A pretty good year for progress

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You have to be careful about declaring progress in history. Think of poor Hegel. In 1806 the matchless German philosopher was in the streets of Jena when the emperor Napoleon rode by. "I have seen the world spirit on horseback," he wrote. He meant that after millennia of lurching around, human history had come to its senses and reached its pinnacle — embodied in a leader who personified the spirit of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, solidarity. Above all: freedom. Our species had finally achieved its potential.

So how’d that work out for him and the rest of us?

What’s weird is that I can see how he reached that conclusion. It had been an astounding few years. The detritus of epochs was swept away, replaced not just by new ideas but new realities. Even now it’s hard to gauge. As someone said about whether the French Revolution was a good thing: it’s still too early to tell. Progress really does occur, but it’s equivocal.

But enough perspective. And nostalgia. What’s been hopeful this year?

  • The mainstreaming of protests against police violence. There’s nothing new about the violence. A lonely few used to demonstrate at the local cop shop. This year for some reason two U.S. cases led to mass revulsion far beyond the affected communities. It became an outrage to anyone with a moral pulse.
  • Impatience over abuse of women. This spread globally. People may have known abuse was pervasive but it wasn’t always clear what pervasive meant. Not just frequent but all day, every day, almost everywhere. One reader wrote me saying women know the signs of misogyny: men who don’t look you in the eye; don’t ask you questions. I mentioned this to a lawyer who said, “That isn’t misogynists, it’s men.” And she isn’t remotely anti-male. Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby kindled this reaction but in a way they’re only carrying the can since it’s not just about overt violence. It’s about any behaviour that’s sexist and offensive.
  • Palestinians’ right to statehood. Seventy per cent of UN member states now recognize the (still hypothetical) Palestinian state. Other parliaments have called on their governments to do so, including Britain, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the EU. I have lifelong friends who’ll be dismayed by this. But I think it’s the blossoming of a demand for justice in the Mideast just when despair had settled in.
  • Why does social consciousness sometimes suddenly erupt — then or now? The U.S. civil rights movement germinated for generations till it exploded in the 1950s-60s. Is it critical mass? The zeitgeist? An idea whose time has come? Those just restate the riddle. Social media are clearly involved today. They’re not just ubiquitous and instantaneous. They circumvent the traditional controls on resistance, exercised through mass media, the educational system and other forms of propaganda. So things happen faster, more widely and unexpectedly.

    This all measures progress in awareness, not change. So there’s a caveat. Indignation isn’t enough. Without clear demands, issues get raised but not resolved. You can’t relegate the response to those in power, because they lack motive and imagination. Martin Luther King Jr. insisted on expressing anger and articulating solutions. The historical model for this is the Magna Carta of 1215. The rebellious English lords went to King John with their list of demands, which he simply signed. Movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy have been weak here. Their cacophonous inclusiveness was clearly a strength. But then what?

    Oh, and here’s one last possible source of progress: the old mole. Hegel was a Shakespeare buff. He liked Hamlet’s line, “Well said old mole! Canst work i’ the earth so fast?” Even when nothing good seemed to happen for eons, progress continued underground, “tardily and slowly,” until it “bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun.” Karl Marx adopted the same image (“Well burrowed, old mole”) when it looked like his revolution was taking too long.

    The old mole has something in common with Santa. He arrives by mysterious means bearing gifts you yearned for but weren’t sure you’d receive. Grown-ups don’t even believe he exists, yet there’s something in his promise they’re reluctant to abandon. So instead they pass it on to the next generation.

    This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

    Photo: Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES

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