America isn’t alone in the downgrade shame spiral


(©Michael Krinke Photography/©MICHAEL KRINKE PHOTOGRAPHY)
August 11, 2011

America, you are the Honda Civic.

(Ignore the obvious logical problem that America is not Japanese.)

The car had been one of Consumer Reports’ Top Picks in five of the last 10 years. It was regularly among the publication’s highest-ranked small sedans. But this month, the 2012 redesign was released — the Honda Civic LX — and reviewers found that the ride was choppy and the interior was chintzy. In fact, Consumer Reports decided, it scored too low to be recommended at all.

Downgrade!

Few words in the English language have the poshly pleasantish connotations of “upgrade.” It means “extra.” It means “improved.” It means “legroom.” “Downgrade” just means “splat.”

The mighty have fallen before.

Superchef Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant, Maze, recently dropped three Zagat’s points. “I would have been very happy if he had held onto it,” Tim Zagat, co-founder of the restaurant-review bible, says gravely. Last year, one of Ramsay’s London restaurants lost a Michelin star. (Another British eatery, the Goose restaurant in Oxfordshire, has lost and found its Michelin stars three different times, which just starts to look careless.)

Last year, tech site CNET.com was forced to remove one of its stingily bestowed “Editors’ Choice” seals from a Panasonic television when, users complained, “the black was becoming less black,” says CNET Editor Scott Ard. “It was an anxiety.”

The Princeton Review’s newest college rankings, released a few weeks ago, have brought more shock and upheaval. Bowdoin College now has only the second-tastiest campus food. The University of California at Santa Cruz slipped to No. 2 in the category “Reefer Madness,” upended in a bold move by Colorado College.

“That was a surprise,” says Rob Franek, author of the review’s “376 Best Colleges.” Santa Cruz and Colorado “have been duking it out over the past couple of years,” he says, adding that the California school’s mascot might have helped seal the deal. The mascot is a banana slug.

Maybe everything, in the court of public dissection, has been downgraded. Here, citizens blinded by nostalgia have convinced themselves that nothing is as good as it used to be, even Julia Roberts, whom the blog Hollywood Prospectus just ranked as a Top 10 “Oscar Tarnisher,” based on the decline of her Rotten Tomatoes rankings. In Gallup’s annual “Confidence in Institutions” survey, which has been asking Americans how they feel about things since 1973, faith in public schools has been slowly downgraded (34 percent confidence compared with 58 in 1973), along with confidence in banks, newspapers, Congress, big business, organized religion, the U.S. Supreme Court and the presidency.

Downgrade nation!

“Confidence in things like the military has increased,” Dennis Jacobe, Gallup’s chief economist, says hopefully. “The police are still very high.”

But the downgrade still stings, because the downgrade does not represent failing, so much as it represents failing where you once succeeded, like the size 4 pants at the back of your closet.

“It’s sometimes a very tough conversation we have,” says Jayne Griswold, who is in charge of working with hotels that are on the brink of downgrade for Forbes Travel Guide. Like, “I respect the challenging position you might be in, but it’s not working.”

It’s not you. It’s me.

A downgrade might cause one to analyze just what led to it. Have we gotten so bad, or is it possible that expectations have simply upgraded? If the world keeps moving, are the things that remain the same downgraded by default?

The film “Around the World in 80 Days” won multiple Academy Awards in 1957 but now, film buffs concur, is worth watching only for the cameos by Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich.

“Or what about ‘Footloose’? Are people genuinely excited about the remake of ‘Footloose’?” asks Leonard Maltin, the author of the annual “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.” “Was it really that good? Did it really capture the hearts and minds of people?”

Poor Kevin Bacon.

And what of the downgraded? Is there any silver lining to be found at bottom of the pile?

“Maybe,” says Sandra Newman. She sounds dubious, but “maybe.” Newman is the author of “Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You’ll Ever Read.” Take Rudyard Kipling and D.H. Lawrence. Both are highly problematic authors — their works are imperialist, sexist and so many other negative “ists” that, in many schools, their works were downgraded years ago. But now that everyone acknowledges their shortcomings, the works suddenly seem a little less threatening, Newman says. “Since everyone agrees with you, there’s no point in being outraged.”

The downgrade is a chance for readers to begin anew, to appreciate the good things buried in the problematic writing. The downgrade is a chance for a fresh start.

Other institutions might view the downgrade as a brief setback, a minor bump in the road on their way back to greatness.

“We have been able — after some investigation — to identify the one dish Bowdoin students do not love as much as our other fare,” Scott Hood, a spokesman for Bowdoin College, writes via e-mail. “We have eliminated that item from the menu, but have sent the recipe with enthusiasm to the #1 college. We hope that does the trick.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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