I heard something rather profound the other day from Thom Hartmann on why he’s not discouraged by the nearly impossible fight for progressive reform against the well funded opposition to just about everything, the impotence of the Democrats, the marginalization of any and all advocates for change and the glacial pace of legislation.
We’re on the right side of history.
That’s it. It may not seem like much but it’s more than enough to hang your hat on. The big picture, throughout the overall “arch of history” we have made tremendous progress in creating a truly just and enlightened society, world-wide, in a relatively short period of time.
I consider Thom THE most informed and intelligent radio talk show host out there. His program is the equivalent of a graduate seminar in contemporary political thought. He persuades us that while this is hardly, indeed never, the time for complacency. If you look at the way civilization has been organized throughout history the changes we as a species have made in just a few centuries compared to the sheer barbarism of 7,000 years of recorded time is dramatic.
The technological advancements of the last few decades are profound, and it you are reading this online it’s due to several of them. However, so very many of our miraculous leaps towards a jet-pack in every garage are the direct result of one of man’s most terrible past-times — war. The internet itself was created as a hardened defense against communication disruption due to nuclear attack.
That fish-finder you’re considering as a Christmas gift owes it’s creation to submarine-hunting sonar technology. The nifty GPS locator you want was designed to help missiles track to their targets. Jets, rockets, even the first computer was developed to crack the German High Command’s codes during WWII.
We as a people have hardly gotten rid of the scourge of war, however the reasons we make war has evolved from mere conquest and subjugation to struggles for “liberation” and “freedom.” Ideological conflicts over how we order society has replaced religious domination as a “legitimate” reason to take up arms. It’s not something I see as all that justified, but it sure beats the “my god is better than your god” stuff of superstitious lore, or the type of organized theft when one powerful nation beats up on its neighbor in the rape-and-pillage style common before such things as war-crimes tribunals.
We fought a war in this country largely to end the heinous practice of slavery. What we now think of as an abhorrent abomination was an approved and institutionalized practice throughout the world, and US law, less than 150 years ago. The Pyramids were build on the backs of slaves, warships were powered by shackled oarsmen, even the Code of Hammurabi, written about 3,800 years ago codified what was already ancient and accepted practice:
If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.
We still have the death penalty, but it’s largely eliminated in much of the world and reserved here in parts of America for only the most egregious of crimes with exacting (albeit hardly fool-proof) standards of proof. Four millennia ago, simple burglary and robbery were cause for the death of the transgressor. In fact, you could lose your hand if you slapped your father or give a slave the wrong kind of haircut, let alone get caught stealing. Most of the planet sees that as excessive, even in countries where the lash and mutilation are legitimate punishment.
Over two thousand years later, during the Roman Empire, the Code of Justinian showed little progress in the nature of “civilization.” Women and children were still property, wars of conquest were the norm, and slavery was just the way of the world. Although the Corpus Juris Civilis recognized that, “According to Natural Law, all men were originally born free,” the Law of Slavery in Rome was detailed and deeply ingrained in their entire system of jurisprudence. However, this is one of the first instances of the state finding itself obligated to address what was and was not proper, humane treatment of people who were owned by other people.
With the Romans progress is reported in the history of slavery, a practice as old as beer. You had to have a reason to kill your slave, one “recognized by law.” The Emperor Antoninus Pius also decided that if “the severity of masters should appear excessive” they could be forced to sell their slave (victim?) “upon equitable terms.” Mind you, this was in no way a purely altruistic thought. Having endured major slave uprisings (think Spartacus) the Empire learned that mistreated slaves and their sympathizers were a dangerous source of discontent.
It took another 1,200 years for the first European nation-state, Portugal, to abolish slavery in 1761 (although it allowed it to continue in Brazil and its African colonies.) Not long after the British made slavery illegal in 1833, we fought our Civil war. It took another 23 years after that for all Brazilians to be free. China stopped the practice in 1906 and it still continued in much of the Middle East throughout the 1960′s. It took until as late as 1981 for Mauritania to decide slavery would no longer be a legal institution.
And you’re ready to write off the fight for a better country because health care reform is stalled in the Senate? You’ve decided to call it quits because Joe Lieberman is being a douche-bag … as usual?
Women, half the nation, couldn’t vote in this country until 1920 — and they had to fight like hell to get that privilege. The usual suspects, the intellectual East Coast elites, did not lead the way for women’s suffrage, but the people of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Men have been casting ballots since the Ancient Greeks. Mind you, we were living in cities thousands of years before the elders of Athens organized themselves around democratic principles for the first time, and that was 2,500 years ago.
The arc of history is moving, has been moving, and is picking up tremendous speed. No one can tell you what issue was first determined by a free election, but there are American women alive today that were born to a nation that refused to treat them as anything less than second-class citizens, chattel.
Are we perfect? Oh hell no, not by a long shot. I want wars eliminated, unnecessary, not just made more humane with less “collateral damage” and fought for more noble reasons than merely coveting another nation’s resources. I want universal, single-payer health-care for all, but I won’t despair if all we get is a watered-down “public-option” with opt-in/out triggers as we tick off another check-mark on the progress report. We just keep on fighting.
I don’t want more of our men and women dying in the Middle East, and I certainly don’t want to bear any more financial cost for the adventures; but if a slow but inevitable draw-down in Iraq is paired with finally having a tangible goal in Afghanistan along with an exit strategy is all we can responsibly expect under the circumstances, one cannot argue it sure beats the inanity that got us in there to begin with.
Today, when we talk about freedom, it isn’t about freeing slaves. Spreading freedom now is about the free exchange of ideas, even those dangerous to those in power and would rather censor such thought-crime. It’s about the right to vote and the free flow of goods and services, not eliminating forced labor. We go on strikes for better wages, working conditions and benefits, not to fight dangerous sweat-shops populated by child-workers, not here, not anymore.
At the risk of being misquoted as unpatriotic, I don’t want the United States to be considered exceptional in any way. I want the whole world to adopt our most progressive values, as much as most of Europe has done and in many ways surpassed us, and I want us to continue to move that ball.
Don’t despair. History is moving in a liberal direction at a faster pace than any generation before us could imagine. In the long … long … run, there’s not a thing the naysayers and obstructionists, nor the professional media propagandists can do. Neither the Becks nor Boehners, Limbaughs nor Liebermans, not even silly little Sarah Palin can do much to stop the historical march of progress.