Progress is a slippery notion in politics and history

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Keeping score can be exhausting and confusing. On Thursday morning, we had more golds but the U.S. had more medals. So who's on first? And if you assign points metallically, who's winning then? But I didn't mean the Pan Ams when I started this paragraph, I meant politics and history. Take the past week.

The previous Sunday's Greferendum felt like a triumph for humanity, sanity, democracy -- the people spoke out against austerity. But this week they were overturned by villains in Brussels and the EU, and then by Greece's own government. So it was a setback for the "progressive" cause. Even so, I found it impressive how Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras managed to sound a note of dignity, almost victory, while surrendering abjectly. How did he pull that off? The Iran nuclear deal, on the other hand, felt like a clear win: a step back from widening Mideast conflict and demonization-based politics. One for them, one for us?

Yet once you start scoring history, others can tote up precisely the opposite results: smashing the Greeks was a victory over jejune Keynesianism (Andrew Coyne in the National Post); while for Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, the Iran deal was a "historic mistake." So bad is good, and vice versa. Yay, boo, hiss, cheer.

I spent most of the week at the lake reading Romantic Outlaws, a deft double biography by Charlotte Gordon, about UrFeminist Mary Wollstonecraft -- she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, after doing the same for the rights of men -- and her daughter, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.

I've tended to rate feminism as the only definitive historical advance in my lifetime. When I began scoring it, there were few women in newsrooms, mostly in Women's sections; there were no women TV anchors. Abortion was illegal. The progress -- no need for quotes -- seemed massive and continuous. Last fall -- the autumn of Ghomeshi and Cosby -- marked, said a feminist academic, a "sea change." How many sea changes can occur? Apparently countless, in this case.

Yet the victories in Wollstonecraft's time also looked impressive. The French Revolution, which she travelled from England to, in effect, cover, granted women the rights to divorce, inheritance, legal status, political roles -- but within a few years rescinded those and ordered women to become chaste child-raisers.

She fell in love with a famed radical, William Godwin, who advocated gender equality and opposed marriage as a restriction on freedom. But they married, and she found herself prey to jealousy, possessiveness and suicidal depressions. Change is hard. She died giving birth to Mary, who ran away at 16 with the married poet Percy Shelley. Godwin, her radical dad, cut off all contact with her because of the scandal. Change is really hard. She (Mary Shelley) died during the Victorian era, which seemed like the epitome of anti-feminism.

At the dawn of the current feminist phase, among the things that appeared utterly doomed to extinction were beauty contests. They were the horse-and-buggies of gender relations. They'd die of embarrassment, if nothing else. This week, along with Greece and Iran, also saw Donald Trump's Miss USA pageant. It's not even Miss America, it's sub-Miss America and thriving. The only debates were over which network would carry it and whether Trump would preside.

So what makes us certain that progress is a thing and that we can keep score of it? I had some profs in my student days who argued that the idea of progress itself got smuggled into western thought from the biblical tradition: via messianic visions of prophets like Isaiah or messianic figures, like Jesus. They said other cultures -- Greece, India, China -- lacked such notions; for them things happened; then, eventually, they usually happened again. Time was cyclical. That probably relieved some of the pressure in politics, for better or worse.

Milton Acorn, in my view Canada's greatest poet (but who's scoring) wrote, after a fiery labour leader's death: "Aren't we who must move for him from now on … Also history? It takes a long time/ Without a moment not needing effort." What a burden, keeping history moving forward toward its goals. If we fail, he added, we'll be "Burning a hole in time for all times." How shameful that would be, but how exhausting it sounds.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: GUE/NGL/flickr

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