Defining Ideas

The Myth Of Progress

Wednesday, May 11, 2016
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President Obama is fond of using the phrase “the arc of the moral universe,” a line derived from Martin Luther King Jr’s longer quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

King, in fact, lifted the often-used sentence from earlier Christian ministers. They, in turn, apparently borrowed the optimistic adage from its originator, Theodore Parker, a mid-nineteenth-century transcendentalist preacher. Obama also frequently favors sayings such as “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history,” even though these Marxist nuggets refer to the supposed inevitable and morally overdue triumph of statism. Another favored presidential expression is “settled science,” as if natural inquiry always meets the end of history and becomes frozen in amber.

There is an underlying theme in these expressions of President Obama: predetermination. When expressing and implementing his views on government services, taxes, social awareness, racial relations and diversity, gay marriage, foreign policy, or global warming, the president often seeks refuge in the notion that cosmic forces both agree with him and are unimpeachable. As a consequence, further debate is futile. Sophisticates understand that finality; rubes do not.

Let’s take his “settled science” claim first. Unfortunately equating a current preponderance of transitory scientific opinions with eternal truth is precisely the way science does not work. There are some absolute truths in science, like the laws of atomic weight, but much else is up for debate and exploration. The etiology of ulcers and the effects of sunlight on the skin are explained differently today than they were in 1980—and perhaps will be explained differently still in 2080.

Most landmark breakthroughs in any field are not the product of consensus, but the unanticipated work of lone wolves, who were once derided as feral outliers barking at the moon. Had Obama used his majority arguments for settled science against Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin, we might believe that the earth was created 5,000 years ago, gravity did not exist, and the planets revolved around the earth.

In my own field, perhaps the three greatest revisions in our knowledge about the ancient Greek world were made by eccentrics and amateurs often derided by academic classicists. No one at first swallowed architect Michael Ventris’s hypothesis that the Mycenaean Linear B script was actually an early form of Greek—given it was settled science that the Greek written language appeared only hundreds of years later in the early Eighth Century B. C. through adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. Flamboyant German banker Heinrich Schliemann’s notion that there were physical places known as Troy and Mycenae, and that buried palaces beneath these cites roughly corresponded to elements in the Homeric epics, was at first dismissed as the fringe treasure hunting of a hopeless romantic and chronic liar. And few serious Homeric scholars of the 1930s classics establishment believed thirty-something Milman Parry when he theorized that it was likely that Homer’s sophisticated epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad were composed orally by an illiterate poet (who may or may not have been “Homer”) through mastery of formulae.

The notion of man-caused global warming, with supposed permanent consequences unforeseen in the long history of climatology, has already evolved through a series of debates and new evidence: the planet has not noticeably heated up in the last 17 years; the predicted shrinkage of the polar ice caps has not occurred since their initial 1979 mapping. No one knows whether the consequences of predicted periodic climate change will even be deleterious. Philology is revealing. “Global warming” begat  “climate change” and sometimes  “climate chaos”—from the particular idea of toxic warming to the general notion of almost any unwelcomed disruptive event. Periods of drought, record cold, typhoons, storms, hurricanes, unusual rain, sleet, snow, or cloudless sunlight can now all be cited as proof of the settled science of climate change.

“Settle science” became a synonym for progressive dialectics. Obama never references settled science in reference to groups statistically most likely to suffer from hate crimes, or to commit acts of terrorism, or to commit felonies and murders inordinately given their numbers in the general population, or to scientific studies concerning the lack of climate impact from building the Keystone Pipeline, or the proven remedies for California drought relief through additional dams, reservoirs, and canals. In the latter case, so-called settled science was a tool used to declare the disappearing San Francisco delta smelt a victim of agribusiness—both to freeze continued construction of the California Water Project and to redirect contracted irrigation water out to sea. Few settled scientists accepted that the smelt was not so much suffering from agriculture’s diversion of fresh water from the delta, as from the presence of invasive species of aquatic predators and massive releases of municipalities’ treated sewage into the bay.

What does the president also mean by the “right” and “wrong” side of history, other than equating his side with “right” and thus historically, morally, and logically inevitable? But history has no such predetermined Hegelian course. Roman republicanism and classical culture were certainly on the right side of history for centuries—until life in AD 500 insidiously became far more dangerous, brutish, and materially impoverished. Beheading was supposed to be the signature of past savages, not the highlight of twenty-first-century video ads for ISIS recruitment.

Did Europe come to the “end” of its history with the European Union or is the confederation’s unworkability leading to a return of centuries of national rivalries? In the 1990s, various manifestations of the so-called Schengen Agreement establishing a borderless free passage zone between sovereign European nations was declared a harbinger—later along with the Euro—of an inevitable pan-European borderless community. That one-world arc was also the dream of Roman Emperors, Napoleon, and the drafters of the League of Nations. But by 2016, Schengen, when coupled with Europe’s inability to control its borders on the Mediterranean, had proved a disaster. Was the German mark or Greek drachma relegated to the wrong side of history; or will both reemerge soon from its right side?

Certainly “the arc of the moral universe” may be long, but unfortunately I’m not sure it bends in any particular direction. Syria is a far worse place than it was even under French colonialism over a century ago. I would prefer to have lived in Cambodia under its monarchy in 1863 than during 1977 under the more sophisticated and educated leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, exemplars of communism’s modern ‘new man,’ killed far more people in peace than did Attila the Hun or Tamerlane in war.

And we forget that technological progress can often accompany moral regress—a favorite classical topos from the early Greek poet Hesiod to the Roman elegist and satirist Horace. The gas chambers of the Holocaust were fueled by the most sophisticated cyanide-based pesticide—Zyklon B—that pathbreaking German chemists could concoct. And the crematoria of the death camps were proudly stamped with the trademark “Topf and Sons,” a benchmark of German excellence in the engineering of waste removal.

Nor is there reason to believe that the arc of history bends toward diversity, however noble the sentiment. Prosperous China, Japan, and South Korea have never shared much trust in such ethnic and racial ecumenicalism. Europe is trying to—but in disastrous fashion. A good argument could be made that racial relations in America were far better in 2008 than in 2016—and may get even worse. Progressives hail democracy as always on the right side; but will they persist in their historical determinism should Donald Trump be elected president in 2016, or should their Social Security checks bounce under the weight of $20 trillion in aggregate national debt?

The classical world did not believe in linear progressions, but rather in cyclical ones, often using the metaphor of human birth, aging, and death as a natural referent. Cultures and nations start out in diapers like babies and often end in them too—as do aged humans. Civilization is certainly advancing along an arc of greater wealth and more sophisticated technology. But even that trajectory is not settled, as Hollywood’s apocalyptic Road Warrior and zombie films remind us. I do not think the arc of the moral universe of Mark Zuckerberg is any more likely to bend toward justice than was nineteenth-century J.P. Morgan’s, however postmodern the former’s social media products may be.

Human nature stays constant as the material world continually transforms. People are not pawns of history or pilgrims skipping up some radiant celestial arc. Sometimes the people, ideas, and movements of the twenty-first century prove better, and sometimes far worse, than those of the past—and they will likewise again when framed against the future.