In my side yard there’s a 36-foot foot cabin cruiser in obvious disrepair. It has sat there for some years, since I have solemnly vowed to not throw any more money at it. I’m the boat’s third local owner who paid $3,000 for the thing—a good deal less than either of my predecessors, but nonetheless I paid too much. I say so only because the boat is not seaworthy and needs more restoration than it is worth. I had a sense of that when I started out, but I didn’t plan to go yachting. I had in mind converting the hull into a cabin. I’m a sucker for clever ideas, especially my own. And either in my defense or as a good excuse, I have to say at first exam the project seemed to have hope. At deeper inspection I discovered that “bondo” and paint were cosmetic issues hiding deep problems.

At a guess I’d say the wood hull, built around 1965, spent some years half-sunk and rolled on one side. This is not a good thing for any wooden boat, much less one that size. That assessment, sorry as it is, would seem to validate my decision to use the boat as a cabin. It is a good idea only until you try to do it. Then, in increments, you begin to see the unwanted and nasty reality of deeply penetrated rot, unstable decks, and spaces where you’re lucky to see a straight line go four feet before meeting a curve or obstruction. Many people love wooden boats, but they can be a horror to work on if your aim is to get it over with and done. Wooden boats full of curves and sweeping lines are no place for the circular saw to shine.

I won’t say how much I threw at the project before sanity grabbed me by the throat and yelled STOP. My father would use the term “squander” to describe almost any expense I ever undertook. In this case he’d be perfectly correct. It was a squander of resources because it became increasingly less fun as the full hopelessness of the plan sunk further home. Giving up on an idea is a difficult thing. I wanted it to work. I believed in it. It should have and could have worked, but unless I wanted far more cost and effort than the project was worth, the only rational choice was STOP NOW. WALK AWAY AND DO NOT RETURN.

I’m at the point now where even getting rid of the mistake involves considerably more cost. I’ve tried to sell or give away the boat, but it seems there wasn’t anyone dumber than me to pick up the broken lance to charge the castle wall. I thought of burning the dratted thing but had to factor in the god-awful air and soil pollution fines. It wasn’t worth it either to the environment or my finances. For several years now, the sole and only use I’ve had of the boat is as an example. A visitor will ask (because you can’t miss the ugly damn thing flaking paint in a grassy opening near the house) what it is. Whether they mean what type of boat or the half-done conversion doesn’t matter because my answer is the same for each. “That,” I say with emphatic certainty, “is a really good bad idea.” I sometimes add “It’s for sale” or “You can have it,” but neither has worked other than as humorous asides.

Good bad ideas are not an uncommon human ability. When the nation was formed, it seemed a good idea to let the sleeping dog of slavery lie undisturbed. But of course, this good idea was quite a bad one, as it only put off (delaying at the cost of much human suffering) an eventual reckoning. The “freedom” to own other human beings had to be revoked. Some will argue that we only went from physical to economic slavery, but I’d remind them it is quite a different thing if a mortgage company takes and sells you than if they take and sell your house.

An unexpected (and likely unwanted by those who accomplished it) consequence of the Protestant Reformation was the growth of secular authority gradually rising in the aftermath. Ancient and longstanding tradition fell when the divine right of kings and sectarian church law were pulled down by civil or common laws. It was potent and dangerous stuff to rise against God’s law (as interpreted by self-serving humans) and replace it with human law that can be equally self-serving but at least has a hope of democratic control.

Good ideas can turn or be turned bad as well. Granting sovereignty and democracy to South Africa under the Boers is an example that shows a mix of human interpretations of supposedly God-given racial law, where the secular state is handed the weight of divine ordinance to become effectively theocratic. Really good bad ideas can be quite complex and devilish in their twists and turns. Note how we desiring peace and harmony on a plate of multicultural fare have yet to reckon with the consequences of separatist segregation replacing the melting pot. The melting pot has flaws, but it does emphasize what a diverse people have in common. The visible result of multicultural activity is the establishment of zones where each culture forms a turtle shell of separate identity that in many ways is quite hostile to any secular or outside authority. It is a bad good idea to take relativism to mean that all cultures are equal, when some of them clearly do not think or act so and will actively do harm to others as their mission or God-given right. That kind of cultural relativism is not equal to anything but big trouble. But then, if we’re already too cowardly or worried about upsetting others to assert and defend common humanist values, we end by default defending the rule of oppression.