18 September 2018

Making the perfect the enemy of the great

In today's Albany Times Union a professor chides Governor Cuomo from backing down from his assertion, challenging President Trump's "Make America Great Again" nostalgia, that the nation was "never that great." In the professor's opinion, Cuomo was "condemned for speaking the truth." He proceeds to demonstrate, at least to his own satisfaction, the truth of the governor's original observation, presenting a litany of atrocities and insults directed at non-white or non-WASP people over the American centuries. Whatever we think of MAGAts,  I suspect that none of them will deny that any of the offenses cited in the op-ed actually took place, yet they would most likely still affirm that the U.S. was great while most of these things happened. The professor might assume that such a conclusion only proves their indifference to the oppression of minorities, but all it would show is that, for some Americans, greatness can be shown with a balance sheet on which inequality is outweighed by other factors, while for the professor, the governor and others, nothing imperfect can be great. Like Cuomo, the professor believes that the U.S. will only be indisputably great when, for starters and in the governor's words, "discrimination and stereotyping against women ... is gone." They appear to be guilty of the same fallacy that mainstream Democrats like Cuomo ascribe routinely to critics on their left: they're making the perfect the enemy of the good. Philosophically speaking, it may be arguable that equality is, or should be, the sole criterion of national greatness, but politicians aren't seeking votes from a nation of philosophers. Like people of all nations, most Americans find more obvious proof of greatness in wealth and military might, while Americans in particular will often cite our right to complain about everything as proof that people shouldn't complain about anything, much less dispute American greatness. Under such conditions, progressive politicians might take advice from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who defended his controversial claim that Adolf Hitler was a great man by amending his assessment to "wickedly great." If they can keep such qualifications in mind, and preferably to themselves, progressives may not get into self-destructive debates over semantics so often.

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