Writing on the nature of our cultural mood, Marilynne Robinson contrasts a time when “meaning had a larger frame and context than this life in this world,” to what our civilization aims for today:
I think the true name for what we aspire to is nonfailure. Most of those who are household names in this strange time are objects of horror or derision, a fact which in many instances reflects our need rather than their deserving. My son came home from school once staggered by a discussion of Abraham Lincoln, whom he revered. None of the other students would be persuaded that Lincoln went into politics for anything but the money. The grandeur of his speeches merely proved the depth of his cynicism. In the same way, we can refuse evidence of actual merit, and we can discredit seriousness, and we can feel morally acute while we do it. Our defenses against real success are invulnerable. Our hostility to success of every kind is demonstrated afresh every day.
But nonfailure is another thing. Income and credit shrewdly managed, desiderata learned from the better shops of catalogs and systematically acquired — for better and for worse, this is not much to aspire to. It is because our hopes are in fact so very modest that we can be made to fear another teenager with a baby might snatch them all away. It is because we hope to acquire rather than to achieve — in the old language of religion, to receive rather than to give — that the good we imagine can truly be taken from our hands.
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, “Reality,” pp. 84-85
This is a good observation because it touches on the mediocrity that is — more often than not — more popular today than true excellence. Excellence seems so often unattainable that the purveyors of low culture win the day because it’s something which people see within reach.
Thus, we end up with “reality shows” setting the tone for our national discussions, and “not getting kicked off the island” as the hallmark of success.