The Illusion of Progress

“My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” – G. K. Chesterton

A morning a couple of days ago I posted this quotation by John Adams on my Facebook page:

“Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

To which one of the responses was:

“Taking quotes from our forefathers at face value is a very difficult thing to do. It is using their words in ways that they possibly could have never intended. It puts a tremendous burden on them to have been able to see into the future, which we all know is not an easy task. So lets not assume that Adams was taking about a strict religion or set of morals when he said this…”

another was:

“Christianity prevailing “wisdom, virtue, equity, and humanity” is falsified by contemporary studies. High rates of religiosity and rejection of evolution correlate with “markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD (infections), youth pregnancy, marital and related problems,” and other forms of societal dysfunction:”

If you feel a rumble beneath your feet, that would be the second President of the United Sates rolling over in his grave.  It seems that today there is not only confusion about the idea of what tradition is but open hostility against it.  Tradition gives us meaning.

It’s like that famous myth about the family that always cut off the ends of a ham before cooking it.  It was a habit and a tradition.  Finally one day the curiosity of one of the families children asked the mother why she cut off the ends of the ham.  The mother did not know, it was just something her mother used to do.  So she called up her mother, who in turn said it was something her mother used to do.  So the next day the two women went to the Grandmother’s house (which was nearby) and asked her why the ends of the ham were cut off.  The Grandmother laughed and said that the pan she used to use to cut the ham was too small thus the need to cut off the ends.  Everyone laughed.  But the story goes on… To this day they still cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it in memory of their family tradition.  The habit of ham cutting links them to the past and gives a story to tell.  The pragmatic way of cooking meat is shadowed by the people who cooked in the past and the praise of those people.

The idea of progress without a foundation of value is what the book “10 books that Screwed over the World” is all about.  However the idea and concept of progress is being touted as a virtue, and as the highest form of praise when in fact unbridled ‘progress’ is regressive in nature. Morality is not a social norm.

It all comes down to our view of humanity.  Is humanity inherently good or is it inherently bad?  If humanity is inherently good then that nature will exert itself in all we say and do.  Every step we make brings us closer and closer to the utopia that has been promised by the Modernists.  According to this we started in the mire of savagery and are everyday by everything we do becoming more and more civilized.  Think of this as a graph with a positive slope. If humanity is inherently bad (as in fallen creatures – created good but tainted by sin) then our peak was in the past (before the Fall) and we slide daily away from the greatness that we once knew.  Think of this as a graph with a negative slope. The only way to progress then is to look to the past to see the giants from which we have jumped off of.

Ideas have consequences. History is the best mechanism to see what those consequences are.

Here are some other posting that are responses to my judging philosophy (which I also posted on Facebook).  Be warned, those easily offended should skip these quotations, as the only things I have changed are the names to protect the writers and to cut out the portions that do not deal with the issue of progress:

Person #1 who is a competitor in debate “If tradition is pragmatic, I agree, it’s important. But honoring tradition just for tradition’s sake is nonsensical.

Just because notable people did it thousands of years ago, i.e. sticking dicks in little boys like many Greeks did back in the day, doesn’t mean it isn’t totally retarded. Not that saying “Thank you’s” are just as bad as that, but it exposes the fallacy.”

Me: “On tradition: What a kerfuffle! How can tradition be pragmatic – that’s a contradiction in terms!

There is such a great history in rhetoric to just throw it away to the shifting tides of the present. If we should not neglect someone because of the accident of their birth in society how then can we neglect someone by the accident of their death. Tradition is democracy with the dead.

There is an old Roman proverb that goes “Those in the back cry ‘forward’, those in the front cry ‘back'”. The people who have gone before us have sent back warnings while we in the present keep pushing forward not listening. Tradition is the only thing that gives us progress, it’s what makes us human.”

Another competitor “On the point of tradition, I believe that only the currently functional, beneficial aspects of tradition should be preserved, lest we inhibit progress by tethering ourselves to outdated, and in some instances backward, customs.

For instance, this year I decided not to celebrate Yom Kippur by fasting because I needed to attend crew practice. As I am a walk-on member of the team, my attending this practice was important not only for my development of technique, but also for the morale and cohesion of the greater crew, which is eroded by members’ missing practice. Do I feel any less Jewish now because of this decision? No. Do I feel as though I have betrayed my Jewish ancestors by not upholding a fundamental tenet of our holiest of holidays? Not at all, because honestly, I think that they would have made a similar decision give the circumstances. Did I reap both the palpable benefits of fitness and technique, in addition to the impalpable benefit of group cohesion and morale.

Yes, tradition < rational, modern considerations”

Person #1 “There are innumerable stupid traditions. Try explaining your ideas about tradition to a women’s studies teacher, then record how long it takes for her to reach up your urethra and ablate everything from your prostate to your vocal cords.

Holding to tradition is why deadlock exists on capital hill. Tradition is the root of partisan hackery, being an ideologue without regard for practical considerations. It’s why some Republicans hold to nonsensical “conservative principles” (not that all are nonsensical, but some certainly are and shouldn’t be upheld simply because they were before) and some Democrats refuse to find any merit in an unregulated, for-profit enterprise (again, sure, some are bad, but most aren’t and don’t need regulation like an investment bank does).

There’s a lot of grey area in between. Clinging to tradition prevents us from finding that grey area.”

There was more after this selection, but I believe that the picture was painted. In response to these accusations against tradition: First, the world is black and white – in fact it is actually mostly black, and it is this shadow that makes things seem gray.  What is virtuous and right is always virtuous and right.  If a government policy does harm it cannot be argued as a moral thing to do just because it is given the name of change or titled progressive.

Secondly, this quotation from G.K. Chesterton can answer this issue far better than me:

“But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.

The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us.

If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.”


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