The Illusion of the Progressive Trajectory

I was recently discussing politics recently with a friend who is of the cultural revolution persuasion. We were enjoying a late night conversation on politics and the topic ran to social progress. He invoked the work of social radicals in the 1960s and asserted that social progress — the gains in eradicating racism, sexism, homophobia, and more — were gains that could not be reversed. In other words, no matter how much social progress stalled, it is inevitable.

He also brought up an Abby Hoffman quote:

“The lesson of the ’60s is that people who cared enough to do right could change history. We didn’t end racism but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you could send half-a-million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. We made the environment an issue that couldn’t be avoided. The big battles that we won cannot be reversed.”

This sentiment was perhaps first described by American abolitionist Reverend Theodore Parker, who famously wrote the phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” The meaning of the phrase was to encourage supporters that the push for freedom and equality was tough, but history was on their side, and was adopted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Ghandi.

My reaction: I wish I could believe this was the case. I wish the universe operated as one great piece of progress. But the historical context of this is so shallow. Or as Robert D. Kaplan once wrote about Americans who think their country will last forever, it’s actually lasted “less than a third as long as the Moorish occupation of Spain.” To put it another way, the living standards and quality of life in 4th century central Italy had done nothing but improve for centuries, and at the time they probably thought that things would continue to improve, but that was probably the best standard of living enjoyed by most people in the region until the 19th century. Or as I said to my friend at the time, all it takes is for something to allow people to rationalize and justify their prejudices and bias, and before you know it we could quickly revert to the Dark Ages.

But those are just one person’s thoughts, and I’m sure readers could weigh in with alternative perspectives.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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25 Responses to The Illusion of the Progressive Trajectory

  1. David says:

    Irreversible progress is one of the great stories of our time. It could be true, it could be false, but one thing it ain’t is questioned.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yes, even the most general and long term trends of progress (towards the reduction of racism and sexism for example) can be reversed. But what would it take? Is there anything smaller than a Jared Diamond collapse that could totally reverse progress? In other words: could a functioning society reverse the long term trends of progress while still being a functioning society? Or would that society have to crumble and disappear to reverse that progress?

    I tend to be optimistic and believe the second. I see the Roman Italy example as an argument in my favour.

  3. You’re friend would have to present some biological evidence to back his assertion to even begin to make it believable. I say biological because that’s about the only way one could “prove” such a grand, widespread and overly simplistic argument. I think if history is any measure, the progress of liberalism (in it’s traditional definition) can and has been reversed. Consider the Islamic Renaissance.

  4. One more thing: Concerning Hoffman’s bit on the environment; the earliest environmental treatise stem from the Islamic Renaissance.

  5. Akheloios says:

    Islam was once the progressive and liberal, so much that Christians would go to North Africa and change faiths.

    Women had equal rights in England until the assassination of Richard II, Henry Tudor changed the laws concerning inheritance and made second class citizens of women overnight.

    Weimar Germany was extremely progressive, Berlin in particular was noted for it’s liberal attitudes. That soon changed.

    We’ve got to fight every inch of the way for real progress, and even harder to keep it.

  6. M-Bone says:

    “But the historical context of this is so shallow.”

    Indeed. There aren’t many (any?) empiricist historians who would agree with your friend. Postmodern scholarship is also largely devoted to tearing down ideas of inevitable/permanent progress so no help from that side either.

    The Victorians had the same progress narrative and what came after them? WWI and the Holocaust.

    I tend to think that things will turn out okay, however. At least that is a way to stay sane.

  7. M-Bone says:

    And hey, isn’t an abortion rollback looking increasingly likely?

  8. kurt9 says:

    I think industrialization is irreversible. I think slavery and classic overt racism is unlikely to return as well. Everything else is up in the air.

  9. ElamBend says:

    I think the last century shows civilization to be fragile. That we view the present outcome to be inevitable is, in my view, very myopic.

  10. Anon says:

    I also agree that a teleological view of the world is more a window into someone’s beliefs than it is any map of universal progress. A lot of post-Hegelians believe those ‘isms’ of racism, sexism, and homophobia had to be consciously built up over a long time before contemporary movements started to address them. There is nothing that says those old ‘isms’, or that new ones, cannot be revived or crafted.

  11. spandrell says:

    Dismantle the PC machinery and racism, sexism and homophobia will come back instantly. Xenophobia is a natural feeling, there’s no killing it. Get out from the US and you’ll know.
    Of course feminism has an economic part to it, so its harder to backtrack. But women in japan are discriminated against even if made to work, so whatever.

    About a new Dark Ages, well demographics in Europe and the US don’t look good, but i don’t see it civilization collapsing. Even Brazil makes airplanes. And we always have the Far East.

  12. T. Greer says:

    Can they be reversed? Certainly. These are all matters of culture – and as history shows, culture is not by any means static.

    A more meaningful question is whether or not these aspects of the modern world will be reversed. I very much doubt so. Absent any civilization shaking transformation, there simply is no reason for the ‘isms’ to retreat into oblivion. Over the last forty years they have been ingrained into out culture. Feminism, in particular, is here to stay. It has gone beyond entrenchment in American society; a truly cataclysmic shift will be needed to knock the female species from her current position of power.

  13. Chief Wiggum says:

    “Civilization” as we know it is a veneer over the dark impulses of humanity. It’s hard to read a lot of history and think otherwise. Civil society is delicately balanced on the razor’s edge of chaos. It doesn’t take much to push it over the edge. If/when things come crashing down, it will not be pretty, as history has shown us over and over. It seems to be a conceit that social evolution is only going to go in one direction. One could argue that progressive liberalism is an agent in the destruction of civil society. Look what’s happening in Europe with the influx of jihadist Muslims. Look at the demographics. When the tipping point is reached, and Muslims achieve political power in Europe, what do you think is going to happen to gay rights and women’s rights? Do you really think there is no going back?

    Look at the words of General Casey, the highest-ranking military person in the United States, in response to the Fort Hood massacre:

    “Our diversity, not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”

    I think this is an outrageous statement, which makes progressive liberalism the highest good, supplanting all others, including the protection of life and our country. Casey is adopting the liberal progressive principles that kept Hasan’s fellow officers from reporting him and his superiors from investigating and disciplining him. Why didn’t they report and sanction him for his jihadist, murderous, and treasonous statements? Because, had they done so, certain consequences, undesirable to today’s Army, would have followed: Hasan, a Muslim, would have been expelled from the Army and perhaps punished as well. Outspoken Muslims like Hasan generally would have had to be looked at much more carefully by the Army, which would have had the effect of reducing Muslim recruitment and retention. One of the pillars of modern liberal-progressive ideology – diversity, would have been made a casualty. And, according to Casey, to make diversity a casualty would have been WORSE than the slaughter at Fort Hood.

    Everyone does not share the liberal-progressive frame of mind that so many of us have. It is a mistake to assume that everybody wants the same thing and has the same values. Every time someone declares the end of history, it bites us in the ass.

  14. Oliver says:

    It seems to me that some achievements are here to stay, just because, if those who adhere to them make uninhibited war against those who don’t, they’ll win. But these are probably not those which in the PC mindset should be unassailable.

    The 19th century and the diverging histories of China and Japan show that a rejection of industrialization and scientific materialism will doom a culture. So some degree of free speech, universal education, equality before the law and economic freedom are unavoidable.

  15. Ryan Lanham says:

    The state of more people is clearly better and improving. In various pools and eddies, anything can happen.

    The story is almost exclusively technical…cell phones, the Internet, jets, engineered crops, vaccines.

    Who could or would have predicted in 1965 that China and India would be economic threats to the US and EU. And now some are adding Africa…it has been good times in the periphery, especially. That should continue.

  16. Anon says:

    I’m not sure how General Casey’s statement could be seen as so outrageous. He’s just making a very common sense observation about how the armed forces work in America. If the most meritocratic institution in the country can handle internal issues of diversity and difference, then it is also well equipped to deal with the situations it will face abroad.

    Once ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is rightly abolished, I think it will make the military even stronger.

  17. kurt9 says:

    Industrialization and technology are irreversible because the information and knowledge to make these things will always be with us. Also, its competitive world out there, which will force the innovation rate to go even faster. I am not concerned about any kind of civilizational collapse. There will always be productive somewhere in the world to push the envelop of technological innovation (even if its a transhumanist city-state on an artificial island in the Pacific in 2050 – the anchor port for the space elevator). New Hong Kongs can always abound!

    The entertaining thought to mentally torture all of the social conservative demographic transition people with is the fact that Europe and other places are not headed for the Islamic caliphate, but for (the fear of) a black planet. Consider that the fertility and birthrates in the Muslim Middle East are plummeting at a faster rate than those of Europe and you are looking at a muslim world of 2040 with the demographic distribution of Europe today (China will be in the same boat, BTW). Even South Asia will be headed this way as well. That is if they don’t blow themselves up in an Indian/Pakistan nuclear war (with some help from China, of course).

    Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the entire world with a fertility rate above 4.0, which means that its population will double in the next 30 years and probably double a second time before it levels off. So, you go from around 700 million Africans up to around 2-2.5 billion people in the 60 years or so. The rest of the world peaks at around 7 billion and starts to actually decline in 2030. The result is a world in 2060 where 50% of young people are black/African ancestry.

    How’s that as a tale to send the chills up the spines of your socially conservative friends at you next dinner party? Campfire chillers for social conservatives.

  18. Sonagi says:

    Can’t rationalize prejudices that don’t exist. I lived and worked in two very different communities in the US. In the first, a midwestern college town, there was self-segregation among the traditional racial groups. In the second, a southern town whose patriarch carried the torch of school segregation sixty years ago, social circles are seamlessly integrated. The first buds of post-racialism are flowering in America in unexpected places.

  19. spandrell says:

    “Once ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is rightly abolished, I think it will make the military even stronger.”
    Yeah, open homosexuals make such a difference in combat zone.


  20. M-Bone says:

    Who took down history’s biggest badasses?

  21. PaxAmericana says:

    Some of us are concerned with coming anarchy, or even coming slavery. I’d argue that conceit is one of the reasons civilization fall into anarchy or slavery, and your progressive friend is an example of this arrogance.

  22. Fox says:

    “How’s that as a tale to send the chills up the spines of your socially conservative friends at you next dinner party? Campfire chillers for social conservatives.”

    Like, perhaps, Armstrong Williams, Alveda King, Ted Hayes, Clarence Thomas, Maurice Washington, J. C. Watts, Roy Innis, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Walter E. Williams, or Michael Steele?

    Or Devout Catholics?

    Only a bigot or a fool would equate social conservatism with racism.

  23. thelonegunman says:

    your friend (if their thinking runs parallel to Mr. Hoffman’s) is infantile…

    the Empire can and has eradicated many progressive advancements…

    one only need examine the concerted 70-year effort of conservatives and the corporatocracy to gut / reverse all of FDR’s New Deal programmes and regulations to see that ANY progress can be reversed…

    the traits cited by your friend are learned… and as with anything learned, they can be unlearned OR alternate learnings / traits can be adopted / programmed…

  24. zenpundit says:

    Linear views of history as a process of continuous progress are an invention of modernity, specifically post-Enlightenment America and Great Britain which was firmly cemented by the rapid increases in wealth and comfort brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Not only would ancient historians like Polybius have found such an argument astounding, so would have Edward Gibbon.

  25. Psudo says:

    Speaking as one of their number, social conservatives don’t much fear Muslim and African groups surging by population to the majority of the population. Why?

    First, because birthrates are not so evenly divided between the traditional East and West with low birthrates on the one side and Africa and the Middle East on the other with high birthrates. Various demographics within western civilization still have high birthrates, a trend especially common among socially conservative religious groups: Catholics (esp. Hispanics), Mormons, etc. From a social conservative’s point of view, it is radical liberal society that will depopulate itself with it’s widespread abortions, fear of planetary overpopulation, and promotion of contraception.

    And second, because racism is hardly the central feature of social conservatism that it once was. Social conservatives today promote meritocracy and racial tolerance as traditional western values to be upheld. See the celebrity status of racial minority conservatives in US politics: Clarence Thomas, Condi Rice, Michael Steele, Star Parker, Michelle Malkin, Alan Keyes, etc. Outside of race, conservative support for diversity as a (but not the only) social virtue is evident. The Mormon Church, the same who were famously opposed to California’s Prop 8, has declared it has no objection to an anti-discrimination law in Salt Lake City that protects GLBTs from employment or housing discrimination. The argument is, essentially, people (gays, in this case) have a right to think or act freely so long as they are not hindering those freedoms in others (religious adherents, in this case). In other words, these social conservatives advocate that tolerance be extended even to those whose behavior they oppose.

    It could even be construed to be the fulfillment of Biblical prophesy: the meek shall inherit the earth.

    Your “campfire chillers” are more likely to make social conservatives smile than to quake.