A New Understanding of Progress
Current generations have lived through a shocking few years. We were born into the assumption we would live in a multi-party democratic republic, with guaranteed rights for individuals, well-tested governance systems, and equal rights for all.
We were subtly assured that progress was inevitable. Science and education would obviously advance, lifting both our living standards and our political discourse.
Yet, here we are.
Watching the Decline
In a dizzying few years, we’ve watched American democracy shift closer to a one-party form of government.
We’ve watched the dream of public education for all devolve into a scheme to transfer hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools where the curriculum includes religious indoctrination and science denial.
We watched authoritarianism gain popularity, as our political leaders shut out and attempt to discredit the independent press. We’ve watched the president of the Unites States express admiration for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, a man whose regime has been associated with murders of dissidents and elimination of the press.
We’ve watched the debate over women’s rights descend back to the once-settled question of the birth control pill, as both the Supreme Court and the executive branch have sided with religious extremists who consider the pill sinful.
We’ve watched celebrity provocateurs, discredited authors, and even the President of the United States convince many thousands of people that one of science’s greatest achievements – vaccines – are actually poison. We’ve watched as once-vanquished dreaded diseases, measles and mumps, have returned.
We watched as voter suppression laws were passed in numerous states, usually making it more difficult for ethnic minorities and the poor to vote. We watched the effect of these laws in the 2016 election. One study found that 200,000 votes were suppressed in Wisconsin. Courts have found that a voter suppression law in North Carolina was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
We’ve watched the return of racism. Steve Bannon, whose website includes a “black crime” section, is one of the President’s top advisors. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was once denied a federal judgeship because of his alleged racism, is now in charge of enforcing civil rights laws – or not. Nooses were recently hung at universities and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
We’ve watched America slide further into theocracy, with President Trump ordering the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt churches from being used as platforms to promote political candidates. He also declared that “America is a nation of believers.”
Questioning the Assumptions We Were Taught
Events have disoriented those of us who were taught the assumptions that racism, misogyny, church-state mingling, the validity of science, and democracy itself were settled issues.
Our high school history lessons were stories of heroes who created permanent change. Ben Franklin, George Washington, and others risked their lives fighting a Christian king to establish a democratic republic that persists hundreds of years later. Women’s suffrage activists including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul won the right to vote for women with a full-fledged constitutional amendment. Science pioneers Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Marie Curie invented the polio vaccine, pasteurization, and radiography, advances that would permanently change human life for the better. Civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, and the Little Rock Nine endured violence and imprisonment so that racial inequality could be eradicated.
We were taught that freedom and prosperity were our birthright, our inheritance from these heroes and martyrs, and would be ours forever.
We believed it too. After all, why would people in a democracy vote to take away their own freedoms or reject the benefits of science?
Yet here we are, watching the progress that our heroes devoted their lives to slipping away. Here we are in a world where rapidly decreasing percentages of people think it is important to live in a democracy, and where the percentage of people who vote is reaching new lows.
There must have been something wrong with those assumptions about progress.
The New Understanding
It should now be clear; progress is never permanent.
Individual freedom, once won, can easily be given back to tyrants, as has occurred frequently throughout history. The knowledge of science can be lost as it was in Alexandria and during the Dark Ages of Europe.
As our new understanding of progress emerges, we realize that we cannot blame our long-dead heroes for the disintegration of what they built, nor can we count on their memories to fix it. We can appreciate the heroes of the past for showing us the way, but we must do our own work to remain free.
A house left without maintenance will decay regardless of the skill of the builders. The responsibility for upkeep can only fall upon us.
A house periodically needs work to the roof, the floors, the windows, and a thousand other places. Similarly, a democratic republic that celebrates liberty and science must be continuously maintained by its occupants if it is to survive.
That maintenance involves spending, organizing, sacrificing, leading, and following. It is a steady stream of work. There is no permanence to freedom. Each generation must earn its own freedoms. The fight goes on forever.
Back On Our Feet
To return to progress, we must first reject the idea that it is permanent. Civilization will naturally entropy unless new energy is added.
The second step is to realize that we, the generations alive at this moment, have been neglectful and remiss in our maintenance of civilization. Our lifestyles have lacked the level of civic engagement necessary to sustain this world we were lucky enough to be born into.
Realize these things, and some conclusions fall into place. Political and cultural engagement must become regular parts of our lives. We should join organizations, attend events, and make friends with activists.
This civilization is our only home. We must make the effort to maintain it.