It puzzles me a little that the idea of moral progress is still in such poor repute among intellectuals. It’s easy to see how Whiggish meliorism would seem naive at the center of the last century when the immense productivity gains of the modern era of growth brought “productivity” gains to the enterprise of mass coercion and death-dealing. But even then we were getting a distorted picture. That there were more people than ever alive to kill, that there was better technology with which to document concentrated carnage, led us understandably to miss that, despite all of this well-reported horror, we were on the whole becoming more civilized, more peaceful, better.
Indeed, over the past half-century, progress has been so rapid that perhaps with distance we might come to think of it as the Great Era of Moral Progress.
I was thinking about this today while reading Martin Luther King Jr’s great “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is impossible to read King’s enumeration of injustices — injustices still fresh in the memories of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations — and to not feel sickened and then gladdened at the staggering moral distance we’ve traveled in such a short time.
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
To say that we are better, that our moral culture has progressed, is not to say that it could not be better still. But thanks to MLK, to those who marched beside him, and to the tens of millions to whom he gave such a powerful voice, we have become better. The idea that ours is a culture in moral stagnation or decline is simply preposterous. Martin Luther King Day is an excellent time to expose the silliness of the moral stasists and declinists. It’s an excellent time to celebrate the profound and rapid progress we have made, and can continue to make.
Now, I’m cynical about the romantic personality cult around Barack Obama because I am cynical about the romantic personality cult around the American presidency, which, because it is contemptible and stupid, demands cynicism. I think I’m not being cynical about liberal democratic politics when I concede that it is a very advanced, civilized, and relatively peaceful form of organized coalitional agression. But I’m definitely not cynical about what Barack Obama’s election means in light of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” I’m admiring, I’m proud, of that.
Because I intend to be pretty hard on Obama, the politician, and his starry-eyed, mush-headed followers, I think it’s important to note that it’s not only possible, but morally recommended, to assume a posture that ought to be comfortable, but is in fact culturally awkward. One should both recognize in Obama a real symbol of morally meaningful cultural change and attack the romance of democracy and the cult of the presidency — because that is the direction of further moral progress.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!