WEEKEND BRIEFINGMoronic Progressivism
Jan. 16 - My sixth-grade social studies teacher at Seaside School, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, was a an overstuffed Dickensian woman whose dentures popped out of her mouth at inopportune moments. (There is no opportune moment for your dentures to pop out in front of 23 eleven-year-olds.) Her name was Mrs. Waight.
Mrs. Waight taught us about democracy.
I suppose I'd heard about democracy before and had some ambiguous notions about it, but Mrs. Waight was the first teacher to break it down and serve it to me in manageable, bite-size pieces. She got us from absolutism and feudalism through the Magna Carta and all the way up to the French Revolution by means of role playing. It was fun to be a duke for an hour on a Friday afternoon, or to play George Washington against Chris Featherstone's King George, and over the course of a few months I suppose these exercises helped us grasp the ideas of political representation, individual liberties, and so on.
Once we had been properly indoctrinated to the foundational philosophies of western civilization, Mrs. Waight rolled up her sleeves and started trying to explain American politics. It was 1976, an election year. We would be having our own mock election. First, we would of course have to register. And to register, we would have to choose a party. And to choose a party, of course, we would have to understand the differences between the parties. Mrs. Waight made short work of that.
"Democrats are progressive," she explained. "That means they're always trying to improve things and they're not afraid of change. Republicans are conservative. That means they like things the way they are and they want them to stay the same."
It was a simple formulation—far too simple, of course, although in her defense I should note that I briefly lived in Deep River, Connecticut, whose Republican Party had adopted the catchy motto, "Keep Deep River the same!"
But I was eleven years old, going on twelve—why do children speak like this? is anyone ever eleven going on thirteen?—and I took Mrs. Waight at her word. I came home and informed my parents that I was a progressive and Jimmy Carter was my man.
Progressive. What a lovely way to describe oneself, especially in comparison to conservative. Who could oppose progress? Hadn't our entire democratic syllabus demonstrated that progress consisted of the forward march toward everything good, honorable, and delicious? How could such a march be opposed? Who were these idiot conservatives that wanted to freeze-frame 1976? We didn't even have Saturday Night Live or the Simpsons yet—let alone personal computers, mobile phones, or those cool things that let you whip through tollbooths without stopping!
This primal notion of liberals as progressives and conservatives as luddites stayed with me through junior high school, but by the time the 1980 election cycle got going I realized it didn't quite explain everything. I realized there were things I liked about Reagan and Carter, and didn't like having to choose between them. I didn't have to: there was no mock election in ninth grade social studies. That was the last presidential election in which I didn't cast a ballot. I was fifteen (going on sixteen!).
To say I had a rebellious adolescence would be an understatement the magnitude of which would probably hospitalize my parents. In my quest for more perfect progressivism, I marched leftward from the democrats to the socialists to the communists. Some friends and I started "Youth for Communism." We had meetings at which we hung out in one friend's attic, drank whiskey, smoked pot and cigarettes, and lamented the state of the working class—a class with which, I'm sorry to say, we had had very little to do. Eventually we dropped the rhetoric and stepped up the controlled substances, to the point that "Youth for Communism," like most communist governments, eventually became a criminal enterprise.
I stayed red for a couple of years, but by the time I actually found myself as part of the working class, instead of sitting in a suburban attic getting stoned and postulating about it, I began to have my doubts.
Little doubts, at first, then serious doubts. I was all for progress, but the communists I knew (and saw on television) were about control. How could you call yourself progressive while throwing dissidents in jail, or closing opposition newspapers, or confiscating property?
Progress, I finally realized, wasn't the property of any particular political ideology. It was what happened with the passage of time. Problems arose, people addressed them, then new problems arose. It was Hegelian synthesis without the final stop of Marxism. (I was in that snooty intellectual phase where I could sputter sentences like that with a straight face.)
Wednesday evening I watched with awe as a EuroCNN anchor grilled a White House political correspondent about the political implications of the new space program. The anchor—no friend to the Bush administration under the best of circumstances—asked the correspondent if Democrats might be troubled by the way Bush seemed to be co-opting the progressive mantle. I can only paraphrase, but it went something like this: "He says, let's go to Mars and they say, too expensive. He says, let's work to develop democracy around the world, they say, no, let's focus on problems here at home. He says, let's get a prescription drug plan for seniors out there, they say, that's not quite the plan we want. It rather gives the appearance that he's the progressive, doesn't it?"
"It certainly does, and that seems to be part of Bush's political strategy." Hell's bells! EuroCNN calling Bush a progressive?
In the past few months I've seen some articles and opinion pieces making the same argument—that Bush really is the "progressive candidate" in this election, in that he's the one that's putting new ideas out there while his opponents haven't formulated anything much more sophisticated than being against whatever Bush is for. But most of these have been from writers or publications with a pro-Bush tilt, so I didn't take it too seriously.
But when EuroCNN uses the same language as columnists for the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, you have to take notice.
So I'm taking notice.
The problem is, radically anti-Bush groups continue to call themselves progressive. I've seen newspapers call the Clinton-Gore and Gore-Lieberman campaigns "progressive-centrist" tickets. And now Bush himself is a progressive.
So is it finally time to kick this political adjective into the ash-heap of lexicography? What is progressive politics, anyway? Hell, what's progress?
Dictionary.com uses the words "advance," "improvement," and "growth" in all of its relevant definitions of progress, but these are all equally subjective.
And here's their (relevant) definition of progressive: "Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods."
Okay, quick show of hands: who's against "better conditions?" Who thinks our existing "policies, ideas, and methods" are perfect just as they are and should never change? Okay, those of you who didn't raise your hands—you're progressives. I don't care who you vote for, what you read, or whether or not you recycle: you're a goddam progressive, so deal with it.
And never mind Mrs. Waight.
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January 16 is the birthday of Aaliyah (1979), Kate Moss (1974), Sade (1959), Debbie Allen (1950), John Carpenter (1948), Ronnie Milsap (1944), A.J. Foyt (1935), Dizzy Dean (1911), Ethel Merman (1909), and Andre Michelin (1853).
January 17 is the birthday of Jim Carrey (1962), Andy Kaufman (1949), Muhammad Ali (1942), Shari Lewis (1934), James Earl Jones (1931), Vidal Sassoon (1928), Eartha Kitt (1927), Betty White (1922), Al Capone (1899), Mack Sennett (1884), Anne Bronte (1820), and Benjamin Franklin (1706).
January 18 is the birthday of Kevin Costner (1955), Danny Kaye (1913), Cary Grant (1904), Oliver Hardy (1892), A.A. Milne (1882), and Daniel Webster (1782).
January 17 is Constitution Day in the Philippines.
January 18 is Flag Day in Honduras and Revolution Day in Tunisia.
Enjoy the weekend!
© 2004, The Moron's Almanac