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An Ode to Mediocrity

Avram Alpert wants to make a deal with the universe. He’s drawn up the terms. His signature gleams on the bottom line. While he waits for the universe to sign, he’s gone ahead and written a book, The Good-Enough Life, making the case for his splendid proposal. My expectations for this book were quite modest, but Alpert still managed to disappoint. 

The Good-Enough Life is vintage pajama-boy philosophy: wide-eyed, drearily therapeutic, maddeningly earnest. The argument, in basic form, is quite simple. Modern people ought to let go of fruitless ambition, and strive instead to be decent, loving, and joyful human beings. Alpert has noticed that the meritocratic rat race does not reliably set people on a thrilling journey of self-actualization. Also, there is the problem of privilege, which has saddled him (as a white, middle-class, cisgendered man) with something of a conundrum: he cannot but view every personal success as something of a failure for society at large. It’s an unhappy place to be as one reaches early middle-age, when youthful idealism starts giving way to a yearning for roots and respectability. He has a solution to offer, however. Instead of chasing money and titles, he advises all of us to satisfy ourselves with such modest achievements as talent and circumstance may place within reach. Here endeth the sermon. Go in peace.

Possibly, some readers will still have questions. Why does Alpert need an entire book to make such a simple point? A single page on a motivational flip calendar would seem sufficient. Why should we aim for a “good-enough” life instead of striving to be as excellent as we possibly can? As the saying goes, shooting for Purgatory may land us in Hell. Also, isn’t this all just rather silly?

I will answer these questions in turn, hopefully liberating readers from any rogue impulse they may feel to purchase, or attempt to read, this book. Along the way though, I will try to offer some insights into Alpert’s particular breed of moral underdevelopment, which is surely not unique to him. Educated society is well stocked with men like this: moral simpletons with exquisitely sensitive social consciences. They often suffer from a type of “woke OCD,” which instills a strong sense of civic obligation, even as it undercuts all the faculties a person most needs to meet even the ordinary obligations. Alpert may really deserve our sympathy. It’s possible that his condition may be curable,  and my final section will make a few suggestions along these lines. 

Prophet of Planned Mediocrity

Alpert indeed might want to consider moving into the flip-calendar or greeting-card business, because he certainly writes like a man who is gunning for desk space in some university administrator’s office. The book reads like a mission statement that never seems to end:

As good-enough individuals, we will accept our limitations and embrace our humility, but we will also insist on our right to a voice, to equal power, to the recognition that we are decent and deserving of a world that appreciates our contributions. Our primary aspiration will not be to rise to the top of the social order, but to help create a world in which rising to the top hardly matters. We will find our virtue in our ability to work together to ensure decency and sufficiency for all. Having embraced the possibility of failure, we will be creative and adaptable, and we will have the security to engage with the full complexity of being human.

I endured more than 200 pages of this. I may put in a request for hardship pay. 

In the early chapters of The Good Enough Life, I hydrated my flagging spirit in Mystery Science Theater 3000 fashion, raining snarky barbs on the book’s defenseless pages. Midway through though, I started to feel real pity for Alpert. He clearly believes, quite sincerely, that he is saying something important. This curiosity does call for explanation. With apologies, then, I will have to put him on the couch. 

Following his parents’ divorce, Alpert explains to readers that he was raised by a quartet of progressive Jews, dividing his youthful days between his rabbi father and step-mother, and his mother (a Woman’s Studies professor) and her lesbian partner (a “social justice philanthropist”). The unfortunate Alpert spent his early years trying to reconcile intense-but-empty ambition with a pious devotion to diversity and inclusion. In his early teens, he was set on “getting to the top of the economic hierarchy, in a very conventional way.” Then his mother took him to Costa Rica for a bout of poverty tourism. Not long after that, the Battle of Seattle set Alpert’s youthful imagination ablaze. He had found his life’s purpose. He would be an activist. 

Years later, middle age finds him ensconced as a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, calling his mother frequently to discuss his “peripatetic” life situation. He’s still obsessed with inequality, empowering the marginalized, and all the usual things. He’s bumping along without disaster, but he’s never quite managed to Make a Difference, as that little voice inside him always said he was meant to do.  Now though, he is making one more brave attempt to square his eternal circle. Embracing the spirit of I’m-okay-you’re-okay, Alpert hopes that this may represent humanity’s new dawn.

This is not hyperbole. Alpert’s faith in the power of good-enough is truly astonishing. Collectively laying aside our quest for empty status, he suggests, will open the door to a truly egalitarian society in which everyone feels valued and affirmed. Our human relationships will become more loving and fulfilling, as we embrace people for who they are. Shameless self-seekers will stop hogging the limelight, and countless “invisible Einsteins” will emerge, blossoming with talent. Also, we will heal the planet. 

Only a veteran activist could pour so much hope into this kind of “give everyone a kitten” plan for social reform. By his own account, Alpert has not even convinced his nearest friends, but he is now trying to sell his idea as the blueprint for global justice. Obviously, this is not a person who is accustomed to dithering over the details.

Alpert does at least recognize that his plan strikes many people as impractical. He still thinks it’s worth a try. In fact though, impracticality is not the worst defect in Alpert’s Revolution of Good-Enough. Even conceptually, it is deeply problematic, for reasons that may give deeper insight into the tortuous turnings of the woke mind.

Social Justice and Integrity

 Limping along through the final chapters on economic justice and environmentalism, I found myself thinking more and more about Bernard Williams, the great 20th-century critic of utilitarianism. Williams brilliantly argued (most famously in Consequentialism and Integrity) that universalist commitments are incompatible with the kind of personal integrity that actually enables people to live good lives. If I accept the demand of, say, Jeremy Bentham, to act always in such a way as to realize “the greatest good for the greatest number,” I must also accept that my personal goals or commitments may sometimes need to be sacrificed to that larger goal. It’s simply selfish to tend my own garden, if my efforts would be more appreciated in someone else’s yard. It’s wrong to spend an afternoon taking my children to the zoo, if I could spend that time helping someone with more serious needs.

On deeper reflection, we find that this demand is simply intolerable. The needs of “the greatest number” are relentless. If I am beholden to them, I will be totally unfree to make any real commitments, or to pursue personal goals with any consistency or discipline. That won’t lead me to a good, or even good-enough, life. It will lead to misery. Without meaningful personal commitments, what is the point of living?  

The “safe space” of social justice ideology has proven more impenetrable than Siddhartha’s tapestry-lined palace. 

Before reading The Good-Enough Life, I had not reflected on the relevance of Williams’ famous critique to the social-justice agenda. Alpert’s entire life, as narrated in his book, seems to stand as a blazing illustration of Williams’ insight. Clearly, he internalized the commitments of his social-justice-activist parents in youth, and this left him with a crippling inability to make serious personal commitments. He still feels compelled to narrate his entire life as an expression of fidelity to “social justice,” faith notably lacking in forgiveness or respect for persons. Particularly in light of his “privilege,” he does not feel entitled simply to live a dignified life. Thus, he has ended up writing an absurd book as part of his “peripatetic” lifestyle, bending to the compulsions of the woke OCD. 

The Face of Suffering

In the last section, I mentioned Bernard Williams. One other figure flashed regularly into my mind. This is Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha. Perhaps it was the cover, or the fact that Alpert does actually mention Siddhartha in passing, but it seemed to me that there were interesting points of overlap between Alpert’s life, and that of the young Hindu prince. Rigorously shielded from the reality of suffering and death, Siddhartha was blissfully naive until long after he had reached physical maturity. Escaping his palatial prison one day, he came face to face with the reality of sickness, suffering, and death. He recognized with sharp terror that the horrors he was seeing were not truly alien to him. They were endemic to a human nature that he also shared, which meant that they would one day claim him, along with everyone he loved. This profound insight shattered the youth’s complacency, and the personal crisis that followed ultimately gave rise to a set of spiritual teachings that provided the foundation for Buddhism. I am a Catholic, not a Buddhist, but I can still admire the seriousness of the Buddha’s encounter with suffering. 

The contrast to Alpert is striking. One looked death straight in the eyes, and spent the rest of his life grappling with the implications of what he saw. The other got the briefest taste of suffering on an adolescent slum tour, and fled back to the comforts of his platitudinous cocoon. He still maintains that serious suffering is not authentically human at all, but merely a consequence of unrestrained capitalism and meritocratic excess. Throughout his book on imperfection, he issues gentle reminders of life’s little disappointments, but it still seems that deep betrayal, crippling disappointment, or severe personal inadequacy have no meaningful place in Alpert’s worldview. He steadfastly refuses to accept these as human realities in which he, as a member of this species, must share. The “safe space” of social justice ideology has proven more impenetrable than Siddhartha’s tapestry-lined palace. 

This comports with my general experience of America’s educated classes. They have some characteristic virtues, but fortitude and long-suffering are not among them. They wait until they are prosperous to marry, so that they can experience the “for better” without the “for worse.” They helicopter their children, steadfastly urging them to follow their dreams. They are terrified of sickness and death. These are people who have done everything in their power to avoid the Buddha’s unpleasant awakening. They just want the good times, or at least good enough. 

This is not the human condition, however. We don’t live in a world in which lions lie down with lambs while the humans cheerfully self-actualize. Alpert must move beyond the “bargaining” stage of his grief, in which he offers up his half-baked youthful ambitions in exchange for a comfortable life, enjoyed in company with the entire world. Of course, there was always a bow on that package: if the universe agreed to his deal, and his book became a bestseller, he could be the broker of good-enoughness, capturing after all the personal distinction, or greatness, that he has obviously yearned for his whole life. 

It is not to be. But maybe it’s not too late for Alpert and his peers. Life has a way of presenting Siddhartha’s harsh lesson over and over again. Maybe, next time, he will learn.

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