William James, I think, noted that the problem with theories is that they leak at every joint. We all want some grand idea that makes sense of everything for us, most famously Einstein and his search for the unified field theory. But theories end up being just that: an incredibly smart yet ultimately dumb form of magical thinking, a mapping of our own constructs onto reality. If we’re lucky, this occurs only with us powerless types, in bedrooms and barrooms but not in the halls of power. If we’re unlucky, these theories go on the march, in town squares and frontiers, and they play an actual role in the ballot box and in government offices and in the news stories we consume.
Right now we have a bull market in this stuff. Congress types who pretend we can balance the budget without tax increases, who think that tax cuts for rich folks will help the economy. Bankers who confuse their business and their profit with the business and profit of the American people. Liberals who think entitlements can go on forever. Israeli settlers who think that Israel will survive as a Jewish democratic state without partition and a Palestinian state. Israeli leftists who fantasize that if only Israel will reform peace will come.
The unified field theory gives way to the messiness of it all. That’s why I love the writer Janet Malcolm. She always comes back to the messiness of it all, the contingent nature of life. The settlers have to come to terms with the limits of their dreams; the lefties have to come to terms with how nasty Hamas/Iran is. And so it goes. The Tea Party has to connect whatever century they’re living in with the one we’re living in. I know this all sounds like warmed-over David Brooks and Jeffrey Goldberg. When they’re right they’re right. Values and conviction yes; theories “not so good” as my daughter would say.