The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.2 (Spring 2013)
THE POLIS VS. PROGRESS
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Progressivism on Trial
John R. Harris
If I were called to speak on behalf of a twenty-first century progressive—if I were being paid, for instance, to present a summation of his case before a dull jury composed of citizens of the universe—I could harangue more eloquently than my addle-brained client. I would expect to be paid very handsomely, however.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” I would say, “my client is really the victim in this case—as are you, and as are all good people. The plaintiff grandly styles himself pro-life, whereas he is truly anti-life, anti-freedom, anti-progress, anti-choice, anti-philanthropy, and anti-humanity. He calls himself conservative—and so he is. He wishes to conserve the hierarchy of the past, the special privileges of the past, the archaic gods of the past, the superstitious taboos of the past, the hatreds of the past, the bigotry of the past, and the servitude of the past. He desires you to have more children that he may have more slaves, but he has no intention of empowering your children with the skills and education necessary to work their way free of chains. He desires you to have more hunger and misery so that you may be driven to find work and to fend for yourselves, but he has no intention of making your work safe or easy to procure or tolerably pleasant to do. He desires you to love God—his God—so that you may be conditioned to expect less of this life, but he has no intention of obeying the universal law of brotherhood that would require him to share the profits he makes on your backs.
“The entire human race is this man’s victim—and yet he charges my client with sedition!
“And what were my client’s crimes? Let us review. He is said to have stolen from the wealthy. How many times, though—for how many generations—have the wealthy and their forebears stolen from you and me? How many long days have you labored to come home with no more in your pockets than what barely suffices to put food in your children’s mouths? How many high-priced marvels have you bought, after a long period of frugality, only to discover that they don’t work or aren’t safe because the wealthy ordered corners cut in their production? How many doors have been shut, locked, and bricked over against you and yours that might have provided entry into better-paying work and higher privilege? The wrong man is standing in the docks!
“My client is said to have lied repeatedly about matters of critical public importance. How do we count the number of lies—and over how many generations—that have been ground out by the wealthy and their propaganda machine? How many of your fathers worked at miserable jobs throughout their lives, retiring just about in time to drop dead of exhaustion and despair, because they had always been told that hard work pays off? How many of our fathers’ fathers were raised as children in schools that told them over and over and over that this system is the best in the world—not perfect, perhaps, but scarcely to be improved upon? How many of our mothers and their mothers were told to stay home and keep having children—to stay out of politics and the work place, to keep their minds blank, and to keep their men chained down with so many little dependents that they, too, would have no time to stop and think? The whole system is a house of lies… and my client is on trial for trying to fight a firestorm with a matchstick? The wrong man is in the docks, I say again!
“My client is said to have murdered unborn children and to have subverted public morality. Yet how do we count the number of children born into this system who would have been better off dead—who were born dead, in effect, since they were born without a future? The wealthy have seen to that! Should we say a child has life, then, just because he breathes? Is it life to be dreaded, avoided, and hated by your very parents because they can no longer feed you? Is it life to be sent for years to a prison called school where you’re constantly given work that you can’t understand and then punished because you can’t finish it? Is it life to be spat upon and called stupid until you can’t take it any more—but when you rebel and stick up for yourself, you’re introduced to the first in a long, long series of real prisons? And how many such children die—how many are killed—before they reach the age and estate of a man who might have sired and reared his own children, a stage that was thought a normal stop along life’s journey in every human culture before ours? How do we count the number of those unborn children, those millions and millions of unborn victims whom the wealthy cannot even imagine? Yet my client stands accused of killing the unborn. He shall have to make so much room in the docks for those in this one building who deserve to be standing there more than he that we’ll find him back on the streets in one minute.
“And what is it, after all, that my client really wants? What is the source of those actions which have stirred conservative ire against him? Why, just that he wants to see things progress. He sees so much misery around him that he can no longer stand by idly and watch—for make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen: if you free my client today, he will be up to his old tricks tomorrow, or this afternoon. He will be trying again to see that the hungry have food to eat, that the ailing have medicine, that the homeless have shelter, that the young have a future, that the oppressed have liberty, and that the imprisoned have hope. His worst deeds are only those that aim at creation—at bringing to light what has hitherto, in this corrupt and gloomy swamp of a society, been stifled and submerged. It is a lie, perhaps, to say that a seed should not be planted under a house’s eaves because room is lacking: next year and the year after, there will be room enough. But the year will come when the aspiring branches will rake the house, and the two will war from then on. It is a lie, in the dead of winter, to say that a well should be dug because the stream hasn’t enough water. The fall rains have fed the stream, and now and throughout the spring it will run powerfully between its margins. Yet the summer will come, the stream will dry up in July, and for three months there will be no water.
“Lies are all in how you see them from time. The present’s truth-tellers are often the biggest liars in the future. My client is an artist, a visionary—a prophet. He sees things that do not yet exist. He sees a happiness that is not yet possible. People who live only in the present—and, even worse, people who can live only in the past—will never share his views. You cannot climb that mountain, they say, because it has never been climbed. People will never share their wealth and care for their fellow beings, it is said, because they never have. Humans—these conservatives say—are incurably selfish. But my client has the cure. The medicine may be bitter to some because the disease is virulent: but the cure is to cut away all that is diseased. The way to climb the mountain is to put beneath us all that is above us. My client has the will to do this: his persecutors have none. They would have us roll back down to the mountain’s foot, curl up, and die of slow rot.
“The wrong man is in the docks; but his accusers, even if they escape trial, are already sentenced. They will die of their own decay if they do not embrace his cure. Even for them, he is the only hope.”
Upon consideration, I would not, in fact, deliver that speech—not for any amount of money—because it is too dangerous. Too much in it is true—and the falsehoods riding on the coattails of those truths might themselves usher in murder and mayhem. To speak in such terms to masses of people without rhetorical sophistication or fine discernment would be grossly irresponsible. Of course, progressive politicians understand this implicitly: hence their desire to “water down” the electorate with hordes of unskilled laborers who have no rhetorical sophistication at all—who, in some cases, cannot even speak the language of the land, and perhaps cannot write the language of any land. Hence the progressive tendency, as well, to draw often and shamelessly from their treasure chest of demagogic imagery the weeping widow, the starving child, and the scapegoated migrant.
The rhetoric itself, if effective, is rudimentary. You take the plaintiff’s charges and, without addressing a single item or detail in any of them, you reverse each one and send it back where it came from. Magnify the payload ten times. If they charge that you lied about your campaign donors, counter-charge that they and their ancestors have always lied about their plan for the nation’s poor. If they charge that you have never attended the church where you claim to be an alderman, counter-charge that they violate every day all the core principles of the faith they profess to follow. This might be called the “see you and double your raise” technique.
Notice, too, that the raise must always be made in the very vaguest terms. Details about campaign donations are a matter of public record, and can be verified: accusations about the attitudes and prejudices of an entire class or ethnic group, perhaps spanning several generations, are patently indemonstrable with any degree of precision or fairness. Likewise, a behavior such as church attendance could be investigated either by interviewing other church members or examining church documents: a behavior such as degree of practical adherence to a faith’s moral teachings is scarcely discernible even in an individual case—and is certainly not so for a vast group.
If I charge you with chopping down a reverend old tree, then, you should charge me with eradicating traditions left and right that once made life meaningful to people. If I charge you with beating your wife, you should charge my entire congregation, community, or race with having tortured helpless innocents for centuries. See the bet, and then raise with every coin you can find whose national currency is unknown and indeterminable.
As I have acknowledged, however, some of the counter-charges in my imaginary summation are true. Winners and losers are often predetermined in our society, as in all societies—and they are so on both sides of the political aisle, and in all religious faiths and denominations, and among all species of pagan or atheist, and within all fraternities and sodalities. People inevitably form cliques, gangs, coteries, cabals, and musketeer threesomes within musketeer companies. I have noted dozens of times, for instance, and always painfully, that my editorials never receive a hearing when I send them to sites that enjoy a national renown, even though I believe my writing to be quite the equal of many syndicated columnists. All ventures and industries have their “old boy” networks, and some of us will be forever on the outside looking in. No amount of “hard work” will make any door open for us, although a well-timed, well-placed marriage or the discovery of a felicitous second-cousin connection might bring out the red carpet.
This sort of thing is highly annoying, and to hear the system’s defenders insist that it doesn’t exist—to hear them warble sanctimoniously about the direct proportion connecting jobs well done with material success—can send up the blood pressure and make fists clench. The System is just another system; if it lacks the vices of some, it also has the foibles common to all. Tall men with deep voices get along better than diminutive, shy men: beautiful women fare better than their plain sisters. Life can be rather horrid that way.
It is also true that some of the young men, perhaps many, who languish in our prisons are not at all bad people, and may indeed have extraordinarily good qualities. There’s no denying that a certain percentage of them were “set up” by social malaises whose cancer tends to be passed along almost genetically. The ambition to redeem these men for a life of honor and decency is admirable; and if the path to redemption were capable of being made somewhat programmatic, then we might even dare speak of “progress” in our public policy. Not everything old is good. Sometimes the potato crop has to fail before one can understand that eating only potatoes was never very healthy, to begin with.
This brings us, though, to the matter of poetry (for lack of a better word): for you may have noticed that my “summation” closes with a couple of little allegories. Tropological language can very powerfully condense complex ideas into simple, dynamic images. The compression can be excessive, however; and, on a progressive’s tongue, it usually is. Life is neither a mountain-climb nor a disease to be cured. The truths I have just conceded above are indeed half-truths as used in the summation, in that they more properly indict the human condition than any particular political or economic system. To insinuate that a capitalist republic produces abnormally high levels of crony-ism and criminalization of racial-ethnic minorities is grossly abusive. In the same way, to suggest that removing such ills from our midst equates to curing our body of a disease is, as a logical claim, idiotic. A more accurate allegory would be to say that we could rid our body politic of all inequity by shutting down its voluntary systems entirely and putting it on life support under the supervision of an external healer. Those images would both do much less violence to the truth and attract far fewer adherents in a naïve electorate.
The allegory of the visionary creator who brings forth something from nothing (if I may digress slightly) is especially inept when applied to entire human communities, and often even when applied to certain kinds of individual endeavor. Who, exactly, ushers a wonder into existence where there was no such wonder before? An artist. But human beings are not an artistic medium, and to imply that their lives may be treated as canvas and paint or wet clay is disturbingly hubristic. Of the several words that we might use to describe the person who would thus play God with his fellow creatures, none is untainted by some implication of moral depravity or insanity.
In matters of strictly, narrowly physical achievement, we are often able far to exceed our self-expectations. A pitiable light-weight can become a marvel of muscle with disciplined body-building. An athlete can train himself to perform complex maneuvers with either the left or the right hand after hundreds or thousands repetitions. Olympic gymnasts are not born, but molded out of years of agonizing practice. Mastering a musical instrument, as well, while considered an artistic achievement, partakes liberally of the athlete’s conditioning program. In such cases, stunning progress is indeed possible. There seems to be little room for carrying over this optimism, however, into more cerebral matters. One can become reasonably quick at mathematics or fluid in Pashtu with years of intense study—yet some people are simply born with a gift in these cognitive areas, and no amount of labor can make up the ground separating the gifted from the more pedestrian. A master pianist may never be a very good composer. We human beings are not infinitely malleable in every direction.
Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in our moral character. To the extent that societies have ever existed whose members sacrifice their time and effort for the benefit of their fellow beings without any hope of remuneration, it is because the remuneration is invisible. The pay-off may be either positive (e.g., high praise for services rendered) or negative (e.g., neglect in return for a lackluster performance). Though we may consider such duty-driven people to be paragons of virtue and a sure sign that progress in character is collectively possible, we are deceiving ourselves: our little utopian knights of public service are mere automatons, deprived of personal will power rather than liberated into moral choice. Properly seen, this sort of situation (which has never even existed in convincing detail outside the fictions of Plato and Thomas More) is indeed more regression than progress. Only a mind that envies the anthill its unanimity and efficiency could embrace such a vision for human society.
I do not say—Heaven forbid—that saintly people have never existed, nor even that the rest of us should not try to emulate their example in our piddling way. I say only that we must not suppose any tinkering with the political or economic systems around us capable of producing a society of saints. Spectacular moral triumphs are all individual, and always individual. This is the most critical blunder made by progressive thinking. If “good” is to be defined for human beings in moral terms, then it must refer to the choices they make. A behavior cannot be designated as good if it has not been freely selected by the moral agent—for instance, if it is forced upon the citizen by systematic brainwashing or by laws that punish contrary behaviors. The progressive proposes requiring generosity and self-sacrifice of all citizens by confiscating “excess” earnings, dissolving family ties, severely limiting private property, suppressing individualism in favor of group-think, programming young children to ignore the “background interference” of parental and cultural influence, etc., etc. By definition, this agenda cannot produce good people, since it concentrates on removing choice from the lives of the rank and file. To the extent that the Brave New Hive does not permit either good or bad choices, but only grinds out worker-bees, it is in fact an evil place. It robs human beings of a free will whose exercise is their inalienable right and which, above all else, distinguishes them from mere animals.
It is sometimes difficult, I realize, to imagine a more hive-like existence than that into which free-market capitalism has lured or coerced millions of people. Up at the scream of an alarm, fight through the crawl of rush-hour traffic, sit at a desk or stand behind a counter for eight hours a day, navigate another rush hour, crawl into bed exhausted and quite without any sense of having benefited oneself or humanity… wake up to another alarm….
This misery is rightly ascribed to our way of life, it does not belong to the inevitable human condition, and we should certainly struggle to be rid of its dreariest elements some day. Yet greater centralization is not the way out. Being assigned daily a certain time to leave the house, for example, and a certain route to reach work so as to dispel traffic jams will only multiply the degree of regimentation in the individual’s life. Being paid to stay home might seem more attractive… but where, then, will one’s pay come from if one has withdrawn from the productive work force; and for how long, in any case, can any human being remain content while doing nothing?
The best antidote to the daily grind would be more freedom. When a brutal employer shortchanges his poor wage-slaves, their only alternative is not (or should not be) unionization: a far better one is competition. Let the abused laborer market his skills under his own shingle. Let him quit his job and open up a small shop in his garage or den. His income would greatly diminish, no doubt—at least at first—but he would also save money in gasoline, car maintenance and insurance, child care for little tikes who cannot be left home alone, and doctor’s bills that would otherwise have loomed if his high-stress lifestyle had continued. The security of his neighborhood would improve, the locals up and down the block would know each other better and forge stronger ties, and life in general would have more sunny days.
Naturally, our oppressed worker cannot do any such thing. Building permits, zoning laws, local taxes, OSHA regulations, wheel-chair access, fire codes… the morass of “nuisance” rules is impenetrable to any ordinary person. What I would emphasize in this context is that all such rules originated in the desire to protect the little guy. Nobody has ever stood before a local, state, or federal legislating body (as I pictured myself doing when this essay began) and proclaimed, “We need more rules to make it thoroughly impossible for small entrepreneurs to compete with huge corporations.” The arguments advanced always claim to defend the poor, the underprivileged, the powerless, the disenfranchised, the overlooked… yet they simply wrap more chains around the common man’s neck.
My jury, consisting of average citizens of the universe, would never understand the arguments I have made in rebuttal of my own summation. There is too much “dependency of thing upon thing”, as the Bard says: the chain of cause and effect has too many links. The victor in the debate will simply trot out weeping widows, starving children, and scapegoated migrants. All pageantry, no discussion. And my jury will vote to hang itself, without ever recognizing that it, far more than either the defendant or the plaintiff, is on trial.
But the good news is that there are too many citizens of the universe to hang. Eventually we will run out of rope, out of hangmen, out of gravediggers. Our elite rulers will have walled themselves away in such a high palace or such a deep bunker that they will have no interest in the waifs moving about the rubble of Cincinnati or Tallahassee or Spokane or Reno; and their elite police force, though authorized and equipped to shoot any waif on sight, will be more interested in staying warm and sharing confiscated narcotics. That will leave the rest of us to begin again—and we will do so precisely as I have just described.
The first step, then, is to survive the Great Slaughter of Freedoms, with the help of much patience and… well, vision. For when unhinged progressives lead us into a steep regression, all of us who would cling to our freedom must formulate a plan for real progress.
Inasmuch as the essay above addresses the possibility (or, I should say, the improbability) of fortifying ordinary American citizens against the rhetoric of manipulative “change agents”, an experiment with our youngest voters suggested itself to me just after I finished the piece. I assigned the essay (being very careful to dissociate myself from it) to a class of college freshman in January of this year, at the very beginning of the Spring semester. Students read (or were supposed to have read) the essay as homework before their third class meeting, whereupon they were asked to write a brief response to it. I might observe immediately, by way of warning, that all responses were handwritten. The absence of an automated word-processing program trailing the student’s fingers and mopping up his or her sloppy orthography is painfully evident. Is this an incidental comment, I wonder—or does it not rather drive right to the heart of the matter: the inability of many young people even among the educated to see any kind of thoughtful endeavor through without the aid of time-and-labor saving devices?
For besides almost universal complaining about the vocabulary’s difficulty, the most common criticism of the piece appeared to be that it didn’t quickly fit itself into some well-worn template—or that it seemed to do so at first, but then “deceptively” doubled back on itself. These young readers, for the most part, did not much appreciate the descent into one genre by way of exemplification, and then the clinical autopsy of that genre. The 180-degree turn disoriented them, and the disorientation irritated them. They wanted the game finished according to the same rules that presided over its start. The level of abstraction that was instead demanded of them by the rhetorical masquerade struck them as cynical—or, in the word of one, “sarcastic”.
On the other hand, how many students (I found myself asking from time to time) in fact understood that the courtroom defense was a mere figure and not the author’s expression of his own views? The following assessment of one good-natured young man certainly doesn’t seem to see a distinction:
The author’s criticisms are exagerated [sic] a little but he agrees with them. I think he is over doing [sic] his point to infasize [sic] it better. He had the point where school is a prison, but I think he meant at a certain age students should be allowed to decide if they will attend or if they will join the work force.
The “school is prison” equation, of course, belonged to the courtroom, not the autopsist’s lab, and thus cannot be ranged among the “author’s criticisms” except by mistake. The student cited below obviously made the same error (or else simply never read the second half of the essay: that possibility must not be discounted).
The author had the ability to turn every accusation around into something positive. In a way his statements were true but at the same time highly exaggerated. I think he is exaggerating to show the so-called “jury” that his client should not be convicted but applauded for correcting society.
The next comment I offer is not so gullible. This young woman “gets it”… but not fully. Indeed, she names as her “favorite part” the advancing of a strategy that the author not only didn’t promote, but roundly condemned:
At first, I actually thought that the first part was real. I had no idea he was pretending to give that speech. Then, all of a sudden he starts analysing [sic] it and breaking it apart. I think he did a good job of representing the other side. My favorite part of this piece was when he shows how to respond to accusations from his opponent. He says that if they accuse you of doing something blame them for doing something with out [sic] giving detail, that way you dont [sic] have to prove it because its [sic] vague.
As you can imagine, this sort of response depressed me more deeply, in a way, than the one that detects no seam in the value systems identified by the essay; for this girl, having located the seam, proceeded to admire the fabric on the wrong side!
Then we have the kinds of misreading that show more initiative—that distort the essay into the sort of adversary, apparently, at which the student-writer most likes to tilt. This sample accuses my argument of gross misanthropy:
In my opinion the author stretches the truth to prove his point. He make [sic] it seem that all people were bad people. When in truth, they are not. Their writting [sic] mainly talks about how everyone has poor morals and only care about themselves [sic]. He not once gave an example in which a person performs a good deed to help others.”
I assume that the rebuke here is at least leveled at the essay’s second half rather than at the courtroom burlesque: for the “defense summation” oozes with pie-in-the-sky optimism. It is the second half alone which warns of the natural limits imposed upon human nature. Still, what could the specific passage have been that drew such indignant fire? Was it my claim that hard work won’t always get you to the top (a concession to the imaginary progressive advocate, by the way)? Was it my mention of all the rules and regulations that throttle small businesses? Or should I simply never have claimed that the American electorate is a jury that will always vote itself to ruin these days if manipulated with the right rhetoric? What relevance does a person’s doing a good deed have to that sad fact of our political life? Are we bound to believe that our system will promote goodness just because good individuals exist among us?
This manner of indignation became a recurrent theme. The following respondent, for instance, virtually accuses the paper of enslaving him as a dictator would a helpless populace and leading him to places where he would rather not go:
The writer… establishes a dictatorship with the people, leading the reader throughout the paper to think, see, and feel the same way he does. The extra energy displayed by the intensity of the writer could easily be seen as over the top and unorthodox. It shows how much passion he has for the subject, but leads the reader to believe that he is fanatical. The mock trial is a clever way of introducing everything in detail to the reader in order for him or her to come to a conclusion, but the writer’s exagerration [sic] of the magnitude of injustice imposed by those he is actually accusing is not supporting the argument like it should.
It may be that we have here another response focused exclusively on the courtroom tirade: I really don’t know. If so, then the student has again failed utterly to notice that the essay’s true intent is to reject the “fanaticism” of the defense’s summation. Yet this particular student must have detected that the essay breaks into two distinct pieces, for he refers to the “mock trial”.
I think the next sample, however (the last I shall adduce), has the piece as a whole in its angry crosshairs:
Throughout the whole passage, I had a feeling that the author did not feel strongly about the topic. There was a sarcastic tone throughout the entire piece. It felt as if he was literally writing just to write. I can honestly say that I was annoyed with the author. It was as if he was just some guy off the street; not a credible source. Albeit, some of the things he said were true. He mentioned that the wealthy steal from the poor, and that happens all the time. The way he went about explaining it, however, was not very feasible [sic]. He was so sarcastic that it almost made me believe he was part of the wealthy that steals [sic] from the poor.
This young woman was practically unique in not ascribing the author’s “passion” to a wholesome motive, I might remark. Many responses not cited here were partially won over by the energy of the essay—though I must presume that the courtroom defense generated most or all of this energy in the students’ minds. Hence, once again, they would be evaluating the author on the basis of an example that he creates merely to castigate. The proximity of “passion” to a point of view appears to earn it special points among the young, even when its logical connection to that view is antithetical. Passion trumps reason these days as rocks break scissors.
The response I have just quoted, for that matter, is probably denouncing my essay’s failure to sustain its passion—my “betrayal”, as one might say, of the courtroom’s fervor in casting the summation upon the dissection table. This student is very clear about directing her scorn at the “entire piece”. I’m guessing that the element of sarcasm noted repeatedly, then, is the essay’s very withdrawal from the courtroom tirade to a more analytical level. I believe this young woman finds my piece repugnantly aloof precisely because it does not immerse itself in the opening scene’s passion, but rather warns against and even derides the exploitative strategies of that passionate outburst. I am “writing just to write” like a “guy off the street” (and where we may find such streets in twenty-first century America, I have no idea). I am apparently coming across to her tender young mind as a bloodless, condescending kinglet—the “dictator” of another student, or the wealthy thief she mentions who shares the plunder taken by those he condemns—because I shift rhetorical gears: because I seize upon that fire-breathing lawyer and expose his passion as tawdry calculation. Do I not believe, than, that anybody ever does a good deed (in yet another student’s formulation)? Do I not realize that passion is the true and ultimate measure of moral value? Do I not understand that my icy analysis chills to the bone and ends my own trial before it has begun?
All I can add, then, by way of postscript to my essay in the light of about forty college-freshman reactions is this: Q.E.D. We’re in big trouble as a nation for at least another generation. The sooner a salutary degree of hardship reintroduces our children to common sense and immunizes them to theatrical displays that amuse rather than analyze, the better.
Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.