Paul Greenberg
"The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes on to impose itself where it can."

--José Ortega y Gasset

The Revolt of the Masses

Chapter 1, The Crowd Phenomenon

Future historians will surely call ours the Age of Mediocrity. That is, if they can recognize what mediocrity is by then, having been immersed in it so long they take it for excellence. Watching the president of the United States present this year's Medals of Freedom -- does anyone remember last year's, let alone any from the years before? -- the only striking aspect of the ceremony was the absence of anything striking.

Everything about the presentation of the-nation's-highest-civilian-honor, as the news coverage inevitably called it, seemed ordinary, nothing special, poor-to-middlin', commonplace but showy. In a word, mediocre. Not indecent, certainly, just familiar. As in familiarity breeds . . .

It was like watching one of the many unmemorable sitcoms on the tube. Something to fill a room with background noise lest we risk thinking. This year's show had been dunked in the same patina of ordinary vulgarity that covers the rest of American life in our time, made all the more so by the obligatory pomp-and-circumstance that came with the presentation of the medals, like french fries.

Ours is an age of fast food, fast honors and fast commentary on same. Then it can all be fast forgotten. If only this year's ceremony had been truly awful, not just part of the awfulness we accept daily, it would have been memorable. Instead it was eminently forgettable. Indeed, it is already forgotten.

For the most part, this year's medalists were the usual, conventional choices. But here and there on the list were some shining exceptions to the mediocre rule. Let that much be said, it should be said, from the outset. Let us now praise, no, not famous men but a few of this year's honorees who should be famous:

There was Jan Karski, the Polish patriot and resistance fighter who became an eloquent teacher in his long exile from his native land. His nobility shone through a life of both action and thought. Gallant and elegant to the end, his grand contempt for both great totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism, that rolled over his country and the world in his time was evident in every word of his lectures at Georgetown. It fit right in with his own tragic sense of life that he would receive this honor only posthumously.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.