Progress

I spent the better part of last week hiking through the Grand Tetons backcountry with my friend Brian. Upon emerging from the mountains and getting back to Jackson, we soon learned that there had been another mass shooting. In between showering for the first time in days and treating sunburns, we learned some of the early details: young white man, white supremacist, legal gun, channer, rambly manifesto. The story, by now, is painfully familiar. And then, before we each flew out back home early the next morning… it happened again.

The other week, before another mass shooting claimed another media cycle, there was a brief debate about the slowing pace of Progress in our society. What causes Progress, they asked? How can we get more of Progress? The authors, somewhat disingenuously, threw up their hands, flummoxed, and suggested that this question was unanswered and must be studied. (Meanwhile, historians and economists fumed, because these questions are, in fact, anything but under-studied.)

There’s a lesson to be gleaned in the timing of these events. Namely: what do we mean by Progress?

Progress is often discussed in its Victorian sense – as great industrial projects, triumphs of engineering and mechanics. The transcontinental railroad was Progress, as was the Hoover Dam or the Empire State building or the Apollo Project. Where Progress is discussed in human terms, as in raised standards of living or education (discussed in the article I linked to before), it is stripped of its political element, as if there was a choice to be made between “more or less Progress.” Yet as the saying goes, everyone wants Progress. No one, however, wants change. And change is always controversial.

I ran a poll on Twitter the other day, pre-shootings:

I suspect that my follower base is somewhat unrepresentative on this topic – I think the general public would favor the moon landing somewhat more heavily than this poll suggests. Nevertheless, the dispersal of opinion here is interesting. “Progress” means very different things, depending on where you sit. For women, access to safe and reliable birth control was nothing short of revolutionary. (And for men! But in obviously different ways.) Lots of white people’s lives, by contrast, did not witness that much dramatic change due to the civil rights acts of 1964 an ’68, while those were absolutely pivotal to many communities of color. Those acts, bear in mind, were also very unpopular with whites at the time.

(Another 1960s item I forgot to add as a poll option was the Green Revolution, which saved something on the order of a billion lives and has touched billions more. I suspect that relatively few poll respondents would’ve picked it, though.)

Birth control, civil rights, the Green Revolution. The first and third obviously involved certain technological breakthroughs, but were at least as much about political and organizational choices as well. (Eg., the pill wouldn’t have reached nearly as many without Griswold v. Connecticut.) Civil rights, the winner of that poll, was almost entirely about political demands to change how we ordered our society. So were all of the “rights revolutions” of the era – for people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and more.

Expanding the scope of freedom for all of these people – and, in so doing, for society at large – changed more lives for the better than shooting a rocket to the moon, however cool that may have been. And doing so was fundamentally about political choices, enacted through political processes, not some nebulous project of “Progress.” People fought – and are still fighting – that expansion at every single step, and that project is still far from complete.

There is much well-deserved angst about the slowdown in the pace of physical infrastructure in America today. As just one example, we don’t have high-speed rail not because the economics are bad or the technology isn’t ready (France is laughs at us there), but because of politics. Can you just imagine the federal government exercising massive eminent domain and clearing people off their property, sometimes by force, to build high-speed rail lines in 2019? Obviously not, but that’s how we got the highway system, not to mention your favorite national park. For there to be winners, there have to be losers, too.

Yet it seems to me that most of those who decry the slowdown of Progress are those who could be said to have “lost” from the Rights Revolutions – wealthy, white hetero men. Many of those people, of course, would gladly acknowledge the value of the steps towards Progress those revolutions represented. And yet today, “Progress” does not, in their eyes, mean making new, and different, political choices. Rather, it’s presented as some sort of gauzy project of academic study, likely because they believe this will cause less conflict.

But conflict is inevitable, as we see today. The epidemic of gun violence we are living through strikes me as one of the most obvious examples of Progress denied. We are unable to live without fear of being the victim of a mass shooting because one group’s freedoms are deemed as outweighing another’s – for now.

America in 2019 is a place that can produce incredible feats of engineering, like a self-landing robotic rocketship and supersonic autonomous missiles (whose idea were those, by the way?), but which will not guarantee all its residents the basic necessities of life, despite possessing the ample resources to do so. Those are political choices inherited from a deeply painful national history that involves far more discrimination and oppression than not.

“Progress” today would look more like a massive program of housing construction that helped all Americans secure a place to live. It would be universal healthcare, childcare, postal banking and a regulatory regime that served people and not banks. And it would certainly involve choosing to value the safety of the population over a small minority’s fetish for guns.

There is nothing that “causes” Progress. Fields like economics and history are already deeply informative about the conditions for and patterns of things like social movements and economic models. But talking about Progress without centering on the political choices which make it possible is like discussing mathematics without numbers – it’s just meaningless theorizing.

Don’t kid yourself – there is no non-political Progress out there to be discovered. In a highly complex and interconnected human society, all Progress is political, and thus controversial. And we are in dire need for some new political choices to be made, and by new leaders. Engage with that fact. Because Progress does not fall from the sky.

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