Everyone from centrist democrats (speaking of the US now) to socialists refer to themselves these days as “progressive.” Allow me to explain why I will not call myself that, and why I believe the assumptions underwriting the idea of “progressivism” are so pernicious.
Let’s start with the word, then study the history. Then we can unmask the assumptions that underwrite what it means to call oneself “progressive.”
The root word is progress:
1. Movement, as toward a goal; advance. 2. Development or growth.
1. Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress; increasing; as, progressive motion or course; — opposed to retrograde. [1913 Webster]
2. Improving; as, art is in a progressive state. [1913 Webster]
3. (U. S. History) Of or pertaining to the Progressive party. [Webster 1913 Suppl.]
4. Favoring improvement, change, progress, or reform, especially in a political context; — used of people. Contrasted with conservative. [PJC]
Note: The term progressive is sometimes used to describe the views of a politician, where liberal might have been used at one time, in communities where the term liberal has come to connote extreme views. [PJC]
5. Disposed toward adopting new methods in government or education, holding tolerant and liberal ideas, and generally favoring improvement in civic life; — of towns and communities. [PJC]
First, let’s point out that the word is used metaphorically more than literally. If I am travelling from Deerfield, Michigan to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for example, and I have reached Louisville, Kentucky, then I can say fairly literally that I have progressed – I have literally closed the distance between where I started and where I want to end up. The literal understanding is of movement from departure to arrival… arrival being a necessary construct for progress to be meaningful. And the literal meaning is spatial as well as temporal. It is literally about moving across material space and using up some time to do that.
Philosophers call the notion of figurative movement toward an end point “teleological,” from the Greek teleos, meaning result. In figurative progress, result is treated metaphorically as arrival, even though they are not the same. Progress is aimed at, or pulled toward, a result.
That is how we use the term most frequently, figuratively. We talk about how biological evolution, for example, as progress, even though the spatial aspect of the literal meaning has been dropped. Biological evolution has occurred in the same shared spaces, limited to the crust of the planet, and we don’t mean to imply by the term progress that amoebas emerged in the Horn of Africa and travelled to Siberia where they were transformed into reindeer along the way. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our metaphorical use of the term implies a value-judgement; we believe that certain living creatures are superior, or “higher” on something called the evolutionary scale, that others, even though there is no reference to actual altitude here. At the top of this scale – unsurprisingly – we have placed our own species. We see ourselves as the teleos of biological adaptation.
Yet if we try and unpack this notion of superiority, what we find is that our dominance – which is implicitly synonymous with our “higher” status – within the biological realm can only be measured, if we conitinue to rely on natural scientific measurements, by our niche maximization, which in turn can be most consistently correlated with our entropic signature: our energy consumption footprint, if you will. So progress can be measured by how wasteful of energy we are.
That’s the problem with metaphors. When we forget they are metaphors, and begin to treat them as if they are actualities, we delude and confuse ourselves. Or we unpack them and find ourselves confronted not with some axiomatic reality, but with our own fantasies… in this case, of superiority. Our claim of objectivity is unmasked as value-drenched status-seeking.
Progress – in this light – becomes a little fuzzier. Because we are forced to confront the question of, what is the result?
So where did this notion come from? Was it always there? After all, it is a human notion. Other creatures evince no interest in progress, or even the capacity to share concepts as we experience them. That certainly differentiates us from other creatures – our capacity for complex symbolic and creative communication – though differentiation does not necessarily imply superiority, unless you define that as superior, in which case you have constructed a tautology: repetition of meaning, using dissimilar words to say the same thing twice.
Our difference is our superiority is our difference.
It’s interesting that in my own understanding of theology, mine also teleological, that we don’t aim at becoming God – as metaphorical progress might have it – but at reconciliation with God, which implies something far less linear, and something that reaches back as much as forward… metaphorically, to something called the Fall – which is a kind of loss of status… or standing. Redemption and eternity are in the present.
But I digress.
The answer to the question – Where did it come from? – is historical. The notion of progress has not always been with us. In fact, the very concept of progress – as we understand it in the Atlantic states – didn’t appear until the European period called – tellingly – The Enlightenment. There are still cultures for which this conept is utterly meaningless.
This “scandal of particularity” with regard to progress is that it is not universal and axiomatic; it is a particular notional construction of a particular culture and epoch, not an objective fact (but a reified metaphor).
Given this particularity, we have to turn the embarrassing question again about the result. If this is just our idea, what is our idea of the teleos of progress? What is the final result that progress aims at, or that it is being pulled toward?
Natural science, ironically enough, which grew out of this self-same Enlightenment, honest natural science, at least, has confronted us with some pretty scary answers about where our current progressive trajectory has aimed us. Ronald Wright, in his book A Short History of Progress wrote:
Material progress creates problems that are — or seem to be — soluble only by further progress … the devil here is in the scale: a good bang can be useful; a better bang can end the world.
I think he’s being overly-optimistic.
In fact, progress has thrust humanity into simultaneous and terrifying ecological and cultural impasses. Progress has given us the ability to wreck the biosphere and blow ourselves up, yet the very people who seem most interested in turning these trajectories around insist on calling themselves “progressives.” This to some degree accounts for why their record at turning things around has been so dismal. They keep chasing progress to amend progress.
Let’s turn now to the history of Progressivism, or the social trends “disposed toward adopting new methods in government or education, holding tolerant and liberal ideas, and generally favoring improvement in civic life.” (emphasis added)
First of all, I am not a liberal. I oppose liberalism. I think it is as insipid as it is dishonest. And this is what “progressive” has come to mean in popular speech, liberal… since the latter term has been effectively demonized, with liberals handing conservatives the stick to beat them with.
The term liberal has an evolutionary history as well, one that confuses matters in a world where the liberal-conservative linear continuum is taken for granted as some objective polarity on par with thermal measurements in Fahrenheit or Celcius. They’re no such thing, of course. It’s another cultural illusion, like progress, that unfortunatley – like progress – has terrible material force as manifested in cultural production. In the case of liberal-conservative, it supports the illusion of difference where there is none by magnifying the differences in nuance. Anarchists, communists, anti-nationalists, Black nationalists, pacifists, etc., are excluded through marginalization, as “fringe” ideas. The conservative-liberal polarity is contained within the larger historical phenomenon of Liberalism – another philosophical current growing out of The Enlightenment that is tied to the Myth of Progress with a Gordian knot.
Liberalism has been around since the American and French Revolutions. It is a deeply nationalistic political philosophy; and it is widely shared across our whole culture, even if it is not recognized. Axiomatic beliefs are seldom recognized, because they take on the apsect of Laws of Nature, as “common sense.”
We need to bring another development into this discussion to understand more fully the evolution of Liberalism, and it’s association with nationalism, and originally white nationalism.
Nationalist projects necessarily try to break down differences within the geographically defined nation, through a common language and the homogenization of culture more generally. This is a fitful, painful, and often bloody project, but it is inexorable if the nation is to take a stable form. The category citizen has to trump other categories for nationalism to succeed. The modern nation accomplishes this homegenization under duress, especially if the national economy depends on an internal periphery to exploit – colonialism turned inward, slavery in the US being one example, and later an expanding pool of cheap immigrant labor.
The US approach to indigenous comunities was not exploitative, but exterminist. They powers needed land, not the people on the land, who seemed disinclined to work as slaves, indentured servants, or wage laborers. So they drove them off or killed them… in the name of progress.
In the successive assimilations of various sub-cultures, nations elaobrate class structures consistent with various economic means of production; and in the modernist project – for reasons we won’t cover here – a growing domestic middle-class became an ever more essential part of an imperial nation in the US. This middle-class did not conjure itself out of cabbage patches, but emerged from poorer classes with aspirations to “move up.” There’s that progress-meme.
These aspirations in societies that are forming middle-classes are part of a collective and subjective terrain; and characteristic of that terrain has been the desire for acceptance by those who are on the next rung up. It is this desire that creates a felt need for something we can call “respectability.” It’s a ruthless idol, respectability; and so it is very effective at enforcing various kinds of conformity.
In Randall Kennedy’s Race, Crime, and the Law, he notes of the struggle for respectability in African America:
A … core intuition of the politics of respectability is that, for a stigmatized racial minority, successful efforts to move upward in society must be accompanied at every step by a keen attentiveness to the morality of means, the reputation of the group, and the need to be extra-careful in order to avoid the derogatory charges lying in wait in a hostile environment.
This very lucid description of the felt-need for respectability applies to the fetish of respectability for all aspiring and emergent classes; and in the American middle-class it became part of that class’ core identity remaining well after this class had established itself. It is in this way that respectability is imbricated with nationalism. It is consolidated in this relation for the functional reason that it serves as a baseline for a national, self-policing ethos. The desire for status locally – which respectability serves – determines a more general conformity that serves the stability of the nation-state and its dominant classes. Stability is the core value for dominant classes and their political institutions. The cultivated craving for respectability expresses itself in stability.
The fetish for progress is also a middle-class preoccupation, which is mirrored above in the reference to a desire for upward social mobility, in turn a supportive premise for the idea of meritocracy – a core article of faith in the ideology of Liberalism. That this idea of meritocracy is hypocritical in practice does not take away from its cultural and political power.
Historically speaking, then, respectability and progress are fraternal twins. It is this twinship that accounts for the capital-P Progressive movement at the turn of the 19th/20th Century embracing the notion of eugenics, which they didn’t let go until Hitler gave us an example of how eugenics looks in practice on a wide scale. In the US, progressives – including many mainstream eccumenical churches – were supporters of multiple involuntary sterilization campaigns conducted in the US. This is one reason feminism – as it is understood in the popular imagination – has been forced to live with the embarrassment that conservatives and other anti-feminists can cite blatantly eugenicist – and racist – positions taken by high-profile early feminists like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.
An ardent Malthusian, Sanger left her self-indictments etched on the annals of history:
“No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child… without a permit for parenthood.”
“Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race.”
“We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population. and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
“Eugenic sterilization is an urgent need … We must prevent multiplication of this bad stock.”
“Eugenics is … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems.”
“Birth control itself, often denounced as a violation of natural law, is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.”
“As an advocate of birth control I wish … to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation…. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”
“The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.”
“Our failure to segregate morons who are increasing and multiplying … demonstrates our foolhardy and extravagant sentimentalism … [Philanthropists] encourage the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it, as I think the reader must agree, a dead weight of human waste. Instead of decreasing and aiming to eliminate the stocks that are most detrimental to the future of the race and the world, it tends to render them to a menacing degree dominant … We are paying for, and even submitting to, the dictates of an ever-increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.”
“The undeniably feeble-minded should, indeed, not only be discouraged but prevented from propagating their kind.”
“Give dysgenic groups [people with 'bad genes'] in our population their choice of segregation or [compulsory] sterilization.”
Those who know me know that I am not anti-feminist. Quite the contrary. I am, however, convinced of the wisdom of Amilcar Cabral when he says “tell no [convenient] lies.” The bad leavening in this bread is not women’s emancipation, but progress, which included, and still includes, the delusion that we can “improve” our own species. This is God-playing of the worst kind, the poison pill we swallowed when we learned to do natural science – not science inherently and in-itself, but science in the saddle of (ironically here) masculine arrogance. And lest anyone think that this Progressive vision has disappeared or was limited to early feminists, let me introduce some other quotes:
Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind…. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum…. Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizens of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. The great problem of civilization is to secure a relative increase of the valuable as compared with the less valuable or noxious elements in the population… The problem cannot be met unless we give full consideration to the immense influence of heredity… …I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them… The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed…
- Theodore Roosevelt, 1913 (elected by Progressives)
There is no permanent status quo in nature; all is the process of adjustment and readjustment, or else eventual failure. But man is the first being yet evolved on earth which has the power to note this changefulness, and, if he will, to turn it to his own advantage, to work out genetic methods, eugenic ideas, yes, to invent new characteristics, organs, and biological systems that will work out to further the interests, the happiness, the glory of the God-like being whose meager foreshadowings we the present ailing creatures are. (emphasis added)
- Herrman J. Muller, 1935
Galton’s eccentric, sceptical, observing, flashing, cavalry-leader type of mind led him eventually to become the founder of the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists, namely eugenics.
- John Maynard Keynes, 1946
I do not pretend that birth control is the only way in which population can be kept from increasing… War… has hitherto been disappointing in this respect, but perhaps bacteriological war may prove more effective. If a Black Death could be spread throughout the world once in every generation survivors could procreate freely without making the world too full… The state of affairs might be somewhat unpleasant, but what of that? Really high-minded people are indifferent to happiness, especially other people’s… There are three ways of securing a society that shall be stable as regards population. The first is that of birth control, the second that of infanticide or really destructive wars, and the third that of general misery except for a powerful minority…
- Bertrand Russell, 1953
Natural selection must be replaced by eugenical artificial selection. This idea constitutes the sound core of eugenics, the applied science of human betterment.
- Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1964
Problem-makers reproduce in greater percentage than problem-solvers, and in so doing cause the decline of civilization… In short, if capable, intelligent people had most babies, society would see its problems and solve them.
- Elmer Pendell, 1967
In order to stabilize world population, we must eliminate 350,000 people per day. It is a horrible thing to say, but it is just as bad not to say it.
- Jacques Cousteau, 1991
The first century or two of the new millennium will almost certainly be a golden age for Eugenics. Through application of new genetic knowledge and reproductive technologies…the major change will be to mankind itself…[T]echniques…such as…genetic manipulations are not yet efficient enough to be unquestionably suitable in therapeutic and eugenic application for humans. But with the pace of research it is surely only a matter of time, and a short time at that.
- Glayde Whitney, 1999
Here is Barbara Marx Hubbard, with a very explict claim to human God-hood:
Out of the full spectrum of human personality, one-fourth is electing to transcend…One-fourth is ready to so choose, given the example of one other…One-fourth is resistant to election. They are unattracted by life ever-evolving. One-fourth is destructive. They are born angry with God…They are defective seeds…There have always been defective seeds. In the past they were permitted to die a ‘natural death’…We, the elders, have been patiently waiting until the very last moment before the quantum transformation, to take action to cut out this corrupted and corrupting element in the body of humanity. It is like watching a cancer grow…Now, as we approach the quantum shift from creature-human to co-creative human—the human who is an inheritor of god-like powers—the destructive one-fourth must be eliminated from the social body. We have no choice, dearly beloveds. Fortunately you, dearly beloveds, are not responsible for this act. We are. We are in charge of God’s selection process for planet Earth. He selects, we destroy. We are the riders of the pale horse, Death. We come to bring death to those who are unable to know God…The riders of the pale horse are about to pass among you. Grim reapers, they will separate the wheat from the chaff. This is the most painful period in the history of humanity…
Finally this very sly one from our contemporary, Richard Dawkins, who coined the term, “the selfish gene.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous – though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change.
Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from “ought” to “is” and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as “these are not one-dimensional abilities” apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.
I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
Damn that Hitler, he set progress back decades!
I want to point out again the undercurrent of “repsectability” running through these progress claims related to eugenics.
As a Methodist, it is important for me to point out how progressive churches, like Methodists and Unitarians among others, were strong supporters of eugenics. The racialism of eugenics was already inside the seed named “progress.” At one point, “progressive” Protestants actually talked about searching for a “cleanliness” gene! More on this further along.
Fellow Methodist Amy Laura Hall, a professor at Duke University whose talk, which I attended one evening two years ago, has influenced this piece, noted in an interview how, while churches have rejected the “excesses” of early eugenics, they still carefully “plan” their families and seem to have selected progress over the basic tents of their own faith:
While studying bioethics at Yale, I served at a merged, downtown church — African-American and white, working class and bourgeois-bohemian, professors and homeless folks — a church trying to know every child as part of the Body of Christ. In this context, I wanted to ask why so many mainline Christians are frightened to put our children in schools with children with disabilities or children who speak Spanish or children who live in impoverished neighborhoods? How is it that white Protestants, who worship a babe born in a manger, came to view a birth planned through in vitro fertilization as more legitimately a gift than a child conceived by an undocumented Latina teenager?
This foray into progressive eugenics is just the beginning, and I admit I start with it because it is so provocative. But I want people to think very seriously about this term not merely because of this nasty history, but because the progress-myth is stained by far more than the demon of eugenics, which might be cavalierly dismissed as some kind of anomaly.
Right now the country is embroiled in a health care debate, one in which “progressives,” to their credit, have been willing to abandon political maneuvering to undercut the Democratic administration in its effort to fob off mandatory insurance – an unfunded mandate on citizens – as reform for the most cynical political motives (to make Obama – and Democratic political operatives – look effective). The so-called Health Care Bill deserves to go down in flames, as it apparently now will.
If health care is what people need – an idea I will challenge in a moment – then at least they could do what other industrialized metropoles have done, and go for the single-payer option. My problem with the progressive vision of “health care” is that it carries with it a claim of entitlement – or rights – and no critique of the medicalization of society into which these “rights” provide a pass.
Medicine – not healing, which has in many cases been declared illegal – has become what Ivan Illich calls a “radical monopoly” that denies death as a natural function of life, that creates dependency on technology and a cadre of highly-paid professionals, and has alienated us from our own corporeal being. It has led to the pathologization of every aspect of our lives, turned us all into self-absorbed, freaked-out, body-monitoring risk managers, and serves to make us more effective cogs in the machinery of a heirarchical and highly-institutionalized society. It has led us to die in sterile hospitals, hooked to infernal machines, to practice the very eugenics decried above – albeit on the scale of individuals advised by their licensed medical shaman, and taught us the very biophobia that underwrites our current vandalism against nature.
Personal anecdote, I was a Special Forces medic in the army, a peculiar specialty that allowed us to practice, in certain conditions, in pretty much the same role as doctors (and occasionally veterinarians). We didn’t have the acumen in microbiology of a licensed physician, but we had the skill to manage severe trauma, identify and treat for a host of common maladies, and to conduct our own laboratory analyses using a small tactical set with a non-electric microscope and a hand-cranked cetrifuge. Our training lasted for 48 weeks, and was given to many without so much as a bachelor’s degree. I caught nine babies in labor and delivery, treated in mass-casualty situations, stabilized patients in the midst of combat, relieved dozens if not hundreds of people of parasites and protazoa, opened up bellies to remove shrapnel, effectively treated infectious diseases, extracted rotten and painful teeth, saved a horse dying of bloat, and treated aches and pains and sprains and strains, removed growths, sutured wounds and incisions, and a bunch of other stuff I won’t list.
Healers don’t need 8-12 years of training; and medicine is the biggest racket in the world next to war supplies. The training I received was to keep a Special Forces A Detachment functional – like a machine – and to “establish rapport” with indigenous populations for the purpose of bending them to the machinations of a US foreign policy that was not good for them. The purpose of modern medicine is twofold as well: (1) to make a lot of money for lot of physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and credentialing institutions, and (2) to keep our own population functional as consumers of these “products” and as workers. More and more, the latter involves psychotropic drugs to treat newly named “disorders” that before they were disorders were just part of life. “Stress,” for example.
Working the kinds of alienating jobs we have under the Domoclean swords of debt and our incapacity for subsistence, while raising our kids to be well-adjusted to a system that no one ought to adjust to, and living in an environment that is bombarded 24-7 with the agitations of a world that is ever more commodified, creates tension in our bodies, including our psyches. Does medicine enlist in activities to escape from or overturn said system? No. It names our natural reaction to this extreme and ceaseless alienation as a disorder called “stress” – which is in fact the most natural reaction in the world, fighting or fleeing before a dangerous or uncomfortable environment – and “treats” said stress, usually with chemicals, and sometimes with “therapy,” that is, serial suggestive conversations and exercises, led by a credentialed expert of course, and designed to help us readjust(!) to this reality.
Progressives have been proselytizing for greater access to this phenomenon for quite some time, with no criticism of what it is to which we seek this access. But there is a more visceral objection that can be raised against medicalized culture, and it is how this phenomenon is reflected in our very consciousness.
Barbara Duden is a historian of the body. She looks at the cultural construction of the body, of how we “know” ourselves as embodied creatures, and at the successive alienations from ourselves as bodies throughout history. She and Silya Samerski have been investigating what they call the “pop-gene,” the gene in popular imagination, and their insights reveal the connection between the Progressive eugenics fetish of the ealry 20th Century and our own subjugation by the radical monopoly of medicine.
The describe how the pop-gene and our seeing ourselves as immune systems, the measuring and mapping of the body, have objectified us to ourselves, have placed us outside of ourselves, led us to regard ourselves as object of study, as positions in probability tables and statistical scatterplots. As David Cayley articulated this, self-objectification “has deprived us of our story,” and what Barbara Duden called “the propagation of risk management” as the essence of our lives. Like every system of control, it is based fundamentally on the propagation – before risk management – of fear. Fear of life. Fear of aging. Fear of every indiosyncracy.
It’s no wonder we think we need psychotropic drugs. We see ourselves on the outside, as nowhere-and-everywhere, as nothing-and-everything. The pop-gene, the body as a carefully monitored immune-system instead of direct experience, has unmoored us.
Progressives have no account of this monumentally signficant aspect of medicalized culture, and they resist this account because it undemines their campaign for universal access to the radical monopoly of instituionalized medicine. Progressives certainly don’t have much account of how this episteme of the objectified body might link to the eugenics fetish – still extant in selecting for desirable children – or even to the generally woman-hating content of ever more ubiquitous pornography, which progressives defend as free speech (because examination of the actual content of most pornography undermines their perennial campaign for “free speech,” another liberal abstraction that gives equal validity to Nazi propaganda or a haiku).
I have a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) right here in my hand. This is a medical manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. I want to list a few of the “disorders” from that manual, and the reader can make of it what s/he will.
I’ll stop here, because it only becomes more bizarre; but I want to alert the reader that a critique of “educaton” follows that merges with these disorders in a tautological vice. If you don’t perform well at education, you are medically deficient, and in either case you shall require the intervention of expensively credentialled experts to correct your disorders or to administer and deliver your education. Want to hear the common language of some of these disorders?
The essential feature of X disorder is X ability (as measured by individually administered standardized tests of X calculation or reasoning) that falls substantially below that expected for the individual’s chronological age, measured intelligence, and age-appropriate education.
Welcome to institutional medicine. Welcome to institutional education. Welcome to the brave new world of progress.
I simply must insert some comments from my dry-humored friend De Clarke, after I pointed out the above DSM-IV definition list:
Agh! More weird taxonomy. I mean, we all do it — think how phrases like “he’s so anal [retentive]” or “she went all OCD on me” have migrated into the vernacular. And hell, they’re useful, descriptive, terse, and often funny. But the underlying project of taxonomising is really no funnier than it was in Hitler’s day – the descriptive so swiftly shifts to the prescriptive and then to enforcement and/or purification. Sorting out the “normal” from the “abnormal” and the Tainted from the Pure. In fact the vernacular uses are a kind of pushback, showing that these medicalised “sins” are in fact present in all of us to some degree… no purity, only our varying bundles of idiosyncrasy.
My sense of irony will not be satisfied until the DSM V includes “taxonomic compulsion disorder,” “violent control fantasy disorder,” and “conformist anxiety disorder.” Oh yes, and how about “cornucopian fantasy disorder,” “biophobia,” “obsessive misogynist disorder,” “gender panic disorder,” and a host of other mental illnesses of patriarchy? “hermetic border hallucination” would be high on my list of socially dangerous brain farts.
Medicine has come to “treat” menopause with hormone replacement “therapy,” not for a disease like malaria or influenza, but for getting old. It treats something called ADHD in children when they show no inclination to sit still in a prison called a classroom for six hours a day and apply themselves to “studying” some of the most boring test-taking drills and damaging state propaganda imaginable. The treatments for this “disorder” are chemical stimulants. I’ll have more to say about mandatory education further down, another progressive preoccupation that compels its advocates to prevaricate, evade, and lie.
Now we are faced with a daily television bombardment from unchained pharmaceutical companies who are creating drugs then defining new disorders to match them.
I don’t object to the campaign for single-payer health care per se I suppose. I understand that the people trapped in the system as it is are made dependent on the radical monopoly of medicine, and that access can, in the short term, ameliorate certain kinds of pain and misery. If I break my leg, I’d like to have it set without becoming homeless as a result. I do object to the fact that I have to pay for twelve years of higher education for something that can be done by a high-school drop-out with three weeks of apprenticeship. And I object to the refusal to define the real character of institutional medicine before we cry out for more access to it.
Progressives fought for the maze of regulations that mandate expensive and exclusionary licensing, resulting in the criminalization of everything from refusal of medical intervention to the corner taco stand to raw milk. That corporate predators were the target of these regulations at one point, and that uber-capitalists use libertarian arguments to bypass regulations that are inconvenient, again creates the campaign-environment that ignores the fact that the cure is worse than the malady. Regulation, licensure, and credentialing have served, more than anything else, to exclude smallholders and encourage monopolization by the well-resourced… or forced people to go into debt to become players, whether in business, agriculture, medicine, etc.
The accusation by the polemicists of the right that progressives want a nanny-state, while misogynist and gender-baiting in its articulation, appeals to many non-elites precisely because it is – divorced from its gratuitous gender-slap – true. Polemicists raise the argument because it has teeth. It unmasks the delusion that the world can be made risk-free, pain-free, death-free. It also makes explicit the fact that progressives can be control-freaks every bit as much as conservatives.
We return to the question: What is the result that progress aims at? What is the teleos? It is, in fact, another delusion based on an abstraction – perfection.
Perfect: entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.
The word as it is used now did not appear until somewhere between 1250-1300. That’s why theological claims of the perfection of Christ, for example, make no sense, because the notion did not exist in 1st Century Palestine. One could be righteous or unrighteous, faithful or unfaithful, but not perfect. Translations refer to “perfect” as complete; the way we might say “you know perfectly well…” – not ideally unblemished.
It’s a name for the nameless, like the number aleph naught – a countable infinity.
If we want to see the result of this trend toward perfection, think about the fallout from notions like the 4.0 GPA, the Perfect 10 woman, or the uber-mensch. Progressives have critiqued each of these manifestations, substituting their own version of perfection as teleos, but watering the same root instead of doing what needs doing, that is, tearing it out.
We can’t see past our own axioms because we confuse them with laws of nature. We share this misperception because we have mostly been conformed in the same forge, our mandatory education. Yet another article of faith in the progressive cosmos.
I said above that education damages our children as it has damaged us. It’s not an original observation. Yet progressives were and are the biggest proponents of mandatory, publicly-funded (say it, taxed) education… these paragons of “rights” and “diversity” support the idea that the state ought to compel, by force if necessary, every parent to send her/his children to a 13-year program that consumes their childhood and adolescense, forces them to memorize and regurgitate the propaganda of conformity and nationalism, disciplines them in floursecent cells, forces them to sit for hours – the equivalent of a torturer’s stress position – and compels them to silence and significations of abject obedience before institutional operatives.
The disagreements between progressives and conservatives is over some content, several techniques, what the funding streams for this militarized (and militarily-derived, read DeLanda on the roots of standardization and centralization) environment will be, and – again – whether or not certain policies prevent equal access to this cultural product. Progressives claim that children (and adults now) need education, like it’s oxygen or glucose, even though throughout 99.9999999% of human existence, the overwhelming number of humans had no such thing.
Mandatory education, indeed education itself, is one of the most powerful idols of modernity, specifically of Liberalism, and worshipped as well as vigorously defended by “progressives”; and by education I do not mean learning, but “education” the product, again run by a vast cadre of state-credentialled technicians within the technocratic monopoly.
It’s part of the progress-respectability-perfection axis; and it aims at standardizing humans like products.
Education, once a person has survived this social-Darwinian gauntlet, does credential, and credentials in the technocratic monopoly to open doors to advantages, but they are advantages that are part of the problem and certianly not of any solution. Conservatives want to maintain the harshest sorting methods to maintain existing social heirarchies, but at least they are not deluded about what they are doing. Progressives want a more “equal” distribution of (1) the product and (2) the outcomes, but they cling to the delusion of “improving the [human] race” through these regimens of standardized training in institutions called schools.
Speaking from my own memories of mandatory schooling, it was more miserable in many respects than my experience in the army, school being a place where we were sorted by age and subjected to the relentless cruelty of in-crowds, where we were fastened to seats, regulated by bells and buzzers like lab rats, subordinated to a lot of teachers who bored us out of our minds for hours and hours and hours or humiliated us at every turn, and where we suffered chronic performance anxiety. I learned to read at home before I ever started school, and I learned more by running wild on weekends or following my own interests around in a library than I ever did in a classroom… until I went to college after my first hitch of military service, where I chose my classes and professors. Chose, as opposed to mandatory.
At the very core of the education enterprise are (1) the regime of “meritocracy” and (2) the valuation of some people over and against others (until we can clone them into our own image of “improved”).
For myself, I am opposed in every respect to meritocracy. As a Christian, the idea of meritocracy is anathema. Which brings me to yet another contrarian response to “progressive” as term and as orientation: it’s sly statism embodied in a ridiculous abstraction called “freedom of religion.”
This is not an original complaint either, and it is directed at “progressive Christians” as much as its directed at secular progressives. Maybe more. Progressive Christianity – according to the faith I confess – is an oxymoron. There is nothing meritocratic about the message of the Gospels. We are commanded not ot value the literate over the illiterate, smart people over slow people, the respectable over the unrespectable, planned babies over unplanned babies, Christian people over non-Christian people, and we ought never have endorsed human-eugenics schemes.
Much of my critique here is cribbed from Stanley Hauerwas, the influential theologian at Duke University, and a lovely man who bought my lunch one day then made a gift to me of a copy of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. I hope I do his point of view justice here.
Let me start with a Yoderian point that lays the foundation for the rest of what I’m about to say on this matter. Yoder was a Mennonite theologian who decsribed Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ (the annointed) in three guises: teacher, prophet, and king. In his parabolic way, Jesus engendered wisdom for masses of peasants.. a teacher. In his provocative way, and in the Jewish prophetic tradition, He spoke and acted out uncomfortable truths to the powers – kind of an “emperor’s clothes” messenger; and the response of the powers was to show him not the emperor’s garments, but the emperor’s torture and execution device – a cross. Then there is the craziest aspect of this faith we profess. He is the King. This is a political statement, because kingship is a political position. Kings assume power with riches and weapons and extravagence. They remain in power only as long as they live, and their mode of power is initiated through conquest.
Most people aren’t familiar with what I’m about to say, even most folks who call themselves Christian (almost like it is a fading ethnicity). Our King assumed power through submission and service, He was humiliated by common soldiers who gambled for his dirty clothes as he was dying of torture, and He was quickly denied and forgotten during and immediately after His execution.
I believe that this man was the enfleshment, the incarnation of God, that God crashed through infinity and submitted to a human existence to pave the way for a reconciliation between humanity and God. I believe that His life was exemplary, that He was showing us – as a human – how to live as humans in a way that would reconcile us to God, and that the defeat of all sovereigns except God was accomplished first on the cross, and finally by the resurrection as the sign from God that death will not have the last word.
Let me reiterate the point that applies to this discussion. I do not recognize the sovereignty of states over that of God. In this respect, I am anarchistic; because I will disobey any secular power that tries to compel me to use violence or deny the humanity of any other human being. This shabby king we confess told us that we are free, and by God we ought to mean it. Furthermore, we are foolish enough to claim that the King already reigns, and that by our actions, by our confession and proclamation, and by our obedience to the mandate that we valorize the least of us, we bring that very Kingdom onto the earth “as it is in heaven.” Moreover, we need not submit to the evidentiary absolutism of modernity to “establish” the truth of our confession of faith. It is a revelatory faith, but this is not going to be a theologcial tract. The point is, early Christianity – the kind some of us still cling to – rejects state religion and the idol of nationalism.
I reject progressive nationalism as well as conservative nationalism.
The state has zero legitimacy when it acts unrighteously, for example, in waging war, or pushing tillers off land to build interstate highways and strip malls, or putting people to death. Moreover, we are called – in my opinion – to faithfuly discern the actions of individuals, institutions, and states, and to weild a prophetic voice in speaking truth against untruth and domination.
What “freedom of religion” is, is one item on a list of liberal abstractions that liberal states uphold only so long as the so-called “religion” (note how the word itself homogenizes, abstracts, and destroys the particularity of one’s beliefs) acknowledges the authority of the state and bows to the idol of nationalism.
Oddly enough, when Christianity (another over-generalization) was the state religion, captured as it was by what Yoder called “the Constantinian temptation,” it fought “freedom of religion” tooth and nail. When progress became the motif of social engineers, and when secular humanism became the dominant philosophical framework, “freedom of religion” swallowed sacred beliefs up inside the secular regime, making beliefs a personal choice. The state recognized the “choice,” onlyas long as the chooser recognized the state. Note that the state still prohibits religious practices (peyote, polygamy, refusal of medical care, refusal to pay taxes). So there are firm limits on this ostensible freedom.
I visited a church yesterday where there was an American flag next to the cross, a symbol of nationalism – which valorizes one nation against all others – next to the symbol of absolute catholicity, or that universalism that recognizes every person as a child of God. This grotesque contradiction did not seem to disturb the parishoners one iota. It was a progressive church, undisciplined except in respectability, a direct consequence of “freedom of religion,” and unrecognizable as the house church confederations of the 2nd Century that read John of Patmos’ defiant proclamations to one another in the face of imperial persecution.
The same applies to the silliness that is “freedom of the speech,” for example, that draws no distinction between an underground newspaper and a campaign contribution, even though the latter expresses nothing but power. This point will be difficult for some, because the domestications accomplished by power through these so-called freedoms have been effaced in our consciousness by liberal propaganda. The abstract freedoms of liberalism and progress have been immunized against critical discernment by years of brainwashing in mandatory public schools, etc. We have forgotten that the free expression that has actually borne the impact of sacrifice and courage were expressions made under duress, those asserted in the face of hostile power, from Jesus’ defiance of the priests and scribes to the SNCC’s freedom rides.
Inside these abstract freedoms is what Sojourner Truth called a “little weasel.” The erasure of all particularity except perhaps consumer choice – an illusion of capitalism. Speaking for myself, I am not a capitalist; and the empirical verdict on captialism, for that matter, is pretty much in, even if we continue to uncritically believe it is not.
This summarizes, perhaps too briefly, the critique of progressive Christianity from an ancient and now heterodox claim for the kingship of Christ. Now I need to explain a criticism of progressives more generally with regard to “religion,” which has already been smuggled into the discussion: anti-religion.
Many self-proclaimed progressives “cherish diversity.” So did US slaveholders, a lot, and that ought to tell us how vapid this slogan is. Enough said. Many other progressives, however, are anti-religious. They subscribe to the notion that all “religion” is backward and needs to be fought back. They can cite multiple instances of religious abuse, whereupon they conclude that religion itself – out of some inhering essence – is the cause of all social ills. This is a great example of a just enough knowledge to display one’s ignorance in bold relief.
After 9-11, many anti-war comrades adopted the belief that George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden were both acting predominantly from religious beliefs and carrying the rest of us on a downward spiral of terminal regression. It’s a simple idea, and simple ideas are often attractive. It is a preposterous assumption, however, that betrays a gaping void in the proponent’s grasp of geopolitics and history. Many also accused Bush of being a fundamentalist. In fact, he belongs to a Methodist church – which his wife convinced him to join – which is seen as a progressive church. But why dwell on inconvenient facts?
The majority of anti-religionists I have had commerce with fall into one or two categories: those who believe they are smarter and superior to anyone who is silly enough to embrace a faith, and those who have never bothered to compare theology and thereby assume all members of a given religious orientation (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, et al) to be the same. Many progressives are in both these catgories, and the most common complaint they have is against predominant Christianity, a term that conflates so many antithetical beiliefs and practices that it actually facilitates the error I will describe: attributing the popularly understood characteristics of politically-rightist “evangelical” Christianity (none of these adjectives are fully descriptive, but describe instead popular conceptions of religious institutions) to anyone and everyone who describes herself as Christian. They do not distinguish between Southern Baptists and Mennonites, between Presbyterians and Pentecostals, between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox.
It’s this knee-jerk attitude that led to one of my pet peaves, and that is the Fish War.
That’s those little Darwin-fish that began as a gratuitous slap at a symbol of the sacred for many people, a symbol of Jesus’ feeding of the masses. That provoked a response from those Christian elements who reject evolution out of a literal belief in the Hebrew creation story, where a Truth-fish swallowed the Darwin-fish. The point is that the anti-religionists started this unnecessary car-bumper feud, and the underlying assumption is that anyone who professes Christianity is unevolved (pun intended), backward (the opposite of progressive), and not as smart as those people who assert their supposed intellectual prowess by profaning a religious symbol. It is not an assertion of perceived truth, but of arrogance, of self-important superiority.
I’ll tell you something else that few seem to notice about this progressive anti-religionism. It’s white. Way white, and every time white progressives pop off with this stuff, they are guaranteed to offend the majority of Black and Latino folk.
It’s not good politics by progressive political lights if it pisses off some of the people that white progressives claim they want to be in solidarity with.
I say by progressive political lights because progressives also share a common delusion about politics that I once subscribed to, yet another reason I won’t call myself progressive no matter how many times I might share a space with progressives while participating in political resistance. That is the delusion of the efficacy of electoral/policy campaigns, especially the kind that require the support of established political parties – dismal swamps both.
Progressives are statists as their counteparts are among conservatives. They simply have different priorities for the state, which electoral/policy politics forces them to be dishonest about. The sad contradiction is that many-not-all progressives are actually motivated by impulses of decency in my experience, while many-not-all conservatives are motivated by racial animosity, the preservaton of socially-encrypted privilege, property and commodification of the commons, and a masculine devotion to patriarchy in the home and militarism. These differences are not negligible; but they miss the point that the state is an institution that is permeable only to disruption. It is not disrupted from within.
That’s why so many people are in the dumps right now over the supposed right-turn of Obama, support of domestic state surveillance, bailouts for the rich, and the near-manic expansion of the war.
There is no longer any public imagination of an alternative to the electoral/policy struggles that are part and parcel of the progressive world-view. And these diversionary games – which is what they are – lend themselves to dissimulation. We play them, and in the interest of winning this or that point, we ignore, excuse, cover up, and lie about inconvenient or contradictory realities. That is how we abandon the truth in favor of messaging and talking-points.
No example of this is more trenchant than the subject of sex.
People will accuse me of being anti-progressive because of my theological convictions; but I have objected to the term for far longer than I have confessed my faith. My critique of liberalism goes back to my days as a marxist, and my anti-modernism began as the skeptical anti-modernism of ecological leftists like Alf Hornborg and of feminists. The Enlightenment, Liberalism, and the myth of progress are male-dominant. Read Maria Mies, Carolyn Merchant, Carole Pateman, and Catharine MacKinnon… the list can be much longer… and know that this is not a specious claim, but one that has been demonstrated again and again through rigorous scholarship.
Progressive media never seems to tire of promoting sex as inherently good. My saying it that way will elicit exactly the reflex that needs to be called forward to prove my point. “Of course, sex is good,” people will say. “No one would deny this except religious zealots or the mentally ‘disorderd’.”
Now I’ll make another claim, and ask that the very people who had the predictable progressive reaction think carefully about it: Sex – actual sex as it manifests in our actual lives – is always inflected by power. I didn’t say sex is bad – the opposite of good. I said it is always inflected by power.
You can’t make a claim that there is such a thing as sexism, or patriarchy, or andrarchy – whatever you call it – and fail to acknowledge that our every encounter with sex is cultural and that there is structured hierarchy in our cultural constructions of sex. Like race. Like economic class. Like nationality. I’m not saying these boundaries are impermeable or non-negotiable, but that they have to be negotiated – if good will and understanding is present – with care, sensitivity, attention to responsiblity, and a degree of studied selflessness.
Sex is never abstracted out of the cultural power grid; and when we talk about it that way we are being disingenuous. Actual sex is inflected with actual power, and there is no sex except actual sex.
I wrote a book once about this, and how it relates to militarism and imperialism, and that book was edited by De Clarke, cited above in her remarks about so-called psychiatric disorders. De’s roots are in the radical feminism I was trying to get my head around as I wrote the book; and it was in that body of thought that I was confronted with the essential male-supremacy of the whole Elightenment project and how that legacy has survivied – albeit concealed by the male-meme of objectivity and the male penchant for abstraction – in the liberal/progressive enterprise.
Liberals and progressives, for example, see pornography as free speech. An abstraction in an abstraction.
If I describe pornography as simply sexually explicit media, then I have abstracted, or universalized, the category. If I describe it as an industry, then I am somewhat less abstract or universal. If I describe a production process in a specific building and time, with specific people who have specific histories, then I am more local and specific; as I am local and specific if I describe a specific pornographic genre being consumed by a specific 40-year-old man sitting at a specific address on his computer, masturbating.
In fact, an enormous number of men — from teens to late middle age — do predominantly two things during personal, private time on computers: they watch (and masturbate to) pornography, and they play war games.
The instant gratification as a sense of control and power that connects both these online activities is so obvious that I’m surprised there haven’t been multiple books written about that connection. The same control-freakery that progressives evince in their visions of perfect children in perfect families ensconced in perfectly safe societies. Progressives fight over something called privacy rights – and we know they are responding to invasions of privacy by governments, for example, though they don’t see schools as invasions of privacy – but they know little about the history of the public-private dichotomy.
The public-private distinction has only fairly recently in the sweep of history been enshrined as a neutral abstraction by liberal law. Historically, this division between the public sphere and the private sphere was a highly gendered cultural norm, wherein men occupied public spaces in male-hierarchies or as abstract equals, and where women were consigned to the private sphere which was a male-over-female domain. The private domain was where men could abuse their wives and children without interference. Privacy law was first popularized in the term “A man’s home is his castle.”
The irony that privacy rights law can be used by some women to protect themselves from some men is as inescapable as the fact that the abstraction of the law, pretending that men and women are equal, generally favors the status quo… or male social power over women.
There is a similar point to be made about the “social contract.”
The distinction between covenental and contractual relationships is obscure to us because the notion of contract is so completely embedded in modern culture and as the basis of liberal law, including the almight Constitution of the United States.
Wambdi Wicasa wrote in 1974, “A CONTRACT is an agreement made in suspicion. The parties do not trust each other, and they set ‘limits’ to their own responsibility. A COVENANT is an agreement made in trust. The parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility. Indian Leaders made Treaties with the Great White Father and called them Covenants, sealing them with the smoke of the Sacred Pipe. The trouble began when the Great White Father, his Lieutenants and Merchants, looked on the Treaties and called them Contracts. Thus began — in the basic religious difference — the conflict between Cultures.”
Carole Pateman’s book, “The Sexual Contract,” is canonical on this topic, in particular the implicit contract between male and female sexual partners that traditionally means one woman is protected from all other men by one man, in exchange for fealty to that one man. In contractual relations there is always the expectation that one has to “hold up his or her side of the bargain.”
Moreover, contract theroy was developed by Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, then interpreted for the United States by the aptly-named Founding Fathers.
Pateman shows how modern patriarchy was developed by contract theory, how the sexual contract that was part of that theory has been ignored as an embarrassment, and how that evasion has served to conceal the problems when the theory was developed by men and for men, then the theory got itself grafted onto liberal feminist aspirations of abstract equality. Says Pateman:
In contract theory universal freedom is always a hypothesis, a story, a political fiction. Contract always generates political right in the forms of domination and subordination.
The presupposition of equality in contract theory is not accurate. Men and women are not equals in this society, and that can be proven.
Contracts have to be enforced by laws, which require lawmakers and law-enforcers… a state, that claims a monopoly of force. The contract is liberal, and it is inescapably male.
With the waning of the medieval age in the now-dominant culture, and with the rise of the liberal social contract, patriarchy changed. Women were ruled by fathers in medieval society — what Pateman calles “paternal” patriarchy. With the entrance of contract theory and abstract equality, patriarchy became fraternal… that is, each woman was potentially available — abstractly — to all men. The shift from paternal patriarchy to fraternal patriarchy was accompanied by the development of liberal law, the notion of privacy rights, the contractualization of human relations, a global surge in colonization to underwrite capitalist expansion, and — with consequences that are frighteningly apparent nowadays — the commodification of the biosphere… often also referred to as… Progress!
Progressive men have not generally celebrated the feminism that identified the connection between sex and power, but the liberal variant that they saw as expanding their access to the bodies of women.
That male prerogative gets defensive, too. That’s why I keep pouncing on pornography. Any critique of actual pornography, or of sexual objectification, will bring progressive men out of the woodwork in defense of the “free speech” they suddenly feel is under assault. I was at a conference of socialists – progressives if you like – among whom the men compared notes on what pornographic downloads they had in their collections.
These defenders of women’s social emancipation had no problem at all with products that more frequently than not objectified, humiliated, and portrayed sexualized violence against women. They couldn’t look at the women-hatred in the content because the supreme concern – a progressive one – was “free speech,” a principle (Progressives love principles) that can’t be upstaged by inconvenient facts. Actual harm does not enter into the equation.
It is deeply unfortunate that some progressive women have been taken in by this contradiction – more easily so because they are metropolitan women who are blinded by privilege and a consumerist account of free choice that allows them to embrace abstractions.
Major major pet peave as long as I’m on the topic…
Progressive men frequently insult women politicians and spokespersons of the right in clearly sexist ways, attacking them based on their sex, because they are considered enemy women, emphasis on women. I have also heard them revel in prison-rape humor. I’ve heard them naming certain enemy others as “whores,” and use other sexist slurs that are meant to prove their male bona fides. I remember one progressive acquaintence of mine who talked about how he’d “like to hate-fuck Sarah Palin.”
The gendered power hiding inside of progress comes to the fore when we reach way down for a good phatic utterance.
I have bent the stick a long way, and much of what I’ve said is not nearly fully explicated here, the gender portion for example, where grasping the male dominance buried in the history of the whole progressive project requires attention to lengthier scholarship. I hope I have at least encouraged people to think twice about this term and its antecedents, and that some will read the links, the scholars, and the books cited.
I also admit that my own generalizations necessarily efface the complexity and nuance of the many decent people who do claim this tag, progressive, and the compromises that we are all faced with in the immediate world created by progress and power. The fact that medicine treats problems created by progress and medicine itself does not, for example, account for the urgency with which one seeks to satisfy an addiction, or the tactics we employ to get on with our lives while we are trapped in convenience, traffic, respectability, gender, debt. Until I retired, I used sleeping pills to ensure my insomnia didn’t cause me to have an accident on a sometimes perilous job.
But my fundamental objection to the idol of progress remains, and so my refusal to accept the adjective progressive remains. If I am not homophobic, it means I am not homophobic. That does not make be liberal. It does not make me progressive. If I oppose war, it means I oppose war, not that I am a progressive. That I consider poverty a sin of the rich, or the destruction of the biosphere a systemic impasse, these do not mean I am a progressive. That I consider racism an abomination rooted in social structures does not mean I seek a solution in homogenization of cultures or the delocalization and abstraction of community.
I am not a progressive. Progress is an idol, and I have renounced it, I hope. Ivan Illich said, rightly I think, “To hell with the future, it’s a man-eating idol.” We have created one horror after another by projecting our fantasy of progress onto the future – half-drowned in the delusion that we can control said future, even in the face of history’s rebuttal. And I’ve watched policy-people and election-people, of whom I was one, flush vast quantities of energy and resources and time down the game-drain for miniscule and cosmetic changes that often themselves had iatrogeneic knock-on effects; when the same commitment to neighbors within earshot or the rehabilitation of soil and sense within reach would have done infinitely more and left our humility intact in the bargain.
We haven’t discussed one aspect of the progress-myth in any detail, and that is what De Clarke calls “the biophobic meme-plex.” It needs to be here, at least in a short abstract, because it is so interlaced with the ideological constellations of progress. In a discussion over at Feral Scholar – on water actually – the thread steered De into a nicely summarized account ot this “memeplex” in response to a reference to Louis Pasteur, a leading light of progress:
Pasteur was a wingnut, a monarchist revanchist who viewed “the people” and germs as similar pullulating masses of infection and danger.
The biophobic meme-plex he founded has been enormously powerful; it ties into other memeplexes synergistically, like longstanding masculine phobias about the messiness of life processes and the icky uncleanliness of females; European fantasies of superiority over “dirty savages”; technomanagerial fantasies of Progress; sky-father religious fantasies of transcending the physical to ascend into a pure and pristine ethereal realm [called "gnosticism" by theologians -SG], etc.
We are walking colonies of bacteria. They are not only our ancestors; they are us, we are them. When we declare war on the bacterial kingdom we declare war on ourselves, our own bodies.
This meshwork of notions that amend the purity-codes of the long-past with the medicalized episteme of The Enlightenment have come to dominate the whole progress paradigm. It’s the cleanliness-gene in a new guise. And it has an exterminist teleos smuggled inside it.
I’ll leave the reader to ruminate on the implications and to discover the connections in our day-to-day life, especially advertizing, where biophobia is mobilized for a plethora of purposes. In particular, watch for the hygeine commercials and how they mobilize fear of unseen life forms and methods for extermination. Note the respectability-motif in these ads, the safety-motif that looks almost like military defense.
I’ve said enough. It’s Christmas today, and we have many people to see.