The allure of progress

We outlawed slavery in 1865 — and enacted Jim Crow laws in the 1880s. We outlawed segregation in 1964 — and declared a war on drugs in 1971. Mass incarceration prevails to this day.

One could view this history as progress. This characterization may be correct, but that does not make it right. Replacing one form of evil with a less brutal form of the same evil does not deserve an unqualified positive connotation.

I say we outlawed slavery, not Lincoln; we enacted Jim Crow, not the South; we outlawed segregation, not LBJ; we declared a war on drugs, not Nixon — because it is we Americans who must consider ourselves responsible.

It is we Americans who took the ancient practice of slavery and made it racial, permanent, dehumanizing, and the basis of our political economy; we who structured our constitution on slavery’s premise and we who fought one of the bloodiest wars in history because of it; we who transformed its regional legacy, Jim Crow laws in the South, into a national and international war on drugs; we who continue to abide the very same evil that permitted slavery in its current form of implicit discrimination and structural subjugation; and it is we who pretend not to understand Black Lives Matter.

Better words for “progress”: self-congratulations, consolation, distraction, shapeshifting, rationalization.

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Here and now

The way forward is backward. The Angel of History looks backward, mouth and eyes agape at the rubble-heap of the past, wishing to pause “to awaken the dead and piece together what has been smashed.” But Benjamin’s angel, facing what approached France from the east in 1940, could not pause, propelled irresistibly into the future on the storm-clouds of “progress.”

Can our angel still not pause a moment? In America, three generations later, he no longer even faces backward. We dare not look in the direction of our buried and broken, nor trace the path of the world-storm washing a deluge of exploitation from paradise to oblivion. And so we see no glimmer of sunlight in the east. We race always westward in desperate hope for a new day, imagining that Silicon Valley will build the rocket that blasts us at last from the shadows of history.

Were we to rest but a moment, were we to pause and consider how we got here, we might sift through the rubble and find the pieces worth salvaging, those that will float amidst our rising sea levels, those that will reflect a ray of sunshine. History might be our salvation.

Road to nowhere

To be clear, the problem is not exactly ignorance of history. We know roughly what happened. The problem is the way we relate to it. We do not take responsibility for it. We think: it’s not us, not our fault, we didn’t do it. And that may be correct, but gets us nowhere.

Warning

Perhaps the most ahistorical political ideology is libertarianism. The theory is alluring in its simplicity and idealism: the idea that if government only ensured that every person is left alone, we would be better off for it. That could be true — but not in the world we live in, the world we have been handed by those who came before us. Ours is a world complicated by history, by the brutal inequality of the past.

A hint of an answer?

So what is it, the better way, what we need, what we must create? To what new ends shall we apply our new means?

History has been dominated by powerful institutions: empires and states, economies and corporations, churches and ideologies. People have suffered as a result. Yet institutions are made up of people. They are only people. The extent to which we do not understand this, the extent to which we view institutions as separate from ourselves, is the measure of our alienation. We fail to identify with and take responsibility for the power of institutions, the power of working together, the power of ourselves.

Consider sheer numbers. If power is disproportionately held by the wealthiest 1% (or, really, the .05% or even .01%), that leaves 99% (or more) of us on the other side. Are we really so helpless to make our voices heard, to effect social change? We have power; we just need to organize it.

What we need is cooperative power.