Social Issues

being a progressive, being an optimist

Prometheus by Adam

The first time I ran into the broader concepts of political ideals– not just American politics in particular, but how many (at least Western) countries have only a few dominant political branches– was when I was reading the Anne of Green Gables series, and Matthew tells Anne that he’s a conservative; she decides that’s what she’s going to be, and then asks him what it means. Matthew gives a pretty basic definition of political conservatism: they’re a little suspicious of change.

Progressivism came out of the European Enlightenment, with the US and France very much embracing the concept culturally and politically. It was this grand idea that humankind was on an upward track, that things could only get better– that we were all heading in the direction of progress, and progress seemed to be inherently good. Then the Industrial Age happened, and you have the Romantics and Victorians questioning whether new really does mean good, but before they’d really figured that out we’d had two world wars and then the Bomb.

And, suddenly, most of us were suspicious of progress. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done became a familiar phrase, and since the 50s there’s been a culture-wide nostalgia in America, a longing to return to the “good old days” that comes in a variety of formats– Christian fundamentalism, the rising popularity of “vintage” and “shabby chic,” the glorification of the past, how much American conservatives talk about “original intent” and the Founding Fathers. Not that I think this is particularly new phenomenon: even Plato spends an awful lot of time talking about how awesome things used to be. But . . . still, I think this nostalgia has gotten worse in the last seventy years.

However, there’s still people who describes themselves as “liberals” and “progressives,” and I think this has a lot to do with optimism. I wouldn’t have described myself as an optimist until I was in the middle of a conversation talking about chattel slavery, and part of my argument for why American chattel slavery was so egregiously awful was this unspoken expectation that Americans in the 1800s should have known better. It’s not that slavery had never existed– it’s that Americans should have been better than ancient Rome (or any other civilization that legalized slavery).

The interesting thing is– some Americans did know better. They wrote books, pamphlets, preached sermons, and eventually went to war over it. We ended chattel slavery and outlawed slavery of any kind  in this country. Today, any of the arguments made in support of slavery– even biblical ones– are heinous and evil to almost all of us except a select handful that everyone else condemns as twisted and immoral. Slavery still happens in this country– sex trafficking and human trafficking sometimes reap more profit than drugs or guns in this country– but, with rare exceptions, Americans know that it’s wrong.

There have also been other moments in our history that have the same core idea running behind it. The Civil Rights Era, and today’s slow march toward LGBTQ rights. The fact that we made it illegal for men to sell or beat their wives. How the the number of forcible rapes (the only kind of rape consistently measured) has gone down in the past 20 years. How, yesterday, researchers announced that making contraception more freely available resulted in less unintended pregnancies– and that 2011 had the lowest rate of abortion since Roe vs. Wade.

These are all fantastically good things, and I believe in what they mean.

I believe that rape culture could disappear in my lifetime– that any kind of rape could become rare, and that when it does happen the victim can receive justice. I believe that education and contraception– not forced births through horrible laws– could lower the abortion rate to 6 per 1,000 women like it is in Holland instead of the 24 per 1,000 it is here. I believe that we can empower people and make the widespread violence against cis women and trans* persons a thing from the past. I believe that the rampant and often deadly attitudes of racism and bigotry could evaporate. .

I do. I believe all of that is possible, and I believe I can be one of the people who can make that happen. That I can be a part of that change. That the world can become a better place, that I can help bring the kingdom of God to earth. That all oppression shall cease, that all bonds will be broken, that justice can be fought for and achieved.

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  • I really, really, reeeaaaallly don’t want to start something, and if you think this comment is out of line or unproductive than feel free to nuke it, but I have a question.

    I know you’ve become pro-choice, and I assume from what I’ve read here that at least minimally it means you believe abortion should be legal even in cases where the life of the mother isn’t at risk (which is one of the few situations where even most pro-lifers agree that abortion should be legal). I can understand that, but I’m confused as to why you’re citing a lowering of the abortion rate as a good thing and a sign of moral progress. Is it purely on practical grounds (less operations means less risk of complication, so it would be similar to praising a lowering of the rate of appendectomies)?

    Because for myself I remain pro-life because I believe all humans have rights and I don’t see any logical reason to believe that those rights are based on level of physical development. I can understand if you disagree, and believe that humans at certain levels of development don’t have such rights. What I don’t understand is the idea that an abortion isn’t “killing a human” per se but that it’s still morally non-ideal. From my point of view either it’s a human with rights and ending its life is wrong, or it is a human without rights (due to level of development, awareness, etc.) and ending its life is not morally problematic. Would you mind explaining your own position on this a little more clearly? I want to understand your point of view on this, as it doesn’t make much sense to me personally but I know many others share it.

    Again, if you think this comment is inappropriate or likely to cause trouble feel free to just remove it and we’ll pretend this never happened.

    • Ok, I’ve given this some thought for a couple of days, and talked about it with my partner (who applauds you for a “question he’s never heard before”).

      For me, the moral good of a lower abortion rate is based on my concern for the person making the decision. Regardless of any philosophical debate people on the internet might have, the person facing this decision doesn’t want to be there. I’ve never heard of any person saying “welp, I think I’ll have an abortion today! Yippee!” Making the decision to have an abortion is complicated, and hard– the fact that there simply IS a question regarding the life vs. potential life of the fetus makes this that much harder.

      So, my moral concerns are for the person having to make the decision. I think it’s a moral good for that decision to be avoided in the first place, especially for all the reasons why that decision is so necessary for so many people.

      I also think it’s a moral good for abortion to be accessible and safe. People have abortions because they couldn’t afford to feed their other children, because their abusive partner would kill them if they find out, because rapists can sue for primary custody in 31 states, because they could loose their job, because they need medication they can’t take while pregnant…

      Abortion is a complicated question for every person. I just think the question is slightly more nuanced than “it’s a human with rights, and ending a pregnancy is murder.”

      • Thanks for the reply, I think I understand your position much better now.

        I understand that the issue is more nuanced then whether humans have rights before a certian period of development, but for myself I find that the question is the most important part of whether you should be pro-life or pro-choice. Deciding whether a fetus has rights informs all the other choices people face in these situations, after all. Of course I’m a very logical and dispassionate person by nature: my wife is pro-life but is always reminding me about the situations women get in that lead them to choose abortion and how I must be very careful not to hurt people when discussing this issue.

        Thanks for taking the time to think about my comment. I certaintly agree that we should seek to lower the abortion rate, and I agree with your reasoning on why we should still seek it regardless of whether abortion is or isn’t murder.

  • Margaret

    @Mark Hamilton: Abortion results from unwanted pregnancies. Unwanted pregnancies are a problem no matter how you deal with them – whether you choose abortion, or choose to carry the baby to term. When a baby is born, you have to decide whether to keep it or let it go to someone else to care for. All hard, agonizing choices. Better use of contraception lowers the number of pregnancies, therefore lowers the agony that people face in dealing with them.

    • I understand that. I want there to be less abortions as well. I’m just wondering why exactly she is hopeful that the abortion rate will continute to come down: whether it’s purely practical (abortions, like all surgeries, can have complications and can cause traume), or whether as you imply she’s simply using the abortion rate as a barometer of unwanted pregnencies and she wants there to be less of those, or whether she believes that abortion itself is non-ideal, even though she supports it’s legality. I just want to know where she’s coming from; when I was younger I often jumped to conclusions about things and started unproductive discussions because I didn’t take the time to find out what someone position actually was.