Progress Never Just Happens— We Must Always Fight For It

The idea that progress is inevitable is wrong — and dangerous.

Last Saturday, I wound up in an argument about Andrew Jackson, which is a usual Saturday night if you’re me.

Halfway through my tirade about slavery and The Trail of Tears, my friend cut me off with the same line people always use when they cut me off mid-rant: “Well, you can’t judge people who lived hundreds of years ago by today’s standards. They didn’t know back then what we know now.”

And, I mean, I could quibble with my friend’s sense of history. I could point out that Jackson was President at a time when slavery was so contentious that a string of shaky compromises was all that held the Union together, that you’d expect a guy with an adopted Native American son to be on board with the idea that Native Americans are people, and that while there have been a lot of new scientific discoveries since 1837, the idea that slavery and genocide are wrong was not one of them.

The problem, though, is that we weren’t really talking about history. We were talking about the way modern people feel about the past, which is much more complicated.

When modern people talk about the past, they tend to sound a lot like my friend. That is, they tend to assume that people who live today are just better than people who lived in the past. We’re more intelligent, more moral, and more tolerant, and all the social problems that made life in the 1250s and 1650s and 1950s so unlivable for anyone who wasn’t white or straight or male or able-bodied or cisgender have faded away as better generations replaced the worse ones that came before us.

We tend to assume that people who live today are just better than people who lived in the past.

It’s a pretty neat philosophy. I mean, I love any philosophy that lets me feel superior to other people without having to actually do anything but be born.

In his review of history textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen points out that this mythical view of progress is pretty much the way that we’re taught about history in school, at least in America. He writes:

“From their titles on, American history textbooks are celebratory, and the idea of progress legitimizes the celebration. Textbook authors present our nation as getting ever better in all areas, from race relations to transportation […] Americans have so internalized the cultural archetype of progress that by now we have a built-in tendency to assume that we are more tolerant, more sophisticated, and more, well, progressive than we were in the past.”

History books are Loewen’s jam, but it’s easy to see this very comforting and comfortable idea being reinforced in every part of our culture, from billboards to cartoons to fantasy films. TV shows like Mad Men and movies like Blast From the Past make their bread and butter by reminding us over and over again what an unenlightened, naïve, childish, socially backwards place our country was even a few short decades ago, and how much smarter, more educated, more cynical, more tolerant, and better-smelling we all are now.

It’s a pleasant way of looking at ourselves. But it’s also dangerous, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it’s not true.

History — and especially social progress, if you define social progress as movement toward social equality — does not move in a straight line. We make progress, then revert, then make progress, then slide backwards again, sometimes never quite regaining the ground we lost.

Social progress does not move in a straight line.

One example that Loewen talks about is racial equality. He points out that in many ways, it was easier to be African American in the 1870s, when the Civil War had shaken up the social hierarchy and made blatant racial hate look unpatriotic, than 50 years later, when Jim Crow laws and institutionalized racism had forced citizens of color into the shadows. For a long period of time — what Loewen calls “the nadir of American racial relations,” lasting from 1890 all the way until the start of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1950s — racial relations weren’t getting steadily better the way that we assume they always do. They were in a nosedive.

In the same way, historians like Joan Kelly-Gadol point out that while medieval women held impressive economic and political power, their daughters and granddaughters lost nearly all of it over the course of a few generations. These changes, she notes, happened not in spite of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but because of them. Both movements are hailed today as enormous cultural advances, but both also promoted philosophies that (for a variety of reasons that sounded logical and scientific on paper) promoted female subjugation. For centuries, women were losing rights, not gaining rights, and it took a very long time for them just to claw their way back to where they’d been in the Dark Ages.

For centuries, women were losing rights, not gaining rights.

In fact, any deep dig into the past six or seven centuries of history will show enormous ups and downs in race relations, gender relations, gay rights, and any other social issue that you can think of — changes that had less to do with the passage of time and much more to do with international relations, the economy, the state of public health, and people getting mad as hell and deciding they weren’t going to take it anymore.

In the case of 1980s race relations in England under Margaret Thatcher, gender relations in the U.S. post-WWII, and the rise of the New Right anti-gay movement in the 1970s, for instance, the minority/disadvantaged groups in question had been gaining rights to the point where racists/sexists/homophobes became alarmed and created repressive anti-progress movements and groups, some of which still exist today.

In other words: Understanding history as a straight line of progress from the terrible past to the bright future is understanding history wrong. And as the saying goes: Those who remember history wrong are doomed to repeat the class and take a hit to their GPA.

This myth of progress also encourages inaction. After all, if social progress just happens automatically as time passes, then none of us need to actually do anything in order to bring it about.

In fact, making moves that outright demand social change — anything from boycotting companies to heckling politicians to building a human megaphone — starts to seem sort of passé. You know: unnecessary. Rude. People wonder why activists can’t just be patient and wait for progress to naturally happen, the way that we’re sure it always does.

If social progress just happens automatically as time passes, then none of us need to actually do anything in order to bring it about.

The answer, of course, is that progress doesn’t naturally happen, because that’s not really how progress works.

In an excellent article written for The Washington Post, for example, Simone Sebastian points out a few of the unsavory techniques used by the Civil Rights movement to fight the good fight, including deliberately sending children into rough protests in the hopes that they’d get hurt on camera. “Violence,” Sebastian explains, “was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, as it has been to every step of racial progress in U.S. history.”

When we remember (and teach children about) the Civil Rights Movement, though, we tend not to talk about that part. We focus on the way that Dr. King won over white people by speaking to their high ideals, and forget the part where those ideals only became a part of the culture because generations of black activists fought with every strategy and trick in the book to make sure that they did. We focus on the idea that by 1960, white America was ready to hear his ideas, and ignore the fact that a look at polls from the time shows that no, it really wasn’t — not until activists left it with no other choice.

This is another danger of the myth of progress: If we assume that social problems solve themselves when society is “ready,” then we erase from history all the people and movements who dragged society kicking and screaming into readiness whether it liked it or not. We also make life incredibly difficult for their modern counterparts like Black Lives Matter, whose directness, daring, and dogged pursuit of what they want only seems unprecedented because we have forgotten all of the precedents.

Worst of all, though, the myth of progress is dangerous because it makes us cocky.

An upsetting example: When I spoke to my friends in the days leading up to November 8, the consensus among all of us was that Donald Trump couldn’t win an election in 2016. Sure, hate crimes against Muslims had jumped to startling heights in the preceding year. Sure, not five months earlier, we’d witnessed the deadliest attack on American soil since 9/11, and its target was a gay Orlando nightclub. Sure, nearly twice the percentage of American teens reported believing that racism would be a major problem for their generation in 2016 than did in the same survey in 1966.

But, I mean, come on. It was 2016. There was no way a candidate running on a platform of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Islam paranoia could win a presidential election in 2016. Not when so much time had passed. Not when we’d come so far. Progress — that mysterious force that makes things just keep getting better and better over time, with no human intervention — would stop him. It had to.

Except, of course, that it didn’t.

There was no way a candidate running on a platform of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Islam paranoia could win a presidential election in 2016.

This is the biggest danger of the myth of progress: The less we understand history, the more surprised we are going to be when historical patterns repeat themselves over and over again. Not understanding the past — the mechanisms by which things get better — leaves us less prepared to make things better, or even to predict when they are going to go wrong.

This concern is, in particular, something to keep in mind as we move into a Trump presidency. On this, the day of his inauguration, many of us continue to cling to the very comforting notion that Trump is nothing but a fluke — a throwback to the bad old days when people didn’t know what we know now. In truth, he’s something much more dangerous: a reactionary, buoyed to power by a movement in opposition to social progress that is very much real. He is not an artifact of older times, but an artifact of our times — the human face of a push backwards against social equality that exists because a great many powerful people have fought to make it exist.

None of what happened politically this year happened because history said it should, or in defiance of what history wanted. History does not want things. People want things, and for progress to happen, the people who want it have to fight for it harder than the people who want it to end. History isn’t going to save us. We have to save ourselves.

History isn’t going to save us. We have to save ourselves.

In order to do that, we need to be willing to take a close and unflinching look at what change really looks like and how it really works. Doing so is going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to involve shedding not just a lot of our preconceived notions, but our sense of superiority. It is going to make us feel weird about our country and our place in it. It is probably going to involve someone quoting that opening monologue from The Newsroom for the thousandth time.

In the end, though, if we give up on looking down on the past, we might be able to learn something from it instead — something that will help us to take up the fight instead of going back to bed and hoping everything will be better in the morning.

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