There is no perfection in human affairs. We are imperfect beings and our creations are always flawed. But this does not stop us from striving for perfection, knowing that our reach should exceed our grasp.
The preamble to the United States Constitution begins with, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …” and then sets forth the things that the founders agreed to aspire toward, knowing that perfection is unreachable but that aiming for a “more perfect” future is still an ideal to pursue.
This idea is central to Judaism also, that the world was created imperfect and unfinished because it is the role of humanity to complete that work – or, rather, to advance in the direction of completion/perfection even knowing it is unattainable.
This theme appeared also in the poem by Amanda Gorman, the first United States National Youth Poet Laureate, at the inauguration last week of President Joe Biden. “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed / a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished,” she said.
That day, Inauguration Day, felt to many like a collective swerve away from an abyss. After the violence at the Capitol two weeks earlier, after four years of chaos and cruelty at the top of the U.S. administration, and at what we hope is the beginning of the end of the pandemic of our lifetimes, it felt like a move in the right direction, a reversal from the trajectory of spiraling rancour. The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, so horrific and deadly, may have been the wakeup call that enough Americans needed to recognize the destination to which the “Trump train” was always headed.
The most fundamental component of a democratic society – the peaceful transition of power – was assaulted on Jan. 6, a day most of us never dreamed we would see, an experience that people in autocratic societies know too well but we hoped we never would. We may never know how close the United States came to genuinely losing its democracy but we can hope that the shock of the violence and the widespread refusal to accept the outcome of a properly run election opened enough eyes to the dangers of that approach. As President Biden said, “enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward.”
Regardless of party affiliation, the transfer of power seemed to many like a return to the project of a more perfect union.
By the skin of their teeth, the Democratic party held the House of Representatives and reclaimed the White House and the Senate. The new Biden administration better reflects the diversity of the country’s racial, religious, gender and other components, not least of which is exemplified by the first female vice-president and the first one who is not white.
The refusal of the outgoing president and his wife to adhere to longstanding decorum and decency and their petulant retreat to Florida before the inauguration was a slap in the face for the very idea of democracy itself. To the credit of the vice-president, Mike Pence, he stepped up where the president would not. So, too, did all the living former presidents, three of them in person at the inauguration and the fourth, Jimmy Carter, calling Biden the night before the inauguration to offer wishes of support. This was a powerful show of respect for the office that Trump never exhibited when he held it and which he further despoiled while leaving it. But he is gone now from there, ideally forever, and we trust that a less divisive and corrupt government will carry that country forward.
It is notable that our hopes for 2021 focus so much on a vaccine. The idea of this science – that injecting a dose of a virus into a body to develop an antibody to a more destructive manifestation – might be extrapolated into our body politic. The virus of extremism, tyranny and violence that we saw on Jan. 6 may have inoculated some Americans to combat the spread of such threats. As we strive for herd immunity in our public health, we can perhaps seek a similar degree of protection in our public life. There will always be bad people and bad ideas. Ensuring that they are kept in check and not permitted to reach pandemic levels is as close to perfection as we can possibly attain. We can hope that, in the spirit of Biden’s words, enough people will come together in defence of the great values that country was founded on to carry all of us forward.