In Our Scientific Age, Progress is Inevitable even if not Permanent

I have a friend, we’ll call him Sam, who doesn’t care for the term “progress.” It’s odd when you think about it, but in his case it has a lot to do with politics. The term is too close to the term “progressive,” which in Sam’s mind, I suspect, is what describes all that he finds wrong in the world.

Obviously Sam is for progress (the core idea of a progressivism) if it means a better iPhone for him or medication he might need, or some other technological or medical advancement that improves personal utility or happiness. Airplanes are a nice way to travel fast, and vaccines keep Sam from losing half his family to outbreaks of small pox or some other deadly virus. Surely this is “progress” Sam can appreciate?

But this is complicated, I realize. It would be fair to say that those, like Sam, who are against, or uncomfortable with, the term (or idea) of progress are mostly referring to progress on the moral plane, not the technological…or the economical, i.e. getting rich. Because, naturally, we’re not against a concept or idea when it benefits us personally. My dad, a fine father and successful conservative businessman, once told me he was a conservative in every aspect except sex. For that personal policy position, he was “a raging liberal.” But’s it’s hard, if impossible, to separate the natural connection between scientific, economic, and technological progress from its connection to social progress. They go together. It’s a mindset. Something that seems lost on my friend Sam.

With the Age of Enlightenment came the scientific mind—along with an outbreak of the democratic spirit (American and French Revolutions for example) and the idea of human progress in the West. Keep this in mind. The scientific mind is the mind of learning, of analysis, of capturing nature’s power (physical and social) in order to harness it for socially useful ends. The natural state of a scientific mind is agnostic (Greek for “I don’t know”) when it comes to a proposition about understanding (or commenting on) something the scientific mind has not seen valid evidence for. While not perfect, we know that the best knowledge we can have, the most certain, is that derived from scientific experimentation and research. So naturally such a successful frame of mind becomes adopted by people and societies that wish to improve their lives. Because it works!

At the heart of education in Western society is a scientific view of the world. That doesn’t mean science will answer all questions of meaning, it can’t. It does mean, however, that people will feel more empowered by their own observation and experience to question authority in matters across the spectrum of human knowledge…and that naturally includes social matters. And so if you connect the dots, as our scientific knowledge has rapidly advanced in the West, so has social change….or the push for greater social “progress.” As scientific knowledge has advanced rapidly in the modern age, so has the push for social progress. In the West, these two ideas go together…along with our greater living standards, economic wealth, and way of life we cherish. It’s hard to have one, it seems, without encouraging the other.

This resistance to the march of time and the social—progressive—change it brings has much to do with the fear of change and a desire to hang on to the past—the love of old times and ways of doing things and ancestor worship in general. In some ways, those with stiffly conservative minds are certain that our fathers and our Founding Fathers knew better than we—and in some ways they did!

Being a man who knows you can learn a lot from studying history and biography, I can sympathize with this way of thinking. You do learn something very important from history: It’s called wisdom. If you read a lot of history and biography (but most people don’t) you notice general patterns in the march of societies and people’s lives that generally tend to repeat themselves, though not exactly, over and over throughout history and life. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, that nicely sum up what you learn from reading a lot of history: a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement.

So let me say that one of history’s great lessons, one of its central laws, is the inevitability of change. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.” The river, with its steady flow, is changing constantly. And so it is with the flow of time and human social history. The concept of social progress is indeed a relatively new concept in human history, I’ll give critics of social progress that, but it’s an “inevitable” part of change given the endless flow of time and the yearnings of the human spirit.

I will conclude by saying that while change is inevitable, progress is not. I mean that while progress may come about—and naturally has in America—that doesn’t mean it will continue. History tells us that empires fall and societies collapse. Americans face a serious crisis because of massive levels of inequality and a declining middle-class. It’s not lost on the informed observer of history that the era in-which inequality was at its lowest and the greatest middle-class in the world was created and thriving in America was a period (1945 – 1975) that was largely the result of “progressive era” inspired policies. An era, I remind you, that conservatives are nostalgic about as the good ole days. Funny how short memories are.

The 155th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

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Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863

For 3 days (July 1-3, 1863) the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hunkered down in their homes and cellars, waiting for the violent storm to pass. Outside the air was filled with bullets, exploding artillery shells, the pounding of horse hooves, and “rebel shrieks” that “permeated their homes, their cellars, their souls” with the “unearthly yells of the exultant and defiant enemy.”

And then finally, it was over. The morning of July 4th was quiet. The guns were silent. During the night the confederate army had pulled out. In his book, The Gettysburg Gospel, the historian Gabor Boritt describes what the residents of Gettysburg found as they emerged from their homes and cellars.

Stench fills the air. Excrement from perhaps 180,000 men and more than 70,000 horses has been left behind in the area. There are thousands of flies, millions. Dead men barely covered in shallow graves. Seven thousand dead men? More likely close to 10,000. How many dead horses and mules? Three thousand, five? None buried. A nurse writes of carcasses “steaming in the sun.” The smell of putrid animal flesh mingles with the odor of human decay. It extends into the spirit of the people. War had come to them. Then it had gone and left the horror behind.

But this initial scene portended another horrific scene that would quickly follow. Amongst all the death and destruction around Gettysburg, the fields and hills and woods were filled with the moans and wails of wounded and dying men. There were 21,000 of them between the Union and Confederate armies. That July 4th morning, Gettysburg woke to find the greatest man-made catastrophe in American history. 

Eliza Farnham, a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, tell much the same story. “The whole town . . . is one vast hospital. . . . The road, for long distances, is in many places strewn with dead horses . . . the earth in the roads and fields is ploughed to a mire by the army wheels and horses . . . avenues of white tents. . . . But, good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained! What spectacles awaited us on the rolling hills around us! It is absolutely inconceivable. . . . Dead and dying, and wounded . . . torn to pieces in every way.” Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror. The piles of limbs dripping blood, the dying, the dead. Hell on earth.

You can’t read Boritt’s narrative of the horrific scene in Gettysburg after the great battle and not be thankful beyond words for the care and compassion and sacrifices made by so many women who came from all over to volunteer as nurses. “Angels” is the only word to describe them. For many of the dying soldiers, the last face or voice they saw or heard would have been one of these nurses providing them with as much comfort—and oftentimes prayers—as possible as they slipped from this world.

At the time of the battle, it was generally felt the outcome of it would decide the fate of the nation. A lot was hanging on what happened during Lee’s invasion of the North. Lee’s invasion plan was to draw the Union army out into the open and destroy it. He came close at Gettysburg. But it just wasn’t meant to be. The significance of the Union army’s victory, the fact that the rebel army was repulsed, badly mauled, and had to retreat, saved the nation, and brought about the planning for the November 19, 1863, ceremony to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for Union army soldiers killed in the battle. Today is the 155th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. 

President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg by train on the evening of November 18th. He stayed at the home of David Wills, a local Gettysburg attorney and the man selected by the governor of Pennsylvania to plan the event. There’s been much debate, and Boritt covers much of it in his book, over when Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address. But we have strong evidence to believe Lincoln wrote the first part of it at the White House in ink on White House stationary, before he left Washington, and then finished his speech, in pencil on lined paper, at the Wills home the night of the 18th, possibly during the morning of the 19th. 

Lincoln’s original handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address (Photo by Jeff Wills, November 19, 2018)

Lincoln’s primary goal for his short speech was to justify the continuance of the war and to give meaning to the tremendous suffering and sacrifices—“that these dead shall not have died in vain”—being made by Union soldiers and their families so that “the nation might live.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of whether “a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.” The war would be the trial-by-fire of this test, from which “a new birth of freedom” would emerge and set America on a new path. Lincoln called upon his listeners to take from this battlefield an increased determination to preserve the national government, to continue the fight for democracy, because in doing so Lincoln believed the American people, in winning this struggle, would be confirming to the world that democratically elected governments—here and where-ever they may take root—-can and will survive. Must survive. “…that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

I must admit that I can rarely hear Lincoln’s address all the way through and not feel a tinge of emotion welling up. Those 265 words, written using the rhythms and phrases of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, are beautiful and so meaningful. I’ve searched the internet for a good reading and the best one I’ve found was one done by former President Barack Obama. So take a few moments on this 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and reflect on Lincoln’s words, their meaning, and how incredibly timeless they really are. To hear these words and feel the force of their meaning is to understand that “the proposition” is still being tested and that it is for us, “the living,” to demonstrate its truth.  

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

— President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

Mark Twain on What You Learn at Election Time

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If we would learn what the human race really is at the bottom, we need only observe it in election time. — Mark Twain

Is Civics the Answer?

Does educating school-aged kids in civics encourage greater political involvement when they reach voting age and beyond? A recent Government Executive magazine post got me to thinking about it. As Western style, developed nations go, America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates. Which is incredibly odd and discouraging when you think about it. We’re supposedly the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known, and yet so many “proud” Americans don’t even bother fulfilling the basic requirements of citizenship. Now, there are various reason for this, some more legitimate than others, but considering what’s at stake most of the excuses offered seem pretty lame. So most Americans get the government that other people elect. And don’t fool yourself—if you’re one of these people—that you’re not making an impact by staying home. One may chose to forgo one’s civic responsibility and not show up at the polls, but one cannot actually avoid voting regardless. David Foster Wallace puts it like this:

By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

Anyway, I don’t recall any formal civics education during my elementary school years. If there was it didn’t leave any impression on me. As a pre-schooler, and during my early elementary school years, what civics education I do recall came from watching Schoolhouse Rock! at home, not from the Virginia Beach, Va, school system. If you grew up in the 1970s, 80s, and early-to-mid 90s, I suspect you may recall this video:

As a higher-schooler, I do recall taking a class called Goverment. It’s actually one of the few classes from my high school years I can still recall fairly well. As part of that class, we formed a mock Senate. I was elected—more like sold out—as the moderator, or President pro tempore as it’s called, of our mock U.S. Senate. So yeah, damn it, I really had to pay attention. Using parliamentary procedures, I would mediate the debate and announce the results of various votes on bills put to vote. Mr. Smith, our teacher, would periodically pause the debate to add important considerations that, being high-schoolers, and not yet having adult responsibilities, we might want to consider before voting. Mr. Smith’s aim was to promote critical thinking. He was encouraging us to ask probing questions, and to consider the implications of the bill to society at large.

We carried on this mock Senate for about a week. After about the 2nd day as President pro tempore, like any petty tyrant, I started to enjoy abusing my power a little. So a number of hands would go up to address the Senate during debate. While scanning the room, in my head, my inner monologue would be something like, “That guy’s a chump, forget it, not calling on him…that guys a know-it-all who’ll bore us to tears, not happening….” and then I see the better option…”Oh yeah, the chair gladly recognizes the smoking hot Senator from Virginia….Madam, you may have the floor for as long as you’d like.” Okay, so power corrupts—especially a teenager. But hey, there was a lesson in this. I, at least, learned firsthand why the Founders purposely spread power across various institutions—to ensure power was not centralized…and thus potentially, inevitably, abused.

So I had one class in high school that I could say was directly related to civics. That was it as far as my formal civics education went. Now, one could argue that the various history classes I went through during those years were civics related. Sure. No doubt. I agree in large part with that idea. History does inform one about our nation’s past and the struggles we’ve overcome and the leaders that have made a difference. The history-as-civics approach is what a lot of people seem to emphasis. For example, I noticed in the GEM post the writer used the lack of historical knowledge as the example for “the sorry state of civics education today.” He pointed to surveys showing that:

Only 13 percent of the 1,000 survey respondents, nearly all American-born, could say when the Constitution was ratified (1788, if you were wondering), and fewer than half could identify which countries the U.S. fought against in World War II.

and, hilariously pathetic, that:

Among the most egregious examples from the survey: 2 percent of  respondents identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

Okay, putting the climate change/Cold War hilarity aside, I’m not at all surprised by these results. I won’t expect a large percentage of Americans to know off-hand what year the U.S. Constitution was ratified. And while I find it pretty sad that “fewer than half” of the respondents knew who the U.S. fought in WWII, it’s probably not bad considering the concern that most people show—which isn’t much—for historical literacy. Let’s face it, history isn’t what a majority of Americans read. The biggest selling category of books are novels, works of the imagination, not history and the examination of factual events, characters, and the interplay among them.

But while I myself love American history, I don’t think we can rely on just history in-general having the impact that, say, a specific history course in American Democracy might have. Or how about a year long high school (2 semester) course specifically all about American Civics?, which would specifically be aimed at explaining our political system AND emphasizing the importance of voting. A course like this could examine the number of very close votes in our history involving significant issues (and politicans) that have impacted our society, both positively and negatively. The course I would design would track the great debates of our history. It would get into the weeds of them. My history-as-civics course would focus on political history, like say, Lincoln’s election and what he was able to accomplish, or FDR’s election and the world he created that so many Americans loved and still benefit from today. Another important aspect of my civics course would be counter-factuals. What if Lincoln had not been elected? What if slavery continued on into the 20th century? What if FDR had not pushed his New Deal reforms? Would the nation have held together? These are all fair questions and should be part of a civics education. Understanding the specific historical issues at stake, the importance of voting and the democratic process, trying to grasp the implications of alternate courses—some good, many bad—that America could have taken as a nation, would probably have a greater impact on young people and their perspectives on the importance of voting and the levels of turnout election day.

With all this said, is promoting a big push in civics going to really, truly, noticeably improve voter turnout down the line? Well, none of us know. In my case I can’t say what little formal civics education I got encouraged me at all. It was more than likely my college education and just life experience itself that turned me into a dedicated voter. But certainly young people given the knowledge and understanding are at least more likely to realize what’s at stake. My guess is, yes, it will help, but not to the levels we’d like, like say an 80% turnout rate, unless further measures are also taken.

So what are the further measures I’m alluding to? Well, first, election day should be a national holiday. There should be strict laws protecting employees from any adverse actions against them for taking the time off to vote. People who work long hours and in very labor intensive jobs may not have employers that are okay with them standing in line, during a work day, for an hour plus to vote. Then add in the various forms of voter suppression that go on in certain states. Things like closing the number of polling stations down in high population areas, and aiming certain voter laws at suppressing the turnout of minority voters. The simple and honest truth is, Why would any politician or political party actively try to limit or make it harder to vote in a democracy? Well, we all know why. That’s why I believe we should have stricter voting laws imposed on states to ensure elections are as open and fair as possible. The Voting Rights Act, which was recently crippled by the Supreme Court, isn’t enough in my view. The idea is to make voting easier, which encourages people to vote. Our democratic republic does not belong to any one party, it belongs to the people. And the people should be pushing to make sure it’s the people, via the mass vote, who will decide the direction of our communities and our country.

So yes, let’s push for more civics classes across the country. That’s a start. These classes should be designed to specifically emphasize the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. And let’s also push for more laws that make voting in our democracy more protected and easier for everyone.

“but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people…”

Words from the past for the generation of today.

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope, December 27, 1962