match the celebrity of a top baseball player within it. If the next Einstein is out there in a school somewhere, s/he is probably being scorned (or even bullied) by her/his peers as a geek - if you doubt this, see the worries of Lakshmi, a schoolgirl frightened of her friends discovering her love of learning who closes with the words "I hope nobody I know ever realises who I am". TTMF's comment would be equally comment if altered to "a child who does something very special must make sure that it is something approved by his peers".

Societies in which the "must win" attitude becomes too dilute is on the road to decline and extinction. A society in which it is too intense is "running hot" and can, if unmoderated for too long, burn out or self destruct. Germany between the two world wars was an example of a society which moved from the first state (decline) into the second (running hot) and finally the third (detonation and collapse) without passing through the sustainable state of balance between. The European empires (Britain's amongst them) ran hot for a time, approached melt down but exhausted their fuel.

The US is running hot at the moment, and getting hotter - with no obvious limits on its supplies of fuel. Unless it finds a way to value the mediocre, without devaluing the exceptional, its future will not be pretty.

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