Success is a decision every individual makes as part of determining for one’s self the meaning of life. From meaning we know purpose, and from purpose, teleology; and from our goals we know success. But when instead we allow the definition of success to be forced upon us, we give up the essential responsibility of our existence: choice. This makes us responsible to the choice of other human beings; to the goals of other institutions. Let success be what your teacher tells you, or what your government tells you, or what your church tells you, and see whose cause you dedicate your life to.
We encourage our youth, thus, from the start, to follow the path as it has been laid out for them; so that they can serve another’s cause. In the process of this, however, in our age of individualism, it is necessary to represent the success of others as success for the individual. This requires awards and constant praising; constant pandering of egos. It also requires a logic that justifies an institution even in its defects; that displays the institution as still serving the individual’s cause even as he or she sacrifices habitually for it. Therefore, we do not teach our kids to think well critically, to understand and exhibit caution towards rhetoric, or to question authority regardless of its uniform or party affiliation. Instead, we teach them rhetoric as useful and sophistry as necessary. We teach the image as indicative of function and of form; that is to say as signal of both talent and qualification. We teach the image as what they ought to seek and also what they ought to seek in others.
Participation is the key thing, because it shows you are a good little worker and fit well to the mold: like an award for not being a sociopath, except sociopaths are often good at playing games. The marker fails twice. Diplomas can be bought for the smallest of achievements and the highest of prices — and yet curiosity abounds as to their worthlessness. Test scores act as the facade of intelligence; the picture we place on our national fridge. Everything is goal-oriented and everyone capitulates for fear of never reaching it. One must do well on the test. One must go to college. One must get good grades. One must accrue debt. One must buy a house. One must get a nice job. One must have the affectations, the dressing, the imagery of happiness.
In the arts, the production of film and music give way to annual awards which become the true measure of success. The song plays — but you should hear the acceptance speech. The movie rolls — but you should see the ceremony. The novel, too, is plastered with seals. L’art pour l’art is an affirmation; art for awards is a constant pining for external validation that leaves both art and artist powerless. What is there outside the painting that it requires for approval? It does not even require the artist for its existence. It outgrows the artist once another sees it. It outgrows that other in the eyes of the artist. Telling a story, breathing just as we do, it lives forever. But what is immortality compared to acceptance? What is immortality if not acceptance? The cultural elite must put their fingers into everything. One can imagine Alexander the Great alive today, anticipating his big debut and wondering what the magazines will say. Finally, upon appraisal, he elates: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair It got me this blue ribbon at the fair!”
Every four years, we Americans vote for President. But this is not a decision of ethics or even of policy. While the true test of a candidacy is how many votes it receives, the media has taken care to apply other means of evaluation long before November. Voting becomes a practical decision of first assessing who is likely to win and then choosing between the least worst option. Opinion polls conducted of a small percentage of the voting public tell us who is leading the race before it begins, making the election itself unnecessary and giving, anyways, the voter a clear guideline on when and where a vote is wasted. But this, too, is doubly a farce: the vote itself is already wasted. One out of millions is superfluous, and one outside the electoral college is literally nothing.
What, then, does the voter possess after exiting the booth? A sense of pride, perhaps? A feeling of a duty acknowledged? Or maybe just a little dirty. Maybe an ever-rising spectre of disgust. The novel gets a ribbon. The movie, a statue. The student, a grade. The unemployed, a diploma. The loser, even, a trophy. The voter gets a sticker. And, when we die, we get a gravestone and an epitaph. Congratulations. You did it.