Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The demand for perfection

During the Second World War, boxer Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber" served in the US Army as a spokesman, or "propagandist" we'd say today.

Contrary to popular belief today, the 60s generation did not discover racial injustice. Watch old movies on TCM and you'll see that plenty of people had been bothered by it for some time. Nor did the fact that America was fighting two viciously racist regimes while treating Black people as second class citizens escape everybody's notice.

The story goes that at some point in Joe Louis' army career, a journalist asked him how he felt about serving in a segregated army, fighting for a country that treated him as second class. He replied, "America ain't got no problems Hitler can solve."

So why is it that a pug with a high school education at best could see what a whole lot of highly educated and sophisticated intellectuals can't?

His contemporary, the superbly talented Black singer Paul Robeson, decided that America was irretrievably corrupt and racist, and threw his lot in with the Soviet Union. He paid a terrible price for this - and I don't mean from McCarthyism. While living there he became complicit in the murder of his friend Izchak Pfeffer, which tortured his conscience till the day he died. Robeson was a graduate of Columbia University.

While Joe Louis was in the army, a migrant worker who had never seen the inside of a schoolhouse in his life moved to California and took a steady job as a longshoreman to help the war effort. A few years after the war ended, he published a book that astonished the intellectual community and added a new expression to the Engish language, "The True Believer".

Eric Hoffer saw America from very close to the bottom, from the perspective of men who work at backbreaking seasonal labor or out of a hiring hall on a weekly or daily basis - and did not find it wanting.

“Free men are aware of the imperfections inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, and so on are far from absolute, that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The refection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestations of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance and equity."

Hoffer sometimes spoke of "the childish demand for perfection" and once asked, almost despairingly, "Is there ANY social order which would satisfy the disaffected artist and intellectual?"

I have sometimes been accused of "seeing things in black and white". This is not true. I'm afraid that I see things in black and grey - and I do not except myself. There is no absolute good that I've ever seen, but there certainly exists what answers pretty closely for absolute evil.

What I find disturbing is that a lot of intellectual types in our country and Europe seem to be taking the position that since what we have is not perfect, it's not worth defending against that which would destroy it and replace it with something immeasurably worse. Or even that it deserves to be destroyed, no matter what replaces it - that nihilism that Hoffer spoke of.

Now I have a confession. I used to hold views very much like these, back when I was a young intellectual.

What changed my mind? I don't exactly know. Perhaps it had something to do with the experience of working a total of six years as a garbageman, and another half-dozen as a sewage treatment plant worker. That's close enough to the bottom of society (prestige-wise at least), and it's not so bad. Perhaps it was living in Eastern Europe for thirteen years and seeing how our last rival ideology made once-fourishing countries into something like Third-World slums.

And ultimately, having children drove home to me the importance of protecting and preserving (or conserving, as in "Conservative") what this civilization of ours did right, and leaving something our kids can build on and improve. This presumes that we can educate and prepare them for that task, and that job seems to be in the hands of those "intellectuals".

Is there anyone who wears that title who will speak for our country and our civilization? A Democrat Irish pol, who also happened to be an intellectual did once.

"Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No I don’t. Do I think that ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes I do!"

Daniel Patrick Moynihan


  • At 4:55 PM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    As an amateur student of history (SCA geek), I know enough to be damn glad I'm living in the time and country that I am. As I sit down to dinner, in my grandfather's house, built of mud brick, the house that didn't have running water or electricity until my Mom was 12, I am amazed.

    My Chicano/hill billy family spans every color and race on the planet and, while only seven members of our extended family ('prox 150 people) have graduated college, no one goes hungry, has to sleep in the cold or even has to do without luxeries like cars and t.v.s. We don't have to worry about ethnic or religous cleansing (though I do remember cross burnings in Florida, back in the '70's), our women (all the college graduates are women) are free to live their own lives (great, great grampa was the last to try and arrainge marriages) and the children can grow up expecting to live even longer and healtier than my generation.

    We have food from around the world on our table, at all times of the year, access to more information than Franklin could ever dream of and time for leasure that kings would envy.

    Damn, life is good!

  • At 7:42 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Sounds like you've got a really cool house. My wife commented the other day how she thought it was sad we sold my grandmother's house when she died. "Don't you have any property in your family you've had for generations?"

    Her grandmother lives in a farmhouse near Wroclaw (Breslau before the borders moved) built in 1898 which still has a coal and wood burning stove.

  • At 7:27 PM, Blogger tvoh said…

    Your point is well taken Stephen. However, at some point, things are not just imperfect, but bad or even evil. The question is what is mere carping and what is standing against evil?

    I do not believe the trendline is good for our country.

  • At 6:34 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Nor do I, and though I say it who am one, I think a primary reason is that we've empowered the intellectuals. i.e. people for whom ideas are more important than real people and the reality they live in.

    I remember a conversation I had once with the only Russian communist I've ever met - and I've met plenty of Russians. He told me, "Oh Steve, it was so great under Communism. It was the best system in the world, it was the rule of the intellectuals!"

  • At 12:25 PM, Blogger DeepSurface said…

    From Answers.com:

    in·tel·lec·tu·al (ĭn'tl-ĕk'chū-əl)

    a. Of or relating to the intellect.
    b. Rational rather than emotional.
    2. Appealing to or engaging the intellect: an intellectual book; an intellectual problem.
    a. Having or showing intellect, especially to a high degree. See synonyms at intelligent.
    b. Given to activities or pursuits that require exercise of the intellect.

    An intellectual person.

  • At 12:33 PM, Blogger DeepSurface said…

    I actually agree with the things said in this post, just not with the demonisation of the intellectual. Disparaging learning and intelligence, as one does when making blanket generalizations about "intellectuals" can do nothing but harm our country. It takes away from the rational dialogue we need to have about things like war.

  • At 8:58 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I don't think I'm demonizing intellectuals, and I wear the label myself. Nor do I see where I have in any way disparaged learning and intelligence. (See previous post 'Can you think?' for more on this subject.

    But there are a lot of people who assume the title who don't really deserve to, which is why I often enclose the word in scare quotes.

    I think a possible reason has been the democratization of the status of 'intellectual' in this country, which as it happens is the subject of of a post in the pipeline...

  • At 1:34 PM, Blogger Tom Grey said…

    I call this the search for Unreal Perfection, and you've done a great job discussing it.

    One way to suspect it is whether some criticism refers to a real alternative or not. All real alternatives have costs & benefits. If the critic is just talking against the costs of one real alternative, which so many critics of capitalism do, but not discussing another alternative, they're probably not serious.

    The Dem victory shows a party doesn't have to be serious about a critique when the other party is terrible.

  • At 6:33 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    So you're still in Slovakia Tom. I checked you're blog and saw it was you all right. We met, lo these many years ago in Poprad (then Czechoslovakia). I always regretted I didn't get a chance to talk to you at length.

    As you see, I stayed in Poland as well, married and begat too. We're in America for now, but we'll be going back. (Have to, we still own the apartment in Warsaw.)

    Folks, Eastern Europe is where it's happening these days.

  • At 6:27 PM, Blogger ShrinkWrapped said…

    Just thought I'd mention that I nominated this post for the Watcher's Council (non-Council Post of the week) and you deservedly won. It is one of those small honors that the Blogosphere bestows, but it means that this post was considered the best piece of writing out of literally hundreds of posts for the last week. Congrats.

  • At 8:57 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Arrrrgh! Address please. "We authors ma'am"* are a neurotically insecure lot and can NEVER get enough strokes and never tire of seeing our works in print or praised in print.

    * Benjamin D'israeli shamelessly toadying to Queen Victoria after she published a small book. She probably ate it up, we all do.

  • At 6:22 AM, Blogger ShrinkWrapped said…

    All the members of the Watcher's Council post links to your post, often with some suitably laudatory comments. My post is at http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/2006/11/the_council_has_1.html and the Watcher's Council post is at http://www.watcherofweasels.com/archives/002028.html

  • At 5:13 PM, Blogger Michael Z. Williamson said…

    Very well said.

    Of course, I get highly amused when an "intellectual"* tells me that people like me make him "ashamed to be an American."

    I'm an immigrant.

    *Arthur C. Clarke defined an intellectual as, "Someone educated beyond his intelligence." I see no reason to dispute that.

  • At 9:30 PM, Blogger Eduardo said…

    Point well taken about the awareness of, and distaste for racial injustice, not being a product of the sixties.

    I am reminded of Thomas Paine and others speaking out against slavery at the country's inception. He wondered how we could claim to throw off the "chains of England" with a straight face while we used literal chains to bring people here. Slavery wasn't universally tolerated in this country from the start as is often claimed.


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