All I Want for Christmas is Perfection. Is That So Much?

Much as I wanted to spend Thursday night at Walmart getting pepper-sprayed over a $2 waffle iron, I caught up on some reading instead. (So blame me for the lousy economy.) Two books and a magazine have been holding my interest, when I wasn’t preparing to prepare for the holiday shopping season. First is “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker, a door-stopper (not “buster”) of a study of how dramatically violence has declined over the centuries, particularly in the past 150 years. Pinker is a Harvard professor of psychology and has made a couple of those “Top 100″ lists of influential and serious thinkers. An added virtue is that he brings a novelistic/essayist’s touch to what could have been a dense and turgid run of statistics.

I’m only 200 pages into the 700 pages of his argument, (plus 120 pages of citations and footnotes), but his essential point is holding up quite well, despite, as he concedes from the get-go, rather nasty 20th century events like World Wars I and II, the Holocaust, Pol Pot, Rwanda, etc. He credits a variety of factors, including both inter-dependent economic activity, (its bad business to kill your customers) and Enlightenment thinking, trickling down, like trendy etiquette, from the “elites” to the “low-information” classes. And that’s state v. state violence, wars and such. Violence between people — murder, rape, torture, and garden variety sadism — has also fallen out of favor. The statistics on murders per 100,000 people from culture to culture is fascinating. Even the much sentimentalized native cultures like the blubber-eating Inuit had murder rates 50 times inner-city Detroit of 2011.

I may post more on this when I finish, but one takeaway for all our fringe conservative friends is that “hellhole, socialist” western Europe of … right now … along with a line of northern tier American states … may well be the safest cultures … ever … in terms of freedom from both state and personal violence.

The other book, which I just finished, is financial writer Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang”, essentially a collection of articles on post-2008 economic miseries. You may have read his piece on Iceland in “Vanity Fair”. It’s included here, along with the astonishing tale of Ireland, the gullibility of German bankers when it came to “trading” with American Wall Street sharpies and, my favorite, Greece.

With Europe teetering on the brink — hell, even the Germans are having a hard time selling their bonds – the tale of Greece comes with a constant series of reminders that the Cradle of Democracy’s financial chaos has less to do with overly lavish pensions and social benefits (to hear FoxNews’ politicians and intellectuals explain it) than the fact that almost no one actually paid taxes. You’ve no doubt read this in passing in some accounts. But Lewis, talking with Greek officials and tax investigators, lays out a far more compelling picture of system gamed to oblivion by everyone, from the top down. (To this then you add the Greeks’ supreme irritation with anyone, including the Germans, the only people with the cash to bail them out, telling them what to do. Greek exceptionalism!)

I loved the part where Goldman Sachs flies in and convinces the Greek government (before the last Greek government) to collateralize the only guaranteed flows of income they have — things like ferry and toll fees — which of course ends up with Our Guys pocketing a fat profit and the Greeks wishing they could have their drachmas back.

The magazine was the recent (maybe latest) issue of “New York”, with competing essays on “How the GOP Went Mad” by Republican apostate David Frum and “The Self-Loathing of Liberals: My Party’s Contempt for Power” by Jonathan Chait.

Frum’s piece is spot-on, depressing as all hell and, sadly, well understood by anyone paying attention. Chait’s angle is the one that I firmly believe is much more important as the clock turns to election year 2012. Yes, the Republicans are engaged in a bizarre exercise in mass delusion and tactical psychosis. But reasonable people can see that quite easily. (Look at the approval numbers for “Congress”). Not so with liberals’ perpetual psychological impairment, the one where perfection is forever and always the worst enemy of the good. That bizarre, chronic exercise in self-destruction gets far, far less attention.

Chait walks the reader through the numbing predictability of liberal “disappointment” with Democratic presidents in whom they, inexplicably, expected both perfection and instantaneous restoration of Enlightened democracy, following Republican malfeasance.

The specific issue is of course Barack Obama. A staple of every conversation I have with my clutch of over-educated, elitist friends is their “disappointment”, or “reservations” or out-right rejection of Obama, to the point of getting wistful about Jon Huntsman or some mythical “third party”, as though then, in that new/next singular hero we could have … single payer health care, a full-fledged green economy, financial stability, yadda yadda.

Chait regards this kind of thinking as a liberal variation on conservatives always-eery, serf-like acceptance of/obeisance to authoritarian leaders and mores. With liberals, total perfection, total fairness, total balance is the only acceptable level of presidential performance. Never mind the obvious fact that, you know, this is … politics … where perfection always goes to die, and that by definition the Democratic party is a mangy confederation of a 1000 different constituencies with at minimum 998 different ideas of perfection … so universally accepted perfection ain’t never going to happen.

In the end almost no true liberals will vote for any of the current Republicans. Huntsman may be the only one of that profoundly weird pack of dysfunctional personalities that even twitches the needle of intellectual credibility. But the liberal psychological impairment may be enough to seal defeat, again. The “self-loathing” that forever stirs up liberal malaise, the inability to ever regard any Democratic leader the way conservatives regard, say Ronald Reagan, is a serious energy-sapping impediment to the critical next, imperfect step. And by that I mean — reelection — which holds the (high) possibility of shifting the balance on the Supreme Court, setting health insurance reform in concrete and amending it as needed, continuing a cool, panic-free foreign policy performance, and offering … imperfect … resistance to Wall Street’s control of the global economy.

Not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

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26 Responses

  1. Steven Pinker is an inspiring guy. I’ve just spent the past week posting about The Better Angels of Our Nature at http://daughternumberthree.blogspot.com/2011/11/steven-pinker-week-table-of-contents.html

    Now I’ll have to go read Frum and Chait.

  2. After reading Chaidt, I’d say he fits into the Steven Pinker world view as well — incremental change is where it’s at (whether in politics or reducing violence), not sweeping, ideological revolution.

  3. Remember how Obama was going to put us back in the good graces of the World Community?

    http://www.skynews.com.au/politics/article.aspx?id=690184&vId=2879514&cId=Politics

  4. Great point about liberals tendency to get snippy when they don’t get their version of perfection. Our own worse enemy.

  5. In a similar vein, here is another Chait piece on people who blame Obama for this budget mess:

    http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/11/debunking-obamas-so-called-leadership-failure.html

  6. Lambert must be part of the controlled opposition. “Now, now sweet liberals, don’t expect too much. You don’t want to be greedy like those bad, bad Republicans. Be grateful for the crumbs Obama kicks your way. Be servile and obedient. Never uppity. You deserve nothing. Just focus on the pendulum . . . left-good, right-bad, left-good, right-bad. You are getting comatose . . . . ”

    Screw that. Obama is a fake, a phony, a fraud. He’s a zombie puppet stooge of Wall Street and the Pentagon. Notice, zero prosecutions for fraud in the financial sector. Notice, ever-expanding military to secure Africa. It’s W redux.

    • Re: Obama is “W redux.”

      Did W end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? Would W have enacted a $789 jobs plan during the 2009 economic meltdown? Would W have lifted the Bush era embryonic stem cell research funding ban, as Obama did? How about the auto bailout that saved all those jobs? Would W appoint two pro-choice women to the Supreme Court? Would he expand medical care coverage to poor people and children, and fix the preexisting condition nightmare in health insurance? Would W have invested in clean energy, and dramatically increased auto fuel efficiency standards? Would W have reformed the credit card industry? Regulate tobacco for the first time in history? Expand health care to 11 million kids? Eliminate student loan subsidies to banks? Cut prescription drug costs for medicare recipients by 50%?

      Moreover, would President Bernie Sanders have done any better than that with the fillibustering 2009-10 Congress and the GOP-controlled 2011 Congress?

      http://whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com/

      • These accomplishments are window dressing, deck chairs on the Titanic.

        DADT: Now we have openly gay cannon fodder sacrificing life and limb for the 1%. Wow.

        Jobs plan and auto bailout: Bandaids. Where is prosecution of Wall Street fraudsters whose actions necessitated bailouts in the first place?

        Pro-Choice Supremes: Red Herring. W had a Republican congress for six years. No action on abortion or immigration. Read between the lines.

        Student loan subsidies: The banks dumped onto the gov’t a portfolio notorious for defaults. Big whoop.

        And so on.

      • If you lean out so far in your attempts to get that brass ring you will undoubtedly fall off the carousel.

        but hey, go ahead and cut off your nose to spite your face. see if you can get Ralph Nader to run on a third party ticket. See what you can do with a President Newt…….

    • Well, don’t get me going on Wall Street prosecutions. But no one … NO ONE … can tie up court proceedings better and longer than Wall St. money.

  7. ‘Not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the alternative.’ Doesn’t have quite the ring of ‘Change We Can Believe In’.

  8. yeah, but a damn sight better than any alternative in 2008 or, apparently, in 2012.

    i would have thought that everyone in Mississippi had given up on perfection after 1864….

  9. Romney is fading?

    http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2011/11/romneys-fading-popularity.html

    If Cain pulls out, and most of his support goes to Newt, does this mean the end for Romney?

    (if so, then I can almost taste those beers, Mike)

  10. Haha. PM. You might be right, but in this crazy time in politics, anything is possible. Newt can’t win? Don’t be so sure. I’m not betting on anything any more — our little wager the obvious exception.

    • It really is a weird time, isn’t it? I have to agree with you, the ups and downs of this race (not just the republican race, but with Obama too) have me totally baffled–it is seemingly beyond explanation/rationalization. Fun to watch if you do not have too much personally riding on the outcome….

    • Mike: i will contribute to Newt’s campaign, in the spirit of providing Obama with true, family values, fiscally conservative, DC outsider competition.

  11. It is weird. It is kind of fun to watch and I really don’t like anyone on either side….or any side. So I really don’t care who gets scorched by the media or by the pundits. Someone will have to come up with a book to chronicle this weird season….where is Hunter S. Thompson when you need him? (“when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”)…still one of my favorites. Speaking of books, I’m reading one called “Emperor of all Maladies. A Biography of Cancer.” It is a fantastic book. The cancer doc who authored this is either a superb writer or he had lots of help.

  12. And it just keeps getting weirder.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2011/12/donald-trump-agrees-moderate-potentially-hilarious-gop-debate/45686/

    Donald Trump to moderate a GOP debate right before the Iowa Caucuses? Is this going to be broadcast on the Comedy Channel?

    • The GOP is pretending that its “brand” is in no way sullied by association with Herman Cain, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, etc.Live by the echo chamber … .

  13. Judging from the Delaware and Nevada senate races maybe Republicans have become the party of those too pure for this world. A long time ago in a distant psyche, I voted for Eldridge Cleaver for president instead of Hubert Humphrey and thereby helped deliver the presidency to Richard Nixon. It was politically the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

    Liberals need to understand that elections are not psychodramas whereby one demonstrates ones intellectual or moral superiority; they are how we pick the next president, senator or water commissioner, and after the election someone will be the president, senator or water commission, no matter how one votes or even if one votes.

  14. As a guy who once voted for Barry Commoner, I’m with you.

  15. Good lord, Brian, what is up with you? When did you become the Energizer Bunny of responses?

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