Locating progress in regressive moments

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I was thinking, in this week's fine weather, about the idea of progress, since so much of the past two years has seemed like a regression to the economics of the 1920s and politics of the 1930s. A neighbour passing the porch said she'd been reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Zinn says it's always one step forward, two back.

So does progress happen? For Indigenous peoples, it's been pretty retrograde during the 500 years since Columbus. But as someone else said, they tend to have a less linear notion of time than we newcomers. If you relax the grid, you can go backward and forward simultaneously, or weave around. As Peter Capaldi said in his final episode as the Doctor, just before regenerating into Jodi Whitaker (which counts as progress in the conventional sense): "Silly old universe. The more I save it the more it needs saving." The Doctor (in Doctor Who) is of course a non-linear Time Lord.

For most of us the linear model is deeply embedded. We watch history as we watch sports: our team moves ahead or falls back. Drew Brees set an NFL record for passing on Monday and the crowd was deeply moved. They weren't just there to see their team win, they wanted to be part of a historical leap forward.

Today's regressive feels so depressive partly due to the proud ignorance that accompanies it. Economist Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944 on how policy makers had finally learned that capitalism must be subdued through public action for everyone's sake. But Doug Ford says, "We've taken Kathleen Wynne's hand out of your pocket and we're going to take Justin Trudeau's" out, too. That amounts to saying we're taking your own hand out of your pocket, since how else could society adequately fund schools, hospitals or food safety, except by pooling (through taxation) everyone's resources?

The encouragement of political thuggery and violence at Trump rallies, etc., also mirrors fascist fashions of the 30s. Saudi Arabia lured a critic into its Turkish embassy recently, where a security team apparently killed and dismembered him, then trundled him off in boxes. Mussolini would've loved it.

The regression of this moment though, has unique wrinkles. Anthony Powell wrote in his multi-volume A Dance to the Music of Time about optimism after World War One: "The illusion of universal relief that belonged to that historical period: of war being, surprisingly, at an end: of the imminence of 'a good time'…" Powell (a conservative High Tory) disdained "progress" as a spurious notion that came and went. The dance of time continued. But progress matters even more if potential extinction becomes an alternative, as it has now has.

That's down to the usual suspects. I try to avoid keeping up with the latest climate disaster scientific reports and hasten on to sports news. But once in a while I steel myself. This week's study by the UN's panel on climate change is the direst yet, and our "window" for turnaround -- only 12 years -- keeps shrinking.

Then there's our longtime companion, nuclear terror. By sheer dumb luck humankind made it through the Cold War without a catastrophe. The odds were heavily opposed. This week, as past nuclear treaties head toward expiration and new, uncovered types of missiles start coming online, Russia's deputy foreign minister said, "We have a situation that is much worse than even during the most heated moments, or rather the coldest, of the past." The U.S.'s NATO ambassador said they'd "take out" any new missiles if Russia doesn't back off.

That's why an old term, nihilism, has new currency, as Matt Taibbi writes in Rolling Stone. Leaders like Trump, Ford, and Brazil's imminent Bolsanaro are blithely demolishing institutions like governments and treaties which held the line not just on chaos or destitution, but at this point on human survival itself.

A friend who's nearing the end of his own life cycle recently told me he's certain our species won't survive. Yet he's spent much of his life fighting for a better, progressive world. He sounded like the Doctor, who's never reluctant to contradict him/her/itself. Maybe the trick is to go into Time Lord mode.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: Fulcher Photography/Flickr

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