Saturday, September 10, 2005

the myth of progress

Is the idea that the fate of the world moves slowly but inexorably in the right direction a human fantasy? Is it a necessary comfort, like religion? Is it impossible to determine and thus pointless to discuss?

Last night at at my friend Ilana's new brooklyn flat the queer lefty jewish intelligentsia gathered to greet the sabbath queen by eating potluck on the floor with improvised flatware. One girl, who reminded me acutely of a swattie though she wasn't technically one, said in passing that of course she didn't believe in progress. I couldn't believe my ears. At first I teased her, told her that's an unamerican worldview. She didn't crack a smile.

So a conversation commenced. On my side was the notion that Things Get Better. Overall. On average. Look at any numerical figure we have to judge history by: literacy, education, infant mortality and life expectancy. Consider: no nation can now wage war in a vacuum; no individual can own another individual with complete impunity. The world watches now. The still-imperfect world, washed with its own blood, scarcely done recovering from one atrocity before it begins perpetrating another, yes, but the world from which we have all but eradicated polio, invented the internet and sent spaceships to the moon and beyond. How could that not be considered progress? How can you argue, even if you limit the discourse to the past 7000 years of recorded history, that things haven't gotten better?

On the other side were the skeptical faces of the seven other girls in the room. They looked at me like I was western imperialism personified. It was a chilling feeling and eventually I gave up. It seemed good manners to do so: one of the girls had already risen and left rather than (I sensed) say something rude to me.

I was already, going in, on edge because of this book I'd taken out of the library. Some previous reader had recorded his/her outraged reactions to the main character, starting on the first page where s/he added a foreward: "Warning! This book contributes to negative stereotypes about Asian people." I thought of the warning stickers that school board tried to put in textbooks about evolution. This one seemed just as stupid.

The unnuanced marginalia went on to call the main character an idiot and a colonialist bastard; it got increasingly heated and self-righteous as the book progressed. Clearly its author has some issues, not the least of which, to my mind, is his/her appaling sense of entitlement. I don't care how angry you are, you don't have the right to scribble all over a library book! Go write a book of your own pointing out the flaws in Graham Greene but get the hell out of my reading experience.

Ultimately, though, these interactions don't make me feel angry so much as lonely. They throw my lack of community into high relief. I wish you could find community for sale at Target at $9 a yard. I don't know where to look for it exactly as things stand.


amelia said...

geeeeeeee, that post reminds me of swat *very* intensely. what is this black-and-white-ness that the young folks are going in for these days?!? why does an appreciation of progress made mark you as a bad ally/traitor to the cause? i wish i could figure it out.

jonah said...

See, that's weird to me. Aren't progressives supposed to, like, believe in progress? I know it's our job to constantly question the validity of any purported piece of progress, to recognize that progress is never done, etc. But it strikes me as borderline nihilistic to think that progress never happens at all. If you assume it does happen, but anti-progress always wins, that's maybe not nihilistic, but still demoralizing as heck.

But I'm spending all my time around "futurists" these days and it's warping my mind. Remind me to tell you what an awful idea the "post-literate future" is sometime.

ester said...

post-literate? why would such a world be worth living in?