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?
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
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.