Saturday, July 07, 2007

Shut Up, Bono*

That was not my kinder side that wrote the title.*

David Toussaint had an excellent column yesterday, The Best of Everything, which delves into the myth of meritocracy. As I'm sure you recall, meritocracy is the idea that achievements in life are based entirely on merit. It's the American Dream. You can go as far as your merit takes you! So the best writers have sold the most books! The best bands have the biggest fattest contracts! And those business executives? They must have worked really really hard.

A meritocracy is a system rewards folks who work hard and well with accomplishments in the traditional sense (wealth and status). We don't live in this sort of system, but many people believe that we do because we're told that we do all the time. And the really "successful" folks, such as Bono, definitely think their achievements are based on their own exceptional merit. Bono worked hard and is extremely talented. But that's not the only thing that made him successful. There are plenty of folks who are just as talented and worked just as hard.

I suppose the notion of meritocracy riles me for two reasons:

1. I hear a lot of rhetoric about the meritocracy in the media and by politicans as if it works.

2. I hear a lot of real-life work stories, and none of them seems to indicate that a meritocracy exist. I hear about people working hard and being laid off. I hear about people doing brilliant work that is stolen by others. I hear about the best work ever written never being published.

Here's an excerpt from Toussaint's column:

The July issue of Vanity Fair is guest-edited by Bono, who, describing his excitement, told the New York Times that "These are the best writers in America." With all due respect to U2’s frontman, to Conde Nast, the publishing house that owns Vanity Fair, and to the many fine wordsmiths who work for the magazine, I strongly disagree. I don’t think the best writers in America work for Vanity Fair any more than I think U2 is the greatest rock and roll band in the world. The greatest writers in America are no doubt undiscovered (like a lot of garage bands), alone at a computer somewhere, pounding away at the Great American Novel, a great short story, or play, or just something good. In our world of six billion people, in which at times it would seem as if half that many are aspiring artists, it’s beyond presumptuous to assume the best ones are taken. Judging by what terrible art is produced each year, it would be beyond frightening were it true.
I certainly don't believe I'm one of the best writers in the United States, but I sure don't believe Bono. Read the entire column here and read more about meritocracy here.

*For the record, I do feel bad about saying, "shut up."