‘Mediocrity is Excellence’
Archbishop Sheen described one factor now dragging down the West
I learned in engineering economics that quantity diminishes quality when constrained by limited resources. Manufacturers, farmers, engineers, and artists are subject to that reality. It applies to all human endeavors. Examples of this are found in the produce aisle of your grocery store. Commercially-grown, gas-ripened fruits like apricots are bland tasting compared to those slowly tree-ripened. After enjoying my own home-grown apricots, I now avoid buying their bland cousins at the grocery store, even those labeled “organically-grown.” Customers habituated to mediocrity have no benchmark for excellence and have no complaints.
Another example is the self-published, formula-based novel, written at the rate of a thousand books per day. Serial authors can write a book per month, ignoring how quantity comes at the cost of quality. Such pulp fiction is riddled with errors and with predictable stick characters who populate sappy plots with no instructive message. The few books that manage to press the public’s buttons can top some sort of bestseller list and start a trend. I steer clear of any book jacket boasting a #1 bestseller ranking. But readers habituated to mediocrity have no complaints.
I grew up reading classics like Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, and 1984, which are now being removed from school libraries to accommodate the cancel culture crowd. The novel Fahrenheit 451 predicted such society-wide outlawing of books that prod students into critical thinking. Today’s children will grow up unfamiliar with quality, preferring a mediocre menu of approved books.
For centuries, the Church was a powerful force in maintaining quality science, art, literature, and music. Few people know the Church inspired the formation of universities. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum banned books that threatened moral sensibilities and Church influence, and it successfully did so for over 400 years. From 1934 to 1954, the movie productions of every Hollywood studio needed to follow a strict set of moral guidelines, until Vatican II ushered in a climate of surrender to today’s high-tech, fast-paced, materialistic world.
Consider the huge popularity of The DaVinci Code published in 2003 by the confused agnostic Dan Brown, who insinuated Mary Magdalene and Jesus had children together. The Church tried to blacklist that book but failed. It was widely criticized for its many factual inaccuracies and clumsy prosaic style. Salman Rushdie, a British novelist, called it “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.” Linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum said, “Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” Jodi Picoult, an American novelist, said, “I don’t understand the hype over such a poorly written novel.” The author profited from sensationalism and titillating blasphemy, topping every bestseller list. From 2003 to 2009, it sold over 80 million copies across 44 languages. Romantic mystery has a rabidly enthusiastic fan base. I was then unaware of how much it excelled at being a mediocre novel.
Arson and vandalism of Catholic churches and statues now occur almost daily. The criminals moralize about their intentions, but taken as a whole their crimes are driving down Western culture. As Bishop Fulton J. Sheen lamented, “Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.” Those envy-driven attacks aim to destroy the Christian foundation of Western civilization that facilitated excellence and virtue.
Archbishop Sheen went on to say, “Mediocrity is excellence to the eyes of mediocre people.” Our children are being enculturated in this fashion.
But the truly wise among us savor quality over quantity. For men today it still holds true: “We shall know them by their fruits.”
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