Merit

I’ve been wanting to write something on merit for awhile. I think this has a lot to do with it, PR for her book aside. I don’t accept that parenting has only two extreme sides. Much of her claim comes from a ridiculously small sample size – well, her children excelled after her brand of parenting, so ALL children will, and all children who don’t have this kind of parenting will in turn not excel at anything. Or, rather, this is what is implied by the excerpt.

I have problems with the whole idea of a meritocracy, though I’ve not gotten to the point that I can articulate them quite yet. It has something to do with self-worth and external validation, citizens vs. non-citizens, percentage of the population with “talent” or “competence” at specific activities, the reliability of education, knowing something vs. using that knowledge, celebrities as role models, and the American ideal of everyone going to college. Something seems deeply wrong to me. It’s not an issue of the world being “fair,” because, frankly, it is not. The perpetuation of the American dream is a civilization-level lie, but again, that’s not quite what I’m disturbed by.

Perhaps it is that some people accept America as flawed, but hold that it is the best system available. This passive judgment sacrifices a half-ton of ideals. Flaws are rendered permanent. There is no need to look for better systems or progress. There is only the struggle between parties, between who is right and who is wrong. The rules don’t change.

This line of thinking reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Dirty Harry. When it came out, one of the main criticisms was that it was a fascist vigilante fantasy, which has always struck me as a classic example of a bad reading. The film isn’t about how Harry is some kind of ideal vigilante wantonly pissing on the law as he executes criminals without due process. It’s about frustration.

I’m hard pressed to think of a film where the protagonist is more frustrated. Harry hates his superiors for being ineffectual and cowardly. He hates mundane bank robbers who won’t let him finish his hot dog. He hates suicidal idiots that waste his time. He hates rapists. He hates serial killers. He hates getting a confession thrown out because he tortured a man to make him reveal the location of a woman who was buried alive, and didn’t have a warrant to search his lodgings. He hates that his wife was senselessly killed by a drunk driver. He hates that his partners regularly get shot and then drop out of the game. He hates society for being cheap and tawdry, and for letting innocents be terrorized and killed. And he really, really hates having to do something about it, because it corrupts him and turns what would be meritorious – a strong desire for justice – into a disgrace. He has the same line-crossing problem that Batman has, though Harry has a far easier solution due to his willingness to shoot people dead. Magnum Force explores the same idea, but not nearly as well, though the talk between Harry and Briggs at the end is interesting because it clarifies how he has compromised with what he calls “the system.”

I don’t like the system that much either. Human life is valued semi-randomly. It’s not universally cheap (the middle class is still quite large), but neither is it uniformly expensive (no shortage of homeless people). Class matters, race matters, gender matters, money matters, fame matters, beauty matters, ambition matters, intelligence matters, and education matters. Of these, only the last three are viewed as completely neutral and dependent on individual free will. The rest you are either born into, or acquire through luck, misadventure, and/or application of the last three.

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