Question: What prize was recently characterized by one of its winners as "mundane"?
a) Radio-Active Car Audio's "Loudest Car Stereo" contest.
b) The International Federation of Competitive Eating's World Tamale Eating Championship.
c) The Nobel Prize.
Talk about a no-brainer. The answer is "c" -- the Nobel Prize! On Tuesday, Japanese particle theorist Toshihide Maskawa, who shared this year's physics prize with two other researchers, told reporters in Kyoto that the Nobel was "a rather mundane thing."
Now, before I congratulate Maskawa by sending him a copy of "Miss Manners' Guide to Graciously Accepting Coveted International Awards," I'm going to extend him the benefit of a few doubts.
First of all, maybe there's a translation issue in play. Maybe Maskawa, who was presumably speaking Japanese, didn't say "mundane" but rather "massive" or "mega-awesome." Second, photos taken of the 68-year-old scientist during the news conference show a grinning man who looks a bit like he's trying to temper his excitement. Perhaps his use of "mundane" was simply an attempt to be modest. Perhaps he's even a past winner of the Loudest Car Stereo contest and didn't want to appear elitist by making a fuss over the smarty-pants Nobel.
It should be said that Maskawa, if he was being as dismissive as he sounds, isn't alone. Nobel Prize recipients have not always exhibited enthusiasm on the level of winners on "The Price Is Right." Jean-Paul Sartre found himself at such existential odds with the prize that he rejected it in 1964, famously stating that "a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution." In 1973, the Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Henry Kissinger but turned it down on the grounds that peace not had yet been established in his country.
And last year, in a scene immortalized on YouTube, the reliably cantankerous Doris Lessing greeted the news that she'd won the Nobel Prize in literature by telling a mob of reporters at her doorstep that she "couldn't care less." (Later, Lessing was courteous and obliging, though earlier this year, in a London Telegraph article, she referred to the prize committee as "a bunch of bloody Swedes.")
But despite this little tradition of thanklessness among laureates, Maskawa's "mundane" jumped out at me -- and not only because it had the highly annoying effect of making me feel at once schoolmarmish and intellectually feeble, about the worst combination there is. It caught my attention because it seemed sadly emblematic of the way the forces of irony and entitlement have produced a culture of people who often have no idea how to express simple, unqualified gratitude. From Oscar winners who turn their acceptance speeches into political diatribes to ordinary folks who've come to believe that text messages are as good as thank-you notes, it seems that old-fashioned graciousness, like Maskawa's Nobel, is now considered yawningly mundane.
And indifference to good fortune (or at least appearing that way) is hardly the only manifestation of this global deficit. Phony graciousness is arguably even worse. Take Sarah Palin's fondness for talking about being "blessed with the vote of the American people" (a more grammatical iteration of what she told Charlie Gibson). Despite the sugary delivery and the apparent aw-shucks thankfulness, her inclination to attribute the outcome of the coming election not to the democratic process but to otherworldly forces seems like a backhanded way of devaluing the very voter she's buttering up.
But it's not only Palin and grouchy Nobel Prize winners (yes, I've just compared the two; I'm as shocked as you are) who fall into this trap. Thanks to a world in which almost anything can be turned into a competition, we've all become ingrates out of sheer self-preservation.
Contest-based reality shows have eclipsed traditional storytelling on television, the Internet keeps constant tabs on our popularity by tallying our page views on MySpace and Facebook, and polls about everything from presidential readiness to cutest puppy photos are now the heartbeat of news reporting. We're all contending for something; we're constantly being evaluated and, therefore, we're constantly in danger of not measuring up. We all need coping mechanisms: Pretending victory is ordained by less-than-rational forces and, perhaps worse, pretending the big prize doesn't matter.
I also suspect that our graciousness deficit is the product not only of our love of sarcasm but of the paranoia that comes from a constant fear of disappointment. It's a form of anxiety that is only mounting in these scary economic times, the ultimate effect being that we've become so wary of our own ambitions and desires that it's easier to denigrate them than to try to fulfill them.
On the other hand, maybe we just have bad manners.
As much as I hate to keep picking on Maskawa -- because maybe when you're a particle theorist, everything else really is mundane -- I think he's presented us with an occasion to renew our appreciation for what may be the two most important, and underused, words in the English language: thank you.
Dull, yes. But somehow they always get the job done.