The nostalgia for quality

Historian Barbara Tuchman has returned from the 14th century of her latest book to cast a censorious eye on "the decline of quality" in our own time. Remember Nancy Mitford pasting those old U (for upper-class) and non-U labels on the use of language? Now, in a New York Times Magazine cover story, Mrs. Tuchman offers Q (for quality) and non-Q labels for efforts and products in the cultural realm. And "The prevailing tendency is non-Q."

Ah, the nostalgia for quality! Has there ever been an age in which someone didn't think things were better or must have been better in the past? Has there ever been a pundit who looked around and proclaimed "the risem of quality" in his day? With all the bi-partisan resort to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential campaign, any kind of nostalgia ought to be tested against his words: "I have distinct reservations as to how good "the good old days' were. I would rather believe that we can achieve new and better days."

Mr. Tuchman has some hope, too: "If incompetence does not kill us first, Q will continue the combat against numbers. It will not win, but it will provide a refuge for the trash-beleaguered."

We are even more optimistic. As Mrs. Tuchman recognizes in her blunt espousal of elitism, not everyone would affix the Q and non-Q labels exactly as she does. She boldly risks the charge of comparing apples and oranges by contrasting Johnny Carson with Fred Astaire, for example, instead of Carson with a predecessor like Jack Paar or Astaire with a disciple like Baryshnikov. But she valuably reminds us of the importance of quality in the sense of "investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible." Our optimism stems from an impression that there is a countercurrent against the proliferation of non-Q, and it exists not only among those who consider themselves the elite.

Mrs. Tuchman touches on how Q enhances the crafts trend in reaction to the floods of tawdry merchandise. The wider movement for quality of life -- or should we say Q of life? -- is looking for Q and willing to labor for Q whether in the home, the workplace, or the environment at large. We'll be returning to the whole subject of quality again.

Meanwhile, Q and non-q could become an amusing game. But it would really be non-Q for the world to leave it at that.

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