November 13, 2004

Merit bad

I don't recall the line exactly, but at some point in Amadeus, Mozart is told that it's not wise to interpret the emperor's intention. At issue is a scene in Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro -- a scene with a dance. Because the emporer has forbidden ballet in his opera, the dancers can only dance without music -- and thus neither ballet or opera. Entirely ahistorical, no doubt, but a neat little scene nonetheless, and one I thought of when I learned today that 66 stations refused to air the film Saving Private Ryan because they feared getting fined under the same rules that led to CBS and its affiliates being fined for a few seconds of nudity in the Superbowl.

One can well hear the emperor stride in, notice the blank screens of the affiliates just as he noted the silent dance at Mozart's rehearsal, and whisper to the FCC censors, "Is this modern?" before declaring it nonsense. In the absence of that, of course, it's dangerous (actually, merely expensive) to interepret the emporer's intentions... (And yes, of course, I'm well aware that there were no blank screens, just as I'm fairly certain Mozart would have cut the silent dance rather than rehearse it that way...)

The other day I was flipping through The MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics, fourth edition, edited by David W. Pearce, and came across the following entry:

merit bad. A commodity, the consumption of which it is argued should be discouraged or prevented even though individuals choose to consume it. In such cases it is claimed that through ignorance or inability, the individual is not the best judge of his or her welfare. Examples of commodities which have been treated as merit bads include alcohol and drugs and a long list of works of literature. It is not clear who, if anyone, should determine which commodities are merit bads or on what principles. (See MERIT GOOD)

Nothing like an economics dictionary to put things into perspective (although a part of me can't help feeling, whenever I encounter anything economic, a real feeling that we are in fact dealing with the dismal science, and that there are, after all, only so many notes that the human ear can hear during the course of an evening...).

I've never seen Saving Private Ryan, and for that matter, I didn't see the infamous Superbowl half time show (nor would I have particularly cared to do so), but I'm not persuaded that either class of arbiters of merit bad (the FCC, the silly protesting ABC affiliate heads) are the sorts of people I'd want deciding whether, say, the works of a D.H. Lawrence (Ugh! bad salesmanship, I know), James Joyce (well, somewhat better), Ian Fleming (that's the ticket), or a particularly fine cigar is something with which I should spend an evening. Then again, it is TV, only TV and the same time ON TV!!!!!, which seems somehow to warp all dynamics (news, entertainment, art...) Comprehensive and moderne as my MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics may be, it lacks a definition for merit television, or TV, or TeeVee...

Posted by Ideofact at November 13, 2004 10:41 PM

Perhaps there's a way to add a rider to the "Merit Bad" definition to encompass television, with perhaps the occasional exception granted for, oh, Masterpiece Theater, National Geographic Specials and maybe Nero Wolfe?

Posted by: Bleu at November 15, 2004 01:06 PM

I don't suppose I could agitate for a more euphonious term than "merit bad"? It sounds like a Mongoism.

Posted by: Mitch H. at November 15, 2004 03:38 PM