The cover of the “History Denied: Recovering South Carolina’s Stolen Past”, is seen with a photo of Renty, one of the earliest photographs of an enslaved person. The 48- page magazine was published by the South Carolina Progressive Network in Columbia, S.C. The social justice group in South Carolina wants to bring more attention to a gathering of African-American and white college students who sat together and called for equality just a year after World War II. (South Carolina Progressive Network via AP)
Do you believe the world has been getting better as history has marched forward?
Progressive liberals think so, which is why they’re called ‘progress-ives.’ Faith in the steady improvement of humanity underlies the progressive-liberal conception of history. Or at least it used to.
More and more progressive opinion makers seem to be rejecting the central premise of their own ideology. In this new anti-progressivism, the arc of history isn’t bending toward more justice, equality, and overall human betterment–it only seems that way. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations and riots have brought this sea change to the fore. A recent example from Vox:
Thousands of black Americans were lynched in the decades following Reconstruction, and although such vigilante killings may have decreased in the 20th century, efforts to pass legislation banning them were repeatedly thwarted. Meanwhile, these killings were essentially replaced by racist policing and the state-sanctioned execution of black Americans, historian Nicholas Creary told Vox. “The oppression doesn’t end,” he said. “It adapts.”
That last bit is very interesting: “The oppression doesn’t end. It adapts.” In other words, the United States only *appears* to be making progress toward a better society, but not really. The whole freeing the slaves thing, ending Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act … these were just moving the furniture around. America is still just awful, like it always was.
Creary’s declaration contradicts 100 years of progressive catechism and amounts to a stunning admission of defeat for progressivism. The myth of human progress was the narrative deployed again and again to justify tossing out traditional safeguards, institutions, and culture down through the 20th century. Humanity had evolved beyond the need for conservative notions of family, religion, education, political philosophy, and law, progressives explained. Science, technology, reason, and material abundance have tamed human nature and pushed conservative ideas into obsolescence. Toss all the traditional nonsense over the side; put the Constitution in a drawer; spread the goodies out; and let’s get utopia going already. History is a straight line trending upward, not an ebb and flow or cycle. Humanity won’t slide back into oppression, they promised. Progress was real and here to stay.
The anti-progressive rejection of historical improvement has old-school progressives blowing their collective stack and stacking sandbags furiously to shore up the progress myth. For example, Harvard celebrity professor and progress cheerleader Steven Pinker last year published Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. This 576-page episode of graphomania attempted to demonstrate the self-evidence of human improvement down through history (my two-word summary: it didn’t).
Pinker and old-school progressives in the legacy media have decried the regressive tactics of the New Progressives as a threat to authentic progressivism–tactics like censorship of free speech, attacks against academic freedom, social-media cancel campaigns, burgeoning anti-white and anti-Semitic racism, propaganda-as-history, property destruction, mob intimidation, denial of human biology, and the like. For their part, the anti-progressives have not hesitated to throw the Pinkerites out of the progressive fold they now control, with ‘-ist’ and ‘-phobe’ signs slung round their necks.
As if the collapse of the progress myth wasn’t bad enough, old-school progressive liberals also must contend with a loss of faith in liberalism emerging on the left these days. Gone is the tolerance and the identification with liberal ideals that characterized the left for so long. It is replaced with a Leninist-totalitarian belief in terrorism, indoctrination, and repression. Their new mantra: “We are done waiting for liberalism to fulfill its promises of universal progress. We will force betterment for the disadvantaged at the expense of everyone else NOW.”
We may no doubt expect the atheist Pinker’s new book For Not-God’s Sake, Stop! It Wasn’t Supposed to Be Like This! very soon.
As paradoxical as it sounds, the left has devolved from a movement of progressive liberals into a movement controlled by progress-denying illiberals. Selfish utility is their only yardstick. Are the facts useful to us? Is the science useful to us? Does the present understanding of history or current events support our deconstructive goal? if so, promote them. If not, discredit mercilessly, suppress, and pivot. Power, force, and fear are the only tools worth owning anymore.
The new leftist anti-progressives aren’t wrong in their suspicions of the progress myth. At best, human progress is an unproven hypothesis. How one would prove the hypothesis–or test the hypothesis once articulated–no one can say. The world is certainly different in countless ways than it used to be; but by no means better overall. A resident of the middle ages might well look at our diseases of comfort today, our hideous lack of community and meaning, and decide: “No thanks, I’ll stick with horse travel and typhus.”
The failure of progressive technocracy to resolve our timeless human problems is dawning on those across the political spectrum. Frustration is breaking out in wishful word games to keep the dream alive. For example, we order groceries or an Uber using an app–instead of going to the store or hailing a cab–and call it ‘progress’, when the results are equivalent. We sing hymns to the promise of the internet, when it turns out the internet on many fronts has metastasized into a time sink; proliferated bureaucracy; bred idiocy, perversion, hysteria, and overcommunication; and caused a staggering corrosion of deep learning, civility, and mental health. Two steps forward, two steps back.
Rich techno-authoritarians like Bill Gates (an enthusiastic Pinker fan) flog science and technology as the answer to our midair stall; but we must question whether their evangelism of science and technology is not a *solution to* but rather a *cause of* the anomie so many ordinary citizens suffer under now. Moreover, if the theory of manmade climate catastrophe that Gates and Pinker present as gospel truth turns out to be correct, our march of technological ‘progress’ will shortly result in the destruction of humankind. Two steps forward, and over the edge of the cliff.
Without its former grounding in the improvement and utopian endpoint of history, the anti-progressive left in America today lose any lingering claims to consistency, logic, or optimism. They are reduced to selling prewashed, pre-chopped word salad: “Justice! Equality! Freedom! Fairness! Lived experience! Love is love! Rights for all! Democracy! Down with racism! Resist oppression!”
The left’s message has achieved the emptiness of a TV commercial or televangelist sermon. “Identify yourself with our product and you’ll feel less bad about your life and country!”
Tearing down statues doesn’t do much to undermine traditional philosophies of history. That’s not the purpose at work here. Statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and similar icons of classical liberalism must go because they serve to remind the left that their side used to be grounded in a promise of incremental liberal improvement, a narrative in which these men served as benchmarks: ” We used to be here, now we’re here, and it’s always getting better.”
But that’s not the narrative of the left anymore, so the statues must come down. Benchmarks are at best a distraction and at worst an embarrassment. Nothing is better, and it’s not going to get better, at least not by increments. Dynamite the system and get utopia now. That’s the new narrative.
What could go wrong?