by Barry Edelson

The Illusion of Progress

Why the Struggle for a Better World is Unending


Do you remember "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"? This Victorian relic, which persisted in biology classes well into the latter half of the 20th century (it was still firmly rooted in the New York State Regents curriculum when this writer first encountered it, c. 1972), suggested that the individual embryo passes through all the stages of evolution, from single-celled organism to complex mammal, during the period of gestation. Scientists now insist that the theory is erroneous, but its influence on grand theories about human development was so pervasive that it remains embedded in many aspects of popular belief, if no longer in serious academic thought.

Its most basic, and perhaps most harmful, manifestation was its adoption by analogy to describe social and cultural progress. At a certain point in the triumphal post-WWII era, victories over such evils as fascism, racial discrimination and worker exploitation seemed permanent and irreversible. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, not to mention continuing scientific advances against communicable diseases and environmental contamination, led many Americans down the garden path of utopianism. We succumbed to the myth of progressivism, and it is easy to understand why. To someone born in poverty but later elevated to the middle class, or even to riches, through a combination of hard work and the good fortune to be born at a time when when social mobility was not only permissible but explicitly encouraged by massive government intervention (e.g., the GI Bill), it would be difficult not to believe in progress. As it happened, this was the experience of vast numbers of those who grew up during the Great Depression. Their children were born into a prosperous, unionized, emancipated, post-genocidal age in which the achievement of perfect freedom and equality was only a matter of time and persistence. The possibility of regression simply never occurred to them. It was supposed that once war, slavery and oppression were abolished, they were banished forever, not simply because the laws had been changed and institutions erected to enshrine a new and better order, but because each of us had individually absorbed the lessons of history and thereby created a permanently altered human landscape.

This notion of a social parallel to biological ontogeny, by which individuals acquire not only the DNA but also the enlightened attitudes of preceding generations, endangered the very progress it was supposed to guarantee. It was a naive and foolish fantasy to imagine that any human evil could be consigned to history and cease to exist merely because, like American slavery, it had been eliminated in one particular time and place. Regression is as powerful a force as progress, if not more so. There isn't even a consensus about what these terms actually mean. To a Jeffersonian democrat, tyranny is a regressive tendency away from individual liberty and social justice. But to a tyrant and his followers, freedom is a regressive tendency away from centralized power and order. There is hardly anyone in America who would not consider the first view correct and the second deplorable. But even those of us who are committed to liberty diverge widely about what liberty is and how to preserve it.

Consider the Texas Board of Education, and its successful efforts this past week to alter the social studies curriculum in favor of a more, shall we say, traditional point of view. Let us put aside for a moment the sheer folly of attempting, in the Internet era, to suppress information that is readily available to anyone who wants to find it. It is like taking all mention of nuclear weapons out of textbooks in the expectation that no one in the next generation would therefore be able to build them, the logical consequence of which would be to enable those with the desire and wherewithal to acquire a nuclear arsenal to do so under the noses of those who had forgotten that such things even exist. Likewise, an insistence on teaching "creation science" or "intelligent design" (the Bible, by any other name) alongside Darwin's findings will only ensure that Texas's share of great scientific thinkers will continue to diminish relative to those of the other states of the union.

But these obvious observations are beside the point. Watering history down in this way is done in the sincerest belief that a way of life depends on it. Oblivious these board members may be to how their actions resemble the time-honored methods of dictators the world over: air-brushing the photos and rewriting the histories to their personal advantage. As Sinclair Lewis famously wrote, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Some may feel that this is a perversion of liberty and a violation of an expansive view of human freedom, but if you feel that that flag and that cross are protecting you, of what else does liberty consist? There are still many in the former Soviet Union who visit Stalin's grave and mark his birthday. If you were lucky enough never to be arrested or tortured by the KGB, never lost your job or had to inform on a loved one, and were able to live out your life more or less as you pleased, then in what way did living in a Communist dictatorship deprive you of your liberty? You may think that these people must have had their heads in the ground not to notice or care about the terrible cruelties visited upon millions of others in their own country. To that, one can only say that there are many in our country today who are indifferent to the excesses of our own government in the struggles against Islamic fascism: perversion of the law, torture, intrusive surveillance, justifying immoral means to achieve questionable ends. In conflict, nations tend to borrow from the despicable practices of their enemy. When they do it to us, they are evil; when we do it to them (or even ourselves), we are merely defending the nation. One man's butcher is another man's hero.

If we learn a single lesson from our post-triumphal era, it must be that no battle for social progress is ever won. Any forward movement away from barbarism and towards civilization depends upon fighting the same battles in each succeeding generation. To simply assume that a free people will continue to be free, or even remember what freedom means, without a continuous, concerted effort to educate and enlighten is to invite catastrophe. For too long, we wallowed in the smugness of victory. That smugness has become our most dangerous enemy.

March 21, 2010


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