Publisher’s View: Perfect

in by

There’s an expression, that one shouldn’t “make perfect the enemy of the good.” It’s the cousin of “the devil is in the details” and the granddaughter of “change is on the horizon.” It’s one of those platitudes politicians like to use to defend an incremental approach to policymaking, usually in the context of advocating for a crappy idea that might be marginally less crappy than the status quo.  Like, instead of better gun control adding metal detectors to the entrances of all elementary schools, or arming the janitors.

Lost in translation is that perfect is the enemy of the good, at least as perfection is generally understood. A brief review of how we use the word will make this perfectly clear.

“It’s a perfect baby!” we all say, when we first encounter a new being who knows how to do nothing, but poop and cry.  The bar is so low for baby perfection that the little beast can be ugly, smelly, and loud – like a large drunk guy shouting obscenities while urinating on Market Street – and it will still be deemed “perfect.”

Then there’s “it’s perfectly fine,” which people usually say when it’s not.  As in, “it’s perfectly fine,” declares your wife, through gritted teeth, after you forget to tell her that a client is coming over that night for dinner, that she’s supposed to make.  Or your kid shrugging that “nobody’s perfect” after she fails her math test, meaning that the norm is to suck.

Even when perfect is used to describe something that’s arguably flawless, the description tends to have an evil undertone.  “It’s a perfect diamond,” except it was harvested with slave labor, with the resulting proceeds used to fund a nasty civil war.  Or, “you have perfect teeth!” in contrast to the rest of you. 

In this respect perfect ultimately describes nothing, since nothing can really be perfect.  Perhaps that’s its function; to be the verbal equivalent to zero.  But if that’s the case, it’s a flawed measuring stick, one that leads us down false paths.  That is, if it’s true that nothing is perfect, what, exactly, does perfect describe?   A void?

Oh, and that political change that’s on the horizon?  We’ll never get to it.  The furthest point you can see––the line where the sky meets the earth––that edge is called the horizon.  Any change that’s lingering there will remain perfectly distant.