The Chinese say: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This old saying was meant, most probably, to motivate people to learn a skill rather than count on handouts and to highlight the importance of education.
But does that great proverb apply to cultures and our modern public discourse? I believe it does. We live in an age where more and more people have become dependent on packaged contexts – many of us have stopped thinking and analysing. Instead, we wait for that analyst or that social media influencer to tell us X is good and Y is bad.
In his book, Mediocracy: The Politics of the Extreme Centre, Canadian academic Alain Deneault argues that the mediocre have taken over the world.
The imports culture extended beyond consumer goods and food. We imported pre-packaged culture too. And with the recent social media surge in the region, we began importing our collective awareness from the mediocre, the so-called ‘fashionistas’ or ‘influencers’
These are the people without a vision or the ability or the desire to excel. We became content with the middle. We no longer want to disturb the sweeping conformism. “There was no Reichstag fire. No storming of the Bastille. No mutiny on the Aurora. Instead, the mediocre have seized power without firing a single shot.
They rose to power on the tide of an economy where workers produce assembly-line meals without knowing how to cook at home, give customers instructions over the phone that they themselves don’t understand, or sell books and newspapers that they never read,” he says in the introduction of the book.
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The rise of populism
If we look at today’s political spectrum, we will surely understand Deneault’s point. Moreover, we will be able to understand the rise of populism, although Deneault didn’t address this is his book.
Populists thrive on the inability of some to make their own independent opinions. They target the mediocre because they are easy to win over.
Their buttons are easy to press. Natives are faced with the danger of overwhelming immigration. Religious extremists are threatened by secularists and liberals. Followers of this sect don’t want to live with the followers of the other sect.
In the United States, President Donald Trump represents a clear example of a populist as he uses preconceived prejudices and ‘street’ language to fight his way back into the White House.
His strength in this regard stems from his use of a language that is often incendiary, not fit for a president, and one that doesn’t need a highly or even moderately educated person to understand. There is no depth in his sentences.
They target those who can be described as Trump’s support base — many of them used to admire him when he was a reality TV celebrity.
Counting on the mediocres
Those who liked “You’re fired” will sure like “Lock her up”, “Sleepy Joe”, “China Virus”, “Thugs, outlaws and anarchists”, “Democratic hoax”. It worked for him well in 2016. He counts on the mediocres to carry him again to the White House in November.
Italian economists, Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti and Andrea Tesei argued in a study published in July 2019 by the American Economic Association that “trash TV” helped Silvio Berlusconi, one of Europe’s best known populists, win the premiership four times, between 1994 and 2011.
Italians were exposed to entertainment TV while children were “less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi’s populist rhetoric,” the study noted. Needless to say one of the biggest Italian TV networks, Mediasat, is infamous for its provocative reality programmes.
Reign of superficiality
In the Arab world, the situation can get even worse. It might not be reality TV oriented but surely similar in outcome. The rise of Daesh and Al Qaida is squarely populist. Audio tapes of Osama Bin Laden and later Al Baghdadi videotaped sermons appealed to the mediocre.
They were told over and over again that their religion was under threat. Most investigations into the recruitment methods of these terror networks found out that most recruits were either school dropouts or with low education. Mediocracy again. And it keeps getting worse.
Historians argue that the rise of superficiality began in the 1980s which coincided with the rise of the Right in the US and UK, with the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Oliver Stones did a great job in chronicling this period in his classic film, Wall Street. “Greed is good,” Gordon Gecko kept repeating in the movie.
In the Arab world, we are not far from this shift. I think the impact has been even bigger in this region. We were hit by two vicious currents: the ultra-religious movement and the postmodern movement (this one was unfortunately not a natural evolution of modernity, in which we did not enter at all by that time, but was more of a jump into the void).
These two currents were not interested in building on the prevailing societal values but sought to completely break with those foundations. The roles of a sensible leader, the intellectual and the creative artist were replaced by religious extremists and petty artists.
Even our food outlets were replaced overnight by the likes of McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Consumerism, dependent on imports, replaced national manufacturing – especially in traditional manufacturing states such as Egypt and Lebanon.
The imports culture extended beyond consumer goods and food. We imported pre-packaged culture too. And with the recent social media surge in the region, we began importing our collective awareness from the mediocre, the so-called ‘fashionistas’ or ‘influencers’.
Now influencers have the power to define the social standards and draw the boundaries of our culture. Replacing the Bin Ladens and Al Baghdadis, the influencers are our new populists. This is mediocracy at its best.