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Progress Questioned

In the most recent issue of Commonweal, William Pfaff takes dead aim at the assumption of progress, which consciously or unconsciously underlies most American arguments both for and against the war in Iraq. He is right to do so. When we interpret historical events according to some abstract Hegelian principle of freedom or progress, we tend to confuse necessary realities with contingent ones and to over simplify global conflicts between radically different societies, re-narrating them as battles between good (i.e. progressive or modern) and bad (i.e. reactionary or non-modern) states. Pfaff is right to expose the too often unquestioned assumption that the U.S. represents the final good, that is, the end of history, and the notion that all people desire to live in Western democracies just like ours. Case in point, people should read the Iraqi constitution. It is not just like ours. It establishes, by and large, an Islamic Republic. Perhaps, Pfaff puts it best when he speaks as a Catholic, I do not believe in human progress. As a Christian, I expect no such collective improvement. The twentieth century and the horrors of WWII should have disabused us long ago of any nineteenth century Utopian notions of individual and collective moral progress, and yet, if we were to learn from the past, well, then, that would be a kind of progress, wouldnt it?



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I am as sceptical as anyone about progress generally. However I do believe that one can point to historical developments that are modestly progressive. Certainly the widespread recognition that slavery is intrinsically immoral took a long time but it has come about and may be considered an instance of moral progress. Likewise the recognition shared by most Christians and Jews, at least, that one has no right to force anyone profess particular religious beliefs nor to prevent anyone from doing so. Muslims aooear to be less enlightened in this matter. One might also point to progess in the natural sciences. consider that to be partly expakl

Apologies. I had thought I had erased the garbage at the end!

Diane Rehm interviewed Anthony Arthur, author of a new book about Upton Sinclair, part of the progressive movement of the early 20th century. It was pointed out by some callers that while Sinclair's "The Jungle" led to the formation of what is now the FDA, many "progressives" of Sinclair's time were anti-semitic, racist and misogynistic. Sinclair himself fell into one or more of those categories.Perhaps if we talked more about reform of "necessary realities" than about abstract "progress," we'd accomplish more and things would improve.If anyone wants to listen to the program about Upton Sinclair, it's archived at:

If it probably weren't heretical to think so I would posit that there seems to be a created constant of violence in this world. It appears in certains places and ways only to disappear and show up in other places and ways. We learn to hide it, to euphamize it, and to lie about it. But there it is. On any honest accounting of it, our nation is among the violent that has ever been. 1.5 million a year vanish, only to be remember anonymously in our desperate prayers. May God have mercy on us all.

There was a telling sentence in the article: the war "that is taking place today is not between Islam and the West (or to be exact, a part of Islamic society and the United States), but between Western modernity and the values, assumptions, and ways of life of the nonmodern world."Mr. Pfaff makes distinctions between parts of Islamic society while still speaking of the United States singly. But our country has always been polarized about the war in the Iraq, and to some degree about many issues underlying the war on terror. If anything, the country seems now leaning toward a majority view that the Iraqi war was wrong, and not only this, but also that American attitudes going into the war were, as Mr. Pfaff says, arrogant and ignorant with regard to the country we occupied.I think the particular two-sided division laid out in the article is problematic. Yes, there is a global conflict between modernization and tradition. But that conflict cuts Islamic society in two (as Mr. Pfaff seems to acknowledge); and the West is divided as well, albeit not along a tradition/modern fault line. In the West, many people opposed to American imperialism blame Christianity as much as the Enlightenment. They see Islamic and Christian fundamentalism as being similar or the same, and what they want from both sides is people who can either criticize religion or leave it behind altogether.There are other problems with locating our arrogance in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment did produce its own forms of arrogance, and Mr. Pfaff describes them well. Yet it was born in Europe, where anti-Americanism runs strong today. France, which practically gave birth to the Enlightenment, has been strongly opposed to the Iraqi war, and shares with much of Europe a deep distrust of George Bush's religiosity. By contrast, some support for the war came from Eastern European countries not normally associated with the Enlightenment; it was said before the invasion that these countries gave their support partly because they had lived so recently under atheist dictatorship. America is seen as a country that offers faith at least as much as it offers the Enlightenment. Its Europe, really, that is seen as the voice of sober reason.I think a better model would focus on the fact of American power, and the complex ways in which religion and power can corrupt each other. Mr. Pfaff's model, which rightly rejects the polarized division in which Westerners tell the world, "We are better than you," still draws a fault line between Westerners and the rest of the world. Across this divide, the two sides are still saying to each other, "Your civilization is the one that's at fault. That polarized way of looking at things has not been transcended, so we Americans, for example, either reject our superiority or embrace it; but nevertheless we go on comparing Us to Them.Mr. Pfaffs model rejects our superiority by judging our progress in the West as nonexistent; it does not affirm modernity as positive in any way. Never mind the value of Western civilization, but the whole idea of progress is jettisoned -- just because people in power have abused the concept.

Howdy folks-I'm a new visitor here, and impressed by the articles. I felt the need to drop a comment here. (I'm afraid my rhetorical skills are not as polished as some of the other posters, so please bear with my rather rough prose!)Kevin-I agree with the gist of your comment.In particular, I don't understand this passage:"Perhaps, Pfaff puts it best when he speaks as a Catholic, I do not believe in human progress. As a Christian, I expect no such collective improvement. The twentieth century and the horrors of WWII should have disabused us long ago of any nineteenth century Utopian notions of individual and collective moral progress..."First off, since when do Christians give up on their fellow man? We would be in a sorry state if Jesus and the apostles had felt this way! I'm not saying we will create heaven on earth with our efforts; that's why heaven is your reward for a good life! But does that preclude us from TRYING to improve things?I don't believe 19th century Utopianism had much of a Catholic component. I think, at least in my Catholic view, that progress is something different to Catholics. I also don't see how WWII should disabuse me of any notion that progress is unachievable. Was it horrible? Yes, war pretty much is horrible. But was it worth fighting for? To defend ourselves and our democracies from those who would seek to rule the world? To ultimately BRING democracy to the Axis powers, whom we now, almost always, can rely upon as our Allies? Can you possibly answer "no" to that?I can not.

Canadians were quoted as saying 'But we weren't even in Iraq" when they heard of the jihadist plot to take over their parliament and behead their prime minister. Canadians weren't 'uncritically defending Israel's security interests' as this article gives as a big reason for being in Iraq, a 'big lie' which shows that Jews are only acceptable if put in the ghetto you wish for them. If you enjoy 'big lies' you'll love this article.

William Pfaff takes great risks, generalizing about the decline and fall of modernity. He seems to me to romanticize the past and the less-developed present and to undervalue the enlightenment. The more you actually know about given periods in the past and the way ordinary people lived the less persuasive he seems. But I do think he is onto something in his comments on the selfish and ruthless nature of CEO capitalism and the toll the mindless rush to globalism is taking on workers. He expands on this theme and says a little more about the merits of stakeholder capitalism in France: The Childrens Hour, a piece he wrote recently for the New York Review of Books (May 11) : 40-43. He sees France as the canary in the coal mine of modern society, and thinks its pessimism about its own future, its doubts about the wisdom of globalization, likely to be well justified. He sees Frances tendency to look back toward an obsolete social and economic order as a premonitory appeal for a humane successor to an economic model that considers labor a commodity and extends price competition for that commodity to the entire world. He may have something there. At any rate, if you feel depressed about The U. S. A. after reading his Commonweal piece, try the NYRB piece and get depressed about France.

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