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Far from perfect

James Napier | Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thanks to my Father, I learned the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling from a young age. It seemed the poem could always provide comfort whether I had done poorly on an exam or was being bullied.

But after a time, the poem’s magic began to backfire. All the virtues and traits it expounded left me overwhelmed and bewildered. How could anyone stay true to these principles under every circumstance and never fall short? I later realized that the poem does not describe a reality but an ideal archetype for which one should strive but not necessarily attain. By obsessing over synching my young life with each suggestion, I had made the perfect the enemy of the good and missed the heart of the poem entirely.

Understanding the poem is more than comprehending each bit of advice it offers. Rather, the poem’s central message is found in its underlying theme: balance. When Mr. Kipling advises one be able to “walk with kings” he also says one should be wary not to “lose the common touch.” And so for every statement the poem makes, there is a modifying declaration. In short, the poem says being a man (the poem was written for his son) is about moderation and balance because the virtues are not found in absolutes but in the margins.

Regardless of personal morality, the concept of moderation and balance is something which most people can easily embrace and yet is so often forgotten in contemporary American society. This is not to say America is anything but a great country and an amazing place to live. But to say the country does not currently face many serious issues is to be blind, deaf and dumb. Health care, financial regulation, foreign policy, education and infrastructure are all areas in which the next several years will prove crucial in determining America’s long term strength and stability.

Each issue is deserving of its own column if not a whole book, but they can also be beneficially discussed as a cohesive group. Like Mr. Kipling’s poem these diverse issues share common threads like taxation, capitalism and liberalism. But the most important connective tissue, as with the poem, is the concept of balance.

This may seem a simple idea but it is actually far more complex than one might expect. Foreign policy has to balance short and long term interests while also keeping a pulse on public perception. And financial regulation has to balance risk management with corporate efficiency. Leaving aside any technical terms, each issue boils down to a discussion of rights and duties and how to balance them. Addressing the issue as all or nothing leads to drastic action that ends up doing more harm than good. For instance, many environmental groups are opposed to all drilling, nuclear energy and clean energy incinerators failing to understand there must be a balance between protecting the environment and maintaining economic growth.

Perhaps the best way to break down this concept of balance is to address the issue which is truly at the center of modern politics: the rights of the individual vs. the rights of the community. As contentious as this issue is — or perhaps because of it — most people, regardless of ideology, miss the point and argue for one side or the other. Disputably, many of these so called tea partiers fall heavily on the side demanding individual rights while Mr. Obama and his friends fall heavily on the rights of the community. But for their to be any real hope for success in America’s long term political issues, there must be compromises made between communal and individual rights. Frankly, this was the very basis for the American constitution which, unfortunately, has largely been forgotten today. Just as the few should be free from the tyranny of the many so the many should be free from the tyranny of the few.

Once one understands there must be compromise for the sake of long term stability, the question then becomes what these standards of compromise will be. Here too, Kipling’s poem may come in handy. Though the key virtue is temperance (balance), it also emphasizes modesty, humility, honesty, and fortitude. Certainly, remembering the virtues will not solve every political crises or impasse but it will help keep everything in perspective. In a political arena where political ideals are too often advanced at the expense of practical solutions thus making the perfect the enemy of the good, perspective is everything.

James Napier is a senior history major. He can be contacted at jnapier@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.