Before dinner last night, my husband thought the asparagus I was preparing to grill were too wet, that the baste wouldn’t stick. I doubted it, but I dried them off. He then proceeded to add explanations and persuasions to his case for dryness.
“Sometimes I think you’re a sore winner,” I told him. “It’s not enough that I do it your way. You need me to say you were right too.”
“Why stop halfway?” He laughed, and so did I.
I am a person of many aphorisms (which they say is a characteristic of autodidacts; proverbs are mnemonics). Of all that I use, my favorite is that epigram of Voltaire’s which is generally translated into English this way: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It’s not that I don’t have high standards, or like to be right. Believe me, I know more than a few people who would be willing to testify to my relentlessness in that regard. It’s just that I want to take satisfaction along the ever-upward path to never-attained perfection. If every milestone is merely a sign of incompletion, life lacks spice.
I’ve been thinking about this with respect to the National Basketball Association and Donald Sterling. I don’t follow sports except when a new racism flare-up erupts into the media (as in this past November’s Miami Dolphins brouhaha)—although that happens often enough these days that I’m beginning to get the team names straight. These moments draw my attention because questions of racial justice get raised and debated in all sorts of places they aren’t often heard. The culture at large gets involved, a good thing in a society that sometimes has the temerity to bill itself as “post-racial.”
For my fellow Martians, here’s the scoop: Sterling, a vastly wealthy attorney and real-estate developer, owns the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. He has a long track-record of ethical transgressions, including massive fines for discrimination in housing. He also has a multiracial girlfriend who recorded a remarkably racist conversation between them, then leaked it to the media. Sterling talked about the players on his team in the way a plantation owner might talk about sharecroppers. This set off a firestorm of response, including a condemnation from President Obama. Within a few days, Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, announced that Sterling was banned from the league for life; he was also fined $2.5 million, the maximum allowable. The Los Angeles NAACP withdrew the award they were about to bestow on Sterling; UCLA rejected a $3 million gift from the zillionaire.
There were loud and somewhat amazed cheers from many corners of the Zeitgeist. I suppose many expected the NBA commissioner to appoint a task force to slowly look into the matter while as much schmutz as possible was swept under the commodious rug of professional sports. It was the swift clarity of Silver’s response that delighted those who wished to see Sterling punished, including myself.
From a number of my fellow progressives, there were cautionary notes that racism is not over, that indeed, punishing Sterling does nothing to address the structural racism of ownership and leadership in professional sports (just look at the numbers from fivethirtyeight.com) or any other social institution. This is absolutely correct. ”The Daily Show” hit it on the head in several April 28th segments. In his famous statement that “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line,” W.E.B. Dubois unfortunately failed to anticipate the degree to which it would fester and spread in the 21st.
But still—the perfect being the enemy of the good—I want to be able to give at least two wholehearted cheers for the bit of justice meted to an egregious racist who felt not the slightest shame at his own idiocy. In Rolling Stone recently, Jeff Goodell argues that we should regard President Obama’s delay on the XL Pipeline in the same way, and he may be right. (May he be right!)
Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to pause and lift our glasses to small victories, to stop halfway on the road we hope will lead to big ones, accepting that we’ve won something good—if not perfect. I don’t know about you, but the temptation to be a sore winner is very much a part of my makeup, and whether it’s in the kitchen, the sports arena, or the Congress, I am determined to resist.
Here’s that triumph of musical syncretism, Ray Charles singing “You Win Again.”