A More Perfect Mediocracy by Liel Leibovitz | Articles
One of the most spiritually meaningful journeys of my life involved the search for a desperately needed cup of coffee.
My wife and I were in Italy to attend a friend’s wedding, and because neither of us paid much attention to insignificant little details like directions or hotel departure times, we found themselves forced to embark on an overnight drive from the heel of the boot all the way north to verdant Tuscany. At some point – it was 2am or maybe 4am, it could have been just outside Rome or maybe after Naples – I felt I needed an espresso, or. We rode ten miles, then twenty, then thirty more in search of the elusive elixir. We drove up and down the highway. We took long detours through small towns, at one point considering knocking on the first door we saw and offering whoever answered a crisp hundred dollar bill for two minutes alone with his macchiato machine.
Finally, we found a small roadside restaurant that was open, ordered two espressos and drank with abandon. If one of Raphael’s dreamy-eyed angels had been the barista, we wouldn’t have been surprised: the brew was an ounce and a half of heaven.
For the rest of the trip, I could only think of this espresso. Why, I fumed, couldn’t I get such a transcendent photo in the United States? I told my wife, who was doing her best to take a nap, that at home we would be lucky to settle for a tasteless latte at Starbucks. “Yeah,” she joked, half asleep, “but there will be one open and available every six miles.”
And then it hit me: America is not really a land of meritocracy. It is a mediocracy, a nation dedicated to the mass production of reasonably acceptable and always accessible goods, services, people and ideas. And it is precisely this average quality that makes us both great and good. Other cultures shine their lights on a handful of rare and precious jewels while everything and everyone is shrouded in darkness. But it’s always morning in America, because we realize that it’s better to forget the perfect and settle for good enough stuff, easily reproducible and not too expensive.
OYour mediocrity isn’t just the backbone of our economy, allowing leviathans like McDonald’s to thrive promising the same unremarkable bite today in Akron that you enjoyed last Tuesday in Denver. It’s also the organizing principle of our unique brand of morality, an American philosophy that rewards sincere (or even just vigorous) effort, not excellence. To better understand this mentality, it is useful to travel to 1796, to a small town in the Vitebsk region of Imperial Russia called Liadi.
It was then and there that Shneur Zalman, a learned rabbi, published a book called Tanya. It was named after its first word, which is Hebrew for “it was taught”, and was meant to be a guide to a richer and more meaningful spiritual life. Its first part, the best known, is accompanied by a particular subtitle: sefer shel beinonim, “book of intermediaries” or “a book for average men”.
Its author was anything but average: by the age of eight, Zalman had already composed a comprehensive commentary on the Hebrew Bible. Shortly after his twelfth birthday, his teacher informed his parents that the boy no longer needed formal instruction, as the young genius was fully capable of mastering whatever discipline he chose on his own. In addition to the Torah, Shneur Zalman had a deep knowledge of mathematics, geometry, science, and a host of other secular disciplines. Given this intellectual prowess, when he grew up and became a great Hasidic master and teacher, he naturally turned to a less emotional and more rationalistic form of worshiping the Almighty.
But how do we approach the complex task of rendering to God his due? How, in other words, should one go about being religious? This, for a Hasidic rabbi, was like asking how one should live. Shneur Zalman’s response was simple, yet intensely profound, and particularly resonant with modern Americans like us, who are often self-proclaimed world beaters: Just remember you’re mediocre.
Very few people, he wrote on the first page of his amazing book, possess a genius for religion and are capable of great and moving feats of inspiration. Fortunately, this also means that very few people are truly evil. The vast majority, meaning you and me, are right in the middle. If we aspire to be like the handful of rare and pious saints, Shneur Zalman warned us, we will fail miserably. If we just try to be the best not-so-beautiful or talented versions of ourselves, we will thrive. The mediocre man is the most moral man, not because he climbs to the highest objectively measurable heights, but because he pushes himself as hard as he can. Effort, Zalman teaches, is everything.
It is therefore not surprising that the Hasidic dynasty founded by Shneur Zalman, Chabad Lubavitch, has flourished since its arrival on American soil. The Tanya may be written in the thick, beautiful language of a great Eastern European Jewish sage, but its sweeping ideas make it just as thoroughly American a book as, say, Poor Richard’s Almanac. Examine the advertising slogans that have inspired us for the past six decades – the closest thing we have in this country to a truly shared gospel – and you will see the impact of this blessed cult of mediocrity. The military, after all, didn’t recruit us into its ranks by urging us to be the best; it simply pushes us to be all that we can be.
OWould a nation that believed otherwise have its own native and flourishing literary genre, the self-help book? Or a multi-billion dollar home fitness industry? Or a torrent of kitchen gadgets that promises to help you cook like a master? Or cosmetics to make everyone look their best? This is Zalman translated into the secular sphere. Every journey of self-improvement, after all, must begin with the admission that there is much to improve and the recognition that the limits of our improvement are no greater than those of self.
Good luck explaining this to any nation of people working in the rotten soil worked for centuries by royal dynasties. The aristocratic tradition mocks our American spirit for advocating the opposite approach, arguing that it is better to exalt the few and the well-cared for, allowing them to set timeless and unsurpassable standards that only they meet. , than to allow the greatest number, the sloppy, and the happy to do something for themselves, in mediocre conditions. In other words, it is better to adorn society with the few than to make society as a whole a little better through the best efforts of an ever average, often boring number.
The aristocratic attitude can be useful in forging a society in which everyone looks up and expects the great and the good to take the initiative, a rigid structure based on hierarchies and inflexible rules. But the latter is much better if what you want is a community, a group of people who care about each other and promise each other – and God – nothing but their best. This truck stop coffee mug is surely the perfect metaphor for life in America. It’s far from flawless. In truth, it’s often pretty bad. But he’s always there for you, when and where you need him. Flying J, here I come!
It is no coincidence that the people who challenge this efficient and reliable spirit of mediocrity – our self-proclaimed intellectual and moral superiors who inform us, from their perches in Ivy League schools or the newsrooms of mainstream media or corporate offices, that they are the experts and therefore we have to wait for them to tell us what to think and what to do – they also seem to hate the very idea of America. These conceited meritocrats are incoherent. For we live in a country where, as William F. Buckley so aptly put it, we would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone book than by the prestigious faculty of Harvard.
We are sublimely average people, we Americans. We know that what makes us great can’t be measured by any simple metric, like how much money we have in the bank, how well we score on our SATs, or what awards we’ve won. What makes us great is that so many of us try. Yes, we fail happily, then learn to fail again in better and more interesting ways. But we are not a country driven by a few talents. We are a united country. “This land is your land; this land is my land,” Woody Guthrie sang. It’s a miracle that only perfectly mediocre people could pull off.
Liel Leibovitz is editor-in-chief for Tablet magazine and the co-host of his popular podcast, Unorthodox.