Saturday, June 19, 2021

Against Progressophobia

Bill Maher, unusually among liberals in the entertainment industry, has been willing to call out nonsense on the left as well as the right. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal wrote about one of Maher's recent commentaries, where he took issue with what he sees as "progressophobia" on the left.
"[Maher] zeroed in on one aspect that fuels a lot of grievance, and that is the uninformed sense that America has largely been impervious to improvement.
Mr. Maher called this “progressophobia,” a term coined by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Mr. Maher defines it as “a brain disorder that strikes liberals and makes them incapable of recognizing progress. It’s like situational blindness, only what you can’t see is that your dorm in 2021 is better than the South before the Civil War.”...
“If you think that America is more racist now than ever, more sexist than before women could vote, you have progressophobia,” Mr. Maher said. Look at the changes America has made on disputed issues like gay marriage and marijuana legislation. “Even something like bullying. It still happens, but being outwardly cruel to people who are different is no longer acceptable. That’s progress. Acknowledging progress isn’t saying, ‘We’re done,’ or, ‘We don’t need more.’ And being gloomier doesn’t mean you’re a better person.”....
“In 1958,” he said, “only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Now Gallup doesn’t even bother asking. But the last time they did, in 2013, 87% approved. An overwhelming majority of Americans now say they want to live in a multiracial neighborhood. That is a sea change from when I was a kid.” Mr. Maher was born in 1956....
The comedian Kevin Hart had recently told the New York Times, “You’re witnessing white power and white privilege at an all-time high.” Mr. Maher: “This is one of the big problems with wokeness, that what you say doesn’t have to make sense or jibe with the facts, or ever be challenged, lest the challenge itself be conflated with racism.”
He added: “Saying white power and privilege is at an all-time high is just ridiculous. Higher than a century ago, the year of the Tulsa race massacre? Higher than when the KKK rode unchecked and Jim Crow unchallenged?” He acknowledged that “racism is unfortunately still with us,” and its “legacy of injustice” lingers. “I understand best I can how racism singes a person’s soul so much they might see it everywhere. But seeing clearly is necessary for actually fixing problems, and clearly racism is no longer everywhere. It’s not in my home, and it’s probably not in yours if I read my audience right, and I think I do. For most of the country the most unhip thing you could ever be today is a racist.”....
“There are a helluva lot of Americans trying really hard these days to create a new spirit of inclusion and self-reflection, and this progressive allergy to acknowledging societal advances is self-defeating. . . . Having a warped view of reality leads to policies that are warped—blacks-only dorms and graduation ceremonies, a growing belief in whiteness as a malady and [that] white people are irredeemable. Giving up on a colorblind society—only if you believe we’ve made no progress does any of that make sense.”
Yes, some things are worse, “but where progress has been made it’s not a sin, and it’s certainly not inaccurate, to say, ‘We’ve come a long way, baby.’ Not mission accomplished. Just a long way.”
This was one of the themes of my underground cult classic (meaning nobody read it) The Optimistic Leftist. In the preface to that book I remarked:
"It is...staggeringly obvious...that pessimism dramatically undermines the appeal of the left. Why on earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless? What’s so inspiring about that?
Nothing. Yet the left persists in promoting a viewpoint that leads to paralysis and inaction, rather than robust action and positive change.
The left wasn’t always like this. Historically, the left has been identified with a belief in the future and the feasibility of dramatic improvements in human welfare. That is how I saw it when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and I was happy to join.
But something went wrong in the 1970’s. The great hopes of the 1960’s went aground on the harsh realities of stagflation and then rising inequality and a resurgent right. It was indisputable that progress in important ways was slowing down rather than speeding up as most on the left had hoped.
Various significant electoral defeats for the left followed--most famously the rise of Reagan in America and Thatcher in the UK. And anti-government ideology thrived, both in politics and economics. The idea that government was the problem, not the solution, gained political credibility that would have seemed unimaginable in previous decades and economics became dominated by theories that glorified the results of the untrammeled market.
If that wasn’t bad enough, new threats like global warming emerged that cast doubt on the future of humanity writ large. Scientific progress, which once spurred visions of flying cars and lives of abundance and leisure, now seemed powerless to stop the apocalypse (if not complicit in bringing it on).
Optimism went out of fashion on the left where it has remained to this day. Instead, the left concentrated on reminding voters just how terrible things were becoming. And there was certainly a lot of plausible material along these lines, as Western capitalism continued to underperform in terms of both growth and the distribution of benefits from growth. Data accumulated over time documenting this poor performance—particularly in the early 21st century and in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis--which the left duly promulgated.
Even the great victories of the left in the social realm tended to get lost in this litany of despair. Not to mention concrete policy victories such as those secured by President Obama. In short, when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing. Not surprisingly, the desired surge in left support has not materialized.
It is time to recognize that pessimism convinces no one. Marx was wrong about the immiseration of the proletariat and contemporary leftists are wrong about the immiseration of the middle class. What is correct is that progress has slowed down, not that it has stopped or reversed. What is correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life. What is correct is that pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely.
Finally, what is correct is that the best tonic for the left will be the return of solid and better-distributed economic growth—eminently possible even without a “political revolution--not a continuation of current poor performance, no matter how well-documented. Good economic times will promote upward mobility and a sense of personal optimism. That optimism, in turn, will promote a climate of social generosity, tolerance and orientation toward collective advance that will greatly facilitate the agenda of the broad left.
That has been generally true throughout history and recent history indicates that it is still true today. It is time for the left to realize that their romance with pessimism is a bug not a feature of their current practice. There is no substitute for optimism and an economic climate that promotes optimism."
Someday (maybe) people will realize I was right about most of this stuff. Meanwhile, cheer up. There really has been a lot of progress and it is actually harmful to the cause of more progress to deny that.

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