The Shrew View on Progress vs Progressivism

I am not a big fan of what is currently called “identity politics” which seems to be infiltrating many discussions (political or not) these days. I think the focus on marginalized people only adds to the struggle our country has to free itself from the scourge of “ism’s” that should not define people. I’ve heard it argued that it is because of our whiteness in the United States that people of color have little success in our culture. In this case the “whiteness” means that white people who hold all the privileges unconsciously exclude people of color (POC) in hiring practices and/or promotion choices and if they consciously exclude POC then this practice is biased and racist, and that without exception white people are all racist as well as the U.S. culture itself including its science and curricula.

I have also heard it said that it takes three generations to get past a traumatic experience…This makes some sense. As Erich Fromm puts it, “…something life defining and deeply intimate is over.” The child recognizes how the former generation as shaped their own experiences and how they have been charged through the stories and experiences to carry the trauma into the future. One helps to heal future generations by rising above the remnants of these past injuries. This is the very definition of the word progress. AND I believe this progress works within cultural traumas as well.

Our most recent example of a cultural trauma is 9/11. My generation bore witness to a tragic man made event which killed thousands of people on American soil on September 11, 2001. My children are growing up with the stories about the event which include stories that affected my family who were traveling by plane from Boston on that morning. Now, every time my children travel they must listen to my admonition to be safe and stay aware of their surroundings, look for exits and never let down their guard. They were in elementary school at the time of 9/11 so these stories have been transferred to them in ways that I might not totally comprehend, yet they live their lives with less attachment to this event as will their children who will hopefully not even need to experience the left-over wars against terrorism that still exist today. My grandchildren will live with the televised memorial ceremonies, but they will be far removed from the actual trauma. This progress toward healing is culturally significant and forever part of U.S. history because we must never forget in order to not repeat these actions. Experience is felt on an individual basis…My experience isn’t the same as your experience.

With identity politics the marginalized groups will never experience the progress of healing if their stories are not allowed to have generational closure. When no closure occurs, then Progressivism is allowed to rear its ugly head. Progressivism advocates social reform with goals that are politically motivated. It demands radical change in current cultural systems in order to “improve” society. The people who push for progressive methods care little for historical context. Instead, the leap forward must be made based on current thought, expert advise and/or empathetic emotion.

If we take a look at the historical context of the Emancipation Proclamation, we can learn a lot about progress vs Progressivism:

The Civil War started in 1861 because the Confederate southern slave states did not want to be part of the United States if they could not keep slavery in tact. It wasn’t until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that the slaves were finally freed…Many of these freed slaves fought in the Civil War against the Confederacy, and the addition of these men to the Union effort helped to win the Civil War against the Confederacy. There were many proud acts of heroism by Negro soldiers during that time.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Congress enacted the Freedman’s Bureau and passed the Civil Rights Bill in 1866 after Lincoln’s death because the southern states which were majority Democrat began to pass their own “black codes” to hinder the progress of Negroes in their states. Congress at that time was majority Republican. Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s Vice President and now President after Lincoln’s assassination) did not want to force reconstruction of the south because he was determined to respect states’ rights, however the Congress over-rode his veto of The Reconstruction Act of 1867 and both the 14th and 15th Amendments. For ten years Negroes enjoyed the freedoms of all free male citizens and held many state and Congressional leadership roles. During this time the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) targeted many Republicans, whites and blacks who were sympathetic to the reconstruction.

Even though great strides were being made toward civil freedoms at this time, uncontrollable events happened to cause an economic depression during 1874. The financial panic of 1873 was a result of over-expansion in industry and railroads, a drop in European demand for American farm products, and a drop off of European investment. To compound matters, the U.S. Congress (which had long held its Republican majority) was pushed to pass the Compromise of 1876 which resulted in the U.S. federal government pulling the last troops out of the South ending the Reconstruction era. After this happened the southern states reverted many Negro owned lands back to whites, enacted segregation laws and worked to disenfranchise the negro. These regressive conditions would remain in place for a century until the 1965 Civil Rights Movement.

What can we learn from these historical events? Here are my thoughts:

1) The country was divided philosophically. There were slave states where slavery was legal and “free” states where slavery was illegal. Abolition of slavery was being thought about since about 1830, one generation before the Civil War.

2) “Rights” were understood as property rights and state’s rights, therefore the Confederacy of southern states saw Lincoln’s actions as tyrannical. We should keep in mind that at this time “civil rights” were not a concept, for instance during this time women could only own inherited property and their rights were limited to state enacted laws.

3) Slaves were “property”. The Civil War happened because the southern slave states wanted their autonomy as slave states, but Lincoln and the Republican controlled Congress did not want a “divided” country.

4) The Emancipation Proclamation was finally given almost two years after the war started because the Confederacy’s strength needed to be crippled. Freed slaves signed up for the fight against the Confederacy even though they had no guarantee of a sure outcome. Their heroism needs to be recognized in our history books and with more statues since these stories and their context in history help future generations heal from the trauma of slavery.

5) The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 was the first federal law to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law without regard to race, color, or previous condition. We must remember that a law does not necessarily change hearts and minds…The southern states still had the autonomy to pass laws to curb the conduct of Negroes therefore Congress passed the 14th amendment (no state shall enact laws that abridge the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens) and 15th amendment (the right of citizens to vote can not be abridged by the U.S. or any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude). Also, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act to enforce compliance by the southern states after the Civil War.

6) The Republican Congress at that time was in a struggle with President Andrew Johnson over Presidential powers…Johnson wanted to be more lenient with Reconstruction. What does his impeachment teach us about the balance of power during that time?

7) Reconstruction enforcement remained for only ten years…Economic uncertainty and politics unfortunately did not allow for the new conditions under military enforcement to remain for longer because if they had remained for at least ten more years, I believe the next generation would have been closer to healing the trauma of slavery. Instead, southern Democrat leaders began to implement “progressive” laws to deal with “improving” society in their states, and the KKK was allowed to run rampant.

8) The actions from 1830 to 1876 were progress for the anti-slavery movement and the future “civil rights” that we think of today…REMEMBER that only white men with property could vote during much of this time AND reason prevailed. “Whiteness” could not necessarily be equated to being “Racist”.

The Preamble ratified June 21, 1788:

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States of America, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America...This Preamble sets the tone for progress!

My next blog will focus on the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and the progress that was made during that time toward civil justice.

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