Sunday, November 6, 2011

Battles Won

I tend to be a lot more optimistic about politics than many of the left-wing folk I meet on my travels. Some of this is the product of a peppy disposition and a happy life, but I think a lot of it also comes from keeping in mind the tremendous successes of the progressive movement over the past. Amanda's post about how much better social relations between the sexes are now than fifty years ago provides a good example.

Right-wingers have had a lot of rhetorical and political successes over the past 50 years, particularly on economic issues. But it's a tremendous achievement that now everybody at pays lip service to the general idea of racial and sexual equality. For all the awful things mainstream Republicans do, they can't actually come out and say "Obama isn't fit to be president because he's black, and black people are intellectually inferior." And they can't run against female politicians and say "Women aren't capable of handling jobs like being a Senator." They can try sly ways to insinuate this, and they can use all kinds of racial and gender prejudices to support policies that harm the poor or restrict abortion. But things have progressed to where everybody in the political mainstream understands, or at least pretends to understand, that racism and sexism are bad things.

I'm focusing on the political side of this, but the way it appears in the basic nature of social relations between people of different races and genders is (as Amanda discusses) the most important thing. The idea that I'm supposed to regard women around me as owing me some kind of deference just because I'm a guy, or think less of them for not being deferential to men, strikes me as alien and monstrous.

Obviously, it's not that everything is okay now. We've got major problems, among them a dismal economy in the intermediate term, and the threat of climate change in the long term. But I don't see that these problems are more grand and terrible than things we've faced and triumphed over in the past. I mean, this country had slavery 150 years ago. The progressive movement has made things better in some pretty tremendous ways over the last fifty years (and really, the last several centuries), and it's going to take a lot more than what's happened to make me pessimistic about the long-term direction of things.


Greg Hao said...

Neil, great point. However, I think that a lot of that vitriol has simply been driven underground.

Looks at these two things: &&

Rousseau said...

I'm torn here. I really do want to be a "the arc of history is long but bends towards justice", but I've become skeptical of that.

Matt Stoller has a good post about the role of privilege in thinking "history is one long progressive winning streak".:
"We're in a darkening period in history, there's no doubt about that. And I'm not a believer in progress as an inherent fact of life, I'm more of a stuff just happens kind of guy. Before the Civil War, American slaves didn't believe in progress. And why should they have believed in progress? Many of them died in chains, their lives used purely as profit generators for the "owners" who often whipped and raped them. But they believed in dignity, and righteousness. That attitude comes closer to what I believe, than the frustratingly callous narrative which says that life in America always gets better, and if you don't see that, then you don't belong. Suffering and pain is real and inherent to life, and it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you to feel those emotions. In fact there's something wrong with you if you don't feel them. "Winning" or being on top isn't meaning, meaning is meaning. "

Which really made me re-evaluate things. There isn't any particularly strong reason that good will always win out in history, and in fact if we look at history with a skeptical eye there are a TON of progressive set backs. They can be extreme like the Dark Ages, or just how we are much more tolerant of business running government than we were 40 years ago.

However there is a significant anthropic effect here. It's easy to visualize history as "the good guys win eventually" if we define ourselves as the good guys, and (even if by pure randomness), history led to our creation and moment on triumph.

So as I said, I'm torn.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's right, Greg. I guess I like the vitriol underground rather than above where everybody's okay with it.

I agree with you on a lot of that, Rousseau, and I'm more on the "stuff just happens" than the "bends towards justice" side, especially when the latter is put in terms of how people are going to be persuaded by moral arguments. I guess the thing I'm arguing against here is the "everything is totally fucked" sentiment that I see from lots of people. I want to say, "things were a lot more fucked before."

As far as the anthropic effects are concerned, I agree with you in general. But that's why it's great to have an argument for utilitarianism that doesn't rely on any of my culturally ingrained moral beliefs :)

low-tech cyclist said...

My problem with optimism based on progressive wins over the past 50 years is that these wins have happened, in essence, in AA ball: we've been up against other people like us, with no more resources than us. We've been able to win by changing attitudes over time.

Rights for minorities, women, gays, and so forth haven't been victories won against Big Money. The battles at our doorstep are all about Big Money. And it's going to take a great deal of work to even get the Dems, the more liberal of our two major parties, to even acknowledge that that's the opponent we need to take on. If we can even do that, then we've made the jump to AAA ball, and can shoot for the majors at last.

Rousseau said...

Also of course, it doesn't matter if there has been progress in the social sphere, if we are on the cusp of destroying humanity's ability to comfortably live on this planet. Between global warming and resource scarcity, there's a good chance that we could enter a new dark ages with billions dying in the next century.

Things may not entirely be fucked in terms of politics, but that doesn't mean we're safe from other factors taking the world into a tailspin.

Benjamin Rider said...

I'm generally a pessimist, but I would like to suggest that there may be a virtuous cycle at work in the progress of the past 200 years or so. Increases in communication, trade, and interdependence lead to a greater awareness of other people and a decrease in tribalism, which in turn fosters more communication, trade, and interdependence, and so on. Kids today, even in Arkansas, are more aware of themselves as part of a larger global community. It's hard to imagine large countries fighting wars against each other, because their economic well-being is too intertwined. There's a long way to go, and there are big problems, but if you look at where we were even a couple of generations ago, there's been progress, and I don't think it's an accident. It's the result of social and economic forces that have pushed people, in many cases, to expand their moral horizons.

Mary said...

Neil, I am intrigued by something you said here re: your disposition and a happy life. With that kind of disposition, wouldn't you be likely to characterize a great many circumstances which people with a less positive disposition would not as a happy life? What, for you, makes a happy life? I consider myself a relatively happy person, but I have to work pretty hard at it sometimes, and the things that move me toward activism are the things that interfere with that.

Vernon Huffman said...

It's true that fewer people are now enslaved, but a lot more, many direct descendants, are imprisoned. We don't have the draft, but wars are more brutal toward innocent civilians than ever before.

Although we lurch ever closer to a world that is incompatible with human life, the issues of imbalance of power, incompetence of the powerful, and complicity of commoners in their own problems are much the same as they ever were.

The one bright spot is that we're more aware of our problems than we've ever been. That gives me hope that we'll finally change the way we live and build ourselves and our progeny a better world.