Most of my adult life, I have thought of myself as “Progressive”. As I have understood it, Progress in the social/political sense means the increased participation of diverse populations into American political, economic and cultural life; increased income equality; and equal rights for people of all races, sexes, ethnicities, religions, and sexual identities.
There are different kinds of Progress that we are taught to believe in. There’s technological progress, but in many ways that’s a kind of myth. Research and knowledge in certain areas certainly has increased. Certain kinds of technology are very useful, but so much of what we consider technological progress is over-hyped planned obsolescence. The economic reality that allows those of us in the developed world to access these technologies is a fragile one. In most cases, no money means no technology, and in America, household income is dropping. Our infrastructure is crumbling in much of the United States and investment in updating it doesn’t keep up, in large part because of economic crises and political deadlock. What progress we do have, in the sense of technology that improves the lives of most people, could backslide very easily. And as our technological world progresses, we often lose older, more resilient technologies. There is also the problem that we pollute and destroy the natural resources and natural places that sustain life on this planet.
With the issues of social progress mentioned above, late 20th century did bring some legal measures toward the goals of equality for people of different races, sexes, ethnicities, religions and sexual identities, but income inequality is greater than ever, racial tensions are high, many democratic institutions have eroded. When it comes to racial issues, our country has gone in tides – ending slavery establishing the Reconstruction South, but then the development of Jim Crow laws and the KKK. The Civil Rights movement and the legal gains of the 1960s and 1970s have been eroded by the economic inequality, prejudice in the American justice system.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” LGBTQ activists, particularly the same-sex marriage activists often say that supporting the cause is being “on the right side of history”. Both of these show a belief in the inevitability of progressive social change.
I am increasingly convinced that there is really no such thing as Progress – at least not in the sense of an inevitable social flow toward equality and justice. It’s a comforting idea. But I really don’t think history backs it up. I believe in change. I don’t believe in the inevitability of anything aside from change. I’ve become fairly convinced of some of John Michael Greer’s theories about the ecological nature of changes in human history.
I was watching Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews on PBS, specifically the 3rd episode, which tells the story of dramatic social progress in Germany and Austria in the 19th century. They went from profoundly marginalized and persecuted minority to the center of cultural and financial life in central Europe. It was a startling and dramatic transformation in social position, and it persisted for several generations. Many people still held the age-old prejudices, though, and when crises hit, Jews were often targeted as scapegoats. This peaked in the 1930s and 1940s, when Jews were systematically identified, dispossessed of their property, imprisoned, enslaved and killed. In 150 years, the pendulum had swung in one direction and the absolute opposite direction. He said “German Jews had made the greatest leap that any minority has experienced in modern history.” And yet, we all know that for that great leap, there was a terrifying backlash.
A dizzying progress is going on right now for LGBTQ people in the modern day Americas, Western Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand. The narrative is in some ways parallel to that of the 19th century Jews in central Europe. There have been dramatic improvements, including the recent legalization of same-sex marriages in many places. Since the 1970’s, there have been great leaps forward. Many places have protections for LGB (and sometimes T) from getting fired from a job or thrown out of their own based on sexual orientation. Anti-Hate Crime legislation has been passed. Public opinion in most places is much more accepting of LGBTQ people in all areas of society.
Like the Jews in Germany and Austria, LGBTQ people are increasingly part of the mainstream. In business, in media, in a multitude of professions LGBTQ people are increasingly visible. Same-sex weddings are an economic engine, even adoption and parenting by same-sex families is becoming increasingly accepted. But that could all change. People in their teens and twenties today are accepting of LGBTQ people. A generation or two from now could be completely different. And hard times can mean that people look for scapegoats.
It’s interesting that many of the stereotypes and stories told about LGBTQ people are strikingly similar to what was said about the Jews in Europe. One such story people believe is that all gay people are wealthy (even though the statistics don’t back this up).
“The Gay Wealth Myth Again” from Daily Kos
“The Myth of Gay Affluence” from The Atlantic
“Are Gay Men Really Rich” by Freakonomics Radio
There is also the idea that there’s a “gay mafia” or that gays control the media (in particular). Here Bill Maher seems to be making a joke, but the kind of “it’s funny because it’s true” comment, but then the group has an uncomfortable silence on this topic.
The ideas of a wealthy, powerful Jewish conspiracy that have been the bread and butter of anti-Semitism for over a century, and seem to have been copied onto the new group to inspire fear – the rich and powerful gay mafia.
Just to be clear – by pointing out the parallel, I am not predicting that the United States will certainly swing back into a Fascist or Nazi style future where minority groups will be subject to mass extermination (although I can’t say that I would rule that out). I am also not saying that Progressive goals are worthless. But I think it’s a mistake to think that once a fight toward equality is won that it has been won forever. Legal protections don’t mean social acceptance. The openness of one generation on an issue doesn’t guarantee that their grandchildren will feel the same way. Hard times – war, economic crunches, ecological crises, shortages, etc. – will cause the seeds of distrust and intolerance to grow.