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Participation trophies 

Long ago, when our society was still cohesive enough to at least have a few common points of consensus, the one thing that most of us could agree upon was the desirability of maintaining a meritocracy. Recognizing that some people are better at some things than others are, whether by talent or by effort, we agreed on the desirability of awarding recognition and success according to achievement. Racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination were not only offensive but counterproductive, because they set up artificial barriers preventing the more deserving individuals from fully achieving, and rewarded the less deserving.

My, my, but how times change. Currently, we are entering the era of "equality of outcome," in which everyone is deemed equally entitled to comparable success and recognition, regardless of their skills and the amount of effort exerted. This seems to be the result of the "everyone gets a trophy" culture introduced during the 1980s and 1990s, which discouraged all competition in order to spare the feelings of the unsuccessful. Everyone became a "winner" and entitled to have their self-esteem endlessly bolstered. Recall the widely satirized 1980s California self-esteem commission, which recommended that everyone be slathered with unearned praise for merely existing.

The modern online music world offers some insights into what we have become. Streaming allows anyone to post their musical performances online, without any gatekeepers or barriers, where the music is easily available to anyone with a computer or smartphone. Millions of aspiring rockstars have posted their music. Records are kept of the number of views of each tune, and not surprisingly, some are more popular than others.

In a recent routine, comedian Bill Maher offered some cutting commentary on "trophy-ism," the success gap, and the complaints by some frustrated fame-seekers that "not being famous isn't fair." He focused on complaints that streaming unfairly failed to recognize all aspirants equally, and that only a few musicians (the "good ones") get any attention.

Maher cited an article last year in Rolling Stone magazine complaining that "streaming hasn't just upheld the gap between music's haves and have-nots, it's widened it," and that pretty much the same musicians are still getting most of the attention. Rolling Stone went on to whine that almost all the streaming activity goes to the top 4 percent of the artists, and then opined that "in a perfect world, the bottom 1 percent of artists would get 1 percent of the activity." In other words, success should be proportionately distributed.

Think about that for a moment. Apparently, the ideas of talent, merit and personal tastes have become passé, and every musical aspirant is equally deserving of success, regardless of the quality of their music and the lack of public interest. Any failure to receive recognition must be "unfair."

The streaming world, with direct and nearly universal access, is the most democratic environment possible. How can it be unfair? And who do you blame for the "unfairness" in viewership? The public who fail to recognize the unquestionable beauty of your work?

It turns out that Andy Warhol's famous prognostication that "in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" wasn't actually a prediction. It was a mandate.

I wonder how many of these whiners stream music that they don't like? In the interests of "fairness," would they be willing to listen to, say, the soothing tones of a bagpipe recital posted by the proud parents of a 7-year-old "artiste"?

To be fair, this phenomena isn't new. Kids have always felt they were special. I recall tormenting a guitar in my youth, sure that, despite my increasingly obvious lack of talent, I might somehow get discovered and turned into a rockstar. Of course, this was the era of the Monkees, a contrived TV show band that cast actors who had to be taught musical skills in order to play their roles, so perhaps my dreams had some basis.

Traditionally, the realization that you were not special and would have to compete against others was part of reaching adulthood. But, as we have seen with the growing outcry over "income inequality," times have changed. We now have fully grown people arguing that the guy who spends the day playing video games in his parents' basement is as deserving of recognition and success as those who developed the COVID-19 vaccines, or new, groundbreaking technologies. "Equality of income" is the rallying cry for the adult participation trophy.

How far should we go to accommodate subjective feelings? Consider those who complain that math is "racist" because it accepts only the "right" answer, and doesn't allow for personal interpretations. Would you prefer to have physicians and airline pilots who use their personal "interpretation" of what their job should entail, or would you rather that they had a mastery of recognized skills?

Competition can be cruel and the results sometimes disappointing. And, of course, life isn't always fair, and success or failure can sometimes come down to just dumb luck. Still, I prefer a world in which I have some control over my own outcome, instead of having it determined by the diktats of politicians reacting to the votes and howls of the mob. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who still has his guitar, while his dog and neighbors wish he didn't. Send comments for publication to [email protected].

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