The Myth of Progress

Horrible Person

I thought I’d collect into one sprawling, badly edited post some thoughts on the theme of culture and progress, since it came up in anther blog.

For more thoughts on cultural change, go here, then here.

The Man in the Photo above is EVIL!

Once, in English Composition class my freshman year of college, I had a big thick book sitting on my desk. The professor asked what I was reading, and I told her it was a collection of essays by G.K. Chesterton. She had never heard of him, so I explained that he was an early 20th century English journalist and novelist, gave my opinion that he was a charming if occasionally annoying author, and tried to describe his philosophy of looking at ordinary realities in new ways. I also mentioned that he was given to quixotic campaigns, such the fact that he was one of the few serious voices in England against Women’s Suffrage.

With that, my previously interested professor visibly shuddered and said “He must have been a horrible person.”

Her reaction surprised me, because she was generally a good teacher who encouraged debate. I could not see how she could judge a person’s character based which side he argued in a controversy that took place a century ago.

Nowadays it has become commonplace to judge people’s character by their political opinions: if you are in favor of X but against Y, you are a horrible person, no two ways about it. The fact that X and Y might switch sides tomorrow depending on political expediency is irrelevant. Both Our Lord and Savior Barack Obama and His Vicar Hillary Clinton were opposed to gay marriage in 2009 and 2012 respectively, but if you are against it in 2015, you are a bad person.

There are a few different reasons for this phenomena, none of them good. First, people are lazy; it is easier hold right opinions than to do good deeds.  Second, people are stupid: it is hard to imagine that other people might have internally coherent arguments for their opinions, it is easier to call them evil. Third, politicians know people are lazy and stupid and will tell whatever lies necessary to win elections.

Hence the charming, frustrating, flamboyant, brilliant, self-contradicting, courageous G.K. Chesterton was “a horrible person”, the cartoon villain, the cowboy in the black hat, for being on the losing side of the debate.

What was Chesterton’s evil argument against the Woman’s Suffrage movement? It was more or less this: a man or woman by themselves is not a social unit. The man is, (at least he should be) a husband and a father; the woman is (or should be) a wife and mother. These two halves together form a higher unity, a family, the true social unit. The man votes not as an individual but as a representative of a family. The problem with Women’s Suffrage is that it encourages men and women to see themselves not in cooperation, but in competition, and it treats each as an individual without reference to his or her subordination to the higher good of the family.

We can criticize Chesterton’s argument thus: it argues from the ideal of marriage without taking into account less than ideal realities; it does not take into account the changing dynamic of family life thanks to the industrial revolution; but can we really call him ‘a horrible person’ because of it? At worst, he is clinging to a pre-industrial vision of family life that worked perfectly well at one time, and might even work alright for some people to this day, but that does not make sense for Western upper middle-class professional couples from the 20th century onward.

This does not make poor G.K.C. the bad guy.

But Progress!

Progress is hard to define. Today we see Suffrage as a huge step forward in social progress, but it is not as if before the Suffrage movement men were evil and women miserable; they operated in a different economic system and with a different concept of the individual’s role in society which made the voting arrangement perfectly reasonable. Once the economy changed, and once the concept of the individual’s role changed, the old voting arrangement made less sense.

So Women’s Suffrage can be interpreted as progress, or it can be interpreted as an adjustment to new realities. Imagine if an industrial country under the pressures of, say, extreme climate change, changed to an agricultural economy of small landholders. A new voting arrangement would be probably be worked out, such as one vote for every family owning land. It would not be “regress”, just a new arrangement for new realities.

Why is it so hard for people to make a cogent argument against gay marriage? Is it because there is no argument to be made, and all opposition to gays entering a marriage contract is nothing more than an irrational hatred?

In fact, there is a perfectly good argument against gay marriage, an argument which is obvious and self-evident. But no one uses the argument because of a radical change in the nature of marriage that took place in the last couple of decades which few people noticed.

From primitive man up until about forty years ago, marriage was about the production of children; that is the only reason the institution exists. Some unlucky people who entered into the contract might turn out to be unable to have children, and in most cultures that is grounds for divorce, though Christian cultures typically encourage the infertile couple to just stick to it like Abraham and Sarah, trusting in the mysterious ways of Providence.

A union of a man and a woman was by nature fertile. Other unions which by nature are incapable of producing children were not a marriage, but something else. This was obvious. Even gay-friendly cultures like ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy or Shogun Japan knew this. It was not a matter of being mean and hatey, but a matter of calling a thing what it is. Ask a 16th century Samurai what he thought of the concept of gay marriage, and he and his boy concubines would laugh at you.

The argument over gay marriage was actually decided decades ago. Now that we have access to chemical contraceptives, there is no clear relationship between sex and reproduction. The definition of marriage was changed, not with a Supreme Court case, but with the invention of the Pill. If a couple could now marry, knowing they were fertile, but not intending to have children or considering children optional, then the union of a man and woman is no longer seen as naturally fertile.

Though I am told that such people exist, I have never actually met someone who argues against gay marriage by quoting biblical passages about men lying with other men being an abomination. I used to wonder why in a public policy debate someone would make an abstruse biblical reference rather than just stating the obvious, that marriage is about making babies, but now I have the answer: our hypothetical fuckwit fundamentalist friend is not clear himself about the fact that marriage exists for the sake of producing children. As far as he is concerned, children are an optional part of marriage, not it’s raision d’ etre. This is why he has no argument.

So, is gay marriage “progress”? Not in some moral sense. Sure, it is related to the happy fact that that today homosexuals can be public about their orientation without risking life and limb, but as far as marriage is concerned, is it not so much that attitudes about gays have changed (ours is not the first gay-friendly culture ever to exist) but the attitudes about marriage. And those attitudes changed not because of some new insight into old human nature, as if the right of homosexuals to marry their lovers were always there only to be denied to them for a thousand generations of spite, but because someone figured out how to manipulate a woman’s hormones with a handy little pill.

The Myth of Progress

People will often talk about the dark ages of thirty or forty years ago before the dawn of Progress. Back in the day, things were awful, terrible. Now they are better thanks to (fill in the blank).

So, you hear young women talk about how evil things were “before women got their rights” (Suffrage? Abortion? I never knew what the phrase referred to, I doubt they know either), or hear about how the days before Johnson’s Great Society when nobody cared about the poor, or before FDR’s New Deal when America was utterly destitute. I’ve even heard Catholic nuns talk about how terrible the Church was before the Second Vatican Council, what with Latin Masses and all.

People who talk this way have no concept of history. They cannot imagine what it was to, say, sit through a Tridentine Mass, or get by on help from local instead of Federally run charities before The Great Society. If you point out to them that, for better or for worse, the Catholic Church is substantially the same after the Council as before, or that poverty rates in the United States are the same after the Great Society as they were before, or that contemporary historians and economists can’t even say for sure what the New Deal was, let alone quantify its effects on people during the Great Depression, they either blink in confusion, or get very, very angry.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, they believe in a mythical thing called Progress, a power that shapes human fortunes, but which simply does not exist (at least, not as they imagine it.) Things do not get better by the simple passage of time, and the arrangements of the past are not necessarily worse (or better) than the arrangements of today. Second, since powerful people like to present themselves as the conduits and mediators of Progress, it is politically convenient for them to exaggerate the evils that preceded them.

For example, as Our Lord and Savior Barack Obama fails miserably, his supporters exaggerate the evils of the previous administration: if the economy is still doing poorly seven years after the recession it is because that recession was the worse than previously imagined. If nations in the Middle East are in a state of collapse it is not because Our Lord and Savior screwed up, but because Bush was so much more evil than even his worst critics could have guessed at the time. Except Bush, as flawed as he was, handed off to Obama a stable Iraq, and a Libya that was allied with the United States and Europe. Those are now failed states.

No President ever admits to a serious failure, and all Presidents inherit positives and negatives from their predecessors, but because Obama campaigned as the Light Bringer who would save America, heal the planet and stop the rising of the Oceans, it is necessary to retroactively heap more condemnation on the past the worse the present gets.

That is the only way to preserve the myth of Progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 comments

  1. What a grim world! Just as well there’s an invisible god protecting us all by staying hidden.

    1. You think the ideas here are pessimistic?

  2. […] they believe in a mythical thing called Progress, a power that shapes human fortunes, but which simply does not exist (at least, not as they imagine it.) Things do not get better by the simple passage of time, and the arrangements of the past are not necessarily worse (or better) than the arrangements of today. dpmonahan […]

  3. […] No President ever admits to a serious failure, and all Presidents inherit positives and negatives from their predecessors, but because Obama campaigned as the Light Bringer who would save America, heal the planet and stop the rising of the Oceans, it is necessary to retroactively heap more condemnation on the past the worse the present gets. (dpmonahan) […]

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