Sunday, February 24, 2019

A Loser's Lament

Donald Trump upended the political establishment by touting American greatness. He implied that America had lost its past greatness and needed to recover it.

Naturally, as long as Trump said it, something must be wrong with it. After all, as the Trump administration, led by gay ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, works to decriminalize homosexuality around the world, gay rights organizations take offense at the project, because they think that it reeks of homophobia. Or because it would make America seem to be great. And, we can't have that.
Anyway, philosophers have long postulated that we should aim at achieving greatness. From Aristotle to Kant, they have pushed and prodded people to achieve greatness. Management consultant Peter Drucker advised people to find out what they were good at, and then to work to turn good into great. Malcolm Gladwell proposed that it would take 10,000 of deliberate practice to turn good into great.

Anyway, now that Trump is working to achieve greatness, some non-serious thinkers are suggesting that greatness is overrated, that we should aim for self-contented mediocrity. At a time when American schoolchildren cannot compete against their peers around the world and where American millennials are doing so poorly that mediocrity would be an improvement, a teacher named Avram Alpert has penned a paean to mediocrity, to sufficiency, to being adequate.

As happens with any one of dumb ideas, this one comes to us from Romanticism and from psychoanalysis. Alpert notes:

Swimming against the tide of greatness is a counter-history of ethics embodied by schools of thought as diverse as Buddhism, Romanticism and psychoanalysis. It is by borrowing from D.W. Winnicott, an important figure in the development of psychoanalysis, that we get perhaps the best name for this other ethics: “the good-enough life.” In his book “Playing and Reality,” Winnicott wrote about what he called “the good-enough mother.” This mother is good enough not in the sense that she is adequate or average, but that she manages a difficult task: initiating the infant into a world in which he or she will feel both cared for and ready to deal with life’s endless frustrations. To fully become good enough is to grow up into a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.

Good-enough means what it means. It means adequate and average. Alpert and Winnicott might want it to mean something else, but they do not own the language. In truth, and without having interviewed large numbers of mothers, most mothers do not just want to be good enough. They want to be great. They want to be the best mothers they can be. What mother feels pride in being just good enough.

One appreciates Alpert’s retrograde tendencies, but no serious human being today would look to Winnicott for advice on how to bring up children. They are more likely to look to the Tiger Mom… a woman whose childrearing techniques happily ignored the accumulated opinions of the psycho profession. Amy Chua accepted nothing less than greatness from her daughter. She did not reward adequacy or mediocrity and did not define herself as good enough.

Of course, greatness comes to those who compete, who succeed, who work to excel. Such concepts, I daresay, are fundamentally absent from Alpert’s vision. He has no conception of competing in the world, competing to be more productive, competing to better ourselves, competing to provide and protect our families. About that, he has nothing to say. It’s a rather telling blind spot, don’t you think?

Being a less than coherent thinker Alpert tries to compare being good enough to being perfect. Since we know that it's bad to seek perfection, we are supposed to conclude that's enough to be good enough. It’s a nonsense comparison, a straw man or straw person, that ignores the fact that people want to improve themselves, and thus to move toward greatness. One thing you cannot do if you embrace adequacy and mediocrity is to strive to improve yourself. To state the obvious, the team that won the Super Bowl was not perfect. Far from it. But it was better than the opposition. It did not strive to be good enough.

In his words:

In this radical vision of the good enough life, our task is not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.

Smoke on that one, for a bit. Note the turn of phrase: “the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.” How whiny can you get? How much pseudo-profound drivel can you pack into eleven words? It’s sad and pathetic, a bath of warm pathos. One thing is sure, if you content yourself with your utter adequacy you will have the dubious joy of watching other people eat your lunch. People in China and in other parts of Asia are competing against us, for business, for power and for influence. I promise you that they are not looking to be just good enough.

Obviously, Alpert does not live in the real world. His is the world of grocery lines, not the world of the competitive marketplace. He does not see nations competing. He does not see civilizations clashing. He has withdrawn into the warm snuggly den of a decidedly maternal space… the better to learn how to lose.

Because that is what his defeatist vision aims for:

Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.

And naturally, when you are going to whine, why not offer a few thoughts about the wonders of nature and how badly we have been treating it. We should not compete for advantage or even for prosperity. We want to live in perfect harmony with the natural world, and with all the creatures, even the billions of bacteria, that share the planet with us. 

So says Alpert:

Achieving this will also require us to develop a good enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.

Alpert has not offered us a path to a better life. He has written a loser’s lament.


trigger warning said...

"a bath of warm pathos"

Or, perhaps, a path of warm bathos.

autothreads said...

but rather a good enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.

I don't see the phrase about inevitable suffering to be much different than what Jordan Peterson has said. Humans are aware of their existence so suffering is a part of the human condition.

That being said, Alpert's socialist "sufficient (but never too many) resources," raises the question, who gets to decide what is too many resources.

I recently saw Occasionally-Cortex say something like 'who needs more than $10 million?' Does she have any idea how much it costs to develop, manufacture, and sell a product? It costs about $1 billion to develop a new car model, twice that if there's a new engine involved. Restricting wealth or assets to $10 million would mean nothing would get made.

Sam L. said...

"Good enough" is much TOO good for too many of our "educators".

Anonymous said...

Makes me want to try out for the SEALS.

Screw this good enough crap.

Anonymous said...

Did you notice and just not write about, the theme behind his whole theory is collectivism is better than individualism? Better to have everybody in gray, dismal housing than some making beautiful homes and others (choosing, to the greater extent) in the streets? Over and over, he talks about everybody having the same -- exactly what the left says about how nobody should have more than he "needs."

Just another way to say "I want a socialist America, not a great America." And not even subtle about it?