Searching for The Perfect Good

LEO McGARRY (actually John Spencer) from the TV show ‘West Wing.”

In the storied TV drama “West Wing,” there’s a scene in which White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer) is confronted by a colleague asking what’s “good” about a particularly thorny policy.

“Good?” he replies. “There is no good. It’s what there is.”

We are in an especially “good-less” time in our history. It seems like in every direction we turn, there are two paths and each of them is – in some ways, distasteful.

The feeling of having to choose between the “lesser of two evils” feels bitter in our mouths, but, guess what? That decision is something we grapple with all our lives.

On a personal level we have to choose between love partners, sometimes breaking the heart of another. If we don’t have a suitable suitor, it can be a choice between loneliness and an unsatisfactory marriage.

Choosing a career, do you pick one that’s financially remunerative but spiritually numbing? Or the one that pays “short money” but makes your soul sing?

In today’s world full of pandemics and states afire, the choices are especially bitter. How soon should society close down or open up when faced with a disease for which there is no vaccine or cure (yet)? Closures may check the disease’s spread, but throws millions out of work. School closures have a similar benefit, but resuming “virtual” classes puts pressure on parents who work, offers a thinner menu of educational benefit and raises contagion questions.

We’ve got an amazingly complex society that we often take for granted. Flip the switch and the lights go on. Twist the faucet knob and clean plentiful water flows out. Smell smoke, punch three buttons on your phone and within minutes teams of firefighters roll up and extinguish the flames. All these things cost money, and yet some folks, using magical math, insist that taxes and utilities are always too expensive.

We want people to have jobs and houses, so we allow construction in densities and locations we probably shouldn’t for a variety of reasons, from wildfires to traffic gridlock.

But there are always trade-offs and compromises to keep the system going. Ideologues who are bitter-enders feed the divisions in society that keep us from making all the advances of which we are capable.  With them it’s “my way or the highway.” No progress is better than that other guy’s idea of progress. Whether it be when to send Kimberly back into a classroom or how long I have to wear this mask, any answer will be wrong to a significant portion of the population.

But that’s life. In the real world, there is no “perfect good.” The best we can hope for is smart, caring people arriving at a decision that’s “good enough for now.” Until people are all angels and geniuses, we’ll have to settle for that.

Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted every other Wednesday, alternating with “Usually Reliable Sources.”


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