Sunday, December 1, 2013

Progressive Failure

I've posted this before, but I think it needs to be posted again -- if only because I have some following ideas.


How the naïve flaws in the great Progressive Ideal have led to bad political decisions in the modern world.

Have you ever heard of the Progressive Ideal?  You should have.  Progressivism is the ancestor of modern Liberalism, Globalism, Socialism, and its bastard grandchild Communism.  Progressivism was invented in the 19th century, as an antidote to the blatant self-serving Imperialism of the age.  It inspired the great reform movements of the past hundred years, and much fine literature and music.

Unfortunately, it also inspired much dangerous stupidity in politics and economics, which plagues us to this day.

The basic tenets of the Progressive Ideal start with simple truths, but then elaborate into  unfounded fantasies that warp out of sync with reality.  These include:

1)      All Men (and Women) Are Created Equal.  To Progressives, this means that all people are basically the same.  They all think and feel alike, and all want the same things.  There's no such thing as a bad person: only a dissatisfied or, at worst, a sick one.  Give everybody a good education and income and healthcare, says the Progressive, and everybody will happily join the great worldwide community of civilized people, and there'll be no more war or crime;  therefore it's the duty of all civilized people to guarantee a good education and income to “disadvantaged” people the world over.

2)      All cultures have something to contribute to the human experience.  Therefore, Progressives conclude, all societies are equally valid.  There's no such thing as a bad culture: only an ignorant one. Give all societies good educations, and they'll all become equally enlightened – and they'll happily join the great worldwide community of civilized nations, and... etc. Therefore, Progressive theory claims, it's the duty of all civilized societies... etc.

3)      People who live in privileged societies are often ignorant of the condition of other societies or blinded by their own prejudices.  According to Progressive thought, this means that nobody from a wealthy, free, generally happy society has any right to judge other societies, or the people in them. However, people from “disadvantaged” societies are never ignorant of the condition of their privileged brethren, or blinded by prejudices, and can see the sins of the privileged clearly;  so, the Progressive believes, they have a right to judge the privileged people and their criticisms must always be taken seriously.

4)      Economics is a powerful motivation.  Therefore, Progressive thought holds, all people are moved by the promise or lack of money above everything else;  give people – or societies – enough money to satisfy their needs and wants, and they'll happily join in the great worldwide community of civilized nations, and so forth.

5)      Nobody likes to get hurt.  From this the Progressive philosophy concludes that nobody in his/her right mind wants to commit violence themselves;  therefore, the only reason that anybody really wants to commit violence on somebody else is that this somebody else must have committed some terrible outrage against him/her.  Thus, if somebody complains furiously against you, and is willing to shoot or throw bombs at you, the Progressive assumes that the guilty party is you;  you must be guilty of some outrage or other against the bomb-thrower – and therefore must do your best to compensate/placate the poor outraged victim.
     6)    Everyone deserves justice.   Therefore it's the duty of better off individuals and societies to help their less fortunate neighbors.  Progressive theory holds that one should give to the poor until the better off is no better off, and both are “equal” – in wealth, freedom, or anything else worth having – or in the lack thereof.

The starting truths are valid, but the idealistic elaborations are just plain wrong, and that was clear even 100 years ago.  That’s what inspired the famous comment, variously attributed to Shaw and Clemenceau:  “He who is not a Socialist at 20 has no heart;  he who is not a capitalist at 40 has no head.”  It also inspired Gilbert and Sullivan to add to their “little list” of people who never would be missed “The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, /Every century but this one, every country but his own.” 

Let's take these six tenets and their elaborations in order.

First, “equal” does not mean “same”.  All men are not brothers;  ‘cousins’ is more accurate – and not always first cousins, either.  All people do not think and feel alike. 

Likewise, all societies are not equally valid;  there are some which cause misery and ruin to their own people, not to mention their neighbors. 

Third, advantages make you smarter;  people who have access to thorough educations, honest information and the ability to travel and check facts for themselves are a good bit less likely to be blindly prejudiced or ignorant than people who don't have those advantages. 

Fourth, there are some motivations stronger than money, and you cannot bribe people into being Good. 

Fifth, there really are some people and some cultures that run on arrogance, bloodlust, envy and spite;  they'll use some minor or even fancied slight as excuse to kill their neighbors – and, incidentally, loot the dead for whatever they can get. 

Sixth, a healthy, wealthy, honest and free person or society does not have a duty to become just as diseased, poor, corrupt and tyrannized as his/her/its neighbors.  Sharing a cup of poison with your neighbor does not do you or your neighbor any good.   

In brief, yes we do have the right to study, judge and criticize other societies.  Yes, there are some objective standards by which we can judge the success and value of a society.  And no, all societies are not equally “good” by any objective standards.   

What makes the difference is culture.  Now ‘culture’ doesn’t mean just the theater and the opera and the ballet, nor even clothing styles, popular music, crafts and cuisine and current TV shows.  A ‘culture’ is the way an entire society thinks, and there are some societies which think very badly.

All men – and women – may be created equal, but all cultures are not.  If you want a religious excuse for this, you could say it’s because human beings are created by God, who is perfect, but cultures are created by human beings, who are…not.  In spite of the Progressive Ideal, there really are downright evil cultures – and downright evil societies, and governments, and even individual human beings – judged by the simple standards of long-term survival. 

What would you say about a culture that has produced marvelous food and music and art and architecture – but which condones or actively encourages dissociative psychosis, the rape of children, and the burning to death of women?  What would you do with a culture that produces wonderful music, dance and poetry – but which treats women and children as livestock, and assumes it has a duty to conquer the world?  How would you evaluate a culture which assumes that political and economic corruption is as common as air, and that you can never trust your neighbors, friends, or even families, but must always be prepared to backstab the other guy – with outright warfare, with subtle economic warfare, or by selling him poisoned goods – before he can do it to you?  I name no names, but these are not healthy or successful societies. 

The societies I've just described have managed to survive for centuries on the sheer inertia of their large populations, but they've been repeatedly conquered and tyrannized by other cultures with better standards.  In fact, these societies have been pulled into the modern age, and into a few better habits, largely by the charity – or practical greed – of their conquerors.   

Yes, it’s true that all cultures have something to contribute to human knowledge – arts and crafts at least – but it’s also true that a stopped clock is right twice a day;  that doesn’t make it something worth keeping.

Yes, good people can live in bad cultures, but they don’t survive easily and they don’t have much influence.  An evil culture can – and often does – sweep its population along with it, whether they will or no, at which point all a decent person can do is run.  This accounts for a lot of immigrants who’ve come to America over the past two centuries. 

You can tell who those immigrants are by the way they wanted to become Americans, and assimilated as fast as they could.  In other words, no matter how much sentimental fondness they might have had for the Old Country, they recognized that not just the economy but the culture Here was better than it was back There.

Here's where the Progressive Ideal collides with itself.  The people who judged that one culture can very well be superior to another, and that the culture Here is superior to the cultures There, are those same “disadvantaged” – the poor and the powerless – whom the Progressive Ideal claims to be the only fit judges.  So, are all cultures equally valid, or are only the “disadvantaged” virtuous enough to judge them?  You can't have it both ways.

When faced with this little logical contradiction, people who are passionately devoted to the Progressive Ideal will all too often choose to jettison Progressive Assumption #3;  they assume that the poor and powerless may be virtuous and innocent, but they're also ignorant, and must be protected and guided by their intellectual superiors. 

At this point the Progressive Ideal tilts over into elitism and tiptoes toward tyranny.   It's only a short step from “protecting and guiding the innocent” to lying to them outright: teaching them only “what's good for them to know” and censoring the rest.  The next step after that is locking people up “for their own good”.  Thus the Progressive Ideal progressed into the great tyrannies of the 20th century.

It's far wiser to get out of the logical contradiction by admitting that all cultures are not created equal, that some societies really are worse than others, some governments are downright dangerous, and when they start encroaching on their neighbors there's no choice but to go to war.

Political philosophers throughout the 20th century have bent over backwards trying to find workable alternatives to war, but history has shown that the only real alternatives to war are to surrender or run away.

Running away requires the means to travel far and fast – and some safe place to run to.  It's no accident that for the last two centuries the safest place to run to has been America.  That's how various groups of ideological pacifists, like the Amish, wound up here.  The Amish came to the US from Switzerland, fleeing religious persecution;  here they thrived – but you'll note that there are no Amish in Switzerland now.

Surrender can mean danger worse than war.  In World War Two the US lost over 400,000 men in just under four years of war.  That's a sobering number, but it doesn't compare with the nearly 20,000,000 helpless people killed in the death-camps by the Nazis.  It doesn't even compare with the 2,000,000 people killed in Cambodia when Pol Pot took over.

The grim truth is that there is something worse than war – and that is to be killed in vast numbers without even a chance to fight.  This is why wars will, and must, continue so long as there are honestly bad cultures, societies and governments in the world.

Still, the Progressive Ideal insists that all people and all cultures are not only equal but basically the same, and they should all join together to create a happy one-world economy, society and government.  People who believe this blithely overlook the fact that many cultures – and societies – in this world are not something we want to add to the global mix.  You don’t make a healthy drink by mixing milk with poison.

No, we can’t have One Glorious World Order until a lot of just plain bad cultures have changed beyond recognition.  This won't happen while the Progressive Ideal, with all its dangerously naive flaws, still rules our political thinking.



Paradoctor said...

True but incomplete. Progressivism can indeed be self-defeating and neurotic; but remember that the Imperialism that it is a response to is, at its very best, psychotic. Liberal guilt is a annoying vice; "conservative" pride is a lethal error. The necessary correction to progressivism came in the 70's, and was over-corrected with Reagan's election. The necessary correction to "conservatism" (which does not conserve) is probably coming soon.

As for relative superiority of cultures; again, true but incomplete. Bertrand Russell noted that 'national character' is really the character of the nation's ruling class; and therefore after any important revolution the 'national character' will be seen to have changed. (For instance, pre-Bismark, Germans were thought of as impractical dreamers.)

The trouble with judging whole nations, or even individuals, is that one is always biased about oneself.

Paradoctor said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my Dad. That fiercely cynical and brilliant man had a habit of sneering at "well-intentioned" political programs. I put up with this for decades, but finally I cracked down. "Look," I told him, "you are right to denounce naivete' and bad planning; but not good intentions in and of themselves. Good intentions are better than bad. Either agree with me now, or this conversation is over." Bless his heart, he took my point, and he never used that particular cynical trope again. (He had others.)

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Nat. The question is, how much -- if at all -- do the prejudices of the ruling class shape those of the ruled, and how much do they only reflect them? China, for example, has a long history of engulfing invading ruling classes and converting them to already-existing culture. India, conversely, has a caste system as a result of isolating the customs of successive invading rulers. Ancient Egypt, when conquered by Alexander the Great, had a Macedonian ruling class that didn't even bother learning the language of the populace for 23 generations.

Obviously, anyone wanting to change a bad culture should start by persuading -- or destroying -- the ruling class first, but that by itself isn't enough.

Leslie Fish said...

Also, technically, Imperialism isn't psychotic so much as narcissistic: "I got mine, scr#w all the rest of you."

Seeing how far both philosophies have deteriorated in the real world, it's time to replace both of them.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Unknown said...

I wonder if you discount the leverage of so-called 'soft power' in today's technological/political environment. Perhaps better stated as soft power backed up by threat of incontestable military force. Does a culture protected by the ultimate trump card of nuclear weapons have the luxury of chipping away at negative cultural artifacts via mass media, diplomacy, trade and technology? I think that's the world we live in today. The flood vs. the fire.

Unknown said...

There is an alternative to war: Dependency on each other. That can be created by the danger of nuclear war - but also by economic collaboration.

But you’re right in that this is not enough: You also have to state clearly what you accept and where you draw a line.

Interestingly I see the kind of reasoning you describe as progressive mostly in free market believers (in long anonymous discussions in freenet). Folks who believe that it is enough to make everyone believe not to use violence - and who could never give a convincing answer when I asked them what they’d do if I were to band together with a few friends, gather weapons and force them to serve me…