Hillary, Hegel and the Idea of Progress

What is the Idea of Progress? As Bury explained, Progress in Western thought is a universal good. It is also believed to be inevitable. More than any other single belief, it is the Idea of Progress that underlies American identity.

Once upon a time there was a country founded by Wise Men who lived in challenging times. They dimly foresaw a future land, where all landholding, white men would live in freedom and with dignity, choosing their leaders based on their special capacity for reason. These Wise, White Men were very wise, but nevertheless, for reasons that are never fully explained in this version of American history, they missed the fact that dark skinned people and women are also human beings endowed with reason. But that’s not important to the story in this version. What is important is that these Wise White Men created our beautiful system of government that gives us all freedom. They set our system of government in motion to guide us into a glorious future. Sure, they also created the Electoral College, but hey, the point is, the Enlightenment was totally right.

Since that time, the American People, that golden, gifted group of born leaders, has taken the ideas of the Founders and run with them. Over the centuries, the American People have slowly built the United States into a unique, exceptional, shining city on a hill, a beacon to all other nations. But the journey isn’t over and the best is yet to come! We are winning! America’s totally got this!

This is the bedtime story of America as told by acolytes of the Enlightenment like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But it is only one version of the story of America.

In an alternate version, America is not a Shining City on a Hill, but instead a scrum of screeching villagers endlessly beating each other with clubs, just like all the other countries. Witches are dragged out and burned, babies are put on spikes, enemies are enslaved in dungeons. In this version of America, the villagers cower in fear when the moon blots out the sun’s light. They wait for a great Leader to cast a spell and show them out of the darkness.

Which version is correct? In truth, probably both of them. And it’s coming to terms with the existence of the second version of American history that fills Hillary’s new book with such pathos. Where is the rhyme or reason in Donald Trump’s election? There is none. There never will be reason and there is certainly no rhyme. We will never know What Happened, though we will keep trying to explain it forever, to fit it into the Story of America in a way that doesn’t make us all look like fools.

In the meantime, the essay “On Being a Woman in Politics” is destined to be a classic, not because it says anything about sexism or misogyny we don’t already know with our heads, with our Reason, but because only Little Red Riding Hood can really tell us what went on with the Wolf in those Dark Woods.