Setting The Bar

When our standards don't live up to our standards

--> arlier this fall the literary critic Harold Bloom unloosed a memorable blast in the Los Angeles Times. His target was the National Book Foundation and its decision to bestow an award for "distinguished contribution" to the novelist Stephen King. This award, Bloom noted, had previously been given to such masters of the literary craft as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Arthur Miller, whereas Stephen King's thrillers "sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat." Bloom saw the decision to honor King as one more episode in "the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."

Shortly before Bloom's article appeared, that same paper ran a news story about yet another instance of sliding norms—in this case, involving how the military deals with its deserters. I remember reading about a scholarly conference in Belgium some years ago on the subject of executions for desertion during World War I. One of the participants argued that it would be wrong to regard the fleeing soldiers as derelict in their duty; they weren't deserting, silly, they were "merely exploring the boundaries of consent and personal motivation in a democracy at war" (the boundaries being somewhat to the rear). That argument has now been embraced in spirit by the U.S. Army, which today—even under the Bush Administration and in time of war—almost never prosecutes deserters and, according to the news account, takes a "passive, good-riddance approach to its runaways." In 2001 about 5,000 people decided to simply up and leave the U.S. military. No American has been shot for desertion since 1945.

Whatever happened to standards? This has been a consistent refrain of social observers and literary critics down through the ages, and although some of these people are professional curmudgeons, it's hard to argue that they don't have a point. My father, when informed that Bill Clinton had admitted to indulging in "inappropriate" behavior with Monica Lewinsky, observed that he could remember a day when "inappropriate" meant wearing brown shoes in public after 6:00 P.M. An article in the pages of this magazine in 1892 took note of softening standards for admission to Harvard, but the "new" criteria it described (including "an elementary working knowledge of four languages, two ancient, Latin and Greek, and two modern, French and German") would seem almost laughably stringent to modern eyes. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing in The American Scholar a decade ago, described how society's increasingly relaxed standards were allowing more and more marginal behavior to gain gradual acceptance. He called the process "defining deviancy down."

As foreigners are often quick to point out, the entire American way of life sometimes seems to be a monument to eroding standards. One of George Carlin's most famous routines, back in the 1970s, centered on the seven words one couldn't use on television or radio. Today most of those words are used multiple times in any episode of The Sopranos. In many jurisdictions people were once drawn for service on juries from the pool of registered voters; voter registration is now so low in some places that courts must draw from the pool of people with driver's licenses. Until recently it was rare for professional basketball teams to recruit players directly from high school; high school students, it was argued, simply lacked sufficient personal or athletic maturity. LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and Kevin Garnett, among others, show what has happened to this standard. For most of my lifetime North America had only five lakes that were officially deemed Great—until 1998, when Congress voted to classify Lake Champlain, on the border between Vermont and New York, as a sixth Great Lake. The provision was actually signed into law, but was later revoked. (The instigator of Champlain's enhancement, Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, gamely weathered criticism as "the Fourth Stooge.")

Of course, the situation with respect to standards is not straightforward, because for every example of declining norms in one area of life there is an example of rising norms somewhere else. Educators have plenty of bones to pick with aspects of standardized testing, but there's no question that assessment tests are increasingly widespread, having been mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Almost every state has by now set a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent as the legal threshold for intoxication while driving—stricter than the 0.1 percent that used to be common. It is well known that language purists in France vociferously resist the encroachment of words from America; but the French have been joined in this hand-wringing by worried elites in England, Russia, Spain, and elsewhere. The writing of a résumé was once a personal and even idiosyncratic enterprise, encompassing a variety of approaches, but there now exists a Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches to certify practitioners and enforce a code of ethics.

And although the Pentagon may have become lax on the matter of desertion, it is a Torquemada on the matter of obesity. In fiscal year 2002 the Marine Corps discharged eighty-eight people because of an excessive percentage of body fat; the Air Force discharged 394, and the Army discharged 945. (The Navy did not discharge anyone for obesity—perhaps because in that service the extra buoyancy is actually an advantage.) The Russians, no doubt honoring some vestigial memory of superpower competition, have shown a similar resolve in the weight department. Last September the overseers of the Bolshoi Ballet dismissed the well-known ballerina Anastasia Volochkova on the grounds that "she is hard to lift."

In his book The Control of Nature, John McPhee described the dynamic of upthrust and erosion in the mountains of southern California. "The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth," he wrote, and then added, "Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world." Standards experience a similar dynamic.

The body dimensions of the original Barbie doll were such that if she were life size, the critical measurements would be 38-18-34. But in 1998 Mattel introduced a revised doll, Really Rad Barbie, whose unofficial extrapolated dimensions were 36-24-34—a modest step toward a different ideal. A box of Crayola crayons once held a single crayon whose shade was designated "flesh"—roughly the color of a piglet after a warm bath. Now Crayola markets a whole box devoted entirely to flesh tones: peach, mahogany, sepia, burnt sienna—the full Benetton spectrum.

Some standards aren't worthy of the name in the first place, and in any event standards will always be in flux. But surely there are a handful on which we might all agree to hold the line—this far and no further, unto the end of days. To start this long-overdue public conversation, I'll propose ten.

I. "EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK" ("Los empleados deben lavarse las manos antes de regresar al trabajo").

II. "Women and children first" (except maybe Ann Coulter).

III. Notoriety does not denote "famousness," enormity does not denote "bigness," and religiosity does not denote "religiousness."

IV. "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood."—official rules, Major League Baseball

V. "Honey, you look great!" (still the only correct answer).

VI. "Parents should never issue birth announcements or write letters of thanks that pretend to be coming directly from the baby."—Miss Manners

VII. "First, do no harm."—Hippocrates

VIII. The federal adulteration limits for cocoa powder ("75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams") and chocolate ("60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams").

IX. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."—the Golden Rule (worth a try?)

And finally,

X. Anything that does "little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat" deserves an award.

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor.
Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In