Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #067. First published in the St. Cloud Times Feb. 26, 2013

A few years ago, Rev. Kilian McDonnell OSB, of St. John’s Abbey, published a poem called “Perfection, Perfection.”

He’s not a fan. “I have had it with perfection. / I have packed my bags, / I am out of here. / Gone.”

With economy of language and precision of image, Kilian indicts perfection: As certain as rain makes you wet, perfection does you in; it strains out the quality of mercy; thinking the battle can’t be won, it concedes almost before starting.

The poem came to mind recently as argument raged in Washington about the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, and particularly as I listened Feb. 14 to Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when she was interviewed by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”

You think it’s a stretch from a Benedictine monk’s poem to a hearing room in the Capitol and a program on Comedy Central? Let me try to persuade you of the link, and show that the blight of perfection infects more widely our fractured and fractious culture.

Benghazi controversy

The Hagel nomination has been a magnet for many contentions over Iran, Israel and gays. On some, the disagreements are fundamental, maybe irresolvable. On others, especially concerning Hagel’s views on homosexuality, he really should be given latitude to say he — like millions of people — has changed his mind in recent years.

But what I find especially vexing is the relentless harping on the Benghazi consulate, with which Hagel had nothing to do but which his senatorial inquisitors wouldn’t let go of.

The controversy began with Rice’s now-infamous appearances on the talk shows a few days after the attack on the consulate left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. When Stewart grilled her about this, she said of the response of the intelligence community, “Folks were doing their very best with what they had.”

Their first interpretation was wrong, as she admitted: “They were wrong in one respect, we learned subsequently, and that is that there wasn’t in fact a protest.”

The same point — that instantaneous perfection in sorting through the fast-paced confusion and chaos of an event such as the attack in Libya is impossible, and all you can require is folks do their best with what they have — was made forcefully a few days earlier in the testimony of (now former) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who directly challenged the 20/20 self-righteous hindsight of her congressional questioners.

We need a balance

I don’t doubt improvements can be made in security for our diplomatic personnel. I don’t doubt bureaucracies are riddled with inefficiencies, personal squabbles and turf battles that distract attention and drain energy. I don’t doubt calculations of political advantage weigh into many decisions.

But I do doubt, very strongly, that cynicism is the only judicious response to what happens.

Painting in large brush strokes, I think analysis of our public life tends to divide into two camps. One camp takes its cues from the Enlightenment, the 18th century flowering of human rationality, with its assumption that if things aren’t working perfectly, somebody is messing them up. The other camp takes its cues from St. Augustine, who figured if things aren’t totally falling apart, it’s because somebody is almost superhumanly holding them together.

Civic life calls for both the Enlightenment and the Augustinian prejudices to balance each other out. We need to cut each other some slack without granting carte blanche.

But it seems to me we have tilted much too far in the direction of cynicism. We expect perfection, and are prepared to tie the system in knots when we don’t get it. Holding up the appointment of a secretary of defense because “folks doing their very best with what they had” isn’t good enough deserves this rebuke: “I have had it with perfection.”

As Kilian notes, among the hints he could have taken is this: “the Liberty Bell is cracked.”