If we are going to be progressive then I suppose we ought to decide what that means. It isn’t enough to simply be opposed to something. With infinite options before us, articulating what it is that we oppose merely reduces our choices to infinity minus one.
And as any mathematician will tell you, infinity minus one is … infinity.
In America we have some common assumptions about progress, assumptions based in both our Constitution and in the laws passed and judicial verdicts rendered since the Constitution was adopted.
“Freedom” is a big one, of course. Everything from free movement westward, even at the expense of the indigenous native American tribes that already occupied the land we coveted, to the abolition of slavery to the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II to toll-free superhighways from border to border has expressed our hunger for freedom for ourselves and others in the world.
“Fairness” is another, even when those who want to behave unfairly consider it unfair to have their unfairness terminated. It is the concept of fairness that persuaded England to establish courts of equity, or Courts of Chancery, as a way of speeding justice to those who have been harmed by the actions of others even when those actions were not illegal. Fairness is the root ethic of justice. Our own legal system has been heavily influenced by this English common law tradition.
“Equality” is another. In America we have long followed a meandering course of making women equal to men, blacks equal to whites, poor equal to rich, the ignorant equal to the educated, the weak equal to the strong. We do this through both the law and through what has come to be known, inaccurately I believe, as “political correctness.” Political correctness, incidentally, is just a buzz phrase that turns the virtue of mutual respect into an iniquity.
“Independence” is in there, too. We like to think for ourselves, act according to our self-interest, achieve self-reliance, get ahead, reach financial security, sustain our health, follow our own conscience. We despise the idea of bowing before someone else, feeling yoked to an inescapable oppressor, admitting that our ambition does not extend beyond the reach of our own arm.
“Conservation of resources” is a subtle one, but it’s there, too. We don’t want to pay any more for goods or services than we absolutely have to. We want to be able to pass down to our descendants both our material wealth and our cultural traditions, practices and wisdom. In a universe that conserves, in the language of physics, attributes such as energy and angular momentum, our own often unconscious drive to conserve our life, liberty and property seems to both echo and align with God’s own grand design. Hidden even deeper in this idea of conservation is the notion of privacy, that we should be able to lead at least part of our lives free from intrusion, observation, publication.
“Contribution” is never too far away. We expect to be able to discover, enhance and apply our abilities to the benefit of ourselves and to the world. If we are the children of unskilled and uneducated laborers but we have the ability to be astronomers then we expect to have available to us a path to the stars. Even if the best we can do is to live a life of crime and thereby give a good-paying job to corrections officers in the penitentiary then we assert our right to do it.
“Honesty, facts and truth” can be lumped together. Our evidence for this can be found in our courts when we swear to tell the truth, in our scientific achievements when we land autonomous mechanical laboratories on other planets, and even in our journalism when we insist on getting a story straight. Yes, we fall short sometimes, and yes, we have a remarkable talent for producing fiction in literature and other art forms, but as long as we recognize it as invention then our commitment to honesty is undiminished. Besides, even in works of fiction we expect plausible stories based in real facts before we grant what writers know as “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
There may be others, but these should help us to get a fix on our starting point.
Any public policy that advances us along any of these paths constitutes “progress.” Any public policy that keeps us stagnant or moves us backward along these paths is “regression.”
When I look at America today I see in our public policies, both existing and proposed, a frightening tendency to retreat along these paths.
But here is the main point to me: “America” is not something that can be adequately defined by geography, by skin color, by religious conviction, by language or by national heritage. “America” is most accurately defined by those who embrace these qualities for themselves and extend them to everyone else. People who are born here, people who come here – even if illegally – are “American” if they live up to these qualities. People who are born here, people who come here – even if legally – are not “American” if they oppose, obstruct or destroy these qualities.
Personally I’m quite satisfied to be called a progressive.