This article first appeared here on Medium on Jan 20th, 2017.
Great. Is. Not. Good. It’s not. “Great” is just a lazy word for “big.” Think the Great War, Depression or Plague: great all, big certainly, but good…? Nah. If you view them not as remote, world-shaping things that have happened and instead as looming, world-shaping things that could happen again (tomorrow, to you, to your family), then it’s black and white. These big things are actually rather bad things, and it’s only because they’re so big and so bad that they deserve that specially grafted-on prefix of greatness.
Say it in a sarcastic voice: “Greeeeeeat…”
The word has no value in and of itself. It can mean anything. It’s just an appendage, a half-arsed, asinine, revisionary way of lumping together wildly dissimilar things and whacking a value judgement on them. It just doesn’t work like that, for the reality is all about nuance. A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good, but we don’t like nuance any more. We like simple and comforting, no matter how anaesthetising.
Pick any of the people we call “Great” and you’ll find two irreconcilable sides to the lot. Alexander: blended foreign customs and beliefs into his empire to make it more cohesive. Tick. Also speared his mate Cleitus to death in a drunken brawl. Not so tick. Mahatma (trans: “great soul”) Ghandi: booted the British out of India, also called for his grandniece to sleep naked beside him and instigated all sorts of weird sex “experiments”. Gatsby: threw awesome parties, ran shady bootlegging deals to pay for them…
People make the mistake of assuming that greatness is a state of being. We idolise greatness, venerate it, but we don’t understand it. You are great at things, not just great in general. To paraphrase Oppenheimer (well, Anthony Hopkins in ‘Westworld,’ but I won’t tell if you don’t) “any man whose errors take ten years to correct is a great man.” This makes me angry, as you can just feel the masturbatory self-adoration oozing from his words. It says that it doesn’t matter if the world is now nuclear slag: you were a great man, man. Everyone’s blind, pissing blood and covered in radioactive lesions, but don’t worry Bob, you were great. The idea that greatness is desirable, regardless of its flavour, regardless of its impact, is insanity.
Which brings me to The Donald, because great really is beginning to grate.
Before the election, Trump was a symptom: of a disaffected underclass, of an electorate sick of aloof technocrats, of the Left’s failure to engage, of sexism, of racism, of a great myriad clusterfuck of things, but as of today he ceases to be a sign of the illness and becomes the illness himself. As he assumes the presidency, the greatest office a man (yup) can hold, his actions now impact the affairs of the entire planet. As he slides into the swamp, I fear his preference for greatness over goodness will cause untold damage. We’ll see.
To end, here’s a link to the (in)famous Sorkin “Newsroom” scene on U.S. greatness. It’s an almost hilariously liberal cliche, but it makes the point more eloquently than I ever could. America (or any other country) doesn’t need to be great, it needs to be good. Really good. I’m not holding my breath, but along with my nose, for the next four years, I’ll try. I’ll really try.